Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Time marches on!

Another year rolls rapidly towards its close. I’m sure they never used to go so fast. 

Christmas has come and not quite gone. A friend of mine is married to a Ukrainian and usually gets an extra day off work to celebrate “his” Christmas on January 6th. And yet the newspapers all act as though it’s all over. Articles abound about what to do with unwanted gifts, how to dispose of them or sell them discreetly. These articles have replaced the cookery articles full of bright ideas for what to do with the leftover turkey, even what to do with the leftover mincemeat since you no longer want to make mince pies: allow some vanilla ice-cream to soften, mix in your left over mincemeat and refreeze – et voila! Fancy ice cream! 

Just before Christmas I heard a radio debate about the pros and cons of making your own mincemeat!! The pro do-it-yourself camp was all for authenticity in everything while the anti do-it-yourself camp was in favour of making life as easy as possible. "Make your own mincemeat? Pffff! It’s not even worth making your own mince pies. And as for pigs in blankets, who wants to spend time wrapping bacon round little sausages when you can buy them ready done and just pop them in the oven?" Some people need to find serious stuff to argue about!

Anyway, Christmas may have not quite gone but in Manchester yesterday I saw notices informing me that Easter is coming. Unfortunately my phone was out of action, my camera was at the bottom of a bag of shopping and I was in a queue and did not want to lose my place and/or annoy other shoppers while I rooted about to find the camera and take a picture. So, sorry, no picture. However, I did purchase these delightful Easter chicks and photographed them later as evidence. (I know two people who will eat them regardless of whether Easter is here or not.) 

And so, here we are: New Year’s Eve. Later we will put on our glad rags and go and help a friend celebrate his birthday. As he lives at the highest point of the town we will get a good view of the fireworks which will be set off at midnight, assuming the weather manages to stay fine for it. 

Yesterday on the radio I heard a report about a fabulous firework display planned for and in Dubai. 2013 has apparently been so good for them that they want to spend vast amounts of money on the best firework display ever. The news reporter queried about where people should expect to get a good view of this amazing display of pyrotechnics. The interviewee replied, “The best place to watch the display is on a TV screen”. 

How disappointing! Surely the whole point of a fireworks display is that the sky becomes the stage for a wonderful light show. If you’re going to watch it on a TV screen, you might as well just do computer generated images. They’re pretty good!!

Monday, 30 December 2013

Technophobia – of sorts!

One day last week, Boxing Day to be precise, I wanted to copy a photo from my mobile phone onto the computer and discovered that the cable for performing this operation would not attach itself to my phone. On closer examination it was obvious that there was a design fault here: the port for the connector to go into was rectangular, a proper parallelogram, while the connector itself was a trapezium – top and bottom parallel but with the sides sloping inwards. As a result there was a clear (but only on really close examination) right and wrong way to put the connector in. I was aware of this, of course, well, the right and wrong way aspect of it although I hadn’t gone into the geometry of it. Clearly, all the occasions when the connector had been put in wrongly and needed to be corrected had messed up the port. Bother and double bother!!! 

All of this meant that not only could I not copy the photo onto my computer but I would be unable to recharge the battery on my phone; the same cable was used for this. We checked other cables with the same connector – same result – no connection. We checked the cable in other devices; it worked. Minor panic ensued. There was little point in going to a mobile phone shop as it was Boxing Day; if they were still open by the time I got there, they would undoubtedly be more interested in selling new phones than in my complaint. Online searches revealed that other people had come across the same problem. Bother and double bother again! 

I was rather annoyed, to say the least. I have grown quite fond of this little phone which has a mini keyboard and does all sorts of Smartphone stuff. My daughter got involved and suggested checking to see if my phone’s sim card would fit into the “liberated” iPhone which the eldest grandchild had just abandoned. This involved taking the phone to pieces, removing battery and sim card and so on. 

Now, this was all getting technical and my latent technophobia was resurrected. Suddenly I was transported back into the person who used to sit in IT training sessions as a teacher being introduced to some new aspect of technology which we were to use in our everyday teaching life. The person “presenting” the new technological wizardry always went at superfast speed – naturally, as he/she worked with this stuff all day, every day. I was regularly left behind at step 5 while the presentation had moved in to step 26. Everyone else appeared to be up to speed and I was left harrumphing and declaring that I wanted to go back to simple word processing, pleeeease!!!!!! Ah, the forgotten joys of in-service training! 

By the end of Boxing Day I was resigned to the fact that I was going to move on to an iPhone, even though this involved getting a new sim card; the other one was the wrong size. Oh, my goodness, I was going to have go through all sorts of rigmarole in order to keep my current phone number. More technophobia! 

In the midst of all this I remembered that I needed to retrieve all my contact numbers from my failing phone. This was when I discovered that the phone no longer recognised that it had a sim card at all. And the battery was pretty soon on 0%. Great! 

Then I decided to make the necessary phone call to my mobile service provider to get a PAC code in order to retain my current phone number. I sat and listened to music interspersed with an announcement telling me, “Your call is in a queue. You will be connected as soon as an operator is available.” Once again, great! 

Eventually I got through, gave my name and mobile number and found that the person I was talking to could find NO record of my phone number. PANIC!!! Had my sim card been corrupted and erased everything? No, I was through to contract phones, not pay as you go. So I was transferred .... onto another queue and more music! 

When I finally spoke to the correct person, I explained the problem but she wanted to go through some security details. What was the password for my phone? Password? Password! Really? Did my phone have a password? So we tried another tack. How much credit remained on my phone? About £12, I thought. Not precise enough! So we went back to the password guessing game and eventually I got it right: phew, just in time! So now she would text me a PAC code. Oh, no, she couldn’t because my phone was dead! Could she email it to me? No, they don’t do that! So she broke some rules and told it to me over the phone. Problem solved – well, at least that bit of the problem! 

Despite my occasional minor attacks of technophobia, I asked Father Christmas to give me an iPad mini this year. And he delivered! With some coordinated present giving going on as well – iPad mini case from one offspring, iTunes card from the other! I have been playing with my new toy and am learning new skills. It has also been extremely useful in the phoneless days I have been going through because I have been able to receive messages from iPhones belonging to other members of the family. Any of my friends who have tried to send text messages to my mobile, however, must think I have just given up on them! 

Anyway, today I went into Manchester to meet a friend and took the opportunity to pop into my mobile provider’s shop to see if they could offer a solution to my contacts list problem. Apparently they can, or at least they hope they can. When I receive my new sim card, in a few days’ time, I need to take it and my old card into the mobile shop. They hope to be able to copy the list from one sim card to the other. I told my young friend about this. He was amazed. Despite being of the technophile generation, he did not know that such sim card reader machines existed and that they could do things like that. No wonder, he commented that governments can spy on all our emails and mobile phone conversations and pretty soon our innermost thoughts! 

