Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Dreaming spires and all that.

More years ago than I really care to remember my year group at the girls’ grammar school I attended disappointed our headteacher. Every year for as long as anyone could remember the school had sent a group of girls, as many as 10 a year, to study at Oxford or Cambridge University. Not a bad record for a state school of around 600 girls! But then we were the post war baby boomer girls, encouraged to do anything that boys could do –and more – and we had a headmistress who was determined to make us realise our potential.

We, she
insisted, were the lucky ones, bright enough to make it to the grammar school and we should make her proud. Those who left school at 16 were interviewed and made to feel that they had let themselves down, had let their parents down but most of all they had let HER down.

Be that as it may, my year re
fused for some reason to apply for the big two universities. We went off to university and good ones at that but not Oxford or Cambridge.

Well, this weekend it was to Oxford that my Phil and I went. An old friend was getting married. Long ago we had been to his f
irst wedding and now we were off to his second. The wedding service was held in Saint Edmund Hall, the college where the bride had studied. She clearly would not have disappointed my headmistress. The wedding service was quietly, graciously happy, complete with a piper; we thought we were back in Galicia for a moment.

And then we moved to the re
ception held in a hotel which used to be Oxford prison, complete with the old cells, now presumably converted into nice comfortable bedrooms.

We had an excellent ti
me, meeting up with old friends we had not seen for years and visiting the city itself. I can quite understand those who fall in love with studying in Oxford, a delightful place to get lost in a subject you love!

The city was full of bicycles, just as the guide books say, even in places with signs banning them.

We even impressed friends by using our Manchester bus passes on Oxford buses!

The only hiccough was the train back. Well, it was Sunday, wasn’t it? So they were working on the lines and we had to catch the diversion bus to Banbury before continuing by train. And then the train was somewhat overcrowded and some of the people crammed into our so-called quiet carriage did not seem aware that “quiet” meant not keeping up mobile phone conversations for over an hour!

This blog post was more or less written on that very train but didn’t get posted until today because of my busy life.

On our return on Sunday evening I simply had to bake a friendship cake. Now a friendship cake is rather like a chain letter or one of those things you used to do when you were a child where you had to send postcards to six people and would eventually receive loads of postcards back. A friendship cake is better however because you feed it for about 10 days then split it into four portions. Three portions are given away (to friends, of course) and the last one you mix with a lot of other ingredients and bake. Unlike chain letters and postcard rounds, instead of possible bad luck or a load of past cards you don’t want, with a friendship cake you end up with a good cake to eat at the end of the ten days. Mine was ready for baking on Sunday evening when we returned.

Then yesterday I had to meet up with the ladies who lunch and go and eat out in Manchester. In the evening an old friend came round and shared a bottle of wine and ate some of the aforementioned friendship cake.

And today I have had yet another trip to Manchester for an Italian class. On my return we had to help celebrate my granddaughter’s birthday, which we missed on Saturday because of the wedding. And finally my daughter and I went for our usual Tuesday swim, followed by a long phone call to offspring number one who is off to Indonesia for a month tomorrow.

So you see, my life has just been too busy to blog!!

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Isn’t nostalgia a fine thing?

Well, Spring is officially here and seems to be springing all around us here. The heron has reappeared by a local mill pond and I’ve been watching with interest the progress of a rook’s nest in the tree by the bus stop at the corner of the street. And we have been having some fine sunny days to speed spring along. I’ve even hung washing out in the garden this morning. Mind you, you probably have to be a North of England housewife to fully appreciate that as an achievement!

Taking advantage of the sunshine we set off on a nostalgia trip on one of our walks at the end of last week.

When first we moved to this rather picturesque bit of Oldham we did not live in Delph village itself but in the bottom
of the valley between Delph and Denshaw in a little hamlet consisting of two rows of “cottages”, one of four and one of six. Anywhere else they would have been referred to quite simply as houses. Situated in Salford or almost anywhere in the Greater Manchester conurbation they would have been terraces. However, located in an out of the way valley, they were called cottages.

They had been houses for mill workers originally I believe. This is af
ter all an area of wool and cotton mills. The mill itself housed a small educational products company when we lived there about 25 years ago and I doubt if any of the inhabitants of the cottages had ever worked in a mill.

The outside “privies” still existed down by the river although all the houses had indoor toilets and bathrooms by then. One of the neighbours used them as a kind of garden
shed. It was a nice quiet place to live. We all grew vegetables in a plot of land just nearby. There was very little traffic and the children learned to ride their bikes in the old mill yard. We only moved out when we outgrew the house. We simply needed more space with two growing children.

