Wednesday, 29 February 2012

On the road.

My daughter was driving me home from somewhere – probably some childcare duty or other – the other day when she noticed a Fiat 500 ahead of us. “That’s the car Tasmin wants to be driving in three years time”, she commented. I replied that I hoped she had already started some kind of investment plan to pay for the insurance. That put a stop to the conversation for a while.

Tasmin is the eldest grandchild, now 14. The conversation suggested that it was a given that she would learn to drive as soon as she hits 17; after all, that is the norm these days. Well, it was pretty much the norm when my daughter was 17 but it didn’t happen in her case. She waited a good few years more and her older brother only passed his test after his thirtieth birthday. I recognise, however, that they were probably the exception to the accepted rule.

Then I read an article saying that many university students are now turning to the bus and other forms of public transport. The cost of buying, running, maintaining and above all insuring a car is just getting to be too much for them. So they are buying a monthly saver for the bus, using student rail cards and, if they have a driving license, hoping that mum and dad will put them as named drivers on their insurance for holiday times. And even that is an expensive business for the parents.

Life was in many ways a whole lot easier when we were students. There was no pressure to own a car. Everyone expected to go around on the bus and train. Even accommodation was more reasonable. Sorting out some papers in the attic last week, I came across an old letter from way back when we were sorting out somewhere to live as married students in the final year of our university course. The gist of the letter was that my Phil had located an attic flat not far from the university; it had plenty of cat-swinging room and cost ... wait for it ... £11 a month. Those were the days!

Back in the present day, I decided it’s just as well that students are realising the benefits of public transport over cars. Bill Ford, great grandson of Henry Ford has been talking about the problems of too many cars. He maintains that by 2050 there could be four billion cars on the road (one billion at the moment apparently) and this could lead to a world gridlock. I don’t think he really wants people to stop buying cars though. What he wants is for car manufacturers to get together with telecommunications people and develop cars that can talk to each other.

Now I’m imagining a big car sending out a message to other, smaller vehicles: “I’m on my way, clear the road”. My bus, which regularly has problems turning a very tight corner because of oncoming traffic, could send an advance warning to all vehicles to let him through. Maybe even cyclists and motorcyclists could send out regular signals: “Don’t forget that we are here!! Please don’t open your car door as we go past!!! Look out for us!””

Hmmm!! I wonder!!! In the meantime, I shall remain carless and try to stave off worldwide gridlock a little longer!

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Taking the teenager out.

Yesterday I went into Manchester to collect some books I had ordered for my daughter. (This is really a clever ploy to get me to pay for the books but that is another story and not one to be explored today.) As she declared herself to be far too busy – essays to write for her university course and so on – she volunteered the teenager to go along with me. Not a bad idea as the teenager is quite good company in such circumstances.

So I got up at some ungodly hour for a Saturday so that I could catch a bus, make sure the teenager was actually up – texting her from the bus to tell her I was on my way – and then get on a train to Manchester. So far, so good. The train was already crowded so we stood all the way into Manchester, watching small people who could have sat on parents’ knees occupying seats. So it goes.

Almost the first thing we did on arriving at the city centre was find food for the teenager. I swear 14 year old girls are bottomless pits. I watched her go through a spicy prawn “wrap” (a modern type of food I have totally failed to get into – what is wrong with a sandwich?), a chocolate mousse (spelt moose on the tub), a mango smoothie and a hot chocolate while I had a coffee. I should, of course, say that I had that mysterious thing called a “flat white”, the best thing I’ve found when I don’t feel like a cortado/macchiato or when such things don’t appear on the menu, despite there being a list as long as your arm of different kinds of lattes and cappuccinos on offer. Naturally, even the so-called small cup (for that read, cardboard container) held about 2/3 of a pint!

Having taken on fuel, we collected the books from the bookshop, had a look in various different shops and then went to complete the visit to the Manchester Art Gallery which was cut short last time we did the Manchester trip. On our last visit we set off too late and didn’t really have time to see everything. We found ourselves being hurried out as they shut the doors at 5pm, far too early in my opinion.

So we managed to look at the rest of the paintings, picking up ideas for her art project for her GCSE court as we went. We even had time for the art gallery shop this time. Now, the museum/art gallery shop is an integral part of visits to places with grandchildren, even teenage ones. Apart from picking up a little something for the small brother and sister who did not accompany us, though, we mostly spent our time expressing horror at the price of souvenirs. But on the whole we had a pleasant afternoon. There’s something very tranquil about art galleries as a rule.