He’ll be a technophobe before we know it!

Thursday, 26 December 2013


I intended to post yesterday but somehow I was overtaken by events: cooking, giving and receiving gifts, eating, playing with new toys. A fairly typical Christmas Day, in fact. There was the usual amount of excitement, a minimal amount of squabbling and, on the whole, a good deal of Christmas cheer. 

Talking of Christmas cheer, while we were visiting offspring number one last weekend, we went out one evening to eat at what was described as a nice, quiet Indian restaurant. That may have been the case at other times but on the Friday before Christmas it was certainly not so. Nice, it certainly was, but quiet? Far from it! This was, of course, the season of office parties and work’s “dos”. To get to our table we had to go past a large group who were coming to the end of their meal. They had reached the stage where everyone was speaking at once and usually at top volume. Quite likely they had been out since early afternoon and were finishing off the evening, or at least taking a food break before going on elsewhere, at the place where we had chosen to eat. We even asked to move tables to be a little further away from the revellers but it didn’t make much difference. We were relieved to see them ask for their bill but then they just continued their loud conversation standing up for close on an hour. By the time they finally departed, we were ready to ask for our bill. However, the food WAS excellent and we will go back there at a quieter time of the year. 

None of that raucous behaviour occurred around our Christmas table, I am glad to say, but copious amounts of food were eaten and many crackers were pulled. 

And now I have to find inventive ways of serving some gourmet leftovers!!! I suppose you have to have something to occupy you through Boxing Day if you don’t want to dash off the sales! 

Today began bright and crisp and cold. I spotted ice on the mill pond as I ran past first thing. As I approached said mill pond I saw a man come out of his French windows and stand on his garden wall. Rather odd behaviour for a mature gentleman, I reflected, until it became clear he had a camera in hand. He held up the camera slowly moved himself through 180°. I thought he was videoing the scene but I could hear his camera going click, click, click at regular intervals. At the end of his semi-rotation he showed me the result: a panoramic photo of the scene. How wonderful! I must check the instructions for my digital camera but I’m pretty sure it won’t let me do that. The most I seem to do is switch it from photo to video by mistake! 

Later we went out for a long walk, hoping to catch some sunshine but by then the clouds had moved in somewhat. Still bright and crisp and cold but the sun was now coming through a thin layer of cloud. Clearly preparing for the promised returning storms tomorrow. 

I knew the calm was too good to last.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Stormy weather!

On Sunday we had a pleasant lunch at our son’s house and I had a good chat with my “consuegra”. This is a Spanish term which means something like “co-mother-in-law”. My son’s wife’s mother is my “consuegra”. It’s an excellent word and I can’t imagine why we don’t have a similarly useful way of expressing the relationship. 

Later in the day, after the house had quietened down someone, possibly Phil, possibly our son, discovered a warning put out by Virgin, advising travellers on the following day to travel as early as they could, even if they had reservations on later trains. The bad storms which were forecast led Virgin to believe that they would need to cancel trains in the afternoon and they were trying to reduce travel chaos as far as possible. 

So, instead of getting up and having a leisurely breakfast yesterday morning, we got up at the crack of dawn. Well, really it was eight o’ clock but, even though we have now had the shortest day and dawn should be getting earlier, it was still pretty dark and gloomy. By nine o’ clock we were at Chesham station, the start of the Metropolitan Line, and ten minutes later we were on our way to Euston Square. A brisk walk from there to Euston railway station and we stepped smartly onto a train headed for Manchester at twenty past ten. Sometimes public transport gets its act together and works beautifully. 

The storm still hadn’t hit as we set off and although it was rather wild and windy when we got to Manchester, as my poor umbrella knows to its cost, we seem to have got off lightly once again. The storms have led to at least five deaths over the country and lots of flooding and power cuts but we’ve really had no worse December weather than you might expect. A friend commented this morning that it’s making up for last year’s snow storms! 

Looking at the newspapers online it looks as though Galicia has had the same storms as the UK: huge waves all along the coast, torrential rain, fallen trees and people left without power. 

As well as warning people to travel early, maybe the media should have warned those living in weather-alert areas to cook their turkeys early as well. Cold roast turkey must be better than uncooked turkey! 

I did a final run to the supermarket this morning, purchasing one of the few remaining small turkeys left on the shelf. I don’t think I could fit one of the “feeds 10 to 12 people” variety into my oven. Just lifting the beast would be enough. 

And now all that remains is to cook the beast and coordinate all the other items to match the finishing time of the great bird. 

No doubt we will take lots of pictures of the food, people opening presents, pulling crackers and generally being silly. This despite some scientist declaring that taking photos prevents you remembering stuff. Possibly that’s true if you do nothing but take photos and videos, like some of the tourists you see who have their video camera almost glued to their face as they walk around. I wonder if they ever actually watch the videos they make. Do they then sit there and say, “I don’t remember doing that”? 

Anyway, photos will be taken of our Christmas day and a good time will no doubt be had by all. 

Merry Christmas to everyone! That’s all I have to say.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Out and about again!

On Friday we escaped from rainy Manchester for a weekend with offspring number one and his good lady. They won’t be travelling north for Christmas as the aforementioned good lady us in a state of advanced pregnancy. So I juggled the final present shopping and some of the food shopping so that we could get down to Buckinghamshire for a couple of days at least. 

I mentioned rainy Manchester, which does the place a disservice as we have had some extremely bright and crisp days recently. But the whole country is threatened with storms through to New Year so it was no surprise to find that yesterday was wild, wet and windy. So much for offspring number one going on to us about how much better the climate is down here!!! 

Despite the weather, Phil and I caught the train into London yesterday, not for shopping purposes but for more cultural stuff. We had some splendid views of winter skylines around the area of Tate Modern. 

But Tate Modern was our actual destination. I was interested to see that the floor of the main entrance hall still has the scar where the huge crack created by Doris Salcedo, Colombian artist, in 2007 was still there. This was a piece called Shibboleth and according to the artist was a statement about racism and the gap between Europeans and the rest of mankind. She went on: "It represents borders, the experience of immigrants, the experience of segregation, the experience of racial hatred. It is the experience of a Third World person coming into the heart of Europe.” It was always her intention that when filled up it would leave a scar to make people think and remember the art work. Very effective! 

Yesterday we were there to see an exhibition of the work of Paul Klee, German-Swiss artist who taught at the Bauhaus. We were impressed! Pictures that look like woven colours and others that look as though he was playing with form and ideas. 

Later we visited Baker Street. We have to do this every time that we go to London as there is a chess shop there. So off we went to Baker Street. No sign of Sherlock! 

And then back to the offspring’s house for the evening. Splendid. 

Today the sun is shining. There you go!

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

No rest for the wicked.

