Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Election matters!

The general election day creeps closer and closer. As we won't be in the country on the fateful day, we have organised our postal vote and just need to pop the envelopes in the postbox. A friend of ours says she has always used the postal vote system. Maybe she doesn't want to walk to the nearest polling station. Possibly it was more convenient when she was working full time and she has just continued with the same old same old. One of her sons is unable to vote as he is in New Zealand. She tried to get a postal vote on his behalf but as he was not around to sign the form it was not possible. Presumably this is a measure to try to prevent the head of a household voting for the whole family. I wonder, however, if the young man in New Zealand could not have organised himself sooner and had his postal vote sent out to him. This is what happens when you rely on mum to do everything for you.

When the elections for mayor of Greater Manchester took place recently, we were momentarily concerned that we might have been disenfranchised. Polling day drew near and we had no voting cards. And yet we knew we were registered voters. So on the day itself, we went along to the polling station, equipped with various forms of i.d. and prepared to fight for our right to vote. In the event the people manning the booths, who did not know us from Adam, simply asked for our names and address and issued us with voting slips. Most irregular, in our opinion. Any unknown couple could have turned up there saying they were us and stealing our vote!

There are rumblings about introducing legislation denying people the right to vote if they do not have photo i.d. with them. I have mixed feelings about that. In cases like ours in the mayoral elections I think someone should have asked for proof of who we are but as a rule, if you have your polling card that should be enough. On the other hand .... Oh, that lack of trust is just not British, some might say. Bring on the i.d. cards, say I. Somehow I think that younger people, many of whom carry some form of i.d. around with them anyway so that they can purchase alcohol or get into clubs, might not object as much as older people.

As regards the missing polling cards for the mayoral elections, an odd thing happened. One day last week or perhaps the week before, in any case after we had received polling cards for the upcoming general election, what should pop through our letterbox but the missing mayoral election polling cards! Where had they been in the meantime? Who had been hanging on to them? Why? And why had they been delivered now, so long after their use-by date? Another little mystery which will most likely never be solved!

Things are getting tense with the elections. Theresa May has reverted to talking about Brexit, which after all was ostensibly her excuse for calling the thing in the first place. She says that if we should be daft enough to elect Jeremy Corbyn as PM, he would go "naked into the negotiating chamber". She went on to make a rather nasty little sexist joke about what an unpleasant image that conjured up. When we heard her say that we wondered if a male politician would have got away with such a remark about a female opponent. However, that section of her speech seems to have been airbrushed out of subsequent news reports. How strange!

It does go along with a general trend though. Labour Party gaffs are top news while Tory Party gaffs are swept under the media carpet. Even David Dimbleby, not the most unbiased of chairmen of discussion programmes, has been shouting about the media bias against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. And Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC's political editor, has been a teensy bit more biting in her questions to the PM. So maybe belatedly the tide of bias is turning. It does make one wonder where we would now stand if Corbyn had consistently received as much coverage as Nigel Farage had.

This topic is already the subject of academic studies and will provide material for Media Studies courses for years to come.

Meanwhile, we have just over a week to wait and see what will come of it all!

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Educational conundrums!

In the weekend paper there was an article about revisiting Baltimore fifteen years after "The Wire" was first filmed there. The various series looked at drugs, crime, corruption, politics, unions, education - practically an election campaign all on its own.

By a curious coincidence I have just read "A Spool of Blue Thread" by Ann Tyler, also set in Baltimore, but a very different Baltimore. Hers was a very white, mostly middle class Baltimore. How curious!

In the newspaper feature one person commented that you could remake "The Wire" today or in another fifteen years' time and it would not be substantially different. What a sad situation!

The school that was used in the series on education was portrayed as a busy, bustling state secondary school, overcrowded, full of social problems, with teachers striving to do their best for the children of their district. The school building stood empty for some time after the TV people left but now houses a Montessori school with about 450 pupils and its ideals of guided freedom of learning, learning through discovery, and mixed ages in the classrooms. Parents all over the city want to send their children there and there is a waiting list of about 1200! Some small boys who live near the school missed out on the lottery for places and have to attend a different, larger, more traditional state school. They commented that they would like to go to the Montessori school as they have heard that the teachers don't shout at you all the time.

If only funding could make every school, if not a Montessori school for after all some people don't believe in those ideals, than at least a smaller unit where staff can know and nurture all their pupils properly.

This article about education cuts points out that every pound a government invests in education is pounds upon pounds it won’t have to spend later on hospitals, welfare and criminal justice. We should be able to teach our children how to live healthily and thus save money on healthcare and hospitals. We should be able to teach them right from wrong in a meaningful way, with the support to keep them out of prison and possibly in work.

Instead we have a situation where a primary school in Wandsworth is asking their top juniors to vacuum the classrooms at the end of the day as the cutbacks mean they can't afford to replace the cleaner who just left. The headteacher's husband does the school 's plumbing repairs for free. Parents order educational supplies from Amazon and bring them to the school.

If someone put it in a TV series, you might think it was a little over the top. The truth is stranger than fiction!

Monday, 29 May 2017

We're not all the same

It's a rather dull and damp bank holiday here in the North West of England. It's a good job we hadn't planned a picnic or an outdoor activity.

It may be a bank holiday and the post office may be closed but Amazon still deliver. There was a tap tap at our door - very few delivery men seem to understand that a doorbell is a device that is usually more likely to be heard throughout the house - and there was the Amazon man with a parcel, which Phil insisted I should open. So, not yet another chess book then!

No, this was a dictionary of English Usage, the perfect book for a pair of grammar nerds. Ammunition for arguments about the correct part of speech to use in all situations. Hours of fun for all the geeks in the family. It will probably also give us further insight into differences between English usage and American usage. Although most of the things which we believe they say "wrongly" are just an older form of the language. If Shakespeare said it that way, it should be good enough for all of us!

Which brings me on to an oddity I came across while skimming the stuff that friends post on social media. Back in Shakespeare's time it was quite usual for a girl to marry young. Juliet was, after all, only 13 when she got involved in all that mess with Romeo. I mention this because I read somewhere that as recently as March of this year, the state of Pennsylvania introduced a bill to end child marriage in their state, raising the age of legal marriage to 18. It turns out that in most states of the USA it is still possible for girls to be married off at age 14, provided they have their parents permission of course. If it was good enough for Shakespeare ....

Here is an excerpt from something I read:-

"In fact, more than 167,000 young people age 17 and under married in 38 states between 2000 and 2010, according to a search of available marriage license data by a group called Unchained at Last, which aims to ban child marriage. The search turned up cases of 12-year-old girls married in Alaska, Louisiana and South Carolina, while other states simply had categories of “14 and younger.”

Unchained at Last was not able to get data for the other states. But it extrapolated that in the entire country, there were almost 250,000 child marriages between 2000 and 2010. Some backing for that estimate comes from the U.S. Census Bureau, which says that at least 57,800 Americans age 15 to 17 reported being in marriages in 2014. Among the states with the highest rates of child marriages were Arkansas, Idaho and Kentucky.

The number of child marriages has been falling, but every state in America still allows underage girls to marry, typically with the consent of parents, a judge or both. Twenty-seven states do not even set a minimum age by statute, according to the Tahirih Justice Center’s Forced Marriage Initiative.

A great majority of the child marriages involve girls and adult men. Such a sexual relationship would often violate statutory rape laws, but marriage sometimes makes it legal."

Unchained at Last is an organisation fighting to change the legislation and prevent forced marriage, which is a thing we associate with third world countries or at the very least places which are radically different from ours. Somehow you don't expect suchbthjngs to be going on in the USA.

And then you remember that even the language we share with the United States can often be spoken very differently in our two countries!

Sunday, 28 May 2017

A bit of a mystery!

Yesterday when we went off for our walk along the banks of the Tyne, we got off a bus near the start of the walk and at that point it began to rain. Fortunately we quickly spotted a landing protected by a perspex roof/awning, at the top of a flight of steps. So up the steps we went, together with a pair of tourists, possibly Japanese, equipped with maps and rucksacks and such like equipment.

As we stood and chatted about an art installation that used to be on the grassy bank opposite, but which had been removed to make way for the building of a Hilton Hotel, we spotted a young woman walking, or rather shuffling down the slope. I was struck by her clothing. At first I thought she was wearing one of those long, open-front cardigans that are in fashion at present, the ones that look like dressing gowns. On closer inspection, it was clear that this was, in fact, a lightweight terry dressing gown, over a long t-shirt style nightdress. On her feet she wore slippers, hence the shuffling walk. What was a young woman doing shuffling down the road in her nightwear in the pouring rain on a Sunday lunchtime?