And then it was time to find something to eat again. This time a vegetable pasty for her to eat at the station.

It was getting towards the end of the afternoon but far too early, as far as I was concerned, for people to be starting their Saturday night out. However, we saw a surprising large number of young women in dangerously high heels and sporting sleeveless or even halter neck tops and no coat, obviously getting ahead of the crowd on the evening out. It wasn’t just the girls though; the young men were also out and about in short sleeved T shirts and no jackets. Are the British the only people who don’t feel the cold?

We got to the platform in plenty of time for our return journey, practically the first passengers there, but it gradually filled up. By the time the train arrived, there were largish groups waiting at each doorway, barely allowing passengers to alight before surging onto the train. So we stood again for the return journey, this time watching a group of teenagers taking pictures of each other with their mobile phones and then mock-fighting noisily over whether the pictures were to be saved or not. When they got to their stop they had such difficulty getting through the press to the door that some of them did not manage to do so and had to stay on until the next station.

We, who had had to stand all the way, were mildly amused and got some minor satisfaction from this.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Odd traditions

As I listened to the news late last night, at the point when the news presenter chats with a pundit about the headlines in the next morning’s paper, I heard a little something that made my ears prick up. The presenter referred to a pancake race between Members of Parliament and journalists, won this year by the MPs apparently. So this morning I went and had a look on Google.

This is the 15th year that this race between MPs, Lords and journalists has taken place, raising money for the charity Rehab. And yes, the MPs won thanks, seemingly, to the athletic performance of the only female MP to take part, Tracey Crouch – a Tory, I’m afraid but we can’t have everything. There was a little controversy, however, as the journalists claimed that the MPs and Lords had only done nine laps of the gardens instead of the required ten. Shocking!! Is this an example of government corruption in action?

So they had to have another run-round to check and the female representative proved stronger once again. It was very odd to see BBC’s Nick Robinson, usually quite a serious person, wielding a pancake pan!

Of course, with the North-South weather divide this event would not have been viable up here because the pancakes would have got too soggy to toss.

Then, this morning I came across a report about a Shrove Tuesday ball game. This takes place in Atherstone in Warwickshire. A heavy leather ball – made specially every year, filled with water and draped in red white and blue ribbons – is dropped from the window of the Barclays bank branch in the town. Then a few hundred people try to get possession of it. No rules, no teams, no goals: it sounds like total, and probably rather dangerous, mayhem. Eventually, after a bout two hours, a klaxon sounds and whoever has the ball at that point is the winner. Here’s a link to some photos of this strange event.

And there I was thinking that it was only other countries that had these odd traditions. When I looked online for some more oddities, though, there was very little to see. However, I did find this:

‘Shroving’ was a custom in which children sang or recited poetry in exchange for food or money. ‘Lent Crocking’ was one of the many customs of the day when children would pass from house to house asking for pancakes. If they weren't given any broken crockery would be thrown at the door!

Now that sounds like a pre-cursor for “trick or treat”, if you ask me!

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The North-South Divide.

I went on a bit yesterday about stereotypical differences between the north and the south, differences which seem to exist in all countries. Well, the news has given me a different angle on the north-south divide.

First of all, at the northern end there’s the chap who was found alive in his snowbound car somewhere in Sweden after spending two months there. It seems that the snow covering the car turned it into a kind of igloo and because he had decent clothes and a good sleeping bag he was able to stay alive, eating next to nothing except snow. There is some speculation about whether he was a actually trapped for two months. Some people seem to think he may have been living in the car anyway before the notional date in December when he claims he got stuck. Either way, he has been found by off-duty policemen on snowmobiles. Quite a lucky chap by all accounts, if rather skinny now. That’s quite a drastic way to lose weight, if you ask me.

At the other end in Ivrea, in Northwestern Italy, an area that has probably also had some pretty cold we
ather recently, they appear to have got over the cold snap and have been throwing oranges at each other. This coincides with carnavale in other parts of Italy but, I understand, also serves to commemorate a medieval uprising against a domineering landlord. The peasants fought against the ruling families and won. Now they re-enact the uprising with teams from different parts of the town acting as peasants or nobles but they use oranges as weapons. Fortunately, as well as their fancy costumes, they also wear helmets with cages to protect their faces from serious orange damage.

