Saturday, 31 December 2016

On death and glory!

A very grim-reaperish 2016 staggers to an end, waiting in its turn for the Grim Reaper to come and get it. Just think of all the famous folk holding their breath and crossing their fingers in the hope that they do not become last minute additions to list of those 2016 has seen off.

Out and about this morning, I ran into Mike and his grumpy rescue dog. Mike is one of the people who has gone from being a nodding acquaintance to someone with a name who stops and chats and we set the world to rights. His rescue dog is generally unaggressive, apart from when he comes across certain other canines, but seriously not friendly. Unlike Rosie (the little dog belonging to old Jack, another former nodding acquaintance who now has a name), a dog who always runs to meet me and demands attention, the last thing Mike's dog wants is someone to stroke him and make a fuss of him. Determined (no, bloody-minded!), Mike's dog demands to be walked miles and miles every day. Many times I have come across them at around 9.00 am as they return from a walk that began at 6.00 am, if not earlier.

So, I ran into Mike, who commented that every year for the last five or more he has predicted the demise of the annoying Liverpudlian comedian Ken Dodd. And, lo and behold, this year the old dodderer, still alive, has been given a knighthood! I saw him on the television news last night, face like a crumpled leaf (he is 89, after all) declaring himself "very tickled".

Yes, it's that time of the year when they announce the New Year's Honours. Mike and I spent a few minutes slagging off some of the people who have received honours and, indeed, the honours system in general.Someone I once worked with received an OBE, years ago now, for service to education. And now Victoria Beckham is receiving one, presumably for services to fashion. Or maybe for being married to David. How do these two nominations manage to be comparable?

 La Beckham's nomination has apparently been criticised because her fashion label is threatened with closure afer failing to file accounts. And La Beckham herself is criticised for telling her family she would be receiving the award before the announcement was officially made , something the MP Peter Bone described as "a betrayal of etiquette". Shocking!

Then there are the knighthoods and damehoods (does that word even exist?). Somehow I imagine a knight or a dame to be venerable, to have done a great service to the country. And while it's great that Andy Murray has proved to be a great tennis player, number one in the world, winner of Wimbledon and of Olympic gold medals, does he need to be SIR Andy? As my friend Mike said, "He was just doing his job. And earning plenty of money at it too!" I felt the same about SIR Bradley Wiggins. And about all the athletes who won lots of gold medals for us at the Olympics. Although Katherine Grainger, the lady rower who has been made a dame, did manage to keep her nomination secret, even from her family. She clearly knows the etiquette!

Is it very snobbish of me the feel that perhaps Mark Rylance, actor, has more fully deserved his knighthood for services to the theatre? Probably! He too was just doing his job and getting paid for it, although I suspect not as much as Andy Murray. I suppose sport is as much a part of our culture as theatre. And maybe giving them honours makes them even more of a role model for young people. Hmmm!

Two people turned down their honours.

Lynn Faulds Wood, former presenter of the BBC's Watchdog programme said she would be a "hypocrite" to accept the award for her work on consumer safety. She was nominated for an MBE, Member of the British Empire, and it's the Empire that sticks in her throat. We no longer have an empire, she said, and feels that the honours system needs dragging into the 21st century.

She continued, "I think honours are really important and should be given to people who have done really good stuff.

"And I've changed laws and I've helped saved a lot of people's lives, so maybe I'm deserving of an honour, but I just wouldn't accept it while we still have party donors donating huge amounts of money and getting an honour.

"We're a very backward-looking country at the moment.

"We shouldn't have lords and ladies and sirs. We should give people honours, yes, because plenty of people deserve them, including, I hope, myself. But it's not a fair system."

Another refusenik was the Hillsborough campaigner Prof Phil Scraton. He refused to accept an OBE in protest "at those who remained unresponsive" to help families and survivors affected by the disaster. He said he was also unwilling to accept "an honour tied in name to the 'British Empire'.

Honourable people!

Friday, 30 December 2016

Post-this and post-that.

Peace reigns. We have done a sweep of the house for belongings that might have been forgotten in some corner of the house: a child's drinking cup here, a small pair of slippers there but the important stuff - the special soft toys - is all safely stowed. And Offspring Number One and his little family have set off on their way homewards.

Small pockets of chaos remain. There are little piles of story books relating to Christmas. Offspring Number Two turned up with these when her big brother arrived, so that he had extra reading matter for his small girl. (Oddly this included Carol Ann Duffy's "Wenceslas A Christmas Poem", a beautifully illustrated version of this extended poem but not really a small children's book. I might just secrete this away to add to my own collection!) Offspring Number Two, however, was quick to point out that this was a library loan for the duration of their visit. She has built up this collection of Christmas books, she explained, over almost twenty years (her eldest offspring is now nineteen) and she does not want to lose any of them as she finds them useful in her primary school teaching. And then there is the sentimental value. So Offspring Number One's almost three year old has had to leave The Santa Trap behind, despite relishing the story.

There is also a certain amount of baby equipment dotted around. Offspring Number One's child no longer needs any of this but Offspring Number Two's latest is only four months old and is just coming into the stage where she can use stuff with weird names like "bounceroo", or perhaps it is "jumperoo". We hope Offspring Number Two will come and collect this large and clunky item with its collection of noise-producing dangly bits and that it is not her plan to leave it here for her tiny one's entertainment on visits to our house. (And the collection of children's Christmas stories.) We can generate quite enough clutter of our own.

Don't get me wrong! It has been absolutely lovely to have both offspring and all their offspring around. I can think of nothing nicer ... for a while ... and in measured doses. But if we all lived together on a permanent basis maybe some of the charm would wear off.

No, a delightful time has been had by all but I seem to have been cooking and baking for weeks; in reality it is less that ten days but that's how it goes.

One last push to prepare a nice dish to take to an old friend's house for New Year's Eve and after that I think we should live on soups, beans on toast and scrambled, poached or boiled eggs for a while!

Forget about post-truth. It's almost the end of the post-Christmas period.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Fizz, phones and fantastic organisation..

This is the time of year for drinking fizzy. In fact, my daughter in law and I tend to feel that any old excuse for opening a bottle of fizzy will do nicely. But that is just us.

Anyway, other people clearly also feel that this is the season to drink fizzy as the Guardian gave a review of different supermarkets' offerings of Prosecco. Despite liking the stuff, I don't really consider myself a true connoisseur. Above all, I don't have the language. And the language is pretentious and nonsensical to say the least.

Sainsbury's Prosecco is described being "anchored by a lingering dryness and, while you must concentrate to get the full effect, fruit flavours: honeyed apricots, orange oils and sharper citrus notes are palpable and persistent." Waitrose Prosecco has "Hints and whispers of tropical fruits" while Lidl's gives ,another rapid assault of flavours – fleeting apple, pear and floral notes". In Marks and Spencer's version, on the other hand, if you focus hard you may "pinpoint apple, pear and pineapple flavours, but, ultimately, this is a sweet, frothy bubblegum wine – an effervescent alcohol delivery system". Tesco's Prosecco has "some weak, mirage-like green apple and unripe pear flavours".

I thought this fizzy wine was made from grapes. So where do the apricots, apples, pears and a major fruit salad come from? Or is my palate just too unsophisticated? All of this nonsense can surely just be ignored.

We have had a splendid chilly but bright day, out and about with the kids in the park. We might crack open another bottle of bubbles this evening.

Tomorrow we plan a huge family reunion lunch. Masses of sisters, cousins and children of cousins getting together. This has involved a masterpiece of organisation with phone calls flying through the ether, booking tables and rearranging meeting times. All this done without shouting down my phone even once.

I came across a story about someone on a train overhearing a shouted mobile phone conversation. It was annoying him somewhat but he got his own back. At some point the loud communicator told her communicatee her mobile number. The annoyed listener noted it down on the edge of his paper. He then texted her to remind her that it was not necessary to shout when speaking on the phone. The shouting stopped.

That is clearly the way to do it!

Monday, 26 December 2016

Names and dates and famous deaths.

Last year on Boxing Day our river flooded the centre of the village. Further down the river, going through other Saddleworth villages it caused further flooding havoc. Today, by contrast, we have blue skies, intermittently partially covered with cloud, but mostly bright and sunny. It's cold and windy but you can wrap up for that. However the weathermen suggest that this is just a lull between storms. Storm Barbara has been and gone. Storm Conor is supposed to be on his way. We might even have snow. Winds could reach 90 miles per hour. Never a dull moment.

So this morning I got up and ran along the local bridle path, the Donkey Line. I didn't see any donkeys. But then today is Boxing Day and I haven't seen any boxing. Not yet anyway.

The Delph Donkey used to be a railway line, part of the London and North Western Railway, connecting Oldham, Greenfield and Delph to the main Manchester - Huddersfield line. It opened in 1849 and stopped carrying passengers in 1955: just over a century of working. The Manchester - Huddersfield line still operates a regular commuter service. Just think how much easier commuting from here to Manchester would be if they have kept the Donkey Line open!

