Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Travel, trees and testing dietary ideas.

Yesterday, making my way into Manchester to go to my Italian conversation class, I hopped off the bus from Delph to Oldham and almost immediately hopped onto a tram to Manchester. I thought my travel plans were working out very well. It’s not often you wait less than a minute for the connecting tram. However, this particular tram seemed not to be going anywhere. Then came a voice over the public address system: “Due to an issue on the Irk Valley section of the line, this tram will have to wait here for a few minutes before being able to proceed. We apologise for any inconvenience caused and hope to have the tram moving again soon.” I debated with myself about getting off and catching a bus into Manchester. The bus takes ages to get to Manchester, though, and it was cold and windy at the bus stop whereas I was at least snug and warm in the tram. After five or ten minutes I was just about to reconsider my decision when the tram set off. 

All seemed to be well but three or four stops up the line we had a repeat performance: “Due to an ongoing issue ... etc.” So it was an ongoing issue now! We got a little more information: the problem (or should I say “issue”?) seemed to be where the Bury – Manchester tramline and ours merged. A points problem, perhaps? By now I didn’t fancy getting off and finding a bus stop; I wasn’t entirely sure whereabouts on the route to Manchester I would come out if I left the tramline. So I stayed put and, lo and behold, we set off once again. 

Not for long, however! A couple of stops further along it happened again. Well, they say that things run in threes. As we set off once more, the driver told us: “Passengers should be aware that we may experience a brake application.” A “brake application”?? In other words, the train might have to stop again. Which it did. In the middle of nowhere but within sight of Manchester, indeed within spitting distance of the city. Ten minutes later I had listened in to a wide variety of mobile phone calls explaining the situation, apologising for expected late arrival and a good deal of moaning and complaining. 

We got to Manchester in the end but a journey which normally takes about twenty minutes lasted the best part of an hour. I had various errands I wanted to run before my Italian class so I rushed about in the city centre and then scuttled off to my class, only to discover that with all the hustle and bustle I had mixed up the times and arrived half an hour early. So it goes! 

Now, I want to know why a “problem” has to be an “issue” in modern parlance (I hear it all the time) and why our train driver couldn’t just tell us that we might have to stop again instead of going on about “experiencing a brake application”. It’s rather pretentious and silly. Almost as bad as what happens on the local trains where you will hear an announcement like this: “We are now approaching Greenfield. Greenfield: your next station stop.” Why a “station stop”? Surely it could just be a “station” or a “stop” but not a combination of the two. Bonkers! 

On to other matters: recently I bemoaned the felling of some trees at the bottom of our garden. I’ve just read about a place called Sarria in Galicia where they have been threatening to cut down trees as part of a project to channel the river. Clearly the planners have not heard all the discussion that has gone on about the Somerset Levels and how the channeling of rivers, removing natural meanders that slow the flow, may have contributed to the flooding. Some people are opposed to the tree-felling and have chained themselves to the trees to prevent it happening. Maybe we should have done that. 

I’ve also gone on recently about fruit consumption and dietary advice. Well, according to some sources, strawberries can reduce cholesterol. An Italian university has been doing tests, making their Guinea pigs eat half a kilo of strawberries a day and measuring their levels of cholesterol. Eat strawberries every day and your cholesterol levels go down. Stop eating strawberries and they go back up. It’s a pity strawberries are a seasonal fruit because the ones you buy out of season, force-grown under glass, have no taste at all. 

Eating strawberries, they reported, also protects against ultraviolet radiation. This must explain the fair complexion of English roses then. It’s nothing to do with English ladies not being exposed to sun; it’s eating strawberries and cream. 

Mind you, looking again at the article about strawberries, I find that they based this study on 23 volunteers. Hardly a representative sample of the world population! Back to the drawing board I think!

Monday, 24 February 2014


Years ago my mother was taken ill and my father took over the cooking. This was not really a problem. He had always helped out in the kitchen and now took over just about everything except baking cakes. There’s a limit to what even the most emancipated man will do. Anyway, he proved to be a pretty good cook on the whole but there was one small problem. 

My parents had spent a fair number of holidays in the south of Spain, largely because my sister had married an “andaluz”. There my father had been introduced to garlic, something little known in the north of England back in the 1980s. (Well, little used, anyway, if you don’t count the private student of mine who advised me to put some under my children’s mattresses to ward off the evil eye which she claimed was aimed at her but affecting all people associated with her. I quickly stopped giving classes to this eccentric lady.) The culinary problem arose because my father added garlic to traditional North of England dishes. Shepherd’s Pie and Lancashire Hotpot do not need garlic. My mother was dismayed. We talked him out of it. 

I was motivated to comment on this by an item I came across concerning “Paella Valenciana”. Guillermo Navarro and two of his friends have been horrified to discover that chefs such as Jamie Oliver were adding chorizo, avocado and even poached eggs to their regional dish. They regarded it as prostitution of a traditional recipe and were especially upset that some chefs recommended using artificial food colouring instead of the delicately flavoured saffron to turn the rice yellow. So horrified were they that they set up a website called Wikipaella to inform people correctly about the dish. 

I wonder what they would have made of the old Vesta dishes that used to be around in the seventies. Before it was possible to buy the ingredients for these exotic dishes in the UK, you could buy special packs to make paella, couscous, coq au vin and curry. Adding water to dried food products and getting stuff out of tins you could make some distant relative of the original. Talking about food in my Italian class recently we tried to explain these things to our Sicilian teacher; she was baffled! She would have been even more baffled had she actually tasted them. Those of us who had tasted the dishes in their country of origin knew that they were dreadful. 

 I’m pretty sure that my onion soup (one of my standby self-invented recipes to use up left-over chicken bits) bears little resemblance to French onion soup. Likewise my curry is a purely me-invented dish; it uses reasonably authentic curry powder and curry paste but you couldn’t give it the name of any genuine curry dish. I’ve even concocted my own recipe for “sopa de pescado”, much simpler than the complicated recipes I found for this most excellent fish and shellfish soup from Spain. The thing is that I don’t pretend they are the genuine article. 