What is it with these southern countries and their obsession with throwing food at each other?

In Spain in August you have the tomatina in Buñol. As the name suggests, they all throw tomatoes at each other. However, they make no claims to be re-enacting any historic occasion. It all began way back in 1944 but there is no known religious or political basis for it. Some peo
ple guess it began as a food fight among children or that local townspeople chucked tomatoes to show their dislike of a local politician. Whatever the case, the event caught on and has happened every year until the dictator Francisco Franco banned the festival for "having no religious significance." However, the town resumed the event after Franco died in the '70s. Maybe they also realised that there was a certain money-making potential as people flock there from all over the world to throw tomatoes.

back in the present day, carnaval , aka entroido, has also been going on in Vigo, despite our absence and today, instead of eating pancakes – a very English tradition - they will be burying the sardine.

And this year, in the Puerta del Sol, they are also burning an effigy of Angela Merkel, shown as a puppeteer jerking the strings of Mariano Rajoy. The country may be in crisis but satirical comment is not yet dead.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Words, words, words!

On Saturday I went off to Macclesfield on the train in the rain. I was going to an Italian film study session, organised from time to time by our excellent Italian teacher. This time it was a film called “Benvenuti al Sud”, a comedy based on stereotypes and the misunderstandings that arise as a result when a dyed-in-the-wool Northerner (North-Italian, that is) is transferred down south. Great fun! And there was food and wine provided as well!

Part of the comedy came out of the fact that the chap from the north didn’t understand the local dialect of the small village near Naples. It rather reminded me of my first year teaching in Oldham (too long ago to think about really!) when my pupils would say completely incomprehensible things to me. Of course, this still goes on today. Just the other day
at the bus stop I overheard this dialogue between two perfectly normal looking young women who clearly speak a different kind of English to the one I use:

a) Zis aaz?
b) Naah!

Now, context helps and the clue is that they were standing at the bus stop, one of those where about a zillion different buses stop.


a) Is this ours?
b) No!

Easy when you know how, but I do still overhear conversations I really cannot make head or tail of.

This is a completely different thing from the fun of idiomatic expressions. Our wonderful Adalgisa had one of those moments teachers usually dread: she didn’t have the answer to a question she had set us. We had been asked to name regions of Italy and them the inhabitants of those regions. We got to Basilicata and then Adalgisa had to confess she simply did not know what the people of that area were called; she just couldn’t remember having met anyone from there. So she said to us, “Adesso ne ho un chiodo fisso” – “Now I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about it”. Literally, though, it means “I’ve got a fixed nail about that”. Both expressions, English and Italian are quite delightful so I went and looked it up in French and Spanish. French is a little boring: “avoir une idée en tête” – to have an idea in your head. Spanish, however, gets a little more colourful: “tener algo metido entre ceja y ceja” – to have something stuck between one eyebrow and the other.

The last expression Adalgisa had me thinking about was one that came up when she suggested we needed an OFGOV, a kind of equivalent of education’s OFSTED but to check up on governments not schools. On that occasion she told us she could think of a number of politicians she would like to give a good slap to. The Italian expression was “dare quattro schiaffi” – to give four slaps. The Italians, you see, get carried away and have to give more slaps, although ours is usually a good one. Spanish and French, as far as I know are far less interesting.

On the subject of politicians (and education for that matter), I noticed yesterday that our Mr Gove has been opening his mouth and putting his foot in it again (now, how do you say that in French/Spanish/Italian?). Apparently he’s let the wrong people - i.e. the media - know that some government advisor or other has been recommending that members of the government, if they need to travel, should fly Virgin rather than BA. This is because BA are the “fat cats” while Virgin is an “upstart” and the conservatives are on the side of the upstart. Really??? I thought they also liked looking after the fat cats and helping them stay fat!!! So it goes!

Getting back to the rain, the radio has just told me that many parts of the UK are on the verge of suffering from drought and are considering introducing a hosepipe ban. I was about to explode until I head one of the speakers say that this applies unless you live in Scotland or the North West of England. Well, there you go. The Thames valley may have had considerably less rain than usual for the last 18 months bit here we have had plenty. As far as I am concerned, they are welcome to some of ours, especially as I have just noticed that it is starting to drizzle nicely outside my window.
It’s a good job I’ve already been out for a run today before this started.