Any idea I had that my daughter having finished her teaching practice and consequently my having less grandchildcare to do would lead to a quiet life was, as might be expected, a piece of total nonsense. For the last week I hardly seem to have stopped running around. Of course, much of it has been self inflicted but not all of it. 

We managed to get out and about on one of the fine days that we had. (We have had quite a range: wind alone, wind and rain, drizzle, torrential rain, crisp frosty days – you name it, we’ve had it – well, almost – no snow and no heat waves!) One on of these we discovered a wind turbine that we did not know was there, within only a few miles of our house. When did that go up? 

Then, there’s the slightly crazy bush which has lost all its leaves but has come into flower. Does it not know about the normal pattern of growth that matches the seasons? 

And finally, there’s this strange thing that looks as if it’s Saddleworth’s answer to the Galician “hórreo”. The “hórreo” is usually smaller, made of stone and is free standing on its stone legs. It’s used to store grain and other produce and keep it out of the reach of rats. The first time I saw one I thought they had a family tomb in the garden! The contraption in this photo is in fact a tumbledown garage, originally built on stilts so that it could be accessed from the road. Over the years bits of it have fallen away and now it looks completely different. 

We’ve also ventured into Manchester for a reunion lunch with old friends, some of whom have known each other since they were five years old. Naturally, because we planned to walk around bits of Manchester, the weather let us down and it was dull and gloomy instead of being bright and clear. You can’t win with Manchester weather! But the Rice Bowl restaurant on Cross Street in city centre Manchester did us proud and even managed to seat 15 people close enough together to be able to reminisce happily. 

On Friday we waited for the arrival of a new freezer, the old one having given up the ghost some time ago. We had arranged for installation of the new machine and removal of the old. Delivery would be any time between 2pm and 9pm. Rather a broad time slot, in my opinion. In the event, no delivery took place on Friday. The van got stuck in traffic somewhere and it grew too late to deliver. We were told to expect a call on Saturday morning to rearrange delivery. 

So at 7:59 on Saturday morning the phone rang. I almost fell downstairs in my haste to answer, only to pick the phone up as they range off. Eventually I go through to them and then had to hunt for order reference numbers and all that sort of paraphernalia. The earliest they could deliver would be the following Thursday – i.e. the day after tomorrow. 

However, some time later we had another call telling us they were on their way. Unfortunately we were due to go out to an aged aunt’s 90th birthday party in the early afternoon. The driver opted to play it by ear and see where he was up to by midday. At that point her rang to say he could be with us about 15 minutes before we were due to set off out. And so the freezer was delivered. They took away the old machine but “installation” of the new on meant simply putting it in our kitchen and telling us the instructions were inside. 

There it sat, in the middle of the kitchen until Sunday morning. Indeed, there it sat until Sunday afternoon when we eventually set about installation. That was when we discovered that the instructions, which were indeed inside the machine, were not in English, not in ant language at all. Possibly to avoid problems of mistranslation from one language to another, the instructions came in the form of diagrams. Now, diagrammese is a completely foreign language to me. And Phil doesn’t speak it much better than I do. You’d think that two linguists could manage it but, boy, was it hard to decipher those instructions. We managed it in the end. We do like a challenge, after all! 

In between times, with the help of the two granddaughters, who were left with me while their mother took their brother off to London to play chess, the Christmas tree was installed, rather more easily than the freezer, and decorated. Christmas has now officially begun.

Between that and accompanying the oldest grandchild on a visit to Manchester art gallery (well worth the effort, for both the art and the excellent soup they serve in the cafe) it’s only today that I have got round to reading the weekend’s newspapers! 

It’s a hard life being a retired person!

Wednesday, 11 December 2013


This morning I overheard the fishmonger at the market in Uppermill bemoaning the fact that Christmas Day falls on a Wednesday this year. And New Year’s Day 2014 is also a Wednesday. You can see his point, of course; this means two Wednesdays that the market will be cancelled. And if you’re self employed you can’t really expect your employer to pay you for the holiday. It’s a hard life but there’s not a lot you can do about the dates. 

Today’s date is one of those odd ones when all the numbers flow consecutively. A friend of mine couldn’t resist posting on Facebook at ten past nine this morning: 9:10 11/12/13. By the time I post this we will have been past 11/12/13 2:15 and 16 seconds. The newspaper tells me that this is the last consecutive date for ninety years. It’s amazing what gets into the papers. The last time I remember someone getting excited about this was my son on his eleventh birthday: 6/7/89. 

I was at the market early because I had run to Uppermill through the sunshine. It has turned out to be one of those December days when the sky is mostly blue and the sun stays out, surprisingly as usually by midday it has clouded over. It is a bit chilly however. 

According to a report I read about today I appear to be doing the right things to stave off old age and decrepitude. Cardiff University has been doing research for 35 years and has come up with five factors that improve long term mental and physical health. Following four out of these five could reduce the risk of dementia by 60% as well as reducing the possibility of heart disease or stroke. They are: exercise, not smoking, low body weight, healthy diet and low alcohol intake. 

Well, I think I tick all those boxes although I do like a glass of wine with my meals. But then, another study, published by “Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research”, apparently suggests that people who regularly drink moderately outlive those who abstain. Clearly I am in a win-win situation. It must be my stress-free lifestyle! 

One of the countries stress-inducers, OFSTED Chief Examiner, Sir Michael Wilshaw has been calling on the government to reintroduce formal testing in Maths and English for seven year olds to check that children are up to standard. I thought SATs were supposed to do that already. 

Then I came across an item about Samoa Airlines. This is a tiny Pacific airline with about three planes to its name. Last year, I am informed, they pioneered a fare system based on passengers’ weight. It works out cheaper for most passengers but they also plan to add another plane to their little fleet. This one will be configured to give the larger passengers, who pay higher fares, more room. 

It’s only fair. 

But I don’t think we should tell RyanAir about this.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013


Here’s the headline from a recent article in a Galician newspaper: “Hackean más de dos millones de cuentas de Facebook, Twitter y LinkedIn”. It wasn’t the content of the article that interested me (after all, articles appear every day about accounts being hacked into) but the new Spanish verb being used, new to me at any rate: “hackear” – to hack or even hack into. I wonder how they pronounce it. Is it “ackear”, losing the “h” altogether? Or do they use the strong, guttural “h”, usually represented by “j” or “g”? And how soon will they hispanify the spelling? Most likely it will become “jaquear”. Because this is what usually happens to foreign imports when they are accepted fully into the Spanish language. This is the way the Spanish linguistic mindset works. 

I keep hearing about mindsets lately. Reports have been published showing pictures of male and female brains, with lots of lines representing how the different parts of the brain connect up, differently according to gender but still looking rather like balls of wool. Professor Regini Verona says her research shows that men and women are hardwired differently. This is why women can multitask better than men but men are better at reading maps, apparently. It’s supposed to explain why women can’t park but drive more cautiously than men. Well, I can usually park beautifully. My parallel parking has been praised by at least one macho man I know. And my daughter drives at crazy speeds most of the time, driving very well and safely, I hasten to add, but going rather faster than I ever do. What does that say about our hardwiring? 