Legend has it that it is called the Donkey Line because originally it had carriages pulled by horses. (Maybe they thought Donkey Line sounded better than Horse Line. Who knows?) People who think they know stuff pooh pooh this theory: "Since the branch trains worked onto the main Manchester to Huddersfield line, it is unlikely horse drawn trains would have been permitted." I am sure stranger things went on back in the 19th century!

Anyway, we have a bit of the old track as a bridle path and walkway. All good!

As regards Boxing Day, I always thought it had to do with rich people giving presents to their servants - Christmas Boxes - on the day after Christmas Day, perhaps making up for their having to cook and serve a huge meal on the 25th. King Wenceslas, who wasn't really a king but only a duke, has something to do with it as well. Here's a link for those who want to know more.

 Meanwhile 2016 continues to wipe out famous people. Not that I was ever a great fan of George Michael but surely he died too young.

A friend of mine has been posting that 2016 should end quickly while we still have some singers left! 

She might be right!

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Food and drink organisation

So here I am, late morning on Christmas Day with presents wrapped and tastefully placed under the tree, turkey in the oven, vegetables organised and everything sorted. And it's only 1.30 pm. Sometimes I amaze myself! And I even managed to go for a Christmas run first thing! Some time soon I expect to discover I forgot to switch the oven on or something of that kind.

The law of unforeseen consequences seems to be coming into play for curry houses. Restaurateurs who run curry houses in the UK are having staffing difficulties. Curry houses have become a firmly established part of British tradition. Indeed appreciation of a good curry could well be one of the much talked about British values. The younger generation of curry making families apparently do not want to be restaurateurs though. They want to do other things. Fair play to them. But the curry house restaurateurs are finding it hard to recruit staff who understand the art of mixing spices to make curry. They could recruit from their country of origin but latest law (intended to control immigration) says that such immigrants would have to earn over £30,000 a year to qualify for a residence/work permit. Here's a link to an article about it.

I was also reading about champagne. It seems that experts have always said that smaller bubbles in your glass of champagne were a sign of quality. Now research has found that bigger bubbles make it taste better. They have been using high speed photography to study the flow of bubbles in glasses of bubbly, watching them form patterns like the petals of flowers as they come to the surface. I would quite like to see the photos. The average glass of champagne has a million bubbles. Who knew? Who counted them?

We are having prosecco and have no intention of counting bubbles.

 Merry Christmas!

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Being traditional.

I thought certain members of my family could win prizes for their stubborn determination to resist change and to complain about it when it inevitably happens. However I have decided, on reflection, that we are all really very reasonable people.

Apparently quite a lot of people have been complaining because Cadbury's have changed the wrapping on their Roses chocolates. Instead of having twist-opening wrappings they now have something called "flow wrap", which I think means a sort of sealed wrapping which you have to tear open. Those who regard a tin of Cadbury's Roses as an integral part of Christmas are not happy with this: an over-the-top reaction to my way of thinking. Nor are they pleased to find that the chocolates are now all uniform sizes, instead of having a range of shapes and sizes according to the variety of chocolate. All this comes on top of the company having changed their chocolate bars so that the segments have rounded edges instead of square. It's all too much for the traditionalists to bear! 

Tradition is a funny thing, quickly established in some cases. My daughter decided last year to start a new tradition in her family; each child should receive "something they want, something they need, something to wear and something to read". She didn't invent it; I have come across a number of people recommending it in the run up to this Christmas. I think it's quite a good tradition to have. It makes a lot more sense than her longer established one of everyone having new Christmas pyjamas each year. Surely you buy new pyjamas as you wear them out or grow out of them. But by now her kids expect this every year.

 I read an article by Niklesh Shukla in which he wrote about his family's Christmas tradition. He wrote, "As part of a non-Christian, immigrant family, I found Christmas tense as a child. You built up a set of cards from classmates that went unreciprocated; your parents grumbled at having to buy gifts for teachers paid to educate us; presents were a waste of money." But his family had the tradition of his mother cooking roast tandoori Christmas chicken, a dish they all loved. After his mother died, he and his siblings decided to follow their mother's handwritten recipe and recreate the dish, giving themselves a sense that she was still with them. They argued some over how to interpret the recipe but put together something very palatable in the end. But it was not quite their mother's dish: "I lifted the chicken to my mouth and put it in. There was a cacophony of tastes, the lilt of the lemon, ginger and garlic working like a tightly knit kabadd team, the piquant persistence of the chilli powder, the warm gloop of yoghurt and the singe of cumin all dancing in my mouth – like a parade of elephants surrounded by bhangra dancers hoisting their arms in the air, with trumpets blaring and dhols banging. I rolled my head back in hypnotised, dizzying jubilation and … it didn’t taste anything like my mum’s Christmas roast tandoori chicken. It tasted like an imitation."

So it goes.

He also said that one of the factors that contributed to his feelings of frustration and tension at Christmastime was that Diwali was always referred to as "Indian Christmas". Someone's attempt to make sense of the different religious celebrations, I suppose.

Jewish friends at my primary school had no problems dealing with Christmas. They sent cards through the school Christmas post system just like everyone else. It was a matter of pride that when the "postman" came round to your class with a delivery you were popular enough to receive a fine bundle of post. I remember one boy getting very angry when I did not return his favour of sending me a card quickly enough. He was clearly losing face end declared that if I did not send him a card soon he would like his back, please! (Almost as good as the child in my granddaughter's class who received a card from her last year - to Evan from Sophie - and returned the favour by giving her the same card back, simply overwriting 'to' and 'from' so that it read " from Evan to Sophie".)

Hadley Freeman, a columnist in Saturday's Guardian says her Jewish family has always celebrated Hanukah in the traditional way and then, immediately afterwards, put up a tree and decorations and celebrated Christmas. "Hey, we might say prayers in Hebrew instead of Latin but we want to eat chocolate Santas for 10 days straight too, OK?"

This year, she wrote, Christmas eve and the start of Hanukah coincide, for only the fifth time in 100 years. She is very pleased blut this and gave me a new term for the combined festivities: Chrismukkah.

Happy Chrismukkah to everyone.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Some thoughts about sleepovers.

The IKEA stores are laid out in such a way that you have to walk through the whole store, following their nicely signalled walkway through the various display sections, stopping to place an order for major pieces of furnitures, writing down the code for large items you can collect on your way out and build when you get home, and picking up small items of home decor, kitchenware, bedding and so on. Eventually you go through the checkout and discover you have spent far more than you ever intended. And then there is the mini-shop that sells Swedish foodstuff, just to tempt you to spend a little more before you head for the carpark. Clever marketing!

The furniture display areas are set up to look like bedrooms and small studio flats. When our grandchildren were smaller they would disappear into these tiny house set-ups and begin some kind of imaginative game. My daughter and I would wander that section of the store hunting for them, feeling foolish at having mislaid two children. Nowadays they mostly admire certain layouts and declare that they want their rooms remodelling to look like that. Occasionally they fantasise about spending the night there. In fact I am pretty sure that I read a novel in which someone lived for a while in an IKEA store.

And now it seems that people have actually been doing that. Well, not actually living in the store but organising sleepovers for groups of friends. In August two teenagers in Belgium hid in wardrobes and came out after the store closed to film their fun and games and then post the video on youtube. Their video was viewed 1.7 million times and may well have provoked copy-cat sleepovers as there have been at least ten reported incidents in the past year in the United States, Canada, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Japan, Australia and Poland. Even though the store has been known to organise its own official "sleepovers", no doubt good promotional material, they are warming pranksters not to continue with this trend. It could be dangerous and the company might prosecute eventually!!!

I have never fully understood parents who allow their quite young children, 7 (or younger) to 11 years old, to have sleepover parties where around eight children end up (usually not) sleeping in the same room. The net result is parents who have their evening spoilt and their night's sleep seriously disrupted, and cranky, overtired children the next morning. Seriously a lose-lose situation.

Maybe the parents are suffering from nostalgia for something they never had. I blame all those stories you used to find in children's comics, stories about life in a boarding school, where they had secret societies organised midnight feasts in between solving mysteries and punishing bullies.

 No, sleepovers should be postponed until you are in your late teens / early twenties, ready to sit up all night discussing the problems of modern life and setting the world to rights!

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Secrets, lies and misapprehensions.

Yesterday Facebook told me it was the first day of winter. Various other sources also suggested that yesterday was the first day of winter. I am confused. Yesterday was the Winter Solstice. I was always told that this was also midwinter. Of course, it's not actually the midpoint of winter. That would mean that Spring would have to start sometime in February, which does not usually happen. All it really means is that the 21st of December is the shortest day of the year. I'm all in favour of that. From now on the days will get longer. Hurray!