And that was one of the points that Mr. Navarro and friends were making: you can add what you like to recipes based on particular dishes but you can’t pretend that they are the traditional dishes. Mr. Navarro compared it to adding oranges to fish and chips and saying that that was the traditional British dish. Authenticity is all! 

And finally, but still on the subject of authenticity, I have been relieved to notice a change in practice when you make a comment on someone’s blogpost. There is always a security check to make sure you are a genuine human being and not a robot. I am not entirely sure why this should be necessary but I go along with it. In the past there was always an incomprehensible, virtually illegible set of letters which you needed to copy and which I frequently got wrong, implying that I was indeed a robot. Recently, however, these seem to have changed into two sets of numbers, much easier to decipher and much more difficult to get wrong. 

I am no longer mistaken for a robot: an authentic human being at last!

Friday, 21 February 2014

It's a hard life!

Life gets more and more complicated. Well, that's how it seems if you listen to all the health advice that' going around. First they tell you sugar's bad for you. Ok, yes, I'll go along with that; I've not taken sugar in tea or coffee since I was about 16. But then they start going on about fructose - fruit sugar. So, despite all the government advice about getting your five-a-day, fruit isn't all that good for you either. And certain vegetables such as carrots, which they always used to say we're good for improving eyesight, should be avoided as well because they contain too much fructose. And if you start to think about smoothies, well, forget it. Getting your fruit in that way is even worse because you don't take time to digest it and the fructose hit is faster and more dangerous. 

Pretty soon we'll just be drinking a little bit of water and perhaps having the occasional bowl of porridge. 

And then there's the question of exercise. They tell you that you should get 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. But then they say that if you spend the rest of your time sitting around all the benefits of those 150 minutes of exercise are lost. So what is a body supposed to do? Clearly you walk around all day, eating your occasional bowl of porridge and sipping water. 

But then, make sure your water doesn't come from a plastic bottle as all sorts of nasties can be transferred from the plastic into the water. Now, that's bad news for all the people you see with their supermarket trollies full of stacks of bottles of water. An Italian friend of mine tried to convince me recently that you see this in Spain and Italy because the water coming through the taps is undrinkable! Really? I thought that had been solved years ago but she maintains that in Sicily she gets sand coming through her taps! 

All in all, as I said, life has become extremely complicated. There are just too many things to be taken into account. 

Even buying a secondhand car has become more complicated than it used to be. It's not that I'm thinking of buying one; it's just that I read recently about the problem of people using their cars as security for loans - loans that they then pay back at extortionate rates of interest. The average amount for these so-called "log-book" loans is £1286 but some people borrow up to £19000. A crazy amount and they can end up paying back up to eight times what they borrow. If they fall behind in the repayments their car can be repossessed. The trouble is that sometimes cars are sold on before the loan has been repaid. So you can buy a secondhand car with a loan attached, although you won't know this. And then, if the borrower defaults on the loan your secondhand car can be reclaimed by the loan company. How weird is that? Now, it reminds me of something. Years ago someone explained to me one of the dangers of buying property in Spain: occasionally the property would come with a loan attached and the new owner of the property became liable for the loan. Scary stuff! 

Pretty soon I'll have to start living in a cave, preferably one above the flood plain, where I can walk about all day and live on water and porridge!! 

It's not all gloom and doom though. Little by little I am learning to do new tricks on the iPad that Father Christmas brought me. Today I am trying to post my blog via the iPad. 

Well, that didn't work. Maybe I need to get a special blogger app. So it's back to emailing what I've written to myself, opening the email on the net book and posting from there. 

At least I've learnt how to do letters with accents on my iPad. That's a start!

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The buzzing of saws

Today the woodcutters finally came. I sat reading and realised I could hear a constant buzzing noise. Looking out of the window I saw a man up a tree at the bottom of the garden. It wasn’t clear what he was up to but I guessed by the noise of his saw. The lumberjacks or tree surgeons or whatver you choose to call them who were supposed to come last week had finally arrived. Branches were soon flying down from the trees. Neither was it clear how he was managing to balance up there. 


Looking out later, I saw that he and his assistant had made rapid progress. Whole trees had almost disappeared. There was really only one left by now.

One of the neighbours had come out to cheer them on. At least I assume that’s what he was doing. He certainly didn’t seem to be doing anything useful. Maybe he is one of those who will tell you, “I love work. I could watch it all day.” 

With fewer branches to worry about you could see better how the lumberjack managed not to fall out of the tree. He was attached to a kind of belt that went around the tree. He planted his feet (did his shoes have spikes, I wonder?) into or against the trunk and leant back into the belt. His saw was attached to his belt on a rope. In that way he could drop it after use while he adjusted the position of his safety harness without fear of knocking his mate out with the saw. Flying logs were a different matter. 

Gradually he worked his way down each tree trunk in turn, chopping chunks off as he went, until all that was left was a line of tallish trunks. 

And even these were cut right down in the end. All that remains is a line of stumps and a pile of sawdust. The vista is far from beautiful. Brick walls really do lack charm. 

Our son has protested that part of his childhood has been taken away. Our oldest granddaughter has yet to comment on it. And she is the one who really, truly resents change of any kind! A friend tried to console me with the thought if all the firewood we would get from these felled treed. Not a bit of it. They threw it all over the wall and then took it away in a great big trailer. 

So that’s that. The world is a bit plainer now.

Monday, 17 February 2014

From puddly places to sunny islands.