So anyway, we set off on a walk down the valley at the end of last week, taking a nostalgic look at our old home en route. Before we got there, though, we already had
plenty of nostalgia. First there was the spot on the path through the valley where some selfish landowner decided one day to build a wall around his field, blocking a public footpath and making walkers take a detour up the hillside. This detour took us past the old house where they used to restore vintage cars. And, yes, there was still a shiny vintage vehicle in the yard and another work in progress in the garage.

Further on we discovered that the remains of old mill workings were still there beside the stream. We marvelled that no-one had reused the stone – probably the difficulty of access preventing its removal from the valley bott
om! This place was known to our children as “Jim’s House”. Stories were invented about the rag doll who was supposed to live there.

As a whole the trees were taller than the last time we walked that way, probably about ten years ago, but really little had changed in the valley itself. Our old home had acquired a new stone front porch. The former vegetable plot, reclaimed by its owner shortly after we left so that he could keep a horse there, stood empty and rather unkempt. But the scruffy old mill buildin
g had been converted into smart flats and the mill yard was now an organised car park. Just down the lane there was also a small private nursery, no doubt meeting the needs of a larger population.

Time marches on! And so did we, making our way past old quarries, still flooded as they always used
to be. The view was quite pastoral, sheep peacefully grazing and all that sort of thing.

quite hard to believe that this is actually part of Greater Manchester – even if there are still those who would like to return it to Yorkshire to which it belonged before the re-drawing of county boundaries in the 1970s.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Changing dates.

This evening after my Portuguese class I realised I was running a little late and that I might well not make the connecting bus from Oldham to Delph. That would mean either an expensive taxi or a long wait in the bus station. So, instead of racing across Manchester at top speed to catch the bus, I sauntered along to Victoria Station and caught a train to Greenfield where I would be able to catch a bus home.

The train was full of drunken leprechauns. It was quite amazing. There were huge numbers of people dressed in something green and wearing ridiculously comical hats which told anyone who was interested that today is Saint Patrick’s Day!! It made for a very entertaining ride home. Nobody was aggressive. There was a good deal of good-natured banter, mostly about Manchester City and Manchester United, the city’s two football teams.

The most soberly dressed of this crowd was probably the most Irish, possibly the only genuinely Irish, of them all. His shirt WAS green but his hat, instead of being a felt concoction about 18 inches high, was a fairly restrained bright green trilby. Granted you could only wear such a hat today and it did have a bright ginger false beard attached but he mostly kept that under his hat. He also sported a … what shall I call it?… a buttonhole? … a nosegay? …a sprig? …of shamrock. Whatever you call it, it was a sort of clump of shamrock pinned to his shirt. One of the Mancunian leprechauns asked him why he was wearing salad on his shirt.

The Irishman may have been (relatively) soberly dressed but, like the rest of them, he was not sober. However he appeared to hold his drink more quietly than the rest. Or maybe it was just because he was a soft spoken Irishman. The rest shouted happily the length of the train and peppered their wise sayings with numerous swearwords, causing one equally drunk lady to cry out over and over again, “Stop swearing!!!”

At one point someone decided to bring up St George whereupon the soberly dressed Irishman informed us that the English patron saint has had his day moved this year. One cheerful chappy suggested that this was to help pay for the royal wedding. I am not sure of the logic of that but others did agree with him. But no, the Irishman explained that it is because St George’s Day, 23rd April, this year falls in Holy Week and so cannot be celebrated on its usual day.

The “Stop swearing!!!” lady was very puzzled. She had never heard of Holy Week and needed to have it explained to her. Instantly one of her companions commented that “it must be a Catholic thing” so we had to explain that in fact it’s a general “Christian thing”.

Is it just here in the UK that people know so little of the culture of their country that someone hasn’t heard of Holy Week? I remain astounded. The lady concerned didn’t know when DT George’s Day was either.

Anyway, I was not totally convinced about St George’s day becoming a moveable feast so I googled it when I got in. I found a webpage all about the good dragon slayer with lots of info written by Dr John Sentamu. This is what he had to say,

“One interesting fact you may not know about St George's Day is that in the Church calendar this year it actually takes place on May 2.

The reason for this change is that this year April 23 is Holy Saturday, an important date in the Christian calendar, during Holy Week.

Holy Saturday is when our Lord lay in the tomb the day before His resurrection. This is a time of reflection and contemplation for Christians and is a long-standing tradition.”