Winter is definitely around. There was frost everywhere here this morning. Very pretty! And the sky was blue. I keep being rather surprised by this as the weathermen keep telling me that Storm Barbara is in her way, ready to make Christmas day wet, windy and dull. No Christmas day walks then!

It's going to be grim for the people sleeping on the streets as well. Even more so! I read the other day that Manchester has the fourth highest rate of street homelessness (a curious term) in the country. Someone called Adam Williams, who works for a homelessness charity in Manchester says the number of people requesting their services has never been higher than this year. “People are visibly affected when they visit Manchester at the moment, especially if they haven’t been here for a few years. However, my fear is that people will become desensitised to the situation [so many people sleeping rough] and that within a year it will just become a normal state of affairs in most people’s eyes,” he says.

You don't even need to have been away for a while to notice the difference. There are many more rough sleepers these day. Despite the advice of a number of people I know, I tend to walk around the city centre with a pocket full of change so that I can help at least a little. They aren't all drug addicts. We don't know what has driven them onto the streets.

I have just been listening to a radio programme about family secrets. An amazing number of people of my generation appear to have discovered that they were misled about the people they thought were their parents, or more frequently just the person they thought was their mother. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, even into the 1960s, convoluted ways were found to protect the family honour. How strange to discover in your grown-up years that your mother is your grandmother and your sister is actually your mother. Thank heavens for more open times.

Not all modern developments are necessarily for the better however. I have often wondered about people wanting to "be a celebrity". Now I read that psychologists/sociologists are noting a shift in values in recent years. Between 1997 and 2007 they spotted a change in the US. In television shows watched by nine- to eleven-year-olds in the US back in 1997 the dominant values (as judged by an adult audience) were deemed to be community feeling and benevolence. Fame came 15th out of 16 values tested. By 2007 fame came first and community feeling and benevolence had dropped to 11th and 12th places. The studies blame it on shows like Hannah Montana and other similar programmes involving stories about young performers. Fame was closely followed by achievement, image, popularity and financial success.

Just in case we think this is just an American thing, a survey of sixteen-year-olds revealed that 54% of them intend to become celebrities. The article I read described this as a mass delusion!

Ah, the joy of being famous for being famous!

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Christmas reflections.

I spent yesterday evening helping my eldest granddaughter to crochet mini Christmas trees. These were to be a present for her boyfriend's mother. There she was, setting out to impress by being really practical. Unfortunately she was struggling to make head or tail of the pattern she had acquired over the internet. So she called on me for help. At first, on Sunday evening, I was as flummoxed as she was and almost gave up on the whole idea. Then, at some point in the middle of the night, it dawned on me that the pattern was using American terminology for the various stitches. So on Monday morning I had another go and made it work. And consequently I spent last night making sure she could also do it. Success!  

One of the best things about Christmas is that when the post comes dropping through your letter box it's not just advertising rubbish, bills and bank statements. No, you get actual communication, greetings from real people, written with proper pens. Sometimes they contain news about what old friends have been up to but even if it just says, Merry Christmas, love from X, Y or Z, it's still nice to hear from people. Some people say you should send e-cards, on the grounds that it is better for the environment, but you can't stand e-cards in the mantelpiece.  

While I like getting a handwritten note in a card, I can't say I am a fan of round robins. Somehow a one-size-fits-all communication ends up sounding like a lot of boasting and includes bits of news that don't necessarily need to be sent to everyone on your Christmas card list. Fortunately we don't get many of these. And, of course, you can just throw them away unread if they make you feel really grumpy.  

Christmas is a funny time though. People lose their inhibitions to some extent and go around wearing Christmas jumpers, sometimes paying extortionate amounts of money for a garment adorned with sparky reindeer, which you can only possible wear for one or two weeks of the year. Then there are earrings. I have to confess to wearing Christmas earrings, usually quite restrained snowflakes or snowballs or small fir trees, but some people go over the top and wear the ones with flashing lights.    And out and about this morning I came across an elf - well, a grown woman in an elf costume, albeit a rather fetching elf costume. It was only nine o'clock in the morning so goodness knows where she was going dressed up like that. I suppose she could just about conceivably have been on her way home from somewhere but if that was the case she looked remarkably fresh. So I greeted her with a cheery, "Good morning, Elf!" And we both went on our way.  

And then there are the decorations. When I was a child you sometimes saw a Christmas tree placed in a window so that it visible from the outside world. and that was all. My mother objected even to this. She said it was "common" and really was a way of showing off that you had a great big tree and wanted to impress everyone. I wonder what she would think about the almost competitive element there is nowadays in external house decoration. Here is a link to a set of photos of the most gaudily decorated house.

The description alongside one of the pictures reads as follows:

"Sheila and John Gill began hanging decorations and fixing thousands of lights over the August bank holiday. The lights, which completely cover their house and garden, will stay switched on between 4pm and 8pm each day until 31 December."

My first thought when I saw it was about the electricity bill. Then there is the light pollution aspect. Imagine living next door to it or, even worse, across the road from it! But mainly I am amazed that someone can start to plan Christmas before August is out of the way.  

Totally over the top! 

Monday, 19 December 2016

The times they are a-changing!

When I ran into an old friend and former colleague recently, I was very flattered when she said that my regular photos posted on Facebook, pictures of "bits of beauty" seen on my morning run, were a window of calm in her busy life, her "thought for the day". What a lovely comparison.

I used to catch Thought for the Day on the Radio 4 Today programme as I drove through rush hour traffic to work on the other side of Manchester. I particularly enjoyed listening to Rabbi Lionel Blue with his distinctive voice and his sometimes rambling anecdotes. And just now I found out that he has died. That's another one gone this year!

Here's a quote from the many tributes to a lovely old man:

"Through the popularity of his broadcasts and books, he made rabbis more human, Judaism more understandable, and faith in general more user-friendly.

"It was a tribute to the way he bridged religious differences that it was often quipped that Rabbi Blue would have been a wonderful choice as the. next archbishop of Canterbury.

"Without doubt, Lionel Blue was God’s best PR man in Britain.”

Maybe we need more people like him around to point our thoughts in the right direction.

And so I add him to the list of good people who have vanished from our lives over this year. I am developing a nostalgia for a gentler, friendlier time and I am beginning to object to change.

Our eldest granddaughter seriously objects to change. When I repainted the front door, some years ago now, changing it from black and white to a fine deep blue, she barely spoke to me for weeks. Even worse, when I replaced the three piece suite, which had been growing shabbier and shabbier for years, she practically refused to visit the house. Together with her grandfather, who also objected to that change, she still reminds me from time to time that I unreasonably got rid of her favourite furniture. So when she came round yesterday and saw that I had bought and installed the new electric fire, replacing the old open fire grate, her first words were, "What has gone wrong here?" in very indignant tones! She took quite some placating. Her grandfather, by way of a contrast, has completely accepted this last change, even saying that I made a good choice when I purchased it.

There you go!

I shall not dwell on the wider changes going on in our society. No doubt I shall have occasion to do so again in the not too distant future. Besides, according to this article, help is at hand. The actor Michael Sheen is planning to give up acting to become a full-time activist combatting right-wing extremism.

That's all right then!

Sunday, 18 December 2016

And my choice is ...

Most Sunday mornings we listen to Desert Island Discs. I sometimes think that the theme tune to the programme might well be one of my chosen pieces of music, in the unlikely event that they might ask me to take part.

This week it was Bruce Springsteen, a performer we have seen on a number of occasions, whose music we have on CD, DVD, audio cassette and even video cassette: stuff we play frequently, apart, that is, from the video cassettes, and the audio cassettes for that matter. All the occasions when we have seen him live have been memorable, such as driving to Old Trafford to see him with a friend whose brother knew the words of just about all the songs, not just to sing along to mumbling over the bits you have forgotten but actually singing them totally word perfect unaccompanied in the car at the top of his voice!

We even saw him in Galicia, in a venue outside Santiago de Compostela (where health and safety had seemingly not been heard of) and ending up eating chorizo and chips and drinking beer at four in the morning, fantasising about running into the band in the old quarter next day. That did not happen! Such a shame!
 Anyway, there he was on Desert Island Discs, large as life and pleasant to listen to. His eight records, he claimed, all had some influence on his own music:

Elvis: You ain't nothing but a hound dog
Beatles: I wanna hold your hand
Stones: It's all over now.
Van Morrison: Astral weeks
Marvin Gaye: What's going on?
James Brown: Out of sight
Dylan: Like a rolling stone (this was the one above all he would save from the waves)
The Four Tops: Baby, I need your loving

In addition to the Bible and Shakespeare, books everyone receives willy nilly, he would like "Woody Guthrie: a life", by Joe Klein

As regards his permitted luxury, he wanted a chef but this was not allowed on the grounds that it meant having another person there on the island. He declined a kitchen, saying that he can't cook. In the end he opted to take his guitar. Fair enough!