Yesterday’s fine sunny weather must have been a blip, a freak of nature, for today we are back to grey and gloomy. Last night’s weather forecast on the TV showed great swathes of cloud coming across the Atlantic towards the western side of Europe. The actual rain managed to hold off here until I was halfway to Uppermill, where I wanted to visit the greengrocer’s shop. This is the closest proper fruit and veg shop in our area and is the nearest thing I have found here to the little fruit shops which appear every hundred yards or so on most Spanish streets. It’s no good Mr. Cameron and his government urging us to eat our five-a-day when it’s so difficult to buy the stuff. 

In the co-op in Uppermill one day last week we had an odd conversation with one of the shop-assistants. He was tidying up one of the shelves and suddenly asked, “Are onions one of the five-a-day? It says on this label that it is.” His customers assured him that, as an onion is a vegetable, it would be included in the famous five. “So,” he continued, “how much onion do you have to eat for it to count?” Well, I wonder. How long is a piece of string? As long as you want it to be? So, you eat as much onion as you want, presumably. We ended the discussion by assuring him that we expected to see him tucking into an onion and breathing onion-breath on all the customers. 

Waiting for the bus home after my shopping trip today – walking the three miles there is fine, as is walking back as a rule, but with a rucksack full of fruit and veg it can be a little tiring – I was told that my rucksack was boring. This came from a gentleman (maybe not a true gentleman if he was rude about my rucksack) whose rucksack was covered in badges relating things to do with the railway. Amazing! He could leave it behind in Stalybridge Station Buffet and people would think it was just part of the decor. I had to send a picture of his bag to my eldest granddaughter as I knew she would appreciate it. She has a denim shoulder bag whose strap is covered in badges and buttons she has collected over the last few years, including some vintage ban-the-bomb and anti-Nazi-league badges she appropriated from my house. 

Talking at the bus stop is a habit of mine. Occasionally you come across grumpy folk who appear to believe that you have to be properly introduced before you can have a conversation but mostly it works. Today we ranged through dog training (if you get a rescue dog it might take you a little longer), the public transport system (still inadequate in our neck of the woods), the closing of railway lines by Beeching (if the local line had been kept open it would now be very useful to commuters whereas now it’s a very nice, if muddy, bridle path), through parking problems (connect to comments about public transport and closed railway lines) and on to the construction of a new school to house the local secondary age kids (the current one if in a decrepit state but there is some local opposition to the site chosen for the new building). 

As you can see we had a fairly long wait for the bus. We concluded, in good English fashion, by agreeing that the stormy, rainy weather has gone on for far too long. I am fairly sure that my friends in Galicia feel the same way. So here, to cheer us all up is a link to a short film made two “vigueses” living in Madrid. It’s called “Cíes en dos minutos y medio” and was made with the collaboration of the Parque Nacional Illas Atlánticas and a company called Lowcos Producciones. That’s another example of an English expression, “low cost”, being highjacked into Spanish. 

Anyway, two and a half minutes of the Islas Cíes, one of my favourite places ever, is always good. A little reminder of sunny days.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Sunday again!

The recycling box outside our front door had lost its lid, various people’s fences had been blown down (but not ours) and normally dry footpaths had been turned into muddy, puddly places; these are all things I discovered when I jogged into the village this morning to buy the newspaper. On my return I rescued our recycling box lid from the carpark of the pub next door. How had the wind managed to remove the stones that weigh the lid down, get its windy fingers under the lip of the lid and then hurl it over a five-foot high fence? This is one of life’s mysteries. 

As the day was still very grey and gloomy after I had breakfasted, I set about indoor tasks: a pile of washing, tidying up this and that, chopping vegetables to make soup and other such domestic things while listening to Desert Island Discs on the radio. Eventually I sat down in front of the computer to answer some emails and write this blogpost. It was then that I looked out of the window and discovered that the sun had decided to come out. 

Never one to miss an opportunity, I abandoned the blog and went out for a walk. Carpe sunshine! You never know at the moment when you might see it again. So off I went, up the hill past the old quarry, admiring the view as I went, along the top road to Dobcross village and then dropping down towards Uppermill. There was even warmth in the sunshine; it is the middle of February after all! But that didn’t stop some of the paths being very muddy. 

The sunshine had brought everyone and their grandmothers out to walk along the towpath by the canal in Uppermill. Some of the grandmothers move very slowly. If I’d been on my bike I’d have rung my bell. Instead I had to ask politely, sometimes more than once, if I could please get past them without falling into the canal.

The stepping stones had disappeared under water and turned into a waterfall. This did not stop some teenagers from determinedly crossing them. I suspect their Converse will never be the same again. 

So that’s Sunday afternoon and even now at just after 4 o’ clock the sun is still shining and the sky is mostly blue. How astounding after all the stormy weather! 

About those storms and their names, it seems that the Free University of Berlin has been naming storms since 1954. So it’s their fault. The gender of the storms is not fixed, however. In even number years, like 2014, the storms and hurricanes and what have you are given women’s names but in odd number years they receive men’s names. It’s just that we have had so many storms so far this year that we, or at any rate I, have been noticing an apparent gender bias. I stand corrected. 

Boris Johnson, he of the red-soled wellies, has been heard to comment that George Clooney has perhaps lost his marbles. This is because Mr Clooney, who has recently made a film about people protecting works of art from the Nazis in World War II, has said that the UK should return the Elgin marbles to Greece. I’ve heard arguments for both sides of this question. One reporter said that as Greece is a different country from the one the marbles were effectively stolen from, the Greeks have no claim to them. That’s a little weird! I prefer the one that says they should be seen in their original setting. You do, however, need some guarantee that they will be properly conserved. 

Good old George has also said that the Mona Lisa should be returned to Italy. I was rather under the impression that some French king paid Leonardo da Vinci for the painting long ago. I may be wrong, of course, but if that is so then the painting belongs to France, doesn’t it? Or should we be sending all the paintings by Canaletto that you find in London and around the world back to Italy? Should all the works of Picasso, Miró, Salvador Dalí and others make their way back to Spain? 