As she prepared to cross the road, a sleek black car drove up to the crossroads. She seemed to be making ready to cross behind it but changed her mind at the last minute and sidled up towards the front of that car. At that moment a hand appeared from the driver's window and gave her a mobile phone. The car drove away, the girl started to make calls and, to our frustration, disappeared out of view around the corner.

Five of us, we three and the tourist couple, looked at each other, raised our eyebrows and got on with watching the rain.

Some five or ten minutes later another car drove up, turned the corner, turned round and came back, eventually stopping at the foot of our flight of steps. The driver switched on his hazard lights, got out and walked around the corner. Had he come to collect the girl in her nightwear?

Apparently, yes! For he reappeared, followed by the girl, frail and tearful. They seemed not to be speaking to each other. With little sign of emotion of any kind, he ushered her into the car and set off. What was all that about? Was she a sleep walker? Was this the result of a domestic argument of some kind? Was there some soliciting or people trafficking going on?

We shall probably never know, unless something appears in Newcastle or Gateshead newspapers. In which case, our friend, who made a note of the second car's registration number, Miss Marple fashion, will be able to offer her witness statement.

 A novel, or at the very least a short story, hides behind these events. Our nosey instincts were alerted. These are things you get up to on wet Sunday lunchtimes.

And then the rain cleared and we got on with the rest of our day.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Coincidence and likely stories and other nonsense

Today is my younger sister's birthday. She was born on our mother's birthday. Doing so, she started a kind of family tradition, maintained through the next two generations so far. My daughter was born on her grandfather's birthday. And her daughter, my eldest granddaughter, was born on my son's birthday. This bit of nonsense has always pleased us in the family. We can go a step further; today is also the birthday of my daughter's almost-mother-in-law. So who else shares a birthday with my sister? Today's Guardian newspaper gives me an answer: among others (most of whom mean little to me), they name Paul Gascoigne, footballer, 50; Duncan Goodhew, swimmer, 60; Henry Kissinger, US statesman, 94 (almost as old as my mother would have been today if she were still alive); Jamie Oliver, chef, 42; and Siouxsie Sioux, singer, 60.

My daughter, ever the sentimentalist, put on Facebook this morning birthday greetings to her aunt (Patricia May), her almost-mother-in-law (Silvia Mei) and her late grandmother (Phyllis May), delighting in the coincidence of names, even if the spelling (May - Mei) varies. My daughter does love a bit of soppiness!

We have been delighting in the sunshine (except for a rainshower not long after midday, just as we got off a bus) up here in the North-East of England by taking a walk along the Banks of the Tyne to have a light lunch at the Staiths cafe. And we admired the "staiths" for which the cafe is named. What, you may ask are "staiths"? Here is an answer:
 
"Dunston Staiths, on the River Tyne, is believed to be the largest timber structure in Europe. It is a Grade II listed monument, appears on English Heritage's At Risk register and is owned by registered charity the Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust (TWBPT).
Opened in 1893 by the North East Railway Company, it was built to allow large quantities of coal arriving by rail from the Durham Coalfields to be loaded directly onto waiting colliers (or coal ships) ready for the onward journey to customers in London and abroad. At the coal industry's peak around 5.5 million tons of coal was moved this way each year.
As the coal industry declined during the latter part of last century so too did Dunston Staiths, eventually falling into serious disrepair. Some reprieve came from the National Garden Festival held in Gateshead in 1990, which saw extensive restoration work carried out with the Staiths taking a leading role as a key installation with performance space and an art gallery.
Sadly, the landmark structure's luck didn't hold. A serious fire in 2003 inflicted extensive damage putting the Staiths on English Heritage's At Risk register. Fortnately, TWBPT succeeded in raising the funds required to kick start the ongoing restoration which has seen it transformed into an exciting and sustainable visitor attraction."

I have some doubts about the " exciting and sustainable visitor" attraction bit of it as it did not look very visitable as far as I could see. Nonetheless, here and here are a couple of links to info about it. 

With lunch Phil has a glass of Blaydon Brick ale. This ale, we learned, is lovally brewed at the delightfully named Firebrick Breweries. The ale is so called because Blaydon Brick was the nickname of a "popular cloth-capped 19th century MP for Newcastle, Joseph Cowen Jnr. A son of Blaydon; he was a friend of Garibaldi, Mazzini, the working man, amd anyone at that time whose rights were repressed."

Isn't it amazing what you can learn rom a beer bottle. The beer itself is described as a "well-rounded golden ale; toffee and fresh hop on the nose; biscuity with some spice in the taste and very refreshing."

Clearly beer is subject to the same nonsense as wine when being described!

I wonder if it gets its "biscuity" taste from Joseph Cowen's friendship with Garibaldi.

Quite enough nonsense for one day!

Friday, 26 May 2017

Unforeseen consequences!

Sometimes life gets complicated.

We have been planning for a while to go and see an old friend in the North-East. We planned this originally for just after Christmas, had our train tickets booked and everything. Then our friend came down with flu and cancelled. The train company gave us a voucher when we contacted them to say we had changed our mind about travelling. I thought this was quite good considering that it was not their fault that we were not travelling.

So after a period of forgetting to phone until was really too late in the evening, eventually I contacted our friend and arranged to head up north. We thought we might go last weekend but we had left our booking too late and the only possibilities left involved changing trains umpteen times along the way. So we opted for this weekend and duly booked our tickets. The tickets arrived by post. Just as well, as things turned out.

A lot can happen in a week. And on Monday, as has been all over the news, a crazy fanatic blew himself up at a pop concert largely attended by 8 - 18 year old girls. The Manchester Arena, where this horrible event took place, is not just next door to but directly connected to Manchester Victoria Station. Since Monday evening the station has been closed. Our train to Newcastle was supposed to depart from that station. Had we opted to collect our tickets from one of those machines at the station we would have ticketless.

As it was, we had our tickets and the train was now scheduled to leave from Manchester Piccadilly. So far so good. But ... how to get to Piccadilly? Our normal route would be bus to Oldham and then tram. Our tram, however, goes through Victoria. Or rather, at the moment it doesn't go through Victoria. At our end of the Rochdale to East Didsbury line it currently stops at Monsall, part way into Manchester, and at the other end it chugs between East Didsbury and Deansgate-Castlefield, omitting the central bit. Quite why a tram passing through Victorias but not stopping there would compromise the crime scene rather defeats me but I am prepared to respect the feelings of all concerned.

Getting to Piccadilly by bus is doable but lengthy and so we explored other possibilities. Our best option, we decided, was a train to Stalybridge, and another to Huddersfield where we could pick up the originally booked train. Easy! But no! Not so easy after all! Arriving at the local station we discovered that the Stalybridge train was cancelled. Quick panic! All was well though, as there was a train to Huddersfield in a few minutes. Phil had rejected this option in the first place because it involved a long wait in Huddersfield. But in the end, this was the best choice ... except that the train was then delayed arriving at Huddersfield.

It might be easier to fly to Australia!

As I said, life sometimes gets complicated.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Serendipity!

It's been a while since I posted any photos. This is largely because I have been posting from my iPad and for some strange reason it does not allow me to download pictures from my photos or from my Facebook account onto my blogpost. No doubt there is a simple way to this but I have so far been unable to fathom it. So today I snatched a few minutes computer time before my computer-hogging husband got his hands on it and took the photos I wanted and put them on this post, returning to it later to add the text. Sometimes life is strangely complicated. So here goes nothing!

Yesterday we set out for a walk in the late afternoon. It was a beautiful day. This is probably Delph's summer and we should be grateful that it has happened before we go away to Spain at the start of next month. Our plan was to walk the length of the Donkey Line, the former railway track converted long since into a bridle path, and then make our way home by a different route. At the halfway point along the Donkey Line a group of people on horses joined the track. It is, after all, a bridle path. 

However it was not our plan to walk along breathing in the delightful (to some) aroma of horses. And so we took a detour and decided to walk along a footpath we have not used for a long time. 

When we first moved here, our son, then aged eight, dubbed this path "the secret way" because it went mysteriously off the makn road, up and down hills, alongside the river and finally came out further along the road. We found it full of bluebells. Here are the photos:-

















Wednesday, 24 May 2017

A little nostalgia for a simpler time!

We watched a documentary the other evening about the birth of pop music, all about the enthusiasts who went around the USA collecting recordings of unknown people singing songs that had not been heard out in the wider world. It wasn't all altruistic, of course; they wanted to sell records to a new audience, not just to the wealthier end of society. But people travelled huge distances to record their songs, caught ip in the magic of an idea advertised in a newspaper.