He talked at one point about his relationship with his father, who he said loved him and couldn't stand him: that traditional duality in father-son relationships. Like many men of his (our) generation he found it difficult to talk to him. Asked if he talked to his mother about his father, he said not. You didn't talk about emotions back then, he said. Quite so.

You could send a card or give a gift, even end a letter, with "love from ..." but as a rule you didn't make a big thing about telling your family you loved them. Unlike now when " ' love you" is almost too easy to say, heard all the time on buses at the end of mobile phone conversations. We older folk are more restrained, although on the whole it's a good job we got past being totally unable to express our feelings. However, when my sister's granddaughter (my great-niece, I suppose) tells me she has missed me, there is still a bit of me that huffs and puffs and says, no, that she doesn't see me regularly enough, indeed has never seen me regularly enough to miss me when I am not around. But that's a different matter.

Anyway, Springsteen reckoned he has been working out his feelings on stage. He says his performances amount to putting on his father's clothes and going on stage to work it all out. Oddly enough the last time we say Loudon Wainwright he was reading out selections of his father's writings.

Maybe it's part of being famous.

According to presenter Kirsty Young, Barack Obama once said he was only running for president because he couldn't be Bruce Springsteen. Randy Newman has a song, "My life is good", where he makes us believe Bruce asked him to be "The Boss" for a while.

Everyone should have a dream!

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Birthdays, famous folk, spellings and language.

Today is Tommy Steel's birthday. I found this information in the list of today's birthdays in the newspaper. I wonder how many of today's teenagers have even heard of him. Probably very few. Especially as he has managed to escape being accused of abuse of young fans in his youth. Good for him. Many others in the list I have never heard of either. Anyway, he is is eighty today. So is Pope Francis. Who knew that they were twins?

After getting into trouble for her comments about Theresa May's leather trousers, former education secretary Nicky Morgan decided she would not after all appear in the satirical programme "Have I Got New for You". So they replaced her with an expensive handbag, since she has in turn been criticised for carrying a designer handbag almost as expensive as the PM's trousers. Nicky Morgan apparently took it in good sport, stating that if she had known what they were going to do she would have sent the actual handbag along to take her place.

This not the first time that the programme has substituted an object for a missing person. Way back in 1993 Roy Hattersley cancelled his appearance at the last minute - for the third time!! - so they replaced him with a tub of Lard: "The Rt. Hon. Tub of Lard MP". So the action could be said to be unprecedented.

Now, that - "unprecedented" - seems to be a word that Mr Trump has difficulty spelling. I read that he tweeted that China had carried out an "unpresidented act" when it seized an unmanned submarine this week. Let's be generous and suggest that he has a faulty spell-check on his phone. Or maybe he is so pleased to be president-elect that he just has to get the word president in everywhere. The tweet was later corrected and the original removed but, as we know, once something is out there in social media, it has a life of its own.

I hope he does not read my blog as he is not noted for responding well to criticism and leg-pulling. Maybe he should take a lesson rom Nicky Morgan.

Will he continue to tweet as president? Will we see government by tweet and twitter and Facebook? I wonder.

I read something the other day about emojis, those little pictures - cute and appealing or just plain annoying, depending on your point of view - that lots of people add to the end of their text messages and tweets. Well, it now seems that some people also add them to emails as a way of perhaps avoiding misunderstanding of their message. A smiley face might stop someone taking offence. Some are using them in business and other official emails. So, are we in for government by emoji? According to the writer of the article, a certain Neil Cohen, it might be possible to regard emojis as a developing, independent language.

Final question, will emoji be the next official diplomatic language?

Friday, 16 December 2016

A little escapism!

Right, I have almost nailed the Christmas shopping thing. On two occasions this week, I have gone round various shops with my list: two completely different days and two completely different experience. It's not so much the shopping as the roaming the streets of Manchester.

On Tuesday I usually go to an Italian conversation class in the late afternoon and this week I went into Manchester early so that I could visit some shops first. I was feeling a bit under the weather and the weather I was under was disgusting: damp and drizzly! By the time I had done almost two hours of tramping Manchester I was damp and miserable and had really has enough. It's a good job we had our end of term party in the class to cheer me up. I did, however, get a lot of stuff done.

Today I went into town with my daughter and my list and her list. A different city! It has been a beautiful day: mostly blue sky, some wintry sunshine and a lot of brightness. Roaming Manchester was a pleasure. Yes, I do know people who would hold their hands up in amazement that shopping can be enjoyable but with pre-planning and a good list that can indeed be the case.

Almost there! So now I just need to do some major wrapping and check up that I have everything covered!

Between the two shopping trips we had a new fancy electric fire delivered. When we moved into this house, some thirty years ago, we had the romantic notion of heating the house with a coal burning stove, which ran the central hearing system as well as serving as a cooker. It was fine for most things, although useless for cakes. Cakes need a reliable oven temperature, not one that can drop by maybe ten degrees as you put the cake in! Otherwise great! Until, that is, albeit after a number of years, it sprang a leak and we discovered that it would cost more to have it fixed than it had cost us originally. So out it went and in went a gas-fired boiler to run the central heating. Besides, we were both working full time and keeping the stove running was hard work.

Anyway, at the start of the romantic adventure, we had the old gas fire in the living room removed and a good old-style open fireplace installed. In recent years we have found this a little onerous: great once the fire was burning merrily but involving a lot of work. So we looked at a living-flame gas fire: too complicated to install and connect to the gas supply, which would have involved drilling through a stone floor to install piping to reach the gas meter sin the basement kitchen. Altogether too hard! 

The answer seemed to be one of the new, clever electric fires, fires that look remarkably like real open fires, even to pretend smoke drifting upwards. So I ordered one and it arrived on Wednesday. Installation looked straightforward ... up to a point. And then the diagrams seemed to diverge from the reality in front of us, or mostly in front of me. It had been my decision and was largely my responsibility. In the end, however, this technophobe managed it, with only a little help from my technical adviser husband.

And now for something about language. From time to time Facebook throws up quizzes about users' knowledge of history, music, culture and the like, such as this one about the correct use of words. Is it really possible to score less than full marks on this? And I wanted to add a question about the verb "to text". In fact I have long questioned the use of "text" as a verb instead of a noun but that is a different matter. Having, therefore, accepted for the moment that it can be a verb, which of the following is its correct form in the past tense? "I texted him yesterday" or "I text him yesterday"?

My daughter, usually almost as much a grammar-nazi as I am, maintains that the second is perfectly acceptable. As a linguist, and a great believer that language rules should be obeyed, I find that form quite upsettingly wrong.

BoSuch questions take my mind off the greater trouble of the world!

Thursday, 15 December 2016


Labels are funny things. In one of her books Doris Lessing talked about people not so much being cured of mental ailments as being given a label. Instead of getting a cure, patients were told, "You are nothing but a ..." and that was enough; they then had to get on with life. In some cases, of course, being told that you are "nothing but a ...", be it manic depressive or some other label, would make some people react against it and decide not to be so.

However, we like labels.

If you don't sleep well, you suffer from insomnia. It sounds better than saying simply that you slept badly. I thought about this as I lay awake at some point in the middle of the night. You can have two kinds of insomnia: the sort where it just takes you ages and ages to fall asleep and the sort where you wake up at various points in the night and wonder why you are not asleep. Sometimes the first kind blends into the second. And then, as a rule we all sleep a lot better than we think. How many of us have lain awake next to a snorer, who tells you in the morning that he/she has not slept a wink all night?!

 Post traumatic stress disorder is another label that causes some controversy. Lady Gaga has recently talked about having been raped when she was in her late teens and says that she has suffered from PTSD ever since. Piers Morgan has gone public saying that this is nonsense. He says soldiers who have been under fire and come back from war zones may well suffer from PTSD but that people going through lesser trauma (is a violent rape a lesser trauma?) cannot claim to suffer at the same level. And yet, psychologists recognise that something like the serious illness or death of a close friend or member of the family can trigger PTSD: not just a vague bit of depression but PTSD - a more serious label and perhaps a recognition that is a step on the way to recovery.

And of course, people experience things in a different way. After a burglary some people just get on with their lives while others have to move house, unable to stay in a space that has been violated (PTSD?). In my sister's case, she had to do a major clean-up, scrubbing all surfaces and washing every item of clothing in their home to remove all trace of the person who went through their stuff. 

Childbirth is another one. Most women find that having produced a living baby to care for and the rewards of looking after that little bundle of joy are enough to wipe out the memorybof whatever level of suffering they went through giving birth. Otherwise, it is quite likely that few would go on to have a second or third child. Some, however, actively enjoy the birth process - they are in the minority, I think - but others do turn around and say, "Never again!!"

And finally there is that newfangled label: Brexit! That's the one that nobody yet understands. It's all very well to declare, "Brexit means Brexit" and to talk about having a "red, white and blue Brexit", whatever that means! In the news this evening, I am hearing rumblings about the untangling of the UK from the EU possible taking up to ten years. Does that mean ten years of limbo, ten years of uncertainty, ten years of not having any idea of what is going on? Theresa May has been in Brussels today for talks about immigration and then found herself all alone while everyone else went on to discuss Brexit ... without her.