It all sounds a little over the top. I think it’s time I finally got around to reading that newspaper I bought this morning.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Victims of the weather and other stuff.

I just threw my umbrella in the bin. That’s the umbrella that I wasn’t sure would survive after its stormy trip to Uppermill the other day, when it blew inside out at least five times. Today’s wind and rain was too much for it. First of all it wouldn’t fold up properly and then the handle just fell apart in my hands. Fortunately, by the time I left the post office the rain had abated somewhat. Thank goodness I had my hat on! 

With rain and floods and reports of various politicians visiting flood victims in the news so much, I suppose it was inevitable that some journalist would come up with an article about wellington boots. Ed Milliband, Labour, wears sensible, no-nonsense, plain black wellies. David Cameron, Conservative Prime Minister, wears more upmarket green wellies; the reporter commented, though, that they appeared pristine and may have been bought specially for the occasion of flood-plain visiting. Nigel Farage, UKIP, wears waders which go half way up his thighs. He’s obviously prepared for a major surge of stuff that shouldn’t be here. Boris Johnson, flamboyant Conservative Mayor of London, wears flashy wellies with a thick red sole. Well, he would, wouldn’t he? 

Who knew that there was such a range, such variety in what the reporter referred to as “humble wellies”? I can remember when they only came in black and they were dirt cheap. Every kid had a pair and you wore them to school on really wet day, getting a red mark on the back of your calves because you wore a skirt or short trousers and your winter uniform long socks didn’t stay up long enough to give you any protection. Not so humble now. They come in all sorts of colours and patterns. (At one time only little kids wore coloured or patterned wellies!) The cheapest bog-standard wellies I’ve seen locally were priced at £30, which is hardly cheap for rubber boots! I blame Kate Moss. Vver since she wore Hunter wellies to a pop festival, it’s OK to charge the moon for them. This patriotic pair sells at a mere £85!!! 
I have read this morning that the amount of rainwater going into the “rías” of Galicia is causing problems for the shellfish sellers. There’s so much fresh water, presumably running off the land, going into the “rías” that the levels of salinity are seriously reduced and the shellfish are dying as a result. Another victim of the weird weather. 

And then there are the, admittedly very few, people who live on the Isla de Ons, one of the islands out in the Atlantic just outside the Pontevedra estuary. They expect to be cut off from time to time during the winter but this winter they’ve been cut off for a fortnight at a time. That’s what you call being isolated! 

I also chanced on a little article suggesting that the heat in the air over Indonesia is somehow contributing to the nasty weather we are experiencing here. I’m almost ready to believe it. This is part of what a friend of mine refers to as the “interconnectedness of everything”. 

Getting back to my outing into the village today, I had an odd little banking contretemps. The ATM in the local co-op was out of service but that should not have been a problem as I remembered that I could get cash from the Post Office. There’s isn’t a hole-in-the-wall machine but a card reader at the counter. I put my card in, told the Post Office chappie how much money I wanted and then discovered it wouldn’t let me have any. The Post Office chappie looked at the card reader and commented, “Oh, it’s a Santander card; that’s why.” Further conversation revealed that, although the Post Office Bank is largely owned by Santander, cards from older Santander accounts, significantly those that used to be Abbey National accounts, are not accepted by the Post Office Bank. That probably rules out a whole lot of Santander customers. And yet, it’s years and years since Santander took over Abbey National. And I sometimes get the impression that they’re taking over everywhere. So why is it hard for me to use the Post Office cash machine? Have they not heard about the “interconnectedness of everything”? 

 It’s enough to make me think about withdrawing all my money and keeping it under the mattress!

Thursday, 13 February 2014

After the storm and a lot of hot air.

Well, the trees at the bottom the garden are still standing, neither cut down nor blown down in the night by the storm, despite reported 100 mile per hour winds! The evidence of those winds is all around: bits of tree on pavements all over the place this morning. Lots of snapped branches but so far I have not seen any trees blown down. I’m a little tired of rain and wind now. It’s time for a change. 

My daughter has been a little concerned about her 13 year old cousin who recently posted a video on Facebook of himself doing his “Neknomination”. However, to everyone’s relief the cocktail he was “necking” was milk and Pepsi: a pretty disgusting mix I should think. At least it was harmless! Sorry to harp on about this silly game but I keep reading about it. I can remember days when young men (and occasionally women but mostly men) were challenged to “down a pint in one” but it was usually a pint of bitter, not some mix of strong alcohol that was going to put you instantly into alcoholic poisoning! 

According to Jackie Ashley, writing in the Guardian, “It is probably something to do with the development of the brain and the simple pleasure of the adrenaline rush. People of this age unlike those of us who are older, seem blissfully insouciant about physical danger. If you doubted it for a second, watch the Winter Olympics snowboarding.” 

When did snowboarding become an Olympic sport? Isn’t it just skate-boarding on snow? 

However, it seems that Jackie Ashley is right about people trying dangerous things for the adrenalin rush. Here’s a link to a video of a group of people trying, unsuccessfully to do a tightrope walk between two hot air balloons over the Alps. I find myself asking, once again, why? Do I have an underdeveloped sense of adventure? It really never occurs to me to try such things. Even seeing other people do them gives me vertigo. 

My daughter and I have also been talking about names. This is because her brother’s wife has just had a baby and we were just a little doubtful about the name chosen. This is one of the consequences of working in education: whatever seemingly delightful name someone chooses for their offspring, you can guarantee that you have met several rather unsavory characters of the same name. We have reconciled ourselves to the choice; it’ll be fine! And then I read about name problems in Mexico. 