The Carter Family was one of the main examples butbthere were scores of other families in the Appalachians and other sparsely populated bits of the USA i the early 20th century who sang and played music to entertain their families and neighbours. Everyone in a district knew who were the good singers and the good musicians. The amazing thing is that there were so many of them. Presumably in a small place there was little else to do by way of entertainment and they made their own amusement.

Having watched that, I embarked on my super-rapid read, in preparation for the Winston Smith Reading Group, of Notes from a Small Island, in which Bill Bryson visits as many places as possible in Great Britain over a period of a few weeks. Someone described it as a love letter to Britain. I can just about agree with that but it is very much a case of "I love you, warts and all" for he is prepared to be amusingly and affectionately sarcastic about aspects of life here.

I mention Notes from a Small island because one of the places old Bill visited was Ashington in the North East of England. He went there to find out about some people called the Ashington Group, an association of miners turned amateur painters in their spare time. Dressed smartly, they got together and produced works of art and became quite famous for doing so.

The thing is that Bryson describes a thriving community from early in the 20th century who had thespian societies, operatic societies, a workers' education society, a philosophical society, reading rooms, cycling clubs, athletics clubs. You name it, they had a society for it. And as the century moved on all of these societies pretty well disappeared. All gone! The Ashington Group hung in in there until 1983, at which point the rent on the shed which served as a studio was going up quite considerably, miners were a disappearing species and fewer young men wanted to dress up in a suit and paint. So they closed their doors and that was that!

The point is that you can find references to this sort of thing all over the place. In D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, young men who are largely destined to go down the pit still have cultural activities going on in their village. In Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie, the family is scraping along with little money but they have a piano and Lol has his violin.

Where did all of that go? Did it start to disappear when radio made its appearance? Did the same innovation that transmitted the music to people's home begin the end of creativity? And then along came television, now available 24 hours if you want it, and with the possibility of catching up on all the stuff you missed first time around. Add to that the internet, streaming, tweeting and twittering and the rest is history!

I'm surprised anyone has the time to create music, paint pictures, write books and all the other stuff at all nowadays.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Responding to events!

I travelled home from Manchester yesterday evening, middle evening so that I was in time for the last bus from Oldham to Delph (see previous rants about our ridiculously bad bus service!). When I got home I checked my email and messages and Facebook. That is when I first heard that something had gone on in Manchester in between my leaving and my getting home.

By the time I went to bed they were still speculating about whether this was a bomb or a piece of equipment that had fatally malfunctioned.

Before my alarm rang this morning I was woken by a ping from my phone, a message from my daughter (she is on holiday in Spain where the time was not quite so early), expressing her disbelief that a bomb had gone off at the MEN Arena in Manchester.

And so another crazy person chose to target a concert, this time largely attended by children and young teens. The audience would have been largely made up of family groups. Imagine leaving the concert in that bubble of happiness you have from a couple of hours spent singing along to music you enjoy. You still have that warm feeling from being with a crowd who all publicly enjoy the same stuff as you do. And then all hell breaks loose.

Political party leaders have agreed to suspend campaigning until, the cynical bit of me remarks, they decide how best to exploit it to their advantage. Will we see a compassion competition? President Trump has already dubbed the perpetrators "evil losers", in yet another display of his command of grown up language. We can only hope that his fight against terrorism does not lead to an outburst of direct action.

I have been impressed by the number of my younger Facebook friends, ex-students, who immediately offered accommodation and other kinds of help to concert-goers perhaps stranded in Manchester. I have read that taxi drivers were taking people home free of charge.

There is another side to the social media thing. Messages have been flying around email and Facebook and presumably all the other social media as friends check up that they are all safe and sound. This is all as it should be. We had an email from a friend in Paris, not so much checking up as sending a message of solidarity. City to city.

But I find myself having mixed feelings about all this.

Just in case you have nobody who cares enough to check with you personally, Facebook invites us to "mark ourselves as safe". And loads of people who you never would have thought might in the most amazing of circumstances have been attending an Ariana Grande concert have been doing just that.

And so we can all feel involved.

And here I am, doing exactly the same thing by blogging about it!

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Recycling, mostly!

Our daughter lives about fifteen minutes away from us by car but that fifteen minutes puts her into a different borough. Where she lives, if she puts the wrong stuff in one of her refuse bins, the bin men have instructions not to empty that bin. This is rather important nowadays as refuse collection works on an ever-extending cycle. Ours used to work on a two weekly cycle but now works on a three week cycle: week 1 - general non-recyclable rubbish bin + compostable bin; week 2 - recyclable glass and plastic bin + compostable bin; week 3 - paper and cardboard bin + compostable bin.

Presumably the push to recycle as much as possible is supposed to reduce the amount of stuff that goes in the general rubbish bin. The rest has rules that vary from place to place. We are told to put tetra packs, fruit juice cartons and the like, made of cardboard but with a plasticised lining, into the paper and cardboard recycling. My daughter is told to put them into glass and plastic recycling. I used to recycle yoghurt pots but now I find that they are made from the wrong kind of plastic and should go into general rubbish. How complicated it is to do the right thing by the planet.

Then there are the plastic trays that certain products are packaged in. Which ones can be recycled and which not? Black ones, according to what I have read, cannot be recycled because the colouring makes them "worthless". (Apparently packaging red meat on black plastic trays makes it look more attractive. Who knew?) But does the same rule apply to other colours of plastic? And is this why yoghurt pots are not recyclable?

It's about time product designers got their act together and made their packaging as simply-recyclable as possible. The Recycling Association - yes, there does seem to be such an association - talks about "the Pringles factor". This snack in a tube is a nightmare to recyclers, it seems, because their packaging consists of a cardboard tube with a metal base and a plastic lid. How hard is it, I ask myself, for people to dismantle the tube into its component parts and recycle accordingly? Maybe I am too sensible and Pringles eaters too busy!

Here is a different kind of recycling. An actress I have never heard of took the place of Hadley Freeman to write a column in the Guardian Weekend magazine. She wrote about shopping at TK Maxx as a kind of therapy. Lots of people indulge in retail therapy, of course, but hers is limited to TK Maxx, a company which specialises in selling brand-name goods at reduced prices. Some people manage to find amazing bargains there. Personally I find them so overwhelming that I can only rarely be bothered to trawl through their stacks of stuff. Even then, I don't often find anything that appeals to me.

This actress, however, finds browsing the different sections of this store a great stress reliever. "As soon as I walk through the doors, the tension knot in my chest dissolves..." she wrote. Then came this:

"I often go after auditions, to stop my hands from shaking. I usually need to pop in anyway, to return the latest "character" item of discount clothing I've bought: an ill-fitting blouse I've picked up to pass as a tough CIA agent, or the stretch-denim jacket adorned with rhinestones I was sure would make me more convincing as an adolescent runaway."

So she buys items of clothing, wears them once to an audition and returns them and gets her money back. This is a kind of borrowing that amounts to stealing. Surely there are agencies where actors can hire clothes for character-style! But then, that would involve some payment whereas the other method lets you "borrow" the clothes for free!!

When people indulge in this kind of thing, do they wear the clothes with the labels and tags still attached, carefully but probably uncomfortably tucking them out of sight?

Here's something else, an odd fact gleaned from all the stuff around about political figures and their popularity ratings. Diana Muntz, of the University of Pennsylvania, surveyed more than 100 Americans and found that the more Harry Potter books they had read, the less they liked Donald Trump. Her study is called "Harry Potter and the Deadly Donald". Not a very scientific study but quite amusing. I think so anyway.

And finally here is a link to a set of photos showing why politicians should try to avoid being photographed while eating.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Plans!

Once a month, unless I am off on my travels somewhere, I go along to a reading group organised by a friend and former colleague. He chose to name this group The Winston Smith Book Club. Readers of dystopian fiction will get the reference. Wikipedia describes Winston Smith, named for Winston Churchill and all the too-numerous-to-mention British Smiths, thus:

"Winston Smith is a fictional character and the protagonist of George Orwell's 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The character was employed by Orwell as an everyman in the setting of the novel, a "central eye ... the reader can readily identify with."

There you go!

We have read and discussed and dissected a range of stuff, some serious, some less so. Our choice for this month is Bill Bryson's look at Britain: Notes from a Small Island. I read this years ago. Whenever I go back to it, I sort of hear it read years ago on the radio by Kerry Shale, who is in fact Canadian not American but to an English ear sounds North-American enough to fit the bill. It's strange how audio memory works. Whenever I start to read Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses I hear a young Brad Pitt, who recorded it as an audio book, which I used to listen to in my car during my commute across Greater Manchester to work. It wears off after the opening pages but it is immensely strong in the first few lines.