So there we are. And Dr John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York so I suppose he should know. But somehow I bet there will be a lot of flags of St George around on the 23rd of April all the same.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Mobile matters.

One of the advantages of the digital age is the snooze feature on your alarm or, in my case, the mobile phone alarm setting. Instead of switching the thing off and going back to sleep for too long, you put off the dread moment of actually getting out of bed in 9 minute chunks – again and again and again. You might still miss you bus through getting up too late but at least it’s not a complete surprise.

Of course, sometimes you don’t get as far as the alarm ringing at all. Other things wake you first. My granddaughter has taken to texting me before 8 o’clock. All right, I know that some people have been up for hours by then but I am now officially a lady of leisure and no longer need to leave the house at the crack of dawn to cross the Greater Manchester conurbation. I assume that granddaughter does her texting while waiting for the bus to school. Wherever or whenever she is doing it, she must text at speed as she never seems to have time to check what she has written before sending.

We are currently communicating about “Run for Life”, a 5 k jog/walk/run around a local park to raise money for cancer research. As we want to register “Grandma’s Girls” (me, granddaughter and friends) she need to give me some details, most of which she told me she has in her “wong”, which turned out to be her room. Eventually she had all the details except for one friends “bost clod” – her post code. Some are even more incomprehensible.

I should be used it by now. After all, her friend Adam was called Bean for quite a while as a result of one of her texting clangers.

She doesn’t like it if I use text-speak when I send her messages. Grandmothers are not supposed to say things like “c u l8r”. I do try to avoid it as much as possible but sometimes it’s quite fun. There’s a van I see around with the company name “Ener G” on the side. That’s not as good as the French NRJ; if you pronounce the letters French style it gives you “√©nergie”.

Mind you I get a little agitated about “texting” from a linguistic point of view. I long ago stopped ranting about making nouns (the text) into verbs (to text) but the purist in me gets very annoyed about the use of that verb and I have even had arguments with my daughter about it. If it’s a verb then it should behave just like other verbs. Therefore, the past tense should be “texted”. However, my daughter will insist on telling me that someone text (past tense) her with some important information. Now, as far as I am concerned, that should really be “texed” from the verb “to tex” but my daughter is not accepting that. And she’s not the only one of the younger generation to use the “verb” that way.

I must be turning into an old fogey after all!

Monday, 14 March 2011

Getting away from it all.

Try as I might, I am finding it rather difficult to escape from information about a certain royal wedding coming up at the end of next month.

First of all Prince William and Kate (aka Catherine) Middleton keep doing all these publicity stunts: launching boats, visiting their old university and so on. Then there’s all the fuss about who is going to design the dress. At one point it was rumoured to be Victoria Beckham. And now, of course, with fashion designers making faux pas, poor Kate will have to be careful to choose one who
is politically correct.

Surely it’s enough that the poor girl has had to change her name and that she has to put up with Camilla as her mentor on how to become a royal wife. I swear that by now she must have turned into a “real princess” who can feel a pea under ten mattresses!!

But no, it’s not enough. Prince Andrew puts his foot in it by associating with the wrong people and we have
a lot of speculation about who is the most embarrassing uncle to invite to your wedding!

On the bus today I came across an article in the free paper all about Clapham Common in London. Apparently the local council have decided to make the common into “Camp Royale” for the weekend of the wedding. For the bargain price of £75 you can camp out in the park for three days, watch the wedding on a big screen and take part in competitions. The be
st dressed “guests” will win prizes as will the best decorated tent. There you go: something to aim for; something to look forward to. For the sake of the happy campers, I hope the weather is good. I’ve done camping in late April and it can be extremely cold!!

On the other hand, according to another article, loads of people are taking advantage of the extra bank holiday to escape to a long weekend in the sun. EasyJet and RyanAir are benefitting from the royal wedding. London hoteliers are not too worried though as they confidently expect lots of foreign visitors to fill their rooms. According to the tat sellers (sorry, souvenir sellers) William and Kate mugs and tea towels are not yet selling well but
of course there is still time for sales to pick up.

And if you want more detail than is available in the occasional
newspaper article, you can buy a whole magazine dedicated to the happy pair. There it was on the shelf in my local newsagent’s: “William and Kate” was its title! Who buys this stuff?

The final straw, however, was the advert I saw in Saturday’s Guardian newspaper. One of their most recent special offers is for his ’n’ her pea coats. It’s a good job there was a picture or I might not have known what a pea coat was: traditional navy wear apparently. Anyway, the picture was also the problem for me. The smiling couple wearing matching black jackets with the collar warmly turned up bore an uncanny resemblance to …. yes, you’ve guessed it… William and Kate.