This weather phenomenon is another aspect, of course, of that North-South divide thing that Benvenuti al Sud was all about.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

A lot of soppy stuff.

Today’s Google symbol will play you a soppy song and show you a cute cartoon if you are silly enough to click on it. I know this because I was just daft enough to do so.

Then I went on Facebook and found that all my younger friends are sending each other messages saying things like “Happy fourth Valentine’s day together”, “Happy second Valentine’s day together” and so on. Even my older friends are wishing the world and his brother Happy Valentine’s Day.

Now, I seem to remember that the idea was that you sent, and hopefully received, anonymous valentines and then had to work out who had sent them, hoping that you hadn’t got yours from that ugly person who was unpopular with the rest of the class and always sat at the back on his own. As the number of cards you received was a measure of your social success, some people were known to send valentines to themselves, or at least they were suspected of it.

When Bathseba Everdene in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, sent a valentine to William Boldwood it was intended as a bit of a joke, mostly because he was one of the few men who never even gave her a first, let alone a second, admiring glance. And, of course, this being a Hardy novel, it led to all kinds of bad things happening all round.

So, anyway, I decided to do a little research into the whole soppy business. It turns out to be partly another of those pagan festivities that was subsumed into the Christian calendar and given a new name.

It seems that in ancient Rome, February 14th was a holiday to honour Juno. Juno was the Queen of the Roman Gods and Goddesses. The Romans also knew her as the Goddess of women and marriage. The following day, February 15th, began the Feast of Lupercalia.

The lives of young boys and girls were strictly separate. However, one of the customs of the young people was this: on the eve of the festival of Lupercalia the names of Roman girls were written on slips of paper and placed into jars. Each young man would draw a girl's name from the jar and would then be partners for the duration of the festival with the girl whom he chose. Sometimes the pairing of the children lasted an entire year, and often, they would fall in love and would later marry

Then along came the emperor Claudius II who was having some difficulty recruiting soldiers to go off and be killed in his rather bloody campaigns. As he blamed this difficulty on men’s reluctance to leave their wives and sweethearts, he cancelled all marriages and engagements in Rome. However, he didn’t know about Valentine.

Valentine, later known as Saint Valentine, was a Christian priest who secretly married couples despite the official ban. As a result he was dragged off and condemned to death. His martyrdom took place on the 14th of February, round about 270 ad. He was supposed to have sent a note to a young girl who had befriended him while he was imprisoned, signing it “from your Valentine”. There you go.

So when Pope Gelasius made him a saint in 496 ad and set aside February 14th to be Saint Valentine’s Day, it was perfect opportunity for the church to take ownership of the feast of Lupercalia and stop it being a pagan celebration. Isn’t that convenient?

And all sorts of traditions sprang up from that:-

In Wales wooden love spoons were carved and given as gifts on February 14th. Hearts, keys and keyholes were favourite decorations on the spoons. The decoration meant, "You unlock my heart!"

In the Middle Ages, young men and women drew names from a bowl to see who their valentines would be. They would wear these names on their sleeves for one week. To wear your heart on your sleeve now means that it is easy for other people to know how you are feeling.

In some countries, a young woman may receive a gift of clothing from a young man. If she keeps the gift, it means she will marry him.

Some people used to believe that if a woman saw a robin flying overhead on Valentine's Day, it meant she would marry a sailor. If she saw a sparrow, she would marry a poor man and be very happy. If she saw a goldfinch, she would marry a millionaire. I wonder if global warming and the disappearance of some species has made a difference.

It all got mixed up with daft things that were supposed to tell you what sort of man you would marry and how many children you would have. Here are a few:-

  • Think of five or six names of boys or girls you might marry and as you twist the stem of an apple, recite the names until the stem comes off. You will marry the person whose name you were saying when the stem fell off.
  • Pick a dandelion that has gone to seed. Take a deep breath and blow the seeds into the wind. Count the seeds that remain on the stem. That is the number of children you will have.
  • If you cut an apple in half and count how many seeds are inside, you will also know how many children you will have.

Now when I was a child and we had a dessert containing plums or some other fruit with stones in, we would set the stones on the side of our plate and then count them off with the rhyme, “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief” to see what kind of person we might marry. Presumably this is part of the same superstitious nonsense.