Anyway, I knew we had had a copy of the Bill Bryson book. No sign of it on the bookshelves, neither in nonfiction, where it belongs, nor in fiction, where it might have been mistakenly placed. Nor was it in the overspill of books piled up in the attic bedroom. Perhaps I had lent it to our daughter. She could not find it either although I would not be surprised to find it is in a box of stuff in her garage!

As I am supposed to have reread the thing by Monday, yesterday while pushing the smallest grandchild around the village in her pram I popped into the library just on the off chance that they might have a copy. To no avail alas but I was told that there was a copy in the much bigger Oldham branch. Asking for it to be sent would take too long. I could have arranged for it to be reserved for me but I was not sure if I would actually get into the town centre to collect it.

 At some point in the small hours if this morning I formulated a plan to get up early, catch a bus into town - you can use your bus pass at all hours on weekends without having to wait until after 9:30, at which point rush hour is deemed to be over - and visit the library, possible the supermarket as well, and still be back home in time for a latish breakfast. Well, it almost worked. I narrowly missed the 8.24 bus and set off walking along the bus route so that I could catch the next one, half an hour later, a couple of stops further along. It was a fine and sunny morning: perfect for a brisk stroll. I got off the bus just before the town centre library, decided not to faff about hunting the shelves but went directly to seek the help of a librarian. And why not? If we keep them busy their positions are better justified and there is less chance of their numbers being further reduced. Doing my bit to help librarians!

A very helpful young man checked his computer, at first told me that the book I wanted was a new copy and still in the process of being coded before going onto the shelf (sad face) but then confirmed that there was another copy available (happy face), found out which shelf it was on and pointed me in the right direction. He even made sure that I knew what I was doing with the clever computer-driven system which deals with taking books out and returning them to the library. This is, of course, another reason for staffing reductions in libraries. It may speed up the process and prevent long queues of borrowers at the desk but a clever machine with a scanner will not be able to tell you that it too has read that book and found it wonderful/interesting/overly sentimental/dull/badly written.

The whole transaction took no more than a few minutes and I was in with a chance of catching an almost immediate bus back home. So I gave up on the plan to go to the supermarket - I only needed the newspaper and a couple of items in any case - and scuttled off to the bus stop. As I expected, the bus I caught was the same one from which I had alighted not fifteen minutes previously. After I had got off, the bus had made its circuitous way to the bus station and then back through the town centre, eventually reaching the stop where I was now waiting. The driver nearly fell off her seat in surprise to see me again so soon!

And so I stayed on the bus into our village centre, nipped into the co-op for the paper and my odds and ends, and then walked home in time for breakfast. A masterpiece of planning (almost) perfectly executed! I suspect, however, that I have seen the best of the day. The blue sky has disappeared behind clouds and we have had rain.

Fairly normal for a Saturday morning around here!

Friday, 19 May 2017

A bit of a rant about education.

Our daughter is taking her children on holiday tomorrow. They will miss four days of school. Normally she would not do such a thing but her almost-mother-in-law wants to celebrate her 60th birthday by taking the family away. As it turns out, they will be back just before her birthday but the celebration will have taken place. As her birthday comes at the start of the half term holiday it would presumably have cost a lot more to take everyone away during that week. We hope our daughter doesn't incur a fine for the sake of a birthday celebration.

Apparently the numbers of parents taking children away in term time has gone up again since a few high profile cases of parents challenging the fines hit the news. Other countries have much stricter rules than ours about taking holidays and missing school. When I was organising exchange visits for Modern students we had the devil's own job finding dates when the Spanish, for example, could come over here because they were not allowed to come during term time. I had to plead the case for taking ours away in term time; naturally enough teachers of other subjects objected to their students being absent from their lessons. Usually though we managed to snatch a couple of days just before an official holiday and work round it that way. And that was for an educational visit, not just a week on the beach at off peak rates!

In the end, of course, the problem is not simple the child who goes away on holiday having to catch up with work missed; even a beach holiday teaches them something and most children can quickly make up the work missed. No, the problem is really the disruption for the rest of the class as groups for teamwork are messed about and the teacher has to give extra attention to the bronzed returnees.

In the countries where they are much stricter about attendance, especially refusing absence for holidays, there is usually a different attitude generally to holidays as well. The British go abroad for holidays much more frequently than other Europeans and many European countries have a tradition of almost the whole nation taking their major holiday in August. Add to that the fact that they are more likely to have a fine, sunny August than we are and the whole thing becomes easier. 

Statistics tell us this:

"Overall absence rates remain low, although overall absences at state primary and secondary schools increased from 4.1% in autumn 2015 to 4.3% last year. A small number of pupils account for a high proportion of absences: 11.4% were classified as persistently absent, meaning they missed 10% or more school sessions."

Think about it: if they miss 10% of lessons, that's one whole week in ten. A lot to catch up with. 

While I'm on about education, Michael Rosen has been writing about grammar schools again. Some people say he has no right to oppose grammar schools because he himself benefited from going to one. On that basis, neither do I have a right to criticise the selective system. And yet it was the fact that I almost didn't get selected that convinced me that comprehensive education was what was needed. I thoroughly enjoyed my grammar school and felt that everyone should have that experience: all schools for all pupils should be offering that quality of education.

Here's a bit from Mr Rosen: 

"There’s a further puzzle. We have an almost complete comprehensive primary school system in England. Surely, if grammar schools are some kind of answer to making education better for children over the age of 11, it would be the answer for children under the age of 11. Yet I’ve hardly ever seen anyone making that claim. What whim determines the age of 11 as the key moment when we should segregate children according to a set of exams? Rather, shouldn’t we say that if comprehensive education works for children aged four to 11, why shouldn’t it work for 11 to 18-year-olds? Is there some crucial bit of human biology I’ve overlooked here?"

I find myself agreeing with just about everything he says, especially about the divisive nature of selection. Within our local community there was a strong sense of difference between the grammar school kids and the secondary modern kids. Even within my own family there were problems; one of my sisters went to the local secondary modern and among her friends I was known as her "snobby sister who goes to the grammar school". It didn't worry me too much but it didn't make us the best of friends either.

One thing always strikes me when this selective debate comes up. Nobody talks about the size of schools. When Michael Rosen refers to primary schools as already being comprehensive, he fails to comment that most of them have a maximum of 200 - 300 pupils. The grammar school I went to had just over 600 girls. The head teacher knew us all. Most comprehensives these days are huge education factories with around 2000 pupils. That's one of the major difficulties facing year seven kids; they have gone from being top dogs in a small school where just about everyone knows everyone to being the smallest and possibly most insignificant in a huge anonymous mass.

It's a lot easier for the quiet, reserved, even shy pupil to get lost there and for nobody to be aware of his/her problem until it is too late. It is a lot harder to clamp down on bullying, vandalism and general bad behaviour in these huge places.

Yes, I am aware of the arguments about the range of subject specialists needed in secondary schools and the economic difficulties that entails. But surely it is not beyond the wit of organisers/managers to arrange for subject specialists to be shared by a couple of establishments, or more in the case of some minority subjects. After all it already happens with peripatetic music teachers and sports coaches.

Surely it's worth a little thought and investment! That's all for now from this idealist!

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Being held responsible!

There is a post going around on Facebook urging the 18-25s to vote because otherwise the over-65s will decide the future for them. Elsewhere I heard someone saying that the over-65s should not have been allowed to vote in the EU referendum as the outcome does not affect our future. Personally I am heartily sick of being put into a box, an old-fogey-who-cannot-be-trusted box!

While I agree that we should go all out to get as many young people to vote as possible, I do resent being held responsible for all the current ills of the world.

Baby boomers get the blame in the USA as well. Someone called Bruce Cannon Gibney has written a book called "A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America". Jane Smiley, reviewing the book, said this:

"His essential point is that by refusing to make the most basic (and fairly minimal) sacrifices to manage infrastructure, address climate change and provide decent education and healthcare, the boomers have bequeathed their children a mess of daunting proportions. Through such government programmes as social security and other entitlements, they have run up huge debts that the US government cannot pay except by, eventually, soaking the young.