It seems that a new law has been introduced in the northern Mexican state of Sonora banning parents from registering names for their children defined by the authorities as "derogatory, pejorative, discriminatory or lacking in meaning". When you find out that they’ve been calling children things like Burger King, USNavy, or even Hitler, you can see where they are coming from. The Sonora banned name list includes Anivdelarev, an abbreviation of the Spanish for "anniversary of the revolution" that is often printed on calendars and is sometimes mistaken by parents as the name of a saint associated with that date. Harry Potter and Hermione are also banned, as are Batman, Robocop and James Bond! 

Maybe some of those names would encourage them to try daring and silly sports and pastimes. You never know!

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Cutting back

They’re supposed to be cutting down trees today at the bottom of our garden. Well, technically that bit’s not our garden. Our house and the others in the row were originally “tied” to one of the local mills, as were a lot of houses around here. They were built by the mill owners to provide accommodation for the workers. Ours was probably for one of the overseers as it’s quite roomy. Our previous house, smaller, was also a “tied” cottage, almost certainly for a less important worker. One of the older residents of that little community told us that her mother remembered when the cottages were lived in by the workers. The mill owners would do inspections; if the house was messy, the net curtains unwashed and the doorsteps not properly maintained with “step-stone” or “donkey stone”, then the tenant risked a fine or even being thrown out. And they complain about the nanny state nowadays! 

 (Donkey stone was a yellowish stone that was rubbed on the step to give a decorative finish. Here is a link to some information about it and here is a picture of a plaque commemorating the last place to produce it.)

Anyway, back to the gardens. Most if these “tied” houses had a common garden area behind them where washing could be hung out to dry and so on. Ours also has a piece of land to the side of the house. When we bought our house, some 25 or more years ago, we opted to have a part of the garden marked on the deeds as officially ours, rather than having shared ownership with the house next door. In that way, if we chose to build a garage at the side of the house we wouldn’t need to worry about permission from the neighbours. This didn’t stop us regarding the whole garden area as “ours”. We agreed not to put a fence up so that we and the neighbours could benefit from keep having a good sized open area. From the start the children played in the whole garden, building dens out of boxes and packing cases on the day we moved in. Yes, back then it was warm and dry enough in early April for the children to do such things! 

Because of that decision there is an invisible line down the middle of the back garden. And so when someone from the industrial complex (originally the mill) beyond our garden came to complain that trees were knocking his wall down, we were able to say that it was not our responsibility and we sent him to the landlord of the house next door. We did, however, express our reluctance to see the trees go. The tenants next door agree; those trees quite effectively hide the industrial complex, especially when they are in full leaf. It will all look a bit more bleak without them. Our oldest grandchild will probably refuse to visit for some time when the trees come down. She doesn’t like change and was horrified when I painted the front door, formerly black and white, a fine shade of royal blue. And when we had “Joel’s tree” (a Christmas tree that our son and I planted in the garden and which grew and grew and grew until it was taking over everything) cut down she wouldn’t speak to us for ages. 

The trees at the bottom of the garden, however, have not as yet been attacked. Its 2.30 pm and no woodcutters have arrived. We were informed that were coming today and if they don’t come soon there really won’t be time to get to work before the end of the day. Perhaps they don’t like the weather. It has been wild and woolly, as they say. (Quite who says that, I’m not sure!) Wind and rain has been assaulting us since quite early in the morning. My umbrella may never be the same again after a visit to the market in Uppermill where it was blown inside out at least five times! (Yesterday it snowed in the late afternoon and briefly the place looked like a Christmas card but today we are back to normal.) 

So I can only assume that tree surgeons, aka woodcutters, don’t work in wet and windy weather! Watch this space!

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Fancy dress, Saint Valentine’s Day and more weather.

Looking at newspapers online, I came across a picture of Galicia’s regional president Nuñez Feijóo being carried around the Obradoiro Square in Santiago de Compostela by a bunch of people in fancy dress from the “entroido” celebrations. How did that come around so quickly? Are they burying the sardine already? I thought it coincided with Pancake Tuesday. Now I’m all confused. 

Here in the UK there are just hearts everywhere in the shops. The 14th February is approaching. This, of course is Valentine's Day or Valentines Day or Valentines' Day. Or it might be Lover's day, Lovers day, or Lovers' day? I've seen all those. The apostrophe seems to be an optional thing and a moveable feast. The sign writers seem to be unaware that the position or omission of the apostrophe changes what is actually being said. 

And then, what happened to the saint in the middle of all this. I somehow had it in my head that he was one of those saints who was martyred with a whole lot of arrows. Hence the connection with Cupid's arrow going into your heart. But on Googling him I found that little is known about how he died, just that he died on the 14th February. There is a slight possibility that the feast day was instituted to replace a pagan festival. That’s the sort of thing that happened long ago. 

Anyway, there it is; you can buy Valentine’s Day cards for all sorts of people, not just your boyfriend but also your dad. How strange. In Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd”, when Bathseba Everdene sent an anonymous card to stuffy William Boldwood, she meant it as a joke. However, he found out who sent it and they ended up married. Bathseba was following an old tradition of sending Valentine’s Day cards anonymously. Rather a nice tradition, in my opinion. Now it’s just another occasion for restaurants to advertise an event when couples who don’t talk to each other can go and have a “romantic” dinner date. Am I turning cynical? 

I read an article today about plastic surgery and the number of women, increasing all the time, who give in to the advertising. The main theme of the article was that maybe plastic surgery should not be advertised and that we should be finding alternatives to giving in to the pressure to look young and botoxed. Included in these adverts apparently are suggestions that plastic surgery might be a suitable gift for that romantic day I was talking about. "I love you so much that I feel the need to improve you." That works, I don't think! Personally, I might not be impressed by such a gift. 

 Meanwhile, the foul weather continues. Here is a picture of floods in Carballo in Galicia. 

 And another of floods in the Somerset Levels in the UK. 

And more bad weather is forecast for both the UK and Galicia. The latest storm to attack Galicia is called “Stephanie”. 

What I want to know is why storms need names at all and why, oh why, are they given women’s names?