A certain Robin McKie, recently named science writer of the year at the British Journalism Awards, maintains that we are probably less hardwired than the professor believes. He says that any slight differences are hardened, rather than hardwired, by people’s expectations of what males and females can and cannot do. Attitudes of parents, teachers, peers, almost anyone who has anything to do with bringing up children reinforce male and female behaviour patterns. So, it all comes down to that old nature versus nurture debate once again! 

Some of this is born out by choices made by British students when it comes to A Level subjects. A recent study shows that very few girls study Physics at A Level. Almost half of mixed schools in the state system did not send a single girl on to do Physics A Level. Many people teaching Physics in our high schools are not actually Physics specialists but that shouldn’t stop them enthusing their students. Single-sex girls’ schools do better, sending 2.5 times as many girls on to A Level. One argument put forward is that girls just don’t like Physics. Too facile an argument says Athene Donald, Professor of Physics at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of the Institute of Physics. (There’s someone who goes against all the statistics that says Physics is just for boys!) She maintains it’s much more down to attitudes and what is seen as cool. Here’s a link to what she has to say about it in full.

I’m not sure what hardwiring does to attitudes to cold-weather clothing. I know that you see young women wearing skimpy dresses and no coats when they go out on the town in the evening and I quite agree that it’s a crazy thing to do. However, you don’t see many of them out and about during the day dressed in sundresses and halter tops at this time of year. But you do see young men in shorts, sometimes shorts and vest tops. Our postman wears shorts all year round but then he walks about a lot all the time delivering the post. When we were out earlier today, in the space of half an hour we saw at least three young men wearing shorts and none of them appeared to be jogging or coming back form a visit to the gym. In fact, most of the ones you see jogging and cycling wear some kind of tights under their shorts. No, the ones we saw were just walking around, getting on with their lives, popping into the local co-op and so on. One of them even wore a nice warm parka with a fur-trimmed hood teamed up rather surprisingly with his shorts. 

So what’s the matter with these young men? Are they hardwired to prove they can be as macho as possible even as the temperatures go down?

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Another Sunday.

My normal Sunday begins with a jog into the village to buy the newspaper. As today was dull but fine, there was no reason to change my habits. Since then, I’ve done precious little but sit around and read the paper. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday. And tomorrow I don’t need to be up at the crack of dawn to take grandchildren to school. No, Grandma’s taxi has been put away for a while, or at least reduced to one day a week. Our daughter has completed her teaching practice and life can get back to normal. And besides, they’ll all soon be on holiday for Christmas. 

I have recently discovered that parents can now be fined in the UK if they take their children on holiday in term time without the school’s permission. And the school has every right to deny them that permission. About time too, in my opinion. I believe it has long been illegal in France to take children out of school just to go on holiday. It’s perhaps easier to enforce such a ruling in countries like France, and Spain for that matter, where there is an established tradition of the majority of people taking their holidays in August. The ensuing traffic jams caused by the mass departure and the mass return home make little difference. Off they go anyway.

And then, in France, Spain, Italy, Germany and so on they have a pretty good chance of finding some sunshine somewhere in the country. Which isn’t guaranteed in the UK and consequently far more people go abroad seeking the sun. And, of course, it’s easy to understand why some parents want to take advantage of cheaper flights out of season and during term time. But how do they think teachers manage? They have to take their holidays when the school is closed, regardless of the price of flights. Such is life. 

Here’s another fact of life: the number of people aged 85+ in the UK has gone up by 25% in the last decade. The population is aging everywhere. Of these elderly people, one in ten men and one in five women live in what they call a “communal establishment”. I presume that means an old people’s home. It’s almost certainly politically incorrect to call such places by the latter name nowadays. As I’ve been taking children to and from school over the last few weeks I have driven past one of these “communal establishments” every day. The gates are decorated with almost Disney-like figures. Is this an attempt to make the place look cheerful and welcoming? I wonder. It doesn’t work for me. As Christmas has got nearer these figures have been embellished with tinsel. Horrific. I have made my daughter promise that if ever I need to be packed away into such a place, it won’t be one that treats its elderly inmates like elderly infants. Perish the thought!! 

 On a more cheerful note, I have been reading about Bob Dylan’s famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, Sunburst Fender Stratocaster guitar, the one that led to cries of “Traitor!!!” or similar when he switched from acoustic to electric. It’s been sold at auction for almost a million dollars. The story goes that the guitar was left on a private plane piloted by a certain Vic Quinto, who worked for Dylan’s manager. When he tried to find out what he should do to return said instrument, Mr Quinto received no reply and the guitar remained in his possession. Fifty years on his daughter took it along to a TV show called “History Detectives”. They got experts to take a look at it and these experts authenticated it: definitely Dylan’s guitar! And now it has been sold to an as yet unnamed buyer. 

t’s amazing what you can learn from the papers!

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Being in the right place at the right time.

People who know me will be aware that I have often commented on my good fortune at being born when I was, the good fortune enjoyed by many people of my age. Not only did we not have to pay to go to university but many of us, myself included, received a grant to do so. It was a little like being paid to do what you wanted to do anyway. Okay, so it wasn’t a huge amount of money but it was enough to live on, for me at least, and could be supplemented by working in the holidays without my having to work all through the term time as well. And then, when we graduated there were jobs a-plenty for us to fall into. 

Yes, I know that some of my generation didn’t follow the same route. Not everyone went to the grammar school but many of those who went to the secondary modern schools received some sort of vocational training before they left. And not all of those who went to grammar school went on to university but there were jobs with training available for them too. 

It wasn’t a golden age, I am quite aware of that, but in many ways it was a gentler age than the one we live in now. 

Someone who might agree with me is Peter Higgs, the Higgs boson particle man. Interviewed in today’s newspaper, he doesn’t actually say he was born at the right time not he does say that he feels he might not have been able to make his scientific breakthrough in today’s academic climate of having to produce “papers” on this and that at regular intervals. When he was busily working, trying to locate the God-particle, whenever his department did a research assessment and asked everyone to give a list of recent publications, he regularly just replied, “None”. They might have got a little exasperated with him but then he was nominated for the Nobel Prize so everything was fine. 

The fact remains, however, that he made his discovery because they left him to get on with it. But he commented, “Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. I don’t think I would be regarded as productive enough.” Isn’t that a rather sad indictment of our times? 