Maybe it's time our government took their courage in heir hands and told the country, "Well, you voted to leave but it's just turning out to be too costly, too complicated, too messy. And so we would like you to reconsider. Why don't we stay in and work on helping sort out the EU for the better".

 Some members of the EU might protest a bit but we haven't yet triggered article 50!

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Appearances, perceptions and reality.

Today being Wednesday, my run took me to Uppermill, where I did a lightning tour of shops and market stalls and ended up in the main square in time for a bus home. I work to a tight schedule on these Wednesday morning trips, allowing myself just enough time to visit all the places on my list. Consequently I was not impressed today when an item I was purchasing at the co-op had a bar code which refused to be read. I was even less impressed when the already slow-to-react cashier began to type in the code, stopped to help out another cashier with a totally different problem, made a mistake in my code and proposed to start afresh. I gave up and left the item behind. Barcodes appear to make life easier and shopping faster but appearances can be deceptive.

On the bus home there were two gentlemen, aged somewhere in their mid- to late-fifties, at the very least. One of them had one of those hairstyles that much younger men seem to favour these days: cut very short and close at the sides, almost shaven, but worn longer and in a bit of a man-bun on the top. In his case, he also had strands of the topknot hair died a sort of electric blue. (This colour looks fine on our nineteen year old granddaughter, by the way, but at nineteen you can get away with such things.) He also sported the kind of hipster beard favoured, once again, by much younger men. His companion had thinning hair pulled back into a pony tail - never a very good look, in my humble opinion - and a wispy beard. His most striking feature though, and one of which he was clearly proud since he kept tweaking it, was a waxed moustache, curled upwards at the ends, in a kind of slightly subdued Salvador Dalí style. No doubt they thought their appearances were fine!

I came across some statistics from an Ipsos Mori survey. It seems that many countries' perceptions of the size of the Muslim population in their country is seriously out of line with reality. Many European states, including France, the UK, Belgium and Germany greatly overestimate the numbers in their country. The average French person estimates that 31% of the population is Muslim while the reality
is that in 2010 it stood at 7.5%. Similarly British people surveyed put the Muslim population at 15% while the actual figure in 2010 was 5%. Too many people believe the scaremongering in certain parts of the media. For details of how other countries view things follow this link.

Over breakfast I read that Andrew Lloyd Webber believes he "discovered" the singer Rihanna while on holiday in Barbados 12 years ago together with his creative partner, Nigel Wright. She was singing karaoke and he was impressed but decided not to take any action. “I said to Nigel, ‘If we bring her back, you know it’s like when you see a picture when you’re away and you take it home and you think, why did I buy that?’” said Webber. “I thought: we’ll get her back, it’ll be fine, but then what do we do with her?” I don't think he can really claim any credit there!

And finally, it appears that Spain might be changing its time. It has been proposed that they should have the same time as the UK and Portugal. Geographically Spain is in the same time zone as the UK and Portugal and always used to have the same time as us. Then General Franco shifted the time forward an hour in 1942 in solidarity with Hitler's Germany and the clocks have been running that way ever since.

Professor Nuria Chinchilla, director of the International Centre for Work and Family at Spains IESE Business School says that this time anomaly is very bad for the country. It affects sleep patterns: “It’s awful and it affects people’s ability to look after their children and spend time with them after school; we’re also sleeping an hour less than we should be, so we’re less productive given the hours worked and there are more accidents. It’s really irrational and that’s why we’re campaigning for it to be fixed.”

She said turning back the clocks and introducing a 9-to-5 day would yield swift and obvious benefits: “If we turn the clocks back, it’ll get darker earlier and so people will want to go home earlier. It would also be good for the body and people would work better and more productively.”

There you go. Perhaps the Spanish only "appear" to need a siesta. Let's see if it all works out.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Christmas is coming!

On the radio on Sunday I heard someone comment on how odd it is that every year on the 11th of December we are surprised to discover that Christmas is only two weeks away. Quite so! I seem to have been squirrelling things away in cunning biding places for months and now find that I am not in the least prepared. And so today I shall set off early for my Italian class in the hope that I can do some Christmas shopping beforehand.

Maybe I should follow the advice you get in article about not giving presents. Indeed, in some cases they involve people who have decided not to spend any money at all for a year. Some of them save enough money to be able to pay off large chunks of their mortgage. Of course, in order to live that way, you need enough clothes in your wardrobe so that you need not buy any new ones - probably true in most people's case - and ideally no children who are going to put on a growth spurt and suddenly find that all their clothes are too small. And of course, from the food point of view you need to be able to be self sufficient and have at least a small allotment to grow vegetables. So, without being too negative about this splendid idea, it seems to me that you need to be quite privileged to begin with!

Much more realistic is the young woman I read about who decided only to buy absolute essentials for a year. She got the whole family on board and they agreed to have no cinema trips, no subscription to Sky, no meals out in restaurants and generally no luxuries. She went to work on her bike. They all borrowed books from the library. Did they, I wonder, disconnect from the Internet? Could she have carried on working without it? Good question.

As regards shopping for Christmas food, it's a good job I serve up pretty much the same meal every year, with a few variations to include new recipe ideas I have come across. But in general it means I can fish out last year's food shopping list when I head to the supermarket.

The tree has already been decorated by granddaughter number two. She is also responsible for the gingerbread house, which she will probably be responsible for demolishing and eating.

In the Italian class this afternoon we had our Christmas party. Everybody took along some food or drink. I was reminded of the young people who come knocking on our door in Spain if we are around towards the end of the school term. They come asking for a contribution to the "fiesta de fin de curso". I am always tempted to ask if their parents know they go begging from door to door but I have not yet reached such curmudgeonly depths. However, I usually send them away empty-handed, rarely having supplies of biscuits and sweet stuff - chucherías - to hand.

One of our number this afternoon turned up wearing felt reindeer antlers. This is what I like to see: a bit of Christmas spirit. Time to start wearing my Christmas ear rings!

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Positive thinking?

When I read that eleven year old Cruz Beckham had released a Christmas single to raise money for charity my first thought was not how lucky that young person is to have parents who could facilitate such a thing but surprise that the Beckham daughter was eleven years old. And then I remembered that Cruz is in fact an eleven year old boy not an eleven year old girl.

Cruz is a girl's name in Spain and I seem to remember that the Beckhams were living in Madrid when he was born. Does he even know he has a girl's name? Do his parents know? Somehow I don't have David Beckham down as one to give his son a girl's name just to toughen him up, like in the Johnny Cash song "A boy named Sue".

The Beckham daughter is called Harper, another silly name to my way of thinking. But then the two older boys are Brooklyn and Romeo. Enough said!  just a good job they don't have to go to the kind of school where they might be teased and bullied for having odd names. Little Harper apparently has her own fashion blog. That's pretty impressive for five years old!

I have no real objections to the Beckhams. They seem to be quite a happy family unit. It must be the power of positive thinking. Although being successful and having plenty of money undoubtedly helps. I have read that there is research that shows that positive thinking is good for you. Optimists are more likely to remain healthy and live longer.

Catherine Bennett, writing in today's Observer, suggests that maybe optimists in the modern world are just more deluded. Funnily enough Eva Wiseman, writing in that newspaper's magazine section says more or less the same thing; she wants to stay in her own "echo chamber", her comfort zone, her little bubble of world where everyone she meets thinks as she does and she does not have to confront the problems of the modern world and people who disagree with her.

Faced with a situation where Russia seems to be quietly taking over the world, I must say we all could do with a bubble of optimism to escape into. First there has been the "corruption" of the 2012 Olympic Games: athletes winning doping-assisted medals. Then comes the suggestion that they interfered with the recent American elections. One article I read even implied that they could have manipulated the UK referendum. And there I was, worrying that we might be faced with government by social media, little suspecting that social media could be used quite so effectively to decide WHO will govern.

The world is an odd place at the moment!

More cheerfully and less seriously, in the midst of everything I found an item about Starbucks, the coffee shop that has taken over the world. One of the co-founders of the Starbucks chain said this:

"My friends Gordon Bowker, Jerry Baldwin and I used to throw around terrific ideas for businesses; we wanted to make a change in our lives [Siegl was a history teacher] and do something that could have impact and be meaningful. We began meeting every few weeks to kick around ideas and one day when we were having lunch we ordered an espresso, which turned out to be really bad.

It came up in that moment that two of the three of us had ordered fresh roasted coffee in other cities, but there wasn’t anywhere in Seattle. There weren’t any coffee bars in the US in 1970, so we put coffee roasters on the list of business ideas."

And so they put that idea into practice, thinking they might have two or three stores, little thinking that they could go global.