I found a website which purported to explain the Valentine’s Day traditions of different countries. Most of them involve giving red roses or chocolates, couples swopping gifts and the like. But a number of countries, including Scotland might be surprised to learn what they are supposed to do:-

  • Valentines Day in France
In France a custom of drawing for would occur, this was were young unmarried people as well as older unmarried people would go into houses facing each other and start calling out across from one window to another, pairing of with the one they have chosen. If the young man didn't fancy his valentine he would desert her and as a result afterwards a bonfire would be lit where the young ladies would burn images of the young man and would yell out abuse as she burnt the image of the young man.

This eventually fell into dishonor because it left too much room for nastiness, ridicule or even malice. For example an unsavory type of man might be paired with a flirtatious young lady, just for fun.

As a result of these customs the French government was forced into handing down a decree that there would be no more pairing or calling of Valentines.

Also in France elegant greeting cards called cartes d'amities that contained tender messages were given not totally as a Valentine but mainly as a result of fashion going on in England.
  • Valentines Day in Italy
In Italy Valentine's Day is celebrated as a Spring Festival and is held in the open air. The young would gather in leafy glades or ornamental gardens, where they would listen to music and hear poetry read, and then they would stroll off with their valentine together into the gardens.
This custom over the years has ceased and it has not been celebrated for centuries.

In the Italian city of Turin it was customary for an engaged couple to announce their engagement on this day. For a while before the day shops would be decorated and filled with all sorts of bon-bons.
  • Valentines Day in Scotland
In Scotland Valentine’s Day is celebrated by having a festival. At the festival there is an equal amount of young unmarried (single) men and young unmarried (single) ladies who get together, each of them writes on a piece of paper their name or a made up name, this is then rolled up. The names are placed in two hats one for the men one for the ladies they then have to draw a piece of paper out of the hat. Both may end up with two valentines but the young man is suppose to stick with the valentine who has chosen him.

This having been done the company has been split up into so many couples, gifts are given to the young ladies and the young ladies would wear the name of their valentine over their heart or on their sleeve. There might also be a dance and at the end of the festival there might even be a lot of marriages or romances.

There is another valentine where the first young man or woman that by chance walks by you in the street or elsewhere will be your valentine.

In Scotland Valentine's Day gifts were given by both parties in the form of a love-token or a true-love-knot.
  • Valentines Day in Denmark
The Danish valentine day’s card known as a lover's card came in the form of a transparency. When held up to the light showed a picture of a lover handing his love a gift.

In Denmark, people swap poems and candy snowdrops. As well as some people send love notes not serious love notes but, laughable notes which are called gaekkebrev which are also referred to as joking letters. On the gaekkebrev, the sender signs his or her name in dots. If the receiver guesses the correct name then the sender will get a candy egg at Easter time.

Well, I hope all those people are maintaining the traditions properly, that’s all I can say.

The card industry side of it is apparently down to an American woman called Esther Howland. From around 1800 there were companies who would sell verses for people to put into their own hand made valentines but in 1847 young Esther decided that she really liked the paper and lace valentine she received from an English chap and had a bright idea. Her father ran a book and stationery store and so she made use of the facilities to start a new line. And mass produced Valentines were the result.

So there it is. Esther is only partly to blame but she and a lot of others have made a lot of money out of sentimentality. And that’s why there are strawberries (IN FEBRUARY!!!!!) in heart shaped boxes in Tesco at the moment. And it’s also why the pub/restaurant next door to our house is offering a romantic Valentine’s Day special meal at an outrageous price.

I’m going to have to burst into a great cry of HUMBUG!!! any time now but maybe I’d better give my Phil a Valentine’s Day hug first.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Inspection time.

The school my daughter works at has been visited by OFSTED. She has been spluttering indignantly about people completely changing the work they had planned for a class because the inspectors were coming in. It was ever thus and, I suspect, it always will be until they decide that inspectors really can just drop in on a school without any warning whatsoever. My daughter’s school had the three day warning they can give now. They seem to have got through the experience quite well on the whole though.

Imagine how they might feel if they were the junior school visited by the queen as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations that are building up nicely. Apparently the children had been reading a book called “The Queen’s Knickers” and had a corner of the classrooms set up as the “Royal Laundry” with royal bloomers hung on a washing line.