Now, what about the man whose life was saved by a phone call? In the midst of the awful weather that has hit the UK during this week, a chap called Ray Mooney in Hemsby, a place by the sea in Norfolk, was about to rush to his back door, presumably to see what was going on outside, when his phone rang. So he walked back inside the house to answer it. As he did so, the back half of the house broke away and slid down into the sea. A lucky escape! By all accounts we got of very lightly here in Saddleworth. 

In Saturday’s Guardian the centre spread is always a selection of photos, images of events around the world. One of today’s was this one, a picture of the Krampus. All the caption told me was that, according to Alpine tradition, the Krampus walks the streets in search of delinquent children during Krampus Night or Krampusnacht in its original form. So I found a little more about it. 

Krampus is usually represented as a beast-like creature, generally demonic in appearance. Apparently the creature has roots in Germanic folklore; however, its influence has spread far beyond German borders. Traditionally young men dress up as the Krampus in Austria, southern Bavaria, South Tyrol, northern Friuli, Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic and Croatia during the first week of December, particularly on the evening of the 5th of December (the eve of Saint Nicholas day on many church calendars), and roam the streets frightening children with rusty chains and bells. Krampus is featured on holiday greeting cards called Krampuskarten. There are many names for Krampus, as well as many regional variations in portrayal and celebration. 

So it’s almost a part of the Christmas celebrations. Saint Nicholas rewards the good children and the Krampus punishes the bad ones, carrying away the worst offenders in his sack. I suppose it’s one way of controlling your offspring but it’s a little more severe than saying that naughty children will just get a stick of coal in their stocking. 

The Krampus probably has its origins in a much older tradition, going back to old Norse mythology. Like many other old ways it was absorbed into Christianity. The early Catholic Church tried to ban the Krampus as being too pagan but it was paired up with Saint Nicholas in the 17th century. Then in the 20th century there were further attempts to get rid of it but still it persisted. Nowadays, in our age of what many regard as the nanny state, the debate continues about whether such a frightening figure is really appropriate for children. They should try reading fairy tales. That grandma-eating wolf is more than a little scary. 

Over in Santiago de Compostela they are taking measures to protect the baby Jesus in the “belén”, the nativity scene in the Obradoiro Square in front of the cathedral. (Belén is the Spanish name for Bethlehem, hence the name for the nativity scene.) Last year Jesus was kidnapped by protesters, people who had lost their homes because of the banking crisis. Mary and Joseph had nowhere to go when the baby was due to be born and these people wanted to make the point that they had nowhere to go either. 

This year they’re keeping an eye on baby Jesus to avoid a repeat protest. But the “desahuicios”, bank repossessions of houses are still a serious business.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Weathering the storm.

In the last week the UK has been shamed once again in the international league tables for educational success, testing children in reading, maths and science. Despite all the tinkering with the education system, there has been little change since the last time this comparison took place and the UK stays firmly in the middle ranks. Some people have insisted that such comparisons and indeed the tests themselves are worthless as they don’t take into account sociological and cultural differences but, of course, education ministers in all the countries which came anywhere beneath the top 25% will be beating themselves up about it.

Finland did very well. Pasi Sahlberg was Finland's chief inspector of schools … until it was decided teachers did not need Ofsted-style surveillance. (I find this particularly ironic as our daughter has been doing a long teaching practice as part of her degree in education, leading eventually to her becoming a primary school teacher. Throughout this time she has been regularly observed, leading to great stress all round.) Now Mr Sahlberg’s job is global spokesman for the Finnish message. There are few exams in the schools. They don’t start school until age 7 and all pupils go to comprehensive schools until age 16. And it seems to work. Of course, it might be easier to organise all this in a country with a total population of 5 million to 5.5 million but I do wonder if our system might have worked better if the comprehensive experiment had been universal. Anyway, here’s a link to an article about this former inspector and the Finnish system.

Boris Johnson, Lord Mayor of London, has been adding his two penn’orth to the education debate, reminding us all that there are natural differences in achievement level but, being Boris, making it sound as though less intelligent meant less important in every way – or at least leaving himself open to that interpretation. He then compounded the mess by failing to answer correctly some IQ questions on an LBC Radio phone-in programme.  So an expensive private education doesn’t guarantee success at everything. 

All of this has been overshadowed today by the weather, in typical UK fashion. High winds have brought chaos to the British Isles. Scotland has suffered badly (Will this affect decions about leaving the UK? I wonder.) People in the South East of England have been evacuated this evening as there is risk of flooding from tidal surges. There are some advantages then to living more or fairly to the foothills of the Pennines. We might get some snow on occasion but at least we don’t, so far and touching wood, risk flooding. 

Here is a picture of Blackpool suffering from high tides. I wonder if my home town of Southport, famous for people not being able to see the sea, suffered from similar high tides. 

 Mind you , Blackpool’s waves were as nothing compared to Whitehaven in Cumbria, not too far to the North and they didn’t suffer from the flooding that took place in Rhyl. 

Further weather reports to come in future blogs.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Demolition (and reconstruction) of the Castillo del Castro.

When first we visited Vigo in the summer of 2007 it was a baking hot day, one of those blue sky and unrelenting sunshine days. We found the tourist office down by the port, the one with the huge wooden doors, run by I can’t remember which one of the two opposing tourist information organisations. Then we set off up the hill to the Castro, thinking it was called “El Castro”, unaware that the locals called it “O Castro”. We were vaguely aware that there was a local dialect called “gallego” but had no idea then how seriously they took it. 

Half way up the hill we had to stop and have a drink of water at a small café and buy a bottle to take on our way. That was possibly the hottest day of that holiday, one of the hottest we have known in Galicia. And we have known a few hot ones since then. We were based in Pontevedra for that holiday and visited Santiago de Compostela, La Coruña (oops, there I go again! I should call it A Coruña, gallego style!), Lugo and even Sanxenxo, places we’ve been back to many times since, with the exception of Lugo, which for some reason we have never revisited. 

We went back to Vigo a second time a few days later and on that occasion took a boat trip to the Islas Cíes. It was after that visit, I think, that Phil suggested spending a year in Vigo, which then became two and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Anyway, on that first occasion, we walked up to the Castro and since then we rarely visit the city without visiting it at least once. When we rented a flat near then the summer before last, I used to get up and jog round the park every morning. It’s one of our Vigo places, there’s no denying it. And part of it has always been an old abandoned restaurant, El Castillo. When first we saw it, we had no idea what it was, just a rather sad, dilapidated building, covered in graffiti, clearly in a prime place for a hotel or restaurant, if only anyone cared to develop it. And many a time we have said that it really should be developed or pulled down as it was clearly being steadily vandalised. 

Well, it seems that I missed the item in May’s Voz de Galicia which said that it had been agreed to demolish it before the end of this year. When next we go there, the restaurant will be gone. The Castro hill has been declared part of the city’s Cultural Heritage and they want to restore that side of the fortifications of Nuestra Señora del Castro, dating from the XVII century. I’ve been alerted to this by something in today’s Voz de Galicia telling me that the Englishman Thomas Rothschild, a fan of Galicia, is going to be involved in the demolition, taking it apart brick by brick and rebuilding it somewhere near Bath. 