Ah well, I’ll just have to hope for good weather and take myself off on a long walk on the day.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Time for a change – of clothes and currency!

I am getting rather tired of winter clothes. At the start of the cold weather there is something reassuring about wrapping up warm, sorting out matching hats and scarves and gloves. (Zen and the art of fashion: take pleasure in what you wear!) But even I am now beginning to want to put away the thick tights and matching jumpers. Oh dear, now I sound rather like one of those ladies from costume dramas or old novels, the ones who packed up their winter clothes in Spring in chests full of mothballs and stored them in the attic until the next season. Then out they would come last summer’s clothes to be assessed for how well they fitted the new fashion dictates and whether they could be adapted with a few bits of trimming.

Of course, here there is little point in packing away the winter clothes as you may very well need
your warm coat in June or July. Be that as it may, I am experiencing a serious wish to wear lighter clothes: floaty pastels and so on. Although I may still need to put a warm cardigan on top.

However, I am not going to whinge about the weather. We have had some excellent crisp, sunny days with central Manchester showing itself off at its best. And last weekend, after an overnight stop in Prestwich to see old friends we managed to organise our return journey to include a walk in Sunday’s sunshine from Greenfield station (nearest to where we live) to home along the canal towpath. Splendid!

And there are signs of spring everywhere: snowdrops and crocuses (croci?) popping up all over the place.

Today though it looks and sounds as though we could be blown away at any moment. According to a friend of mine this might be because the moon is about to pass closer to the earth than it has done for almost twenty years. Amateur scientists say this could cause earthquakes and all sorts of extreme events but weatherman John Kettly assures us that this is not the case. The moon might affect tides and lead to some unsettled and windy weather but that’s all. Well, we can all sleep easily then!

This year I have missed Carnaval although we talked about it a lot in my Italian conversation class and I’ve seen plenty of pictures in Spanish papers online. Here’s a link to some photos in La Voz de Galicia . I wonder if it was as cold and windy for the Carnaval in Vigo as it was last year.

We did eat lots of pancakes at my house but somehow a few pancakes, whether you go for traditional sugar and lemon juice or more exotic strawberries (in March?) and cream fillings, don’t quite have the glamour of a carnival procession dancing its way through the streets.

The financial crisis doesn’t appear to have stopped spending on costumes and floats for the carnival processions in Spain. The cynic is me suspects that this is part of the spectacles-to-keep-the-masses-happy programme.

I recently read about a place which is trying its own way of beating la crisis. In the small Galician fishing town of Mugardos shopkeepers have decided to accept payment in pesetas as well as Euros. When the Euro was introduced in 2002 Spaniards had three months to take their pesetas to any bank and have them changed but an astounding 1.7 BILLION Euros worth were never accounted for. Now they can still be changed but only at the Bank of Spain.

The Mugardos scheme appears to be a success. People are discovering stashes of pesetas here and there and using them to buy stuff. Some are making special trips to the town to spend their long hoarded pesetas. Presumably the shopkeepers are scuttling off to the Bank of Spain to convert them to Euros.

Of course, there will be no trouble with converting the prices from Euros to Pesetas as every price label still has the price in both currencies. Many Spaniards still prefer to think in Pesetas. As a foreigner I find it quite confusing to have somebody tell me that the rent for a flat is umpteen thousand pesetas a month; hundreds of Euros are much easier to deal with. But then, I can remember English folk who insisted on talking about prices in pounds, shillings and pence for a good few years after we went decimal.

Anyway, I wish good luck to the shopkeepers of Mugardos and to those people who discover granny’s shoebox full of Pesetas and manage to spend them.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Chance encounters in a small world.

There are certain disadvantages to not having a car, a situation that we find ourselves in since returning from Spain. You have to rely on the kindness of others to ferry you back from the supermarket with mountains of shopping, or else do it in several smaller trips, which is probably no bad thing as you tend to buy less stuff. There is the general inconvenience of a bus service which runs when it chooses to do so, something I have ranted about at length on previous occasions. And then it’s a bit of a pain when the weather is bad although you tend to become hardened to it and go out anyway.

The advantages, however, do tend to outweigh the aforementioned disadvantages. At least for those of us who have passed the magical age of 60, bus travel is free most of the time and very cheap even at peak times. Provided the windows of the bus are not too streaked with dirt you can relax and enjoy the scenery which around here on a good day means that you look out over the hills towards the Peak District, a rather fine view on the whole. I take advantage of my increasingly frequent bus rides to brush up my Portuguese grammar or listen to music (depending on how virtuous I am feeling) on my iPod.