How astounding! I find Starbucks' coffee pretty unpalatable, just my personal opinion of course, and spend time hunting for somewhere that will sell me a good cup of coffee, such as I find in Spain and Italy. And yet Starbucks came about in part from the search for a good cup of coffee!

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Revisiting a few topics.

Further to my comments on Theresa May's very expensive trousers the other day, I have read today that Nicky Morgan, former education secretary, critic of the trousers - "I don't have leather trousers. I don't think I've ever spent that much on anything apart from my wedding dress." - has been excluded from a select group invited to a private meeting at Downing Street between a group of Conservative MPs and the Prime Minister. She was initially invited but since trousergate has been deselected.

Oh dear!

Mind you, I bet the PM will get more wear out of the expensive trousers than the MP did out of her wedding dressing.

Poor Theresa May; she doesn't seem to have much luck with colleagues. Boris Johnson goes out and just speaks his mind or maybe just says out loud what others say quietly behind closed doors. There is a lot of talk about how refreshing it is to have a politician who does not mince words. Others say that it was okay for Boris Johnson to say whatever he liked, express his own opinions when he was Mayor of London but as Foreign Secretary he needs to speak with the government's voice and toe the government's line.

When does outspokenness tip over into rudeness?

Like our Boris, Donald Trump has been able to speak his own mind completely freely, indeed seems to make a point of doing so, but when he becomes president he might have to tone things down. Some express doubts about his being able to do so. We shall see.

And then there is Nigel Farage who now seems to have global ambitions. He sees himself negotiating trade deals with Donald Trump or possibly finding a solution to the Middle East conflict. "I'm not suggesting I can do everything but I'm quite good at bringing people together." Is he a man with a vision or a man having visions?

According to John Crace's digested week in today's Guardian, the Supreme Court has an overpriced cafe and a gift shop where you can buy Supreme Court teddy bears and baseball caps. Who knew? and is he being serious? I know that museums and art galleries come equipped with an obligatory gift shop but does the Supreme Court really have one?

In this world of media domination, possible government by tweet, and similar things, I should not be surprised at the intervention of actors in world affairs. However, I continue to be astonished. The latest to step up and comment about things political are the Mexican actor, Gael García Bernal, and actor whose films, such as "The Motorcycle Diaries", I have very much enjoyed and the director Pablo Larrain. They have stated their belief that "a climate of tension in the US could trigger political violence, even war" and say that Latin American cinema must challenge the "racism and hatred" embodied by Donald Trump's ascent to the White House.

Good for them!

But maybe they should be careful. That man is notoriously quick to take offence. Just take a look at this story.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Equality matters!

Last night, amidst reporting on the Supreme Court meeting about Brexit - all rather inconclusive since they have heard all the evidence and now need to go away and deliberate on it - BBC's Newsnight did a feature on Supreme Court judges.

They began with the profile of a Supreme Court Judge: old, white and male. Old is understandable; growing older goes alongside gaining experience. The young may have a mass of knowledge and lots of great ideas but amassing experience takes time. White and male, however, are categories of a different kind. Among the 11 Supreme Court Judges there is only one woman, Lady Hale. To a man (and one woman) they seem to have studied at top universities: mostly Oxford and Cambridge with Queen's University Belfast and Edinburgh in there as well. Ethnic minorities are not represented at all. Since women and ethnic minorities are apparently increasingly well represented in lower echelons of the justice system, it could be argued that in time the situation will remedy itself. However, those involved in the discussion felt that this might quite simply be too slow. Some kind of positive discrimination may be needed to speed up the process of change.

Rajesh Agrawal, London's Deputy Mayor for Business (who knew that London had a range of deputy mayors?) argued that even though the Supreme Court Judges may be very learned and honest and truly strive to be unbiased in their judgments, they still can only see the world from their own perspective. Their predominantly white, male, expensively, and often privately, educated perspective. His experience as a member of an ethnic minority makes him see the world differently. Similarly a woman sees the world from another, different perspective. For the Supreme Court to be truly representative of our modern UK society, it needs to have some Justices who see the world from those other perspectives.

Coincidentally, on the subject of equality, I was talking to our son last night. The purpose of my phone call was really to do with arrangement for their Christmas visit and a check to see if there was anything specific that they might like us to buy for their small daughter. As regards that question the answer is nothing too big as they have to carry stuff back in quite a small car. Anything to do with arts and crafts will go down a storm. Also appreciated are things involving construction; she likes to build. And books, of course, but stories in which the prime mover and shaker is female. None of these females who rely on being pretty and need rescuing by the prince!

In fact, at not quite three years old, she has begun to alter the stories she hears. Heroes change their names and become heroines. Events are turned around. Dragons become more believable dinosaurs. Reading bedtime stories to her has become more complicated as you have to remember the changes that have been worked on the storyline in question. She has been adapting the male-dominated world to her own specifications.

Fantastic! At almost three she is already determinedly protesting about gender inequality!

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Maintaining standards!

I understand that cricket is going through a behaviour crisis. One part of a report says, “The decline in behaviour in the recreational game is having an adverse effect on the availability and willingness of people wanting to stand as umpires." And so there is a plan to introduce a red-card penalty into the laws of cricket, giving umpires the power to send off a player in the most extreme cases of on-field breaches of discipline. They want to be able to give red cards for “threatening an umpire, physically assaulting another player, umpire, official or spectator, or any other act of violence on the field of play”. Do such things really go on on the cricket pitch?

Who knew that things could come to such a pretty pass? Cricket has always seemed to me such a gentlemanly game. Of course, I am still thinking of long-lasting games on the greensward, with players in their cricket whites, ladies in sunhats and sunglasses watching the proceedings, perhaps doing their knitting or reading a novel in the quiet times, and a genteel tea being served to players and spectators at some point half way through the game.

And now, of course, we have teams who play in all sorts of colours and, apparently, there is bad behaviour on the pitch. It's rather like having people boo at Wimbledon, something which has also happened. Cricket and tennis always used to be above that sort of behaviour! Such a shame!

One of the sixth form colleges where I used to work introduced a red-card system as part of disciplinary practice. Students who were frequently absent or late, failed to pull their weight in class or to complete homework assignments, or committed much more heinous crimes were given a yellow card as a warning and then a red card if they failed to improve. Continued failure to improve could, in the end, lead to suspension or, in extreme cases, expulsion. Mostly it seemed to work. Sixth form colleges, after all, are made up largely of youngsters who have chosen to be there. Some have had their arms twisted by parents to persuade them to attend but, on the whole, they are voluntary and just need a bit of a reminder to stay on the straight and narrow. But if you can't rebel a little when you are in your mid to late teens, then it's a poor do. Most of us have to conform to life's expectations for such a long time after the teenage years are over!

As regards conforming, we should try to keep up good old British traditions, such as dunking biscuits in cups of tea and coffee. Once long ago, returning from a college trip to Spain with a bunch of students and teachers, I sat in an airport cafe, possibly at Barcelona, absentmindedly dunking my breakfast croissant in my coffee - actually a very French thing as well as a British thing. One of the younger teachers looked at me in horror, unable to believe that a respectable, fairly senior teacher could be setting such a poor example. And yet it is such a quintessentially British thing to do. However, according to this article the custom may be in danger of dying out because too many people are buying inferior imported American biscuits such as Oreos instead of good old British digestive and rich tea biscuits.

It's just not cricket!

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Leaves and grass and photos.

This morning Phil looked out of the window and stated that he wanted to look out on green, not green with brown splodges. And so, after breakfast, we went out with rakes and gathered together all the fallen leaves. Now they are all in a soggy pile behind the fence at the bottom of the garden. Of course, we could have a dry spell, so that they can all dry out, followed by a windy spell and the leaves could end up all over the grass once again. Perhaps we should have organised a smoky bonfire.

Raking leaves off grass is not unlike combing tangles out of a small girl's hair. Slow and gentle works best. If you try to go too fast, you end up pulling out great clumps. Not good in either case. Although the grass does not protest quite so loudly as the small girl. The grass - I hesitate to call it a lawn - looks a lot better. Well, a lot greener!

Someone who has been trying to look her best is our PM, Theresa May. Ready to have her picture taken for the Sunday Times, she donned a pair of leather trousers (£995) and a pair of Burberry trainers (£295). The article which gave me this information did not mention how much her jumper cost; I can only assume it was equally expensive. She has been criticised for wearing these items, on the grounds that this shows she is out of touch with the general public. There is a part of me that agrees with this. Our parliamentarians - and those of all democracies - should not be spending huge amounts on clothes in times of austerity. There is absolutely no need for politicians to be wearing designer clothes! However, if you are going to wear leather trousers - never a good idea in my opinion - then they have to be good quality. And here's another "however": I have yet to hear of a male politician being criticised for wearing a suit that cost over £1000!