The boomers have made sure that they themselves will live long and prosper, but only at the expense of their offspring. That we are skating on thin ice is no solace: “Because the problems Boomers created, from entitlements on, grow not so much in linear as exponential terms, the crisis that feels distant today will, when it comes, seem to have arrived overnight.” "

Like me, she feels that she personally has not contributed to all this. But then she goes on:

"As one who has been raging against the American right since the election of Ronald Reagan, as someone with plenty of boomer friends who have done the same, I would like to let myself off the hook, but Gibney points out that while “not all Boomers directly participated, almost all benefited; they are, as the law would have it, jointly and severally liable”. "

So maybe I cannot excuse myself after all, but should just accept that we are the fortunate generation who had free university education, even grants to help us pay our living expenses, practically guaranteed jobs when we came out of university, the chance to buy a home without needing a leg-up from our parents and now a decent pension to live on. In case you are interested in what else Jane Smiley had to say, here is a link to her review article.

However, and despite all her arguments, I still maintain that most of us simply got on with our lives, paid our contributions towards our pensions, paid our National Insurance contributions (and in my case, apart from having a couple of babies, didn't demand a lot back from the health service) and did not go in for tax evasion. It really isn't our fault that rich people have been allowed to get richer and richer.

Having said all of that, I am aware that quite a lot of my generation seem to have bought in to the myth that we should trust Theresa May to look after us. This might change after her latest plans for funding social care for the elderly, or rather plans for the elderly to fund their own social care.

On the other side if the Atlantic, there are rumblings that Donald Trump might be impeachable after all. If that were to happen, I wonder how his supporters would react. Those who say that he is misrepresented by the media, who are, claim these people, all rampant left-wingers, and believe he is doing a wonderful job, would no doubt claim him as some kind of martyr. Saint Donald, here we come!

Oddly enough, I can see a kind of similarity between Donald Trump (now that Republicans in Congress are shouting put against him) and Jeremy Corbyn. Both have an enormous following among the people but have their political party members, especially in Parliament and Congress, railing against them.

 How odd!

What interesting times we do live in!

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Almost a lifetime of reading Michel Hanson. And bananas!

Our daughter was a troublesome teenager. This was something of a surprise as her older brother had gone from child to pre-teen to teenager without causing any hassle whatsoever. She, however, went from charmingly determined little girl to slightly stroppy pre-teen to full-blown rebellious teenager, pushing against any kind of boundaries. Okay, I exaggerate. Most if the time she was fine but, like the little girl with the little curl in the middle of her forehead, when she was bad she was horrid.

Back when our daughter was a troublesome teenager, the estimable Michel Hanson had a regular column in the newspaper: Treasure. In this column she told tales of the trials and tribulations of life with her teenage daughter, aka Treasure. Her daughter was maybe a year or two older than ours but everything she wrote resonated. Our poor daughter must have grown heartily sick of my falling about laughing and then reading out the latest entertaining mishap in the life of Treasure and her mother.

Years later, Michele Hanson regaled us with tales of her ailing, increasingly senile mother. Entertaining (in its sad way) as it was, this series of articles did not hit home quite so strongly with me. Fortunately my mother had been bright as a button to the end, even when physically very weak. Besides, the burden of care did not fall on me so much as on my elder sister. My other siblings and I were the ones who popped in from time to time to give a bit of support but my older sister, who lived around the corner from our mother and who took her into her own hime when she grew too frail to look after herself, was the main carer. It often falls out that way in families.

That bit of nostalgia was prompted by my coming across an article about bananas, written by Michel Hanson, of course. She in turn was prompted to write that by recent revelations that in the UK was regularly thrown away 1.4m edible bananas every day at a cost of £80m a year. Shocking! (This comes as part of a report that the average family throws out £700 worth of food every year.) People don't like bananas that have grown too ripe; indeed, most people don't even like them to be remotely yellow and a bit speckled. They prefer them pale green! That is why so many people complain that bananas are indigestible. Personally I like them nicely speckled - truly the best way to eat them!

So Michel Hanson wrote this piece extolling the virtues of bananas and suggesting thing you can do with them when they become really too ripe for direct consumption.

This is my favourite bit of her article:

"Bananas can also help you to answer the big questions in life: is there a God? Am I ever going to be happy? And such like. You may not know this, but if you cut the very end off a banana (the pointy bit at the bottom end, not the stem end), you will find that the cut exposes a black dot, or a black Y. Ask the important question, then take a look: a dot means “no”, a Y means “yes”."

It beats reading chicken entrails any day!

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Things to argue about!

When there are so many more important things to sort out, why is May banging on about bringing back fox hunting? She has stated her support for getting rid of the ban but I wonder if she has ever been fox hunting herself. She has made great play of being a humble vicar's daughter. Does a vicar's stipend run to maintaining a horse for his daughter to go and join the hunt? They cost quite a lot money.

There is a bit of me that wonders if this is a ploy to take our minds off education and health cuts. Mind you, expressing your support for such hobbies does not exactly enhance her desired image as champion of the working class. Here is a link to Polly Toynbee explaining why we should not believe that the tories have become champions of workers' rights.  And, if that is not enough, here is Suzanne Moore on the same subject.

I remain amazed when I hear people on the news, in those "let's talk to Joe Bloggs on the street" sections, saying how they trust Theresa May. Have they not noticed how many changes of mind she has had? Or do they just blindly believe her when she says they can trust her? She seems like a nice woman, they say. A nice woman with a big bus with her name on it in big letters, contributing to making this election almost presidential in style!

Meanwhile, over in Luxembourg the European Court of Justice is considering the case of a British-Spanish citizen who has been denied the right to have her Algerian husband come and join her in the UK.

"She had come to the UK exercising her rights under the European treaty on freedom of movement. She settled in the country, acquired permanent residence and then applied and acquired British citizenship. However, she also retained her Spanish citizenship, which she believed enabled her to have her husband, Toufik Lounes, join her.

He applied for a residence card using her automatic right to bring a family member into the country. The Home Office refused his application on the grounds that she could not rely on her EU freedom of movement rights, which include the right to bring in a family member, as she was a British national as well as an EU national."

So acquiring dual nationality, which many have done thinking that it protected them in al sorts of ways, has reduced her rights rather than increased them.

How complicated life has become!

If the European Court if Justice rules jn favour of this woman, will it fire up the Brexiteers who object to Europe "telling us what to do in our own country?

Another argument about rights and justice is apparently going on behind the scenes at the BBC. It seems that there is an unwritten rule that Radio 4's Today programme should be hosted by a mixed team of presenters. And yet a decision has seemingly been made that on the day after the election the programme will be presented by Nick Robinson and John Humphreys, pushing Sarah Montague aside. She is said to have made complaints about sexism. Nick Robinson, so the story goes, wants to present the programme because he was taken off the post-referendum programme and replaced by John Humphreys, who had a bit of a strop about not being assigned the job in the first place. And they want John Humphreys, now 73, on the programme as this may well be the last post-election programme he does.

Well! What a lot of fuss and bother! I shall go back to watching the rain fall outside the window!

Monday, 15 May 2017

Some questions!

Best story of the day: Theresa May does a live Facebook Q&A and Jeremy Corbyn submits a question! That's one way to get some debate going I suppose.

How do live Facebook Q&A sessions work? This is another bit of modern magic that I have failed to understand. If it involves "following" Theresa May, I want nothing to do with it. Of course, if it does involve "following" her, then it could be another indication of how she does not appear to want to truly connect with the electorate at large, but only with those who already love her.

Another important question of the day, apparently, is whether or not it matters that Mrs Macron is so much older than Mr Macron. If it were the other way around nobody would bat an eyelid. Besides, he is the one elected, not his good lady!

And then there is the question of why French women are on average slimmer than women of other nationalities. I was prepared to question the truth of that statement but it seems that only 14% of French adults are obese. Really? Can that be true? After all they have had MacDonald's in France for ages. I remember having a map of Paris, twenty years ago at least, showing where all the MacDo outlets were situated. I haven't been to France for a good while so I really can't give a personal observation on this.

One answer seems to be that food portions are generally smaller in France. Maybe so. Another thing is actually eating more slowly and appreciating what you eat, rather than just getting the meal over with as soon as possible. Zen and the art of eating!

I also wonder about eating on the street. I am constantly amazed at how many people are seemingly unable to walk around a city centre in the UK without constantly feeding their faces. I suspect that French ladies are too conscious of how inelegant you look if you walk along stuffing a sandwich or a sausage roll into your mouth.

Here's another question: do we manufacture anything in the UK any longer? Well, according to something I read over the weekend there are still some bits and pieces.

Wooden chairs, made by the Ercol company. Bad news for the anti-Europe folk, the company was founded in 1920 by a Tuscan joiner called Lucian Ercolani.