Thursday, 6 February 2014


I sat up late in bed last night reading. I’d reached the point in a book where I needed to know what the outcome was going to be, that point where the tension of the book is so great you have to continue. I suppose this is binge-reading. In fact I had spent most of the day binge-reading. When my son was younger he got into the habit of reading to the end of a book fast to find out the story-end – and thus release the tension – and then re-read to enjoy the writing. I suspect he still does so. A friend told me about reading the opening chapter and the final chapter of a book, especially a thriller – again to release the tension - and then read the book properly. 

The fact is that binge-reading exists. No-one has yet condemned it. I have always binge-read, even as a child, getting a huge pile of books from the library and working my way through them in just a few days. Binge-reading can be reading a book all in one go, non-stop, barely pausing to eat or drink. Or else it can be reading as many books as possible by one writer. I do both of these things. 

Then there’s binge-watching. You hear rather a lot about this these days. The arrival of box sets started it. When given the box set of a TV series, you have to be strong to limit yourself to just one episode a night. The temptation is to watch the lot in one sitting. I am doing this with a re-watch of The West Wing when I’m in the house on my own. People talk about it on Facebook as well. And so a trend is set and everyone starts to do it. TV companies encourage it of course by putting on things like the Scandinavian dramas in 2-episode chunks. And then the time limit on BBC i-player means that sometimes you absolutely need to binge-watch before the series disappears into the ether and you have to wait for the box set to appear. 

And so I get around to binge-drinking. This is what started all the binge --- ing. Well, maybe the term started with eating disorders but anyway, today, I came across Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s blog in the Guardian. She was expressing the view that binge-drinking is to some extent hard-wired into the British. She puts it down to the weather, to the allure of British pubs with their roaring fires (really? Is this true of city centre pubs where there is simply nowhere to sit and it’s so noisy you can’t imagine having a conversation), to long working hours and the need for release after work. I'm not quite convinced although I don't know what the answer is.

She also maintains it’s always existed which I think is only partly true. People have always gone out and got drunk. Some fellow-students of mine at university used to start every term by meeting in Yates’ Wine Lodge in Liverpool, catch the train to Leeds and then move on directly to Yates’ Wine Lodge in that fair city. But they always managed to stay on their feet. Now it seems that the point of drinking is to get to the falling-over stage as soon as possible. If you can remember what you did, you haven’t had a good night; that seems to be part of the philosophy. 

I don’t quite understand binge-drinking. Am I too sensible? I’ve been drunk and try to avoid it. It makes me ill. I can’t understand getting drunk just for the sake of it. And when Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett talks about drinking beer through a funnel at university, well, what can I say ??? 

She reflects on the fact that binge drinking doesn’t exist in mainland Europe, so much so that the French don’t have a term for it but talk about “le binge-drinking”. Well, I suspect she might be wrong there. She should talk to the Spanish about “botellón” which in some places is causing concern as it has moved on from being a cheap way for young people to meet up and eat and drink together. Now it is becoming much more like British binge-drinking. 

And then there is something called NekNomination!! This is a drinking game that may have begun in Australia and has necome popular in Northern Ireland. It involves young people nominating someone who has to drink a pint of strong alcohol, a mix of spirits as a rule, and do silly things to entertain his perhaps but not necessarily slightly less drunken peers. That person then nominates another, usually via Facebook. 

Now, drinking games have always existed. But they weren’t publicised through social media. And they didn’t involve so many very young drinkers, even though underage drinking has also always existed. And they didn’t usually involve young people jumping into rivers on cold winter evenings and drowning, which has happened in recent weeks. The brother of one of the latest victim of this crazy game has appealed to Facebook to review its policy regarding posting videos of young men (and it’s usually men) “necking” their pint of pure alcohol. 

Having got all that off my chest, I’m off to do a little more binge-watching.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Idiotic behaviour – not mine, other people’s!

When I went out for a run first thing this morning the day was bright. It wasn’t exactly a total blue sky day but there was quite a fairly substantial amount of the blue stuff and what clouds there were looked white and fluffy rather than imposing and grey. I was overtaken by a lady on a bicycle. This lady and I have been meeting in this way for several years now. On the rare occasions that we run across each other when I’m not in running gear and she’s not wearing her cycle helmet, we are always surprised to recognise each other. She lives somewhere not far from me, we see each other on the bridle path, in the green grocers or at the Wednesday market in Uppermill. And yet I have no idea of her name, even though we have progressed from nodding to greeting. 

This morning as she sailed past me I commented on the fine day. She replied that she had heard that rain was forecast. We both expressed wishes for it to hold off until we had returned home. And then we went our separate ways. 

My timing was brilliant: run to Uppermill, pop in the Co-op for a couple of things and to use their cash machine, replenish my fruit stores at the small greengrocer’s, pick up a good loaf of bread and scuttle to the fish van in the market before catching the bus home. I waited no more than a couple of minutes for the bus and was home in no time. 

After that the day grew greyer and greyer. Before we knew it the rain had arrived. Not as badly as predicted for some southern parts of the country but still damp and gloomy. So I turned to the papers on line and discovered that the weather front that is hitting us is once again affecting Galicia just as badly. In fact, the coastal areas there are suffering just as badly as coastal areas here. And by all accounts there as many loonies who think it’s fun to play chicken with the waves. Here’s a link to a mini film on youtube called “Idiotas en una Tormenta” . It was made in 2009 in La Coruña but there are still people playing this kind of chicken game today. 

So that’s the weather dealt with. Now, here’s a photo of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela where repair and restoration work is going on. They started in October and will last for twenty months. Consequently there has been some concern because this means a couple of “festas do apóstol”, the celebration of the saint’s day on July 25th with the scaffolding in place. Possibly the biggest concern has been the fate of the firework display which takes place on the eve of the festival. There had been fears that it would be cancelled but the church authorities have agreed that there can be a reduced display. That’s a relief, isn’t it? 