Here's a bit more nonsense. Yesterday an Italian friend of mine told us, in despair and incredulity, that she had heard on the radio on her way to work that Nigel Farage was going to appear on the cover of Time Magazine as their "Man of the Year". I checked: the former UKIP leader featured alongside the likes of US President-elect Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, scientists who have developed technology to edit DNA and Beyonce among the finalists for "Person of the Year". It seems that the American news magazine gives Mr Farage much of the credit for Brexit. Well ....

My investigations also revealed that Nigel Farage has been named “Briton of the year” by The Times, which hailed his “game-changing” politics. I wonder if they also hailed the role of the media in giving him lots of publicity! So much for British values!

There was a hiatus in production of this post while I sorted put a load of financial paperwork. As sometimes happens - too often for my liking - when Phil asks me to verify something about our finances, I go to the files, only to find at they are inexplicably in a mess. Loads of stuff has not been put where it belongs and needs sorting. Phil then laughs at me for getting somewhat stressed about this. He does not, however, volunteer to sort it in my place! This happened again today!

During that time, it transpires that Donald Trump is the one to appear as Man of the Year on the front of Time Magazine. How did that happen? Does he have shares in Time Magazine?

2016 has been quite a year. And there are still a few weeks to go!

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Remembering stuff.

Over breakfast we usually catch up with email, Facebook (just me, as Phil is still a Facebook refusenik), the newspapers and suchlike. No, we are not completely antisocial; we are not one of those couples who sit in restaurants so busy with their mobile phones that they never say a word to each other. We comment on items of interest that we find, recommend articles to each other and generally swop and share stuff. All of this while consuming coffee and cereal and toast. We can multi-task!

And so this morning Phil informed me that chess Grand Master Timur Gareyev had broken the simultaneous blindfold chess-playing record. As a rule he does not share chess news with me but we met this odd young man in Portugal last year so he knew that I would be interested.

For those who do not know, playing blindfold means that you do not look at the board while playing. Your opponent tells you his move, you remember the state of the board, perhaps visualising it in your head, and then tell him your move. And so on. Doing this with one game at a time is clever stuff but over the last weekend young Timur Garayev played blindfold simultaneously against 48 opponents, winning 35, drawing 7 and losing 6.

Now, I call that pretty impressive, considering that some people have trouble remembering what they upstairs for!

We met Timur Gareyev, as I said, in Figueira da Foz in Portugal last year, when Phil was playing in the chess tournament there. I immediately thought he fitted into the category of "slightly odd chess player", although not as odd as some I have met. (No offence to chess players is intended ; every sport has its obsessives and eccentrics. I just happen to have met a fair few of the chess type.) Quite tall and skinny, he was full of a nervous energy, verging on manic, and frequently grinning. He seemed to be full of a sense of fun and appeared to be really enjoying life.

Looking up details of his record breaking, I came across this description by an American called Eric Vigil:

 "I had met GM Gareyev at the US Open in August in Indianapolis, Indiana where he had punked me out on Monday morning. He was wandering around the lobby at 7am. I had just gotten back from my daily constitutional, and he asked me where the Hotel’s restaurant was, as he needed to get some breakfast. He was an awful skinny guy and I thought he needed some food.

He then noticed my shirt with the Weber Elementary Chess Club of Iowa City, Iowa on it, and asked if I coached chess. I answered yes and we started off on a chess discussion. This young man seems very interested in chess I thought. I offered to buy him a US Chess membership and provide him with the tournament entry fees for the Quad.

He looked at me and in a very serious tone said, “Those crooks at US Chess would just be stealing your money!” then went on to say he would just win all the money at the quads and it would not be fair. I thought this young man is pretty full of himself. “Are you sure?” I asked, “Do you have something against playing rated chess?”

At that point another person came up and asked GM Gareyev for a selfie picture… DAWG! I was just swindled as GM Gareyev was pretending to be an average Joe. GM Gareyev was very gracious and came back with me to the breakfast area of our hotel and played my roommates in some blitz chess and talked up many of the delegates to the US Chess meeting."

That sounds just like the young man we met!

Memory is a strange thing though. It can be trained and improved. Phil said his personal record for simultaneous blindfold chess was five games at a time. I have seen his perform this party piece. Who knows how many he might have managed if he had decided to train himself up to it? I am always impressed at the way he can remember details of the moves in games played years and years ago.

But then, people have often asked me how I remember the grammar rules and vocabulary for the various languages I speak. It's just one of those things I can do; my brain and memory have programmed themselves that way. When I have been asked how I manage not to confuse the languages - a problem I have never really had - I explain that I think of it as having separate compartments in my head: a kind of box for each language I speak.

We see musicians playing lengthy pieces of music without reference to the score. Singers go through a repertoire of maybe twenty or thirty songs in a performance, without a songsheet there to remind them of the words. Only once or twice have I heard a singer say they did not know the words and in each case it has been a new song.

All of these feats of memory impress me greatly, especially as I sometimes fit into the grandma stereotype of having to go through the whole list of family names before coming up with the correct one!

Monday, 5 December 2016

Education and results.

Our daughter-in-law has been teaching their small daughter Spanish. All was going well. The little girl was having fun. This morning I received a text message. One stage of the learning had gone like this:

Mummy: Grandma speaks Spanish, doesn't she?
Little girl: Yes.
Mummy: Hola, abuela.
Little girl: Hola, umbrella.

I love the logic of the small child's brain. Faced with a new-sounding word, the brain substitutes a familiar word. Fantastic. Years ago, when our first granddaughter, now a very grown-up 19, was just a little, two-year-old dot of a thing, there was a song around called "I need a miracle". The small person, nicely in tune, sang out, "I'm in America". Brains are wonderful!

On the subject of education, Phil read out a headline to me: "Graduate sues Oxford University for £1m over his failure to get a first".

Well, I thought, it was bound to happen sometime. We live in a litigious society. I have to say that I thought the first case would be a pushy parent suing a sixth form college because their super-intelligent offspring had not achieved high enough grades at A-Level. I was really only surprised that it had not happened sooner.

And then I read the article. It turns out that the graduate in question received his degree 16 years ago. He then trained as a solicitor and did not have so successful a career as he expected. Apparently he believes he would have had a career as an international commercial lawyer if he had been awarded a first rather than the 2:1 he achieved 16 years ago. And he blames his teachers! According to his lawyer, he suffers from insomnia and depression because he did not achieve his first class degree. 

Oxford is largely dismissing the charge since it all happened so long ago. I tend to agree with them. Surely, if he was going to suffer from insomnia and depression because he did not do well academically, his symptoms would have manifested themselves long ago.

A rather more important court case is going on at present. The government is trying once more to sort out the rights and wrongs of the methodology for getting us put of the EU. We wait to see the outcome!

Meanwhile, I was beginning to feel a little more optimistic about things when Austria did not vote in the right wing candidate. But then the results of the Italian constitutional referendum came out this morning and it would seem that the lunatics continue in charge of the asylum. My mother always said that bad things come along in threes. 

The writer of this article believes that Renzi's defeat is not in the same class as Brexit and Trump but my Italian friends are very upset about it.

Once again, we shall wait and see.

Sunday, 4 December 2016


I have listened to several items on the radio this last week about boredom. The general consensus seems to be that being bored is good for a body. It gives you time to think, to reflect, in some cases to write poetry. Writers they spoke to said that it was in those moments of "boredom" that they had their best ideas. We are told we should not fill children's time up with wall to wall activity; they need some time to invent their own activities, to play imaginative games.

 Okay, this is all well and good but I don't think they are talking about boredom. You can be very busy, have a load of stuff to do and be bored out of your tree. Or you can snatch a period of time out of your busy schedule and do nothing. That is not the same as boredom.

I don't think I have been bored for a long, long time. I can remember as a young child, in summer holidays, telling my mother I was bored. What it meant was that I had not decided what to do with myself and my time. And since then, I have never really been bored, occasionally frustrated but never bored. Waiting in an airport because your plane has been delayed is more frustrating than boring. You just have to make sure you have reading matter, stuff to think about.

It's a bit like sadness. How much of the great poetry or beautiful songs would have never been written in there were no sadness in the world. Maybe we just need some down time to appreciate when we are really feeling good.

And certainly we need some time to do nothing so that we can appreciate the stuff that we fill our busy lives with.

That's my take on it, anyway.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Knowledgeable gnomes and speedy Santas.

Yesterday evening I was invited to a friend's birthday celebration in Manchester. So off I went, despite the fact that, like Cinders, I would have to leave the party early, not because my frock would turn to rags and tatters but because of the stupid bus service, of which more later, although not MY rant this time. The pub was noisy, as you might expect, but it was good to catch up with old friends and colleagues. 

As I left the pub and walked along Deansgate, I serendipitously came across another group of old friends and colleagues, who had been having a departmental Christmas meal and were on their way to greet the birthday boy. Lots of grown-up people getting excited and hugging in the middle of the street! Splendid!   

I scuttled away to catch a tram to Victoria station, followed by a tram to Oldham Mumps, keeping my fingers crossed that I would manage to arrive there before the last bus left. With only two minutes to go when I reached Oldham Mumps, I was a little anxious that the bus might have left early, not unusual on our route. But all was well.    