Teddy bears . We used to make millions of them but there is now only one of the 30 Merrythought factories remaining. But it is still making those bears, made the official 2012 Olympics bear and has a strong following in Japan. I just love the name Merrythought - straight out of the Hobbit.

Dr Martens, the boots, are still made here.

And Brompton cycles, I read, makes around 50,000 bikes (folding, I year, 80% of which are sold overseas.

 Not really an industrial base though!

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Days and weeks and horticultural matters!

I've been seeing stuff about today being Mother's Day. That struck me as ofd because the pub/restaurant next door has not put up any big notices offering special deals on meals if you bring your mum, which is the kind of thing they usually do it's a special "day". So I looked it up. I was right about one thing: today is not Mother's Day in this country. In the United States it is; they celebrate it on the second Sunday in May. In most Arab countries it is always celebrated on the 21st of March. Does it bother them that this is the Spring equinox.

But here in the UK it's the fourth Sunday in Lent. We never used to call it "Mother's Day" but "Mothering Sunday" and when I was a little kid going to Sunday School they gave every child a card to take home to their mother. Well, at least they did so at the Sunday School I went to. So my mother always got two or three of the same card. I suppose this could also happen nowadays with the commercially produced cards. And I suppose that someone was making money out of the cards (postcard style) handed out by the Sunday School. However, it probably bears no comparison with the money made in this age of commercialisation. And back then nobody had yet thought to invent Father's Day!

Also coming up soon is "Be Nice to Nettles" week. Not just a day but a whole week! 19th to30th May. When did that come about? There are even a number of websites about it. Here is an example.

Someone from the BBC has been trying to persuade us that nettles are quite wonderful. Here are some of the good points:


1. Butterflies can't get enough of it. Nettles are butterfly food for at least two common British species - the Red Admiral and Painted Lady. Without these ruthlessly efficient plant pollinators all sorts of crops would suffer and that in turn could affect the human food chain. It's not just the disappearance of the bees we need to worry about.
2. They're medicinal. Nutritional therapist Jenny Logan claims that nettles can be used to ease the symptoms of gout, among other ailments. "They help to clear excess uric acid out of the joint - and it is the uric acid which causes the pain and inflammation associated with gout."
3. They are survivors. The sting on the underside of the nettle leaf is designed to protect it. Tiny hairs laced with formic acid sink into the skin leaving raised bumps.
4. They tend to come with their own first aid kit.Dock leaves are commonly believed to soothe the symptoms of a nettle sting, and they often grow close by. But their proximity is pure coincidence says Phil Griffiths, conservatories manager at Kew Gardens. "They're just both very quick to adapt to neglected areas."
5. Nettles are chic. The fibre inside the plants can be spun into string and used to make fabric for clothing, cushion covers, and even paper. "A mature nettle is incredibly fibrous, like flaxen," says Guy Barter from the Royal Horticultural Society. De Montfort University scientists made a dress from nettles.
6. The German army used nettle fabric to make army uniforms during World War I.
7. It's low-maintenance. Nettles love wasteland. They will flourish wherever the soil is rich in phosphate and are common throughout Northern Europe. They can grow to be 4ft tall.
8. The plants are packed with magnesium, iron and calcium - all essential minerals for healthy humans, says trainee nutritional therapist Lucy Tones.
9. They're tasty too, although nettle nutrition is a dish best served hot. The sting disappears when the leaves are boiled which is probably why they are most commonly consumed in the form of tea. If that's not your cuppa, nettle soup is also "earthy, slightly tangy, outrageously healthy," according to Good Food magazine blogger Toby Travis. The basic ingredients are nettles, onions, potato, stock and seasoning.
10. And finally, they can raise your spirits... literally. Nettle wine is a traditional country wine that's enjoying a bit of a resurgence. It is a very dry, crisp wine that "retains a bit of a prickle" according to Lyme Bay Winery manager James Lambert. The winery recently made 3,000 litres of its unusual tipple using 40kg of nettles.

As I go for long walks around here I notice the nettles growing. I can't say that I am especially nice to them but I don't set about uprooting them as I do the Japanese or Indonesian balsam plants. No I have too much respect for nettles to do such a thing. I treat them with respect. I just wish they returned the compliment! I remember as a child setting out with my sister to pick bluebells (this was before they became a protected species before it was against the law to pick them) and the pair of us returning hime with our arms full of flowers and our legs full of nettle stings. So much for being nice to nettles!.

As today's post seems to be turning into a mini version of Gardener's Question Time or some such thing, here are some more observations:

* The newspapers tell me that this has been the driest winter for 20 years. Really? Not around here, it hasn't. Yes, we have had some dry weeks recently but winter as a whole has been pretty wet. The mud puddles on the bridle paths bear witness to that.

* There are reports of an avocado shortage. Goodness! It's not two minutes since we had a courgette shortage. What next? There are two reasons for this latest shortage: poor harvests and the fact that the Chinese are now eating more avocados. There you go.

Coincidentally, I recently came across an item about stupid injuries people have managed to inflict upon themselves. A large number of these came from trying to cut up or remove the stone from an avocado. A fruit (or veg) that gets its own back.

That's all for today!

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Living in a computer-driven world!

"Bitcoin is a cybercurrency and a digital payment system." So began an explanation of "Bitcoin". That was enough to swirl me into the world of science fiction. I was looking it up because I had read about Ransomeware being used in the latest cyberattack, this time on the NHS and other organisations throughout Europe. Ransomeware apparently demands payment in Bitcoin to release the computer systems it has frozen. From what I read, this latest attack is not the first. Many hospitals have already been targeted. This is just one of the biggest.

What with this and electoral systems being hacked into, the world seems very strange. This is the kind of thing that used to happen is science fiction stories twenty years or more back. So maybe the politicians are not wrong to want to send us back to a less IT-driven age. Although none of them seem to agree about what constitutes nostalgia politics. Is it nationalised railways? Is it selective schooling? Is it unions with power? Or politicians capable of robbing them of their power? Whatever it is, I don't think we are going to go back to the seventies!

As regards selective schooling and testing and the like, here is a link to one teacher's thoughts on the kind of tutoring that seems to be necessary these days to get school pupils through SATS, the 11+, GCSE and AS and A Level exams. Someone should listen to teachers. Maybe then they would not have to keep on fighting the same battles we fought forty-odd years ago.

Elsewhere in the paper today, Tim Dowling wrote about his experience as a father. Not another nostalgia trip this. I enjoy reading Tim Dowling's regular column; I like the way he always talks about the "band I am in" and never "my band". He makes no stake for ownership or for being the boss. His son was very generous about bis father's column, which unashamedly uses events in the family's real life. "It's amazing", he wrote, "to have a record of our family life that goes back so many years. Everything is there, from learning to ride a bike to leaving home. The column was a great way to keep up with events at home from university while simultaneously avoiding my parents."

Tim Dowling writes of his astonishment that two decades of parenting have passed him by - his oldest is 22 and his youngest is about to be 18 - while he still feels that he is just learning the trade. I know what he means; I feel much the same about housekeeping. Every time I do a major clean-up I think to myself that this is the kind of thing that "proper housewives" do all the time, on a much more regular basis. Somehow I have never felt like a "proper housewife". We completed our final year at university as married students; I was a student playing at being a housewife, with some feminist-demanded help from my husband. Then we got jobs as teachers and again we played housekeeping in between marking and preparing lessons and going to union meetings and organising extra-curricular activities. And when the children came along, well, it was more of the same. There were always more interesting things to be done than concentrating on being a "proper housewife".

So I can fully understand Tim Dowling's sentiments.

I particularly appreciated his comments about the IT-related stuff. His first son was born pre-google and his two other sons post-google. So effectively his son's have always had the internet around. Consequently he had felt no compunction about directing them to the computer to find answers to some of the difficult questions. The question of sex, however, came up for the first time when son number one was only five or six. After some shilly-shallying on Daddy's part, Mummy stepped in, he wrote, and gave the child a "brief but frank description of the whole business". The child's reaction was classic; he turned to look at his father and said, "You certainly wouldn't want anyone to walk in and see you doing that."

Some things have to be explained without the use of IT!

Friday, 12 May 2017

Washing, weather and wondering who to blame!

Yesterday I spent a good part of the day assisting my daughter in a major tidy-up of her daughters' bedrooms. I came home with a party bag: a bag full of washing. We collected so much stuff for washing that my daughter's house and washing machine were about to be overwhelmed. And so I volunteered to bring a lot of it home with me and did two lots straight away. Onto the washing line to dry overnight it almost all went.