The jubilee celebration preparations are going ahead apace with a concert planned involving Sir Cliff, Sir Elton and Sir Paul among others. The whole thing is being coordinated by Gary Barlow, formerly of Take That. Goodness me! I remember the days when I used to drive past his family’s house in Oldham and see teenage girls sitting on the wall in the hope of seeing him. Hasn’t he done well? I wonder when he will become Sir Gary.

We discussed inspections the other day in the Italian class when Mario Monti’s comments about employment came up. Adalgisa suggested that maybe there should be an organisation that could drop in unannounced on governments and grade their performance. Maybe it could be called OFGOV!

With all the shenanigans going on in various parts of the world, goodness knows, we almost certainly need one.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The problems of being famous.

Sports personalities are really suffering at the moment. You could almost feel sorry for them.

There’s Harry Redknapp who has been seen in tears as he defended his reputation (and presumably his pocket) against accusations of tax evasion. He’s all smiles now then as he’s been cleared of charges.

And then this morning I read about Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, former world number one female tennis player, telling the world that her parents stole her fortune and that now she is struggling to pay her debts to the Spanish tax authorities. Maybe this is a new form of Spanish tax evasion. Mind you, she’s just published a new book of memoirs so maybe she can recoup some of the money. If unemployment wasn’t so bad in Spain, I would suggest she went out and looked for a job.

You can see that I am just oozing sympathy for these people, can’t you?

If I were still in the business of giving Spanish lessons, I would make a reading comprehension out of this bit of news.

In another Mediterranean country with unemployment problems, I understand that Mario Monti has been upsetting his people by suggesting that un posto fisso – a permanent job – is rather boring. Just as the Spaniards dream of un empleo fijo so the Italians long for un posto fisso, preferably, in both countries, in the town where they grew up and ideally close enough to where they live so that they can go home for lunch.

Mr. Monti, of course, was looking at things from a different, more European perspective. He wanted people to realise that the nature of employment has changed and you have to be prepared to move around and change not just your place of work but also the kind of work you do on a fairly regular basis these days. He just didn’t put it in the most diplomatic way but, then, he’s not bothered about popularity. His job is to sort things out for Italy, not to get himself re-elected.

Maybe the Italian people should have made that interesting gesture with the middle finger that we now think of as very American but which, according to anthropologist Desmond Morris, probably went to the USA with Italian immigrants. I discovered this fact in an article about an American television network which had to apologise after the pop star M.I.A. extended her finger during a performance of Madonna’s “Give Me All Your Luvin’” during Sunday night’s Super Bowl half-time show.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

What’s in a name?

Last week in our Italian class, just as we were finishing, one of our number told us she had learnt a new Italian word which rather pleased her. She had been on one of those guided tours around Manchester and at some point they had come across a statue of John Dalton, known to most of us for his work on atomic theory. The guide leading the group, which contained a number of Italians, told them that this was the man whose name had become part of the word for colour-blind in Italian: daltonico. (Funnily enough it’s the same word on Spanish but the Spaniards helpfully put an accent on it, daltónico, so that you know where to put the stress. The Italians just expect you to find out and remember!

One result of this was that our teacher, Adalgisa, asked us all to try to bring along to the next lesson other “new” words we had discovered during the week. So I duly took along una tangente, the word for a bribe, which stuck me as interesting as it suggested a payment going off at a tangent. From that also arose tangentopoli which became almost the new name for Milan (bribesville) in the early 90s when corruption was being investigated.

One member of the class had misunderstood the instructions and thought he had to invent a new Italian word: quite a nice idea in fact. What he came up with was scuromania, an obsession with keeping everything hidden and obscure. Another person then took up this idea making a verb out of our teacher’s name. Adalgisare now means to run a lesson in dynamic and lively fashion. (Some people will do almost anything to curry favour with the teacher. What’s wrong with a good old-fashioned apple?)