Here’s a link to a video of the restaurant and the Castro park seen from the air. You can see why we keep on going back to the place again and again.

The restaurant was built in the 1940s but has been abandoned since 2006. So it closed not that long before we first saw it then. A year or two sooner and we might have eaten there. Thomas Rothschild is appealing for people who have photos of the interior of the place when it was open or possibly plans of the building and has set up an email address castillodelcastro@gmail.com for anyone who has information for him. He doesn’t just want to restore the building, apparently, but the atmosphere and the spirit of the place in its heyday. 

I wonder if he’ll serve Galician fish dishes with plenty of boiled potatoes; after all, as any gallego will tell you, Galician potatoes are best in the world. And he’ll have to serve “caldo gallego”, the typical warming Galician soup, not to mention “cocido”, the stew made from every imaginable part of the pig and incorporating “grelos”, greens or sprout tops. This last should be advertised in the proper Galician style as being available on one day of the week, along the lines of “El jueves, hay cocido”. 

Irony apart, I hope he does employ a Galician cook, perhaps serving some genuine Spanish tapas. I imagine he has the funds to have proper Galician shellfish flown in fresh on a regular basis. Mind you, if I were Mr Rothschild, I wouldn’t bother with the goose barnacles. 

I congratulate him on this enterprise. It’s a great thing that he’s giving the restaurant a new lease of life and I wish his every success. I bet he won’t find such a spectacular location as the one overlooking Vigo bay though. 

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Fireworks and such.

Earlier this evening I heard the sound of fireworks somewhere in our vicinity. It was a little early for someone to be celebrating their birthday. Usually that would be at the end of an evening, not at the start. Looking out of the window, I saw a splendid firework display over Delph Village. It was then that I remembered that at 4.30 this afternoon they were having the official switching on of the Christmas Lights (official and, therefore, with capital L for lights!) in Delph. The fireworks must have been the culmination of the festivities. Even though I never had any intention of going and standing in the square to ooh and aah as fairy lights were switched on, I was quite glad for those who enjoy such things that they had a fine crisp late afternoon for it and not one of the soggier offerings that our area so often suffers. The fireworks were very fine and just enough not be excessive in this time of austerity measures.

 And so Christmas has officially started around here. Last night, in another of the Saddleworth villages, children from the local primary schools sang carols under the village Christmas tree as part of their light switching on festivities. Who says that the British don’t know how to do festivities? 

However, some people are concerned that carol singing may have to disappear because of new legislation recently introduced. Apparently ASBOs (anti-social behaviour orders) are being replaced by IPNOs (injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance) and there are fears that these may be used against carol singers or even to stop ten year old boys playing football noisily in the park, not to mention political activists such as Peter Tatchell addressing issues in public! 

They probably won’t stop people crowding rather aggressively into shopping centres to do their Christmas shopping. And I wonder if I can organise one against people who post on Facebook that they have already wrapped up all the Christmas presents they intend to give this year. Surely being so organised takes the fun out of Christmas panic shopping! I hear that there is a kind of unwritten agreement in the USA not to start Christmas shopping until Thanksgiving is out of the way. Sound quite good to me! Mind you, I bet loads of people ignore that idea totally: the smug ones who want to make others feel inferior. 

Then there’s the question of HOW you shop. I read something today which said that women like to actually see the object they intend to buy but even taking that into account, the majority of shoppers at this time of the year go to the shops just to look and choose and then order the goods more cheaply through Amazon. This even works for buying presents for their children. They take the little dears to window shop, the children point to items saying, “I want this and this and this and this and this” and then the parents go away and order it. No longer do Santa’s little elves slave away to make children’s dreams come true, workers in warehouses run around to fill people’s on-line “shopping baskets”. 

As for me, I have a few items, chosen and purchased as the whim took me, stowed away in cupboards away from prying eyes. I just hope I can remember where I put them when the time comes to wrap everything ready for the big day, along with all the stuff not yet selected. 

Ah, well, today we got our first Christmas card of the season. I suppose I’d better buy some cards, dig out the address book and get started!

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Assembling evidence and things

Today I went along to an assembly at the primary school two of our grandchildren attend. This was a “musical assembly” by our grandson’s class. The year 4 children (8-9 year olds) have been having lessons with a peripatetic music teacher. Half of them have been learning to play brass instruments and the other half to play recorders. All of them have been learning songs, including one about their granny who rides a motorbike, plays computer games and goes to the gym (“she’s hard”) and is, therefore, not to be messed with. Great fun! 

Our little chap was playing the cornet. He has been telling me how hard it is to play the note “c” but all of the children seemed to cope quite well and appeared to enjoy it. The recorders were as squeaky as they always are when played by small children but considerably better than those played by beggars on the streets of Vigo. 

 I’ve been to a number of primary school assemblies before but this was the first one I have been to at this particular school. What was interesting this time, for me anyway, was that it was purely a celebration of the achievements of this class of 8 to 9 year olds. We didn’t have any prayers of hymns. Quite refreshing! 

Especially so as I have been seeing increasing signs of religion taking us back into a previous era of holy relics. Back in 1939 Pope Pius XI died. He had asked to be buried in the grottoes under the Vatican, where lots of other popes had been buried. As they were digging around there they discovered a funerary monument with a casket built in honor of Peter and an engraving in Greek that read “Petros eni,” or “Peter is here.” 

Apparently the remains found in the casket were given to one of the basilica workers who stored them in a shoe box in a cupboard. Later it seems someone said there was a “convincing” argument that the bones belonged to Peter. It’s amazing what people will put in shoe boxes! None of the stuff we have in such boxes is half as controversial as old bones! 

And then it transpires that no Pope had ever permitted an exhaustive study, partly because a 1,000-year-old curse attested by secret and apocalyptic documents, threatened anyone who disturbed the peace of Peter’s tomb with the worst possible misfortune. However, the current pope, Francis, who so far has seemed like a sensible chap to me, has decided to risk the curse and recently put the bones on display. Not only that, but loads of people turned up to try to catch a glimpse of them and even to pray to them. 

CNN, the news people, appear to agree with me in assessing Pope Francis: “Pope Francis generally comes off as so hip, so completely at home in the 21st century, it's tempting to forget he's also a deeply religious believer and therefore sees the world fairly differently than most of his fellow celebrities and pop culture icons.” 

I don’t know about “pop culture icons” but I did think that by the 21st century people would have stopped being impressed by bits of ancient bodies and even giving them miraculous powers. 

Personally I’m rather more impressed by these bones, belonging to a prehistoric leopard and discovered accidentally in 2009 in the province of Lugo in Galicia. 