This morning early the last lot was pegged out and off I went for my run. Of course pegging out worked like a magic charm on the weather and by the time I returned it was starting to rain. And so the whole lot had to be unpegged and brought into the house to dry. The whole point of it coming here was because this is largely stuff that cannot go in the tumble-drier and I have more space for hanging stuff in the garden to dry.

But it seems that singlehandedly I have brought the drought to an end. For I am told that we have been having a drought. One of my early morning run acquaintances has been complaining that the soil is too dry to plant out leeks and the like. They need good, wet ground. And a keen gardening friend who has just returned from a few weeks away declares that her grass is beginning to turn brown. So a drought has been going on; even the weathermen say so.

Somehow I imagine a drought to bring along with it the sun burning down day after day from an empty, cloud-free sky: desert conditions and dominant colours blue (sky), yellow (sun) and a pale brown (all the dried up plants). Here drought has largely meant cloudy skies, apart from occasional brilliantly sunny days inbetween times: dominant colours grey and green. The only real signs of drought are the plants in pots in the garden which needed regular watering.


I have heard no mention of weather in the much talked about Labour Party manifesto. I say this only half jokingly. The peculiar weather patterns going on all over the place are almost certainly down to climate change, something that certain politicians don't even believe in!

In the meantime I have gone from shorts and t-shirt yesterday to wondering whether we need to put the heating back on now.

One of my Facebook friends put on a post about the death of Lady Diana, Princess of Wales, and how her death could have been prevented if the queen had insisted that Diana have proper security after her divorce. If the queen had insisted that Diana keep her bodyguards all would have been well, supposedly.

Where do people find these things? There are masses of stories out there that people put out on social media. Do they spend hours trawling the internet for such stuff? Do they not have enough to do with their time? Are there not enough good books to read?

Anyway, let's get back to Diana. It seems there is going to be yet another documentary about it all. Or maybe there has already been such a documentary. The article began like this:

 "The world came to a halt on 31st August 1997, after Princess Diana sadly lost her life in a tragic accident at the age of 36."

It was that opening like that annoyed me to begin with. I really don't think the world came to a halt. Not for most of us. Certainly not for me. Very sad for her sons but it didn't have a direct effect on the rest of us. I remember my son calling upstairs with thenews he had just heard. I thought maybe she had committed suicide. After all, her life was very chaotic at the time. As the details came out, I thought from the start that her death must have been avoidable. But I never thought it had anything to do with her having insufficient security around her.

No, what struck me was that if Diana and her boyfriend had simply driven away quietly, ignoring the paparazzi, they could almost certainly have made it back to their hotel or wherever else they wanted to go.. It must have been a pain being followed around by photographers but eventually the photographers would have grown tired and moved on to somebody else. It's a bit like teasing: the more you react and respond, the more it continues. There was really no need to join in the exciting game of driving off at top speed with all the thrill of the chase. Surely the posh car had smoked glass in the windows to keep prying eyes out.

No, the whole thing was avoidable but I find myself feeling a little sorry for the queen if she is held responsible for the car crash. And, goodness knows, I don't often stand up for her majesty!

It's another extreme example of the media doing weird things to our view of the world!

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Things that are hard to understand.

Once upon a time, long ago, employers used to give their employees a bonus, usually at Christmas time. It went along with giving the postman, the milkman, the newspaper delivery boy and anyone else who regularly delivered stuff to your house what they called a Christmas Box: a sort of tip. When did bonus stop being given to humble employees and begin to be given instead to people high up in management? Because they already receive quite high salaries, these bonuses tend to be huge amounts of money. It struck me that the state budget for health and education would be ridiculously huge if class teachers (not necessarily heads and deputy heads) and bog-standard nurses all received each year a bonus, just a bonus commensurate with their regular annual salary, not one running into millions. This bonus business is one of the things I find hard to understand in the modern world.

I am not sure that this still happens but it used to be that in some areas of employment in Spain employees received an extra month's salary in December. This always struck me as an eminently sensible way of organising things and keeping workers happy.

Today a BBC newsman had his foot run over by the car driving Jeremy Corbyn away. Maybe someone should tell Donald Trump and Theresa May about this new way of dealing with the media.

Having said that, I also heard that polls are going up in favour of Jeremy and the labour party.

An item is going around Facebook at the moment pointing out that Paul Nuttall, current leader of the UK Independence Party, despite having no MPs and having won only one council seat in the recent local council elections, has been invited twice to appear on BBC election specials prior to the soon to happen general elections. By contrast, the post goes on to tell us, Caroline Lucas and Jon Bartley, joint leaders of the Green Party, despite having an MP and the chance of a couple more in the general election as well as having won 40 local council seats, have not been invited even once. Could it be that Mr Nuttall makes, to some people's way of thinking, "better" television because he is more controversial the Green Party people will simply come across as sensible, sincere, thoughtful and a while lot more really good adjectives.

A person can really go off our media-obsessed modern life! 

The Labour Party's ideas about re-nationalising the railways and getting rid of university fees have been described by some as a desire to return to the Britain of the 1970s. Funnily enough nobody seems to have made the same comments about the desire to have more grammar schools and, oh yes, bring back fox hunting! That's another thing I find hard to understand.

Other things in the hard to understand list are:-

 Why my soon-no-longer-to-be-teenager granddaughter cannot keep her room tidy;

 Why they decided to paint double yellow lines outside our house;

 Why people start to complain that it is too hot as soon as the temperature goes up a degree or two; 

 Why a French driver felt that it was OK to deliberately drive into Chris Froome as he road his bike in France the other day;

 Why English strawberries are so much nicer-tasting than any others.

No doubt I'll come up with a whole lot more after I post this!

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Organising apps!

The other day I went for a walk with our daughter, her baby and her dog. As we set off she "told" her Apple watch that she was going for a walk. That way it would count how many steps she had taken, how far she had walked and how many calories she had burned. It was my third walk of the day and I had no idea how many steps I had taken, although I had a rough-ish idea of how far I had walked. As for how many calories I had burned, well, I gave up on the whole business of calorie counting (calories in or caries out, it makes no difference) long ago. In fact, I have pretty well decided that even stepping on the scales is rather useless. The best indicator of fitness or flabbiness is how comfortably you can fit into your clothes without having to buy new ones.

It's not that I object to exercise. I do a lot of it. It's the constant monitoring that gets my goat. This is especially so as there are plenty of people who believe that having a fitness app on their phone or iWatch or owning a Fitbit is enough to magically turn them into a toned and fit person. It's rather like paying for gym membership and never going.

 And now it seems that Apple have brought out something called Beddit: a sleep tracker! In fact Apple has not invented it, they have bought it from the Finnish company which has been selling it in Apple stores for a good while now. Here's a little description: "The £130 Beddit sleep tracker consists of a 1.5mm thick strip of sensors that are placed on top of the mattress and connected to a wall outlet for power. Combined with an Android or iPhone app, the Beddit 3 sleep sensor tracks sleep time and quality, heart rate, breathing rate and snoring. It also acts as an intelligent alarm clock that wakes you up in the lightest sleep phase."

I know sleep is important. My mother always used to say it was the hours of sleep before midnight that counted. This was a trick to get us to go to bed early. Did she not realise how long we then spent reading under the bedclothes?

Nowadays (nowanights?) I am an intermittently poor sleeper. I need to be warm but not too warm. I try not to drink coffee or tea too late in the day, just in case. And if the weather is damp, any bits of me that heve ever suffered from anything remotely like arthritis will decide to play up overnight. But I am not the only one to suffer this sort of thing: apparently 70 million adults are believed to have sleep or wakefulness disorders in the US alone.

Sleep deprivation is a basic torture technique. Donald Trump is reputed to sleep only four hours a night, as did Margaret Thatcher. This is not a torture technique inflicted on them, but seems to give them the energy, if not to actually torture, then at least to torment, the rest of us.

I read somewhere that one of the great classic beauties of the films of my youth, either Sofia Loren or Claudia Cardinale, is said to sleep eighteen hours a night (or should that be a day?), a sleep pattern that maintains her great beauty. I would imagine it is less painful that plastic surgery.

Pretty soon though, with all these fitness apps and sleep apps and calorie counting apps, there will be no need to make decisions about any aspect of our life; apps will tell you what to do and when to do it.

We need one in our house to enable the shower to adjust automatically to whoever is using it. This morning, after my run, I stepped into the shower, switched on the water and stood back to allow said water to reach a decent temperature. It did not take too long for me to realise that the water was not in fact warming up. Glancing at the settings, I saw that the dial was set to cold - not just moderately cold but snowflake-creating cold. And in order to change the setting I had to lean through the ice-cold waterfall, turn off the water, alter the setting and start afresh.