Another chap who was good with words was a certain Mr Charles Dickens who has his 200th birthday today. There’s been quite a lot of fuss on TV and radio and in the press about this, not just in this country either. I may have mentioned that I am re-reading a whole lot of his books at the moment, currently working my way through “A Tale of Two Cities”. There I found a delightful description of Tellson’s Bank, “an old-fashioned place, even in the year one thousand seven hundred and eighty”. I particularly liked the way the bank clerks were described:

“After bursting open a door of idiotic obstinacy with a weak rattle in its throat, you fell into Tellson’s down two steps, and came to your senses in a miserable little shop, with two little counters, where the oldest of men made your cheque shake as if the wind rustled it, while they examined the signature by the dingiest of windows, which were always under a shower-bath of mud from Fleet Street (......).

Cramped in all kinds of dim cupboards and hutches at Tellson’s, the oldest of men carried on their business gravely. When they took a young man into Tellson’s London house, they hid him somewhere till he was old. They kept him in a dark place, like a cheese, until he had the full Tellson flavour and blue-mould upon him. Then only was he permitted to be seen, spectacularly poring over large books, and casting his breeches and gaiters into the general weight of the establishment.”

I just love the idea of the young men being carefully ripened until they were deemed ready to deal with the public. Maybe that’s what we needed with some of our bankers recently.

Someone who might need help from the bankers so that he can pay a possible almost €2 million fine is one of my Spanish heroes, cyclist Alberto Contador. Just after he won the 2010 Tour de France, the news broke that in one of the drug tests he had proved positive for some performance-enhancing drug or other. The whole investigation dragged on, appeals were made, excuses were given and he went on to win the 2011 Giro d’Italia and to compete, unsuccessfully this time, in the 2011 Tour de France.

This week the authorities have finally decided that they don’t like his excuses and won’t accept them. So he’s losing his winner’s title to the 2010 Tour and the 2011 Giro, he won’t be able to take part in any competitive cycling until August and as a result will miss the Olympic Games. And on top of that he may have to pay a hefty fine. He’s still maintaining his innocence (the drug got into his system through contaminated beef, apparently) and a lot of cycling big names, such as Eddy Merckx are very upset about the effects on the reputation of cycling as a whole.

I bet they all wish there was a bit more scuromania around!!!

Checking up on facts about Mr Dalton, I discovered that he suffered from discrimination. His family were Quakers, seen as dissenters from the religion of the country, and, as such, he was barred from studying things like Law or Medicine at English universities. He managed to get a good grounding in science and philosophy despite this and in 1793 was given a post at “New College” Manchester, a dissenting college. It sounds as though the old boy network functioned then as well!

Another more gruesome little fact concerns his colour-blindness. One of the things which led him to study this condition was that he was colour-blind (daltonico) himself. Modern scientists today know things about Dalton’s own colour-blindness because his eyeball was preserved and was examined by scientists in 1995: too late to do much about it though!!

A final point: part way through our discussion of new words our teacher struck herself on the forehead (she is given to dramatic, not say striking, gestures) and declared that she had just put two and two together and remembered that there is a John Dalton Street in the centre of Manchester.

Is this a case of word-blindness or famous name-blindness?

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Snowy surroundings.

Yesterday I got up bright and early for a run along one of my usual routes: the long way into the village, past the millpond and the stopping to buy milk and a paper on my way back. It was the kind of crisp cold that freezes your tongue if you make the mistake of running with your mouth open. There was just a thin covering of cloud in the sky; otherwise, as I said, it was bright and it was early.

As the day went on it grew duller and, of course, later. The thin covering of cloud in the sky became progressively thicker and eventually a thin sleety snow started to fall. Those people who had greeted my cheery, “Lovely day, isn’t it?” with, “Enjoy it now; it’s going to snow later” were being proved right. And, indeed, the snow went on and on and on, quite relentlessly, for the rest of the day. Well, the weathermen had predicted it so I suppose we can’t complain.

So there wa
s nothing for it but to light the fire and sit down and read the paper. My Phil had already been round the house draught-proofing every possible place. It’s quite difficult to do that in a house that’s well over a hundred years old; none of the walls are quite straight and consequently doors and windows need extra attention.

I spent some time looking at photos in online newspapers of other bits of Europe suffering under the cold spell. My favourite is probably this frozen fountain in Palencia in Spain.

By late evening the road was white over. It’s a good job we had invited friends round for a meal on Friday evening and not Saturday. They might not have got home at the end of Saturday evening.

My Phil and hi
s chess-playing cronies were due to go off in a minibus this morning for a chess congress. There was some doubt about then going anywhere. In the end the minibus remained snowed-up in its car park but the intrepid chessmen set of in a number of cars. After they had gone I decided to go stomping around in the snow, taking yet more pictures of Saddleworth looking picturesque under the white stuff.