A couple of princesses have been in the news again. First of all there’s the Infanta Cristina and the ongoing court case where she will at least be asked to make an appearance as a witness. Her lawyers are at pains to assure us that she is feeling fine about it: “La infanta Cristina «se encuentra bien, está serena». 

The second is the princess by marriage, Letizia, wife of the heir to the Spanish throne and, therefore, queen in waiting. She seems to have been less than «serena» in her reaction to a young man with a mobile phone. Apparently she was out shopping in Madrid with her daughters when she spotted a teenager concentrating intently on his mobile phone. She snatched it off him and, despite his protestations that he was only reading his emails, refused to return it until he showed her the photos on his phone. Reassured that he had not been snapping her royal daughters, she let him go on his way. I bet that’s done a lot to maintain the image of the royal family! 

Fortunately I don’t have such problems to contend with. I’ll just stick to weather watching.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Checking up on things.

Our bank has sent us a cheque. It’s only a small cheque. We have our house insurance organised through the bank. This is the kind of thing banks do nowadays; they have learnt to multitask. House insurance I can understand, in a way, as our bank used to be a building society, the one we used to arrange our mortgage. So there is a kind of link. For a while, though, our daughter had her car insurance sorted through the bank. It was some kind of deal in, connection with the house insurance, where they promised to find her a better deal than the competition offered her. Fair enough but I still think there’s something a little too much like a monopoly when the bank does everything and gets its tentacles into all aspects of your life. 

Anyway, they sent us a cheque. Apparently they had overcharged us on the house insurance and were sending us a refund. Now, if they can take payments directly out of our account, why can’t the overpayment be put straight back into our account? This is what happens with a debit card payment if you return faulty goods to a shop. The shop doesn’t give you a cheque; the money goes back into your account via the debit card. The only explanation I can come up with is that if they sent the money straight back into our account, they would have to pay us interest on it, albeit a very small amount as the cheque is very small. Sending us a cheque, however, means that the money stays with them and earns them interest for a while longer while we get around to putting the cheque into our account and then it takes several days to clear the cheque. Which is another thing that is hard to comprehend since the cheque came originally from the same bank it’s being paid into! Another of life’s mysteries! 

I very rarely use cheques these days. The cultural wing of the Italian Consulate in Manchester, which organises the Italian conversation classes I attend, only accepts payment by cheque. It’s something complicated in their accounting system, or so they maintain. Offhand I can’t think of anyone else I pay by cheque. Consequently I am still using a very old cheque book which still has the old name of my bank before they were taken over by a bigger organisation. All the account numbers and branch numbers are the same as ever so the cheques work fine. It just seems odd and one day soon I must ask them to send me a new cheque book. 

I read somewhere that half of Britain's under-25s have never written or cashed a cheque. Online banking is the present as well as the future. And then I discovered an amusing list of six things you can only do with a cheque: 

"Sliding a payment over a desk 

In the classic movie scene, the guy in the sharp suit writes a cheque, folds it, and slides it over the desk. The guy in the less sharp suit peeks at it, looks impressed, and nods. How much less slick would the first guy look typing in the amount he was willing to transfer, sliding over the laptop, and urging the other guy to decide before it logs him out? 

Taking a pen out of your pocket authoritatively 

Tapping a coffee-stained keyboard and trying to remember your customer number will never look as cool as whipping out a pen and a cheque book. It just won't. 

Posing with massive cardboard cheques for charity 

No matter how worthy the cause, a massive printout of your transaction confirmation isn't going to make the local paper. 

Stopping a cheque just to spite someone 

A cheque takes up to five working days to clear. That means the person you've paid has to be nice to you for nearly a week, in case you change your mind and cancel it. Try it. 

Being handed a blank cheque 

Imagine the possibilities. A blank online transaction isn't nearly as exciting; it's just zero.

Postdating a cheque hundreds of years in the future 

This is especially funny as a birthday present for a bratty child."

Back in 2009, the banking industry announced that cheques were set to be phased out by October 2018, but the Treasury intervened in 2011, saying they remained popular with the public.  People who want to give money as a gift and need to send it by post still prefer to send cheques. (I wonder if anyone still sends postal orders. When I was a child that was the normal way for your grandparents to give you money as a birthday present.) So cheques look like being around a while longer.

Now, however, the banks want to speed up the processing of cheques and want to harness smartphone technology to do so. Just as you can print your own boarding cards for airline flights (in fact, you have to do for some budget airlines) and you have the option to print your own tickets when you book in advance for certain train journeys, so banks will accept photos of cheques for deposit, photos emailed to them or shown over the counter in the bank itself.
Apparently this has been around in the USA since 2010 but UK law still gives banks the right to demand to see the cheque itself and not just a photo. At the moment! This could all change soon! The system is becoming more computer and smartphone driven!

Clearly I need to pay our cheque into the bank account as soon as possible before they close down the branch and insist on everything being done electronically!

Monday, 3 February 2014

Animals coming out of their holes and things falling down holes.

Yesterday was Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, USA. They got the little animal out of his hole, it was sunny enough for him to see his shadow and so they predict another 6 weeks of winter. I have read that the tradition is rooted in a German superstition that says if a hibernating animal casts a shadow on Feb. 2, the Christian holiday of Candlemas, winter will last six more weeks. So we shouldn’t put our winter woollies away yet. 

It’s strange how we put our faith in these odd traditions and superstitions. Take for example Saint Swithin’s (or possible Saint Swithun’s according to some sources) on the 15th of July. According to legend, whatever the weather is like on that day in England will continue to be the case for the next forty days. Forty is one of those magical numbers; Noah’s flood was the result of forty days and forty nights of rain. It probably just means “more days than most of us are prepared to count”. 