There is only one other person using the shower at present. He knows who he is.

If I were a vindictive person I would come up with a suitable revenge plan. As it is, public blog-shaming will have to suffice!

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Possibly interesting stuff about May!

There's a cartoon going around which portrays Theresa May sulkily complaining that the French elected a centrist president just to interfere with the British parliamentary elections coming up in June. Ho! Hum!

In the real world Iain Duncan Smith has declared that Macron is an "absolute threat" to French prosperity and warned him to be constructive on Brexit if he wants to protect his country's trade. It's odd how these Tories seem to think that negotiation means making threats! Read more at this link.

I misread some of his other stuff and thought that he was actually recommending that high earners should move themselves and their money abroad if the Labour party get in and impose new income tax rates. Just as I was about to accuse him of being singularly unpatriotic I realised that he was predicting that that is what would happen. He did, however, suggest that MacDonnell is too far to the left: "He’s always been a lover of Marx... he had a copy of Marxist thoughts and theories at the dispatch box."

This smacks of the kind of anti-communism that was around in post war USA. We have been talking about this sort of thing in my Italian class, despite our teacher Adalgisa assuring a visiting fellow Sicilian that her classes are not political. She just teaches Italian language and culture. If the mafia, political corruption and other such stuff comes up, it's purely incidental.

Anyway, part of this (co)incidental cultural stuff involved May Day celebrations, May Day being a public holiday in most places: International Workers' Day, la Festa dei Lavoratori, la Fête du Travail. But just a bank holiday in the UK and Loyalty Day in the USA. I checked up on the last one because I had half heard a thing on the news saying that the USA had moved Labor Day to the first Monday in September because they didn't want it to look as though they were supporting communists.

The first site I found tried to give the lie to that; the information there said that it was felt that there was a such long time between Independence Day in July and Thanksgiving in November that someone decided to give the poor overworked folk another day's holiday.

Not entirely true apparently!
Another website said that in the fifties, with the Cold War in full swing and a lot of anti-communist, anti-trades unions stuff around they did decide precisely to disconnect the 1st of May with anything that smacked of solidarity with the dreaded reds. And so the 1st of May became Loyalty Day. Much better!

Oddly enough, my research led me to Chicago in 1886 when a planned strike for May 1st, demanding a reduction to an 8 hour working day, led to violence in the streets with people dead and injured. It became known as the Haymarket Affair because most of the violence took place in Haymarket Square. A few years later an International Socialist Conference declared that the First of May should be henceforth be a day of political action: International Workers's Day. And the rest is history.

Which brings me back to my Italian class and a text we read about the Portella della Ginestra massacre in Sicily, one of the more violent acts in the history of modern Italian politics, when 11 people were killed and 27 wounded during May Day celebrations on May 1, 1947. Those held responsible were the bandit and separatist leader Salvatore Giuliano and his band – although their motives and intentions are still a matter of controversy.

It was at that point, as we discussed the mystery of the motives of MR Giuliano, that our Adalgisa's fellow Sicilian, here on a short visit, threw in a little bit of extra information. He told us that Giuliano was part of a separatist organisation that wanted Sicily stop being part of Italy, declare itself an independent state and become part of the USA!

Who knew?

Monday, 8 May 2017

Number crunching!

Emmanuel Macron is president elect of France. Phew! What a relief! Things could be worse. But they could also be better. It all depends on how youblook at it.

Here come some statistics:

Macron got 58.51% of the votes cast - 43.63% of the total number of registered voters.

Marine Le Pen got 30.01% of the votes cast - 22.38% of the total number of registered voters.

So less than half of the people who could have voted actually voted for Macron. And claims that almost a third of voters favoured Le Pen look less true when you see that in fact it's just over one fifth.

But then, statistics are always subject to manipulation. Spin doctors use the figures that suit them, as do we all to some extent. The difference is that most of us don't get to put OUR figures out there to influence people.

A thought struck me as I watched the TV news last night and the camera showed the exterior of the Élysée palace. When a new president of the USA ives into the White House we hear quite a lot about how the decor will be changed, what colour scheme will be chosen, which works of art the new POTUS will choose to hang on the walls. Does the same thing happen when a new president of France moves into the Élysée? (And what about 10 Downing street, for that matter?)

My knowledge of the interior of both these presidential residences comes from TV series: the West Wing for the White House and Hommes de l'Ombre (Spin is its English title). But somehow I imagine the Élysée to be very Frenchly unchanging, an institution to which the (p)resident has to adapt. After all, to my knowledge it's only in recent times in France that they have taken to referring to the French president's wife as the First Lady. Formerly we hardly heard of her. It's not all that long ago that French presidents managed to keep their extra-marital affairs as strictly private matters. And now, everything is known, almost before it happens!

And so now we wait to see what happens next in France. How will Macron manage to form a government as his party has no MPs yet and, what is more, as president elect he has distanced himself from the party he created? Interesting times for all!

I have some more figures to play with.

In the UK local council elections last week - was it really only last week? - Labour lost control of Glasgow, among other losses. Much was made of the Glasgow results in the press. Great defeat for Labour! Resurgence of the Tories! And so on! Then someone drew my attention to details of the Glasgow election results.

Number of councillors in Glasgow after the election:

 SNP 39
 Labour 31
 Conservatives 8
 Green 7

Quite clearly Labour in Glasgow has not "collapsed" and the Tories have not had a "resurgence". There are even suggestions that the SNP are less than jubilant. They wanted over-all control; that was their aim and they didn't get it. Studying statistics could drive you crazy!

And now here is a link to something more disturbing, all about how social media has been shown to have influenced results in the EU referendum, if not other voting situation as well. Whether you voted in or out of the EU, whether you are left or right in your political views, this kind of stuff is frightening.

However, before all this looking at figures drives me into serious depression, here is a little something I came across today:

 "The Conservative Party won hundreds of seats in the local elections. And this is obviously bad news for Labour and Jeremy Corbyn supporters. But media coverage of the results has ignored one crucial factor: none of the people who’ve registered to vote in the recent registration surge were eligible to vote in the local elections. Furthermore, the media glossed over the fact that the turnout of registered voters was only around 36%. "

Perhaps the young people are going to save us!

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Serious nonsense!

Here is a collection of silly things. When I was a child a source of income for us kids was scouring the local recreation grounds for discarded pop bottles. Provided they were reasonably clean, you could take the bottles to a shop that sold that brand and reclaim the three old pence deposit. Considering that my pocket money was not much above three old pence, this was a pretty good extra! That was a perfectly good system of recycling. Together with returnable milk bottles, given back directly to the milkman, it kept bottles going round and around.

Over in the united states, as early as the start of the twentieth century, drink bottlers were criticised for not putting a deposit of their returnable bottles. Without the incentive of the returnable deposit it was beleievd that it was too easy to just throw bottles away. In 1905, for example, the Southern Carbonator and Bottler proclaimed: “The only sane, logical and lasting solution of the bottle question is the deposit system.”

And then companies like Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola put their energy into backing the idea that roadside recycling, containers to put your empty bottles into, was a sufficient solution to the problem. They didn't want deposits because it might make their product seem too expensive!!! Well, that worked! And now Coca Cola alone produces 100 billion plastic bottles in a year. A large percentage of them are just thrown away, not recycled. It has been estimated that, on current trends, by 2050 the plastic in the oceans may weigh more than all the fish! No further comment!

No comment is needed in the article in this link. A well known newspaper published an item comparing the size of various famous women's bottoms. This is the twenty-first century?

There is a Turner prize-winning artist who created a centenary commemoration of the lost soldiers of the Battle of the Somme. Now he is working on staging a tribute to Beatle's manager brian Epstein as part of a series of events marking the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Now, I love the album. I remember spending almost all of my first week's wages from the shoe shop where I was working my holidays from university on the album. But really, can we put the anniversary of the release of a pop record on the same level as remembering soldiers who died in a World War?

As I type I have been listening to stuff on the radio. At the moment it's a feature about Donald Trump's first 100 days. I have just heard a recorded item from the day after the inauguration, the day that Trump reckoned there were more people at HIS inauguration than at anyone else's. He was protesting that there were far more people than the press reported. Rain, he said, might have kept people away but then God decided not to rain on his speech and so rain did not keep people away. god decided not to rain on Trump's speech? What is that about?

And in the Newspaper I have just found a quote, from a Bolton voter: "Jeremy Corbyn talks about policies I want to vote for, but it's no good if you're never going to be in power". Oh boy! Double think is alive and well in this century!

The world is full of arrant nonsense!