So I donned my cold weather gear: multi-layers of tights, socks, trousers, several sweaters, coat, hat and scarf – the usual routine. And, camera round my neck ,off I went. I love the squeak of fresh snow under your boots as you tramp along but walking uphill through it is a little like walking up sand hills: rather hard work! But it was worth the effort.

Toboggans abounded, as did small dogs with multic
oloured coats on. The canal was frozen but something did appear to have walked on it, which seemed rather strange to me. Barges were frozen into the water, looking strangely marooned and abandoned. Now, I know for a fact that at least oneof these is occupied as I have seen smoke coming from its chimney.

In the park, just next to the children's playgrounds, some brave souls had rolled a huge snowball, standing nearly as tall as I am. No doubt it will still be there, slowly dwindling, for days, if not weeks, after the rest of the snow has gone.

Just near the museum, someone had built a very impressive snowman or possibly, looking at the face of it, a snowbear or snowcat. Now, I saw this at about 10.30 this morning. So who was out very early this morning making impressive snow creatures.

Maybe it was keeping on the move that did it but it didn’t seem as colquite d as the weathermen had predicted and there was a certain amount of thawing going on. I took a detour to see how a little cottage by the river looked in the snow. Very pretty was the answer. Not far from there I met an old chap who also commented on it being, as he put it, unseasonably mild. Mind you, he was shovelling snow off his path so that probably explains it.

During our c
hat he asked what my route had been and remarked on the views I would have seen before going on to say, “So long as they don’t manage to put up that ****** wind turbine!!” I’d been enjoying our chat so I chickened out of telling him that in fact I am pretty much in favour of wind farms. I know they’re rather noisy but, in their somewhat futuristic way, they look quite majestic to me.

There didn’t seem any point in upsetting the old chap though and so I kept quiet about that and said my goodbyes and returned home for a cup of tea and a bun.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Dressing for the weather!!!

This week has been crisp and cold, perfectly good weather for getting wrapped up and going out.

On Monday I was due to accompany the youngest grandchild to football training in the early evening. So I got ready for an expedition into the cold:
tights under my trousers, two jumpers, thick socks and hiking boots. Add to that a warm coat, woolly hat, scarf, windproof gloves and I was all set to watch small boys slither all over a so-called “all-weather” pitch. All weather, my eye!! It was as icy as all get out and little boys were landing on their backsides but I was nice and warm.

This morning I was out bright and early to walk to the local station and catch a train to Manchester. It was another bright, cold day. En route I saw our postman – in shorts!!! OK, so he keeps on the move but, even so, this is really not shorts weather. The
BT workmen down their hole looked frozen and the workmen repairing yet another collapsing dry stone wall appeared to have very cold hands. I wouldn’t fancy selecting stones to build a wall in this cold.

The culmination, though, was when I arrived at the station and noticed the man in sandals. He was perhaps getting on a bit but didn’t show any other signs of madness. However, there he was, wearing lightweight trousers, a shirt (just average, not a thick lumberjack style shirt) and jumper and OPEN TOE SANDALS. Yes,
OPEN TOE SANDALS in February! In very un-British fashion he didn’t have socks on despite wearing sandals. Now, maybe he has a foot condition that demands that his toes are exposed to the air at all times but it really looked like a recipe for frostbite to me. Oh, and no gloves either! The rest of us were all muffled up: gloves, scarves, hats, boots!! But he just sat there as happy as Larry, twiddling his toes at the cold.

Then there w
ere various girls around Manchester wearing the kind of thin leggings that are little more than tights. And the young men in short sleeved T-shorts displaying their tattoos. I’m trying not to get started on the low-slung trousers teamed up with short skimpy tops, exposing an expanse of blue-mottled flesh that I really didn’t want to see.

There’s sno
w on the hills for goodness sake!

Still, I didn’
t let it put me off my nice lunch with friends at El Rincón de Rafa in Manchester, where we ate a selection of reasonable authentic tapas and polished off a bottle of red wine for under £15 per person.

Not at all bad for a cold Wednesday. And besides, it’s a lot colder in Italy at the moment: snowball fights in the Piazza del Campo in Sienna!! What next?