And, while we’re on the topic of things historical here’s a little something for our friend Colin in Pontevedra. He’s often written in his blog about Christopher Columbus (known to the Spaniards, of course, as Cristobal Colón) coming from Poio, Colin’s bit of Pontevedra. A book by someone called “El Enigma del Gran Almirante” by Josefina López de Serantes supports that theory. Here is a link to an item about this from Galicia’s VTelevision.

Interesting stuff!

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Travel Stories.

As I sat in the waiting room of Greenfield Station yesterday I was greeted by an old almost friend. I say an “almost friend” because this is someone who is more than just an acquaintance but has never quite become what you could really call a friend, not someone you would tell your troubles to, confide your secrets in or just meet up with for a drink. And yet for years we have got on well although when we first knew each other our relationship was quite different. 

When I started teaching in a big comprehensive school, more than 40 years ago now, hard as that is for me to believe, her daughter, Anne, was in my very first tutor group. I also taught Anne, and later her sister, Lyn, French and Spanish. After my own children were born and grew old enough to join the local library I found that Anne’s and Lyn’s mother was our librarian. Small world syndrome strikes again. 

Then, a year or two ago, we had some very snowy weather and I sat on a bus, uncertain whether the bus was going to go anywhere as so many of the small side roads that formed part of its route had not been cleared. I got chatting to a young man, a sixth form student trying to make it into the town centre to college. As we swapped snow stories, I told him about my first experience of winter in our part of the world. 

At that time, I was still working at the big comprehensive in the town centre but lived out here in Saddleworth, in the valley between Delph and Denshaw. At the end of the afternoon in question I was marking and chatting when someone commented that it had started to snow properly and that he had had a phone call about how bad the roads were becoming. No internet weather checks in those days and no smart phones to check it up on: no mobiles or computers in classrooms either! He advised me to set off for home before I got stuck. 

Duly warned, I set off to pick Phil up from the school where he was working and we made our way up the long, slow hill from Oldham to Delph in our trusty little red Citroen 2CV. Travelling mostly in first or second gear we got along fine, although the heating in that little sardine can left something to be desired. But we had more traction on the snowy roads than bigger, heavier vehicles and didn’t slither around anything like as much as they did. However, it still took us a good couple of hours or more to make it home. We tucked the trusty 2CV away in the garage and trudged the last couple of hundred yards up the lane and then tucked ourselves away for the night. 

Next morning we dug our way out of our house and went round to the garage, only to find that there was a huge snow drift in front of the door, not to mention the snowdrifts all the way along both lanes leading out of the valley. Well, we thought, no work for us. So we phoned our respective schools, explaining that we were snowed in and spent the rest of the day enjoying the winter weather. By next day the roads were cleared, we were able to get out and about again and we put the whole thing behind us. Until, that is, the next pay day when we discovered that we had lost a day’s pay. Had we said we were exhausted after our arduous journey home, all would have been well and we would have received sick pay but as we were merely “snowed in”, we should have walked to the nearest cleared road, caught a (possibly non-existent) bus and made our way to work. All this even though half the pupils had also been snowed in!! A crazy situation that, fortunately, made us laugh more than rant and rave. 

Anyway, the young man I was talking to asked the name of the school I was working at and revealed that his mother was a pupil there at that time: Anne, the daughter of the librarian, my now “almost friend”. For, both retired and still living in the same area, we come across each other and reminisce from time to time. 

And that is what we did at the station and on the train. A little nostalgia trip! 

I went to my Italian conversation class as usual and travelled back, again by train, this time packed like one among many sardines into a train that should have had four carriages but only had two. When I had arrived at Victoria Station in Manchester to catch the train I was surprised to find that my train was due to depart from the same platform as two other trains at almost exactly the same time: one to Liverpool, one to Kirby and my train, final destination Huddersfield. The platform was full to bursting: loads of people watching the electronic boards and listening to the announcements. 

When you see shoals of fish in the sea, they all move in unison, suddenly changing direction all at the same time. Flocks of starlings, and indeed other birds, do the same in the sky. Well, when the announcement came that one of the trains, the one to Liverpool, was departing from another platform, masses of people turned in unison and made for the stairs, amazingly avoiding collision with those of us who remained standing on platform 4. Shortly after that the Kirby arrived and took away another group of people. But just before that, our train was changed to platform 5 and once again, when the announcement came, a host of people turned round all at once and stepped towards the newly allocated platform, for all the world like fish in the sea or birds in the sky. 

I cannot say that our journey home was pleasant – and I’m sure many people had to wait for the next train – but I had a strange chat with a music enthusiast, swapping notes on which artists we had seen live. This is what happens on trains! 

My evening ended in Stalybridge Buffet Bar where the poetry group I attend meets on the last Friday of each month – although not next month as that will be New Year’s Eve. The bar was all decked out ready for Christmas and ready to celebrate having been selected as Manchester Pub of the Year for 2013. And, as it was our last meeting for the year, we had mince pies with our poetry. 

Not bad!

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Winter is coming?

You know that winter is really coming when people start wrapping up their VW camper vans against the frost. This is a step further than just an insulated windscreen cover to avoid having to scrape frost off at seven in the morning to go to work. This is serious coverage. No more weekend jaunts to faraway places until next year for these people. 

 Mind you, there are still one or two tents in the campsite – caravan park not far from here. Those must be hardy souls, the sort who go for long hikes even when the rain is lashing down. They will need good warm sleeping bags at the moment; the nights have been very cold. Sleeping out at this time of year is not my idea of fun. 

I think the coldest camping I have ever done was over 35 years ago. A friend and I were supervising a group of 14 year olds doing a practice overnight camp as part of the Duke of Edinburg’s Award Scheme. We camped next to Hollingworth Lake, a local reservoir and beauty pot. It was April. The day had been bright and clear, even warm. Because it was so clear the any warmth there was just disappeared when night fell. I have never felt so cold. My friend and I zipped our sleeping bags together, got in and piled all our clothes on top to keep warm. Happy days! 

I’ve had wet and even stormy camping nights in Brittany but never one so cold as that. It’s a long time since I’ve been under canvas though. These days I prefer to do my camping in hotels and the only stars I need to see are the one by the hotel’s name. 

Another group of people fighting off the cold are the dog owners. Dogs of all shapes and sizes seem to have coats to keep them warm – and I don’t mean their own fur coats. Their owners feel the need to make sure their dogs are well wrapped up in warm coats which seem to come in a range of colours. OK, I exaggerate; I have yet to see some of the larger breeds of dogs in winter coats or raincoats for the wet days. I wonder how the dogs of my childhood kept warm. You didn’t see such a range of doggy haute couture in those days. 