Anyway, there it is. Phil the Groundhog says we will have another six weeks (42 days) of winter. (Here’s a link to some information about Groundhog Day.) Let’s hope the storms that have been battering the north coast of Galicia and the floods in the south of England don’t last that long. 

Onto some other cheerful stuff: imagine waking up to find that your car has disappeared into a hole. This is what happened to a family in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. A “sinkhole” opened up in their drive and the car just fell down the 9 metres deep opening. At least they weren’t in the car at the time. I wonder if the insurance company will pay up or of they will regard this as an act of God. If the latter is the case, what had that family done to deserve to have their car swallowed by God in that way? 

Of course, you might prefer to believe that it’s all a matter of geology. According to my research these holes occur naturally: Natural sinkholes – as opposed to manmade tunnel or cave collapses – occur when acidic rainwater seeps down through surface soil and sediment, eventually reaching a soluble bedrock such as sandstone, chalk, salt or gypsum, or (most commonly) a carbonate rock such as limestone beneath. In a process that can last hundreds, sometimes thousands of years, the water gradually dissolves small parts of the rock, enlarging its natural fissures and joints and creating cavities beneath. 

And sometimes they give way and things fall down the hole thus created. Sometimes, although rarely according to all the stuff I have read, they can be fatal. Only recently in Tampa, Florida, half a house disappeared down a sinkhole and so far the body of the man sleeping in one of the rooms that disappeared has not been recovered. 

They happen all over the place. (Does this explain all the holes in the road around here?) Here’s a picture of a sinkhole in Guatemala. And it’s not just on the other side of the world. Ripon in North Yorkshire is apparently very susceptible to sinkholes, the most famous – some 20m deep – dating back to 1834. In 1997, four garages collapsed into a huge sinkhole that only just missed the front of a neighbouring house. Now, that’s not too far from here. Should I be worried?  In fact, should we be worried that the whole of Great Britain might fall down a hole? 

It’s all rather stressful. Maybe I should take up building Lego models, like David Beckham. He told the Sunday Times Magazine: "When the kids finish school, they might have different activities going on, like football or rugby. But when they get home we'll often play one of their favourite games, like Connect 4. They also love Lego. So do I. The last big thing I made was Tower Bridge. It was amazing. I think Lego sometimes helps to calm me down." The 38-year-old said playing with Lego is similar to cooking, which he finds "very therapeutic". 

Lego's Tower Bridge has 4,287 pieces, costs £210 and is recommended for people aged over 16. 

David Beckham’s not the only one to find Lego soothing and helpful. Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond told the Daily Mirror that building Lego models aided his recovery from a 300mph jet car crash that nearly killed him in 2006. "Lego saved my life. It's really good therapy for a brain injury," he said. 

So there you have it: if you are worried about big holes appearing in your driveway, just build some expensive Lego models and all will be well.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Various things about education and culture.

I’ve been out and about with the teenager, our granddaughter, over the last few days. First of all, on Thursday evening I took her to the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester to a Suzanne Vega concert. The teenager frequently plays “Tom’s Diner” in the car but as far as I knew the only other song by Ms Vega that she had heard was “My Name is Luka”. So it was time she heard some more. It was a fine concert, a nice mix of material from her new album and older songs. And she sang both the songs the teenager is acquainted with. A good time was had by all. 

The teenager, something of a photographer, took an impressive photo of the Hilton Tower, all lit up against the night sky. The Hilton Tower is the tallest building in Manchester. It is said that you can see Liverpool from the top floor. I could believe that. After all, we used to see the Welsh hills from Southport beach when I was a kid. The teenager had promised to email me the impressive photo so that I could include it in this blogpost but, in typical teenage fashion, has had more important things to do. It should have been easy enough as she took the photo with her phone. So it goes. 

Yesterday I took her back into Manchester to visit the art gallery and see the exhibition of Grayson Perry’s tapestries. “The Vanity of Small Differences”. Despite the bitter cold we had an excellent afternoon and took photos of Manchester still bedecked with Chinese lanterns for Chinese New Year. Signs indicate that we have entered the Year of the Tiger. 

 In this way I am contributing to the education of the teenager. And she is learning to find her way around Manchester, which is no bad thing. 

Michael Gove, Tory education secretary, has been stirring things up again, this time by sacking Baroness Sally Morgan, Labour chair of Ofsted. He is accused of politicising the inspectorate and wanting to put a Tory in her place. I can’t say I’m surprised. He’s also recommending sanctions to improve discipline in schools: writing lines and picking up litter. I wonder if he has seen The Simpsons where part of the satire is the lines that Bart Simpson has to write each day on the blackboard in his classroom. 

"Whispering" Bob Harris, of Old grey Whistle Test fame, was featured on Desert Island Discs today. He talked, among other things, about leaving school suddenly in the sixth form after he was caught drinking a half of shandy and was summoned to the head teacher's office. When he saw the cane coming out he refused to suffer the indignity and left. His only return to school was to dump all his text books in the head's office! Consequently 16/17 year old Bob became a police cadet. That career didn’t last too long, however, and he was fortunate enough to make his living doing what he liked best: playing music. 

Another who left school at 16 was Swedish writer Henning Mankell, author of the Wallander books, which have become known in the UK through the TV series, both in Swedish with subtitles and remade in English. The former are far superior, in my opinion anyway. Mr Mankell became a merchant seaman and travelled around a good deal. He was in Paris in May 1968 when the student protests brought France to a standstill and has a scar from being hit by a police baton. Maybe he would never have become a writer if he had stayed at school beyond 16. 

Finally, here’s a cultural oddity: a photo of Michigan Theatre, Detroit. This theatre was opened in1926, 4000 seats, built on the site of the workshop where Henry Ford built his first car and closed in 1976, partly because of insufficient parking. This theatre, described in the newspaper as "pulsating with baroque opulence" is now used as a car park. So it goes!