Best of all though are the other passengers on the bus. OK, some of them may not be very attractive and some seem to have personal hygiene problems. I have been known to arrive home protesting about the fact that the fattest and smelliest person in Greater Manchester chose to sit next to me on my journey home from one of my jaunts. I would say, though, that in general they are more interesting than off-putting. And the conversations you overhear can be enlightening.

One middle evening recently I sat behind two young ladies who drifted into discussing a possible career as striptease artistes. To begin with they appeared to be discussing fashion pictures on the i-phone or Blackberry belonging to one of them. The conversation went something like this:

Girl A: Oooh, this one looks like what you wear for stripping.
Girl B: Would you do that?
Girl A: Yeah!!! It keeps you fit, keeps you in shape and you get worshipped!!!
Girl B: And think if the money you’d earn!
Girl A: Shall we do that?
Girl B: Yeah, you could go somewhere where no-one would know you.
Girl A: Yeah, no-one else needs to know you do it.
Girl B: If someone offered you a job for life where you get paid loads and you have to be a stripper ’til you’re 25 and a Page 3 girl ’til you’re 30, would you do it? Oh, and you have to have a boob job. Would you do it?
Girl A: Yeah!!! Let’s do it!

No comment. This conversation was at top volume. Granted the bus was very nearly empty and maybe they did not realise that I was sitting behind them. And then they got off the bus so I never found out about their more concrete career plans.

As a rule, however, it’s the conversations I get into that are the most fascinating, such as the ones I had today.

There is an elderly lady who lives around the corner from us. I often meet her at the bus stop and pass the time of day. Last time I saw her she was complaining about how cold it had been but today was fine sunny day and she was feeling more enthusiastic about life.

One way or another our conversation, which began at the bus stop and continued on the bus, drifted into her reminiscences of long ago when she worked as a land girl during the World War II. Her story today was about the period just after the war. Her young man had taken advantage of a scheme to get returning servicemen into education or training and was studying at the University of Oxford while she continued her work as a land girl. In order to have time off to go to the ball at his Oxford college she worked extra hours, taking extra leave instead of overtime pay. She borrowed money from her aunt, an extravagant £20, in order to have a posh frock made, swearing her aunt to secrecy. Her mother was not to know that she had approached her aunt in this way. The dress was made, she had managed to find accommodation for a couple of nights in Oxford and off she went, taking with her fresh eggs which they would have for breakfast on the morning after the ball.

Now her young man had told her that he could not meet her at the station; a friend of his would do so. Almost as soon as she met the friend she could tell that something was amiss. “If you are a sensitive person,” she told me, “and I was an actress so I was sensitive, you can tell when something is not right.” And it definitely was not right. The embarrassed friend took her to meet her young man and they all went to the ball where, at some point in the evening, her young man told her that he had met someone else and it was all off. What a cad! So the next morning, instead of eating breakfast with her intended, she took her eggs and headed for home and presumably a career in acting.

I could have listened to her all day but she alighted at the big Tesco store where she was to meet someone who would then help her carry her shopping home. 80+, still dressed up to the nines and still doing her own shopping – with a little help from her friends! Amazing!

Meanwhile, I continued into Oldham where I changed buses in order to go on to Manchester. My second bus of the day was very crowded and I found myself on one of those fold-down seats that face the wrong way. Opposite me sat an ancient mariner kind of character: a little unkempt, straggly bear and moustache and a twinkle in his eye.

He observed me for a while and then leant forward to ask if I was going away for Easter, clearly an opening gambit as he went on to tell me many people he knows are planning to go off somewhere. He went on to talk about the weather and how in his younger days he used to go cycling a good deal: long distance cycling, races and cycling weekends with his mates. This led to the Tour de France. He advised me to go and see it live if I got the chance, to follow the Tour circus from town to town because, he told me, after the day’s stage is finished there is always a concert of some kind in whichever town they have reached that day, some of the finest acts available.

He went on to tell me about seeing the Tour start in San Sebasti√°n in northern Spain and before you knew it we were swapping notes about places we had visited in that fair country. And then he asked me if I had ever got to a place called Vigo (he pronounced it with the “i” as in “bike” but it was still recognisable as the city where we spent two years), somewhere that he had visited when he had been on cruises in the past.

All of this goes to show what a small world it really is. If you are prepared to chat to people you find out all sorts of interesting things and sometimes discover that you have things in common. I challenge you to do that when travelling by car!