It isn’t just the dogs either. I read that keen knitter, Katie Bradley from Vancouver, Canada makes woolly suits for pet tortoises. Two points: I didn’t know they had tortoises in Canada and surely tortoises come equipped with a shell that they withdraw into when they need to hibernate to avoid the cold. 

As I said, winter is obviously coming. Maybe it’s already here.

Sunday, 24 November 2013


The other day I caught the tail end of a programme on the radio, possibly about electronic gadgets as they went on a little about e-books among other things. Some small bookshops in the USA have, according to this programme, been persuaded by Amazon to sell Kindles alongside their usual stock of conventional books. In the UK large bookshops like Waterstone’s have Kindles on sale but as a rule small bookshops don’t do so. They have a hard enough time keeping going as it is without contributing to their own demise by selling e-books as well. That was partly the conclusion of the radio item as well. 

I have a Kindle. In fact, we are a two Kindle family. It’s the only way we can transport all the books we want to read, while travelling on a 10k luggage allowance. And besides, we are seriously running out of space to store any more books so I am trying hard not to buy more of the paper variety. It’s very hard though. And I like to have books around. A house without books on shelves looks odd to me. 

The radio presenters were of the same opinion. (How odd, to find myself so much in agreement with media pundits.) One of them commented that when you see pictures of houses and their oh-so-beautiful interiors in style magazines these days they rarely seem to feature shelves full of books. They often have large tomes on tables, the popular coffee table books that the presenters wondered if anyone ever opens, but it’s as if they are placed there to look lovely, rather like a tastefully placed frilly cushion toning in with the sofa and curtains. Books on shelves, however, are supposedly no longer the thing. 

And then I found this picture in today’s Observer magazine. This was in a feature about the home of a certain Amanda Brooks, a fashion guru I’ve never heard of. Mind you, I don’t think I could name another fashion guru so that’s not really surprising. Maybe all the books on her shelves are about fashion but at least the books are there, on show. 

As for us, we seem to have book all over the house. There’s even a study full of chess books. And both chess books and other kinds of books have overflowed into piles in the attic bedroom. Sometimes it’s a major battle to find the book you remember you possess and what to re-read but don’t remember where it’s stored. The occasional reorganisations of the shelves, putting books into alphabetical order by author, rarely last very long. And then publishers will keep on sending Phil chess books to review: free books but still books that need storing somewhere. 

No doubt there will be even more if chess takes a popularity leap with the success of Magnus Carlsen, the glamorous new world champion. According to one source of information, “Magnus Carlsen has everything you might expect of a superstar athlete: a modeling contract, endorsement deals, a dedicated female fan club, a growing bank balance and millions of fans watching his every move.” Masses of people followed the matches on internet, including about one fifth of the population of his native Norway. I wonder if a similar proportion of the population of the UK would have followed the progress of a British contender! Maybe, if s/he had the sponsorship deals that young Magnus has. 

Meanwhile, I still have this book storage problem. And I contribute to it, of course. After all, I’ve just been through the review section of the Sunday paper making note of the “good reads” recommended by a host of writers. What can I do? Wait until they’re available as e-books?

Friday, 22 November 2013


In my time as a teacher in sixth form, whenever I interviewed potential students for places on A Level Modern Foreign Languages courses I used to ask them what their favourite word was in the language they wanted to study. Some of them looked at me in a bemused fashion, clearly wondering if I might be completely mad or just mildly eccentric. Other waxed enthusiastic about words like “muchedumbre” (Spanish for crowd) or “malheureusement” (French for unfortunately). The latter were immediately accepted onto the course while the former might find themselves accepted only conditionally. 

Having a favourite word is a mark of enthusiasm. If you enjoy studying a language, you take pleasure in the sound of the words, in the construction of expressions and the sheer code-breaking fun of language. A friend of mine told me about causing havoc when watching a Spanish film with French subtitles. (Don’t even ask me why she was doing this.) At some point a Spanish actor was heard to say, “Estamos todos en el mismo barco”. The French subtitles read, “Nous sommes tous dans le même bateau”. Whereupon my friend said, out loud and enthusiastically, “Oh, we’re all in the same boat: you can say it in all three languages”. That’s the level of language-fixation I’m talking about. 

I was reminded of all this when I made the following discovery: - “Selfie – "a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website" – has been named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries editors, after the frequency of its usage increased by 17,000% over the past 12 months.” 

It’s not the word in itself that enthuses me; rather it’s the concept of Oxford Dictionaries having a word of the year. 

On their shortlist for this year was the verb to “binge-watch” – I like this one. By analogy with binge-drinking and binge-eating, you can now binge-watch TV series. You buy a box set of whichever series you didn’t manage to see when it appeared on the small screen the first time round and watch all the episodes in one sitting. 

The “selfie” has a number of spin-offs. There’s the “belfie” (a photo of your bum – yes, people do this!), the “helfie” (a photo of your new hairdo), the “welfie” (a work-out “selfie”), the “drelfie” (a “selfie” while drunk) and even the bookshelfie (a snap taken for the purposes of literary self-promotion). There you go! 

A couple of writers who appreciated the creation of new words for new circumstances are George Orwell with his “newspeak” in his novel “1984” and Aldous Huxley, author of “Brave New World”. Both writers would probably recognise elements of their created futures in the world of 2013. Here’s a link to an article by John Naughton in the Guardian, suggesting that as well as putting a plaque up in Westminster Abbey for C.S. Lewis, we should be remembering Aldous Huxley too.

I came across another language related article, also in the Guardian, this time about bad language. Someone called Lola Okalosie was asking this question: Can you stop people swearing in front of children? Apparently nine out of 10 parents reportedly swear when children are around which probably explains why the habit is reportedly growing in schools. Lola Okolosie is worried that her fifteen-month-old’s first words are likely to include some choice swearing unless she can curb her own bad language habits. You only need to travel on a bus full of school children to understand her concerns. 

Here’s a little of what she had to say: “Swearing is fine if you are able to articulate yourself well without it. It is saddening if that is not the case. In general it has become much less of a social taboo. I have been taken aback by its presence in situations where my instincts are to self-censor. (...) Too many of us can't or won't modify our usage depending on the context. If we are truthful, it is not just parents who need to mind their Ps and Qs. Most adults are implicated. I am sure many reading this have used the f-word and only realised too late that they were in the presence of a child and a suitably reproachful parent. But asking adults to stop swearing en masse won't and can't happen. Best to leave it to those whose sense of shame and anxiety is so easily pricked: parents.” 

Personally, I’m a bit old fashioned about swearing and tend to think that of you use it all the time you have nothing left for the moment when you really need to vent your frustration. 

A friend of mine told me once about taking his five-year-old to a football match and having to cover the child’s ears throughout the first half of the game because of the language of a fan near them. When he asked the chap at half time to try not to swear quite so much in front of the little boy he received the reply: “Swearing? I’ve not been f***ing swearing!”

 Enough said!