At the stop was a small, rather gnome-like gentleman. Now, I will happily initiate conversation on public transport, on  train platforms  and at tram and bus stops. This gnome-like man was clearly of the same turn of mind. He enquired which bus I was waiting for - the same one he was planning to catch - and, after reassuring me that it had not yet gone, went into a tirade about how ridiculous it is that the last bus from Oldham centre to Saddleworth leaves at 10.28. After all, they have just opened a new cinema complex in the town centre and their last showing finishes at 10.30!!! Why is this allowed to happen? Thus he ranted on and on until the bus arrived.   

On the bus he continued, to my amusement. He asked if I knew who owned the local bus companies. No idea! Not something I have researched! Well, he told me, one of them belongs to an American company, the one that runs Greyhound buses all over the States. Billionaires! So any suggestion that they don't run more frequent and later buses because few people use them and they can't afford not to make a profit is a lot of nonsense. Another company is owned by the German public transport network. They can afford to subsidise their transport system, he told me, because they make a profit from the privately-owned services they run in the UK!    

All of this I took with a pinch of salt, especially as he further went on to tell me that the bus company does not bother to train drivers who are new to a route but simply tell them to work it put and, if they are stuck, ask a passenger; they usually know the route! Now, this I know to be untrue as I have travelled on buses where new drivers are accompanied by a trainer. However, it was an amusing bus-ride home!    

And it would not really surprise me to discover that our bus services are foreign-owned. After all, EDF is a French electricity company and the Chinese are building a nuclear power station here. So it goes!    

Today I walked to the local supermarket at Greenfield, another of the Saddleworth villages. All along my route I kept coming across masses of skinny Santas! What was going on? Then I remembered that today there is a fun run: the Saddleworth Santa Dash. Consequently, there were Santas of both genders, of varying heights and ages but almost all skinny runners; very few traditionally plump Santas. They seemed to be organised in teams according to the area they came from. Near to the supermarket, the Greenfield Santas were busily donning orange beards. Look carefully at the photo. Perhaps they have discovered that Santa has Celtic origins. Perhaps they want to counteract the prejudice against ginger folk.    

Despite the fact that my bus journey back from the supermarket was somewhat slowed down by this surfeit of Santas, I can only applaud the Christmas spirit and hope they made a lot of money for charity!

Friday, 2 December 2016


I used to know young teachers who took on extra jobs - bar work in the evening and stuff like that - to supplement their income. I always wondered how they managed to find the time. But then, I suppose, if it was bar work they could pretend that it was part of their social life as well. Nowadays I suspect that it would be even harder for teachers to take on extra employment as there is so much paperwork added on to the usual marking and preparation.

And then I read an article where the journalist was wondering whether Boris Johnson will go on writing his Daily Telegraph column. This pays him far more than his salary as an MP together with his salary as Foreign Secretary. I bet ordinary journalists don't earn that sort of money. No, it's his name that earns the fat salary.

However, it strikes me that if a government minister has time to write a regular column for a national newspaper he cannot be working as hard as the average teacher!

Names, of course, are very important. I hear that Samantha Cameron has launched her own brand of designer clothes, no doubt selling at quite extortionate prices. Now, I know that some will say that she is simply taking up her career where she left off to play that important role, wife of the PM. (As an aside, do the male partners of female politicians give up their career when their wife becomes PM? I seem to remember Denis Thatcher carried on with his business interests. And is there a Mr Merkel? What does he do?) However, one wonders how successful Mrs Cameron might be, no matter what training she has had in art and design, if she were not an already "known" brand!

Which brings me to the American designer Tom Ford who was asked in a recent interview whether he would be dressing the First Lady elect, Melania Trump. Apparently he has declined to design clothes for her in the past, saying she is not his type or shape. Now it seems that he has said that his clothes are too expensive for a first lady to wear because they have to 'relate to everybody'. Well, Donald Trump has said he wants to be the president of ALL the Americans, so that would be about right.

The fact that Tom Ford designed dresses for First Lady Michelle Obama is neither here nor there. 

Read more.

More seriously, Donald Trump is said to be on a celebratory tour of the States, thanking his supporters for electing him. On the television news last night I heard one of his fans praising him for saving 1000 jobs in United Technologies, a company that was going to send the jobs to Mexico (behind a wall?). And this before he is even in the White House. Bernie Saunders, however, writing in the Washing Post, points put that originally 2,100 jobs were to go to Mexico. So presumably over 1000 jobs are still disappearing. What's more, Trump has apparently promised tax concessions to United Technologies in exchange for keeping the 1000 jobs in the USA.

 Getting the job done!

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Fog and language!

Today has been a day of fog. White-out all over the area. Not quite bad enough to cause major traffic problems but damp and grim all over the place. And nowhere near as bad as the fogs and smogs of yesteryear. We were talking about this on Saturday, during our train journey on the Santa Express. As one of our group pointed out, almost all of the houses we were passing would have been puffing out smoke from coal fires back in the fifties and sixties when we were growing up. Cue a bit of nostalgia about walking to school with your scarf over your mouth, blowing your nose and producing a nasty black mess in your handkerchief, and those evenings when the buses were cancelled and you had to make your tentative way home on foot.

One of our members waxed lyrical about how she and a friend made it through the fog to a Beatles concert, having decided that if they were having trouble getting there, then so would the performers and, therefore, it was worth getting there even if a bit late. They made it, screamed their way through the concert and, faced with the problem of getting home again, were very relieved when one of their fathers turned up to take control! Such stamina we had in the sixties!

Today pollution is in the news again. It seems that all those trees which have lined many city streets for years and years, those trees that we have long believed to be absorbing the CO2 and releasing oxygen, have in fact been preventing pollution from escaping upwards and away from us. In fact they create a kind of pollution tunnel! Oh, no!!! Here's a link.

The other thing is speed bumps. Because cars have to brake, sometimes violently, and then accelerate away, extra pollution is released into the atmosphere. It strikes me that if perhaps the drivers kept to the speed limit for the area with the speed bumps, maybe they would not need to brake and accelerate quite so violently! Mind you, that is just my possibly scientifically ill-informed opinion!

Something else altogether is a matter of language. I have long been agitated by the fact that "fun" has changed from a noun to an adjective. It's one of my little fads. We used to say that something was "a lot of fun" or "not much fun", using those constructions because "fun" was a noun, as is "cheese". Nowadays people, at least young people, talk about something being "very fun" or "not very fun". Wrong! You never hear people taking about "very cheese"!

Now I find that the word is one of the latest anglicisms to migrate to France. Time Out France has produced "Le classement des villes les plus funs". Like every good French adjective, it is made to agree with the noun it describes. Well, technically/grammatically, since "ville" is feminine, it should have had an 'e' as well as an 's', but perhaps "funes" would have lost the anglo-pronunciation. Scores or I should say "les scores", were given for dynamism, atmosphere, restaurants and bars, variety of district life, how welcoming they are, and cost of living.

Madrid came fifth, beating Barcelona. So much for the Catalan capital being the place to go! If you want to know more, here is a link.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Reflections on a dull Wednesday

What do you do on a dull day in November? You head off for Oldham market, of course, to get your boots heeled, to buy light bulbs, to look for impossible colours of wool following a knitting request from your daughter, and to pick up a range of odds and ends from Boots the Chemist!

The lightbulbs were, in the first place because the under-the-cupboard lighting in the kitchen is all failing in one section after the other, and secondly because we have grown weary of dim rooms lit by energy-saving bulbs. The lightbulb stall man agreed with me that it is hard to tell the wattage of the ubiquitous energy-saving bulbs and that it is even harder to get hold of the old-fashioned kind. Fortunately he had some in stock but he was doing the high-pressure sell; if I went away to think about it, he warned me, and came back tomorrow, he might not have them any longer. So I bought some bulbs!

Having achieved all my objectives, I caught the bus home. Somewhere along the route the bus was invaded by a group of schoolchildren. There was a surprising amount of moaning and groaning from the people sitting near me. Considering that the kids refused to move down the bus but all bunched together near the doors, talking loudly and over-excitedly and blocking the way for anyone who wanted to get off the bus, this was not surprising really.

I recognised the badge on their blazers; it had the Aim High logo of our local high school. The school is located in the main Saddleworth village, Uppermill. So what were they doing catching a bus from just outside Oldham centre? Going back to school for something they had forgotten? Going to school early for tomorrow? It turned out that they finish early on a Wednesday and had made a group excursion to the MacDonald's just outside the town centre. Now they were mostly headed for another bit of Oldham where they planned to go to "The Cliff", an old quarry. Why are thirteen year olds attracted to such an evidently dangerous place - one of them was describing quite graphically how a friend had broken a leg there! And what a busy after-school life these youngsters have! Clearly they do not get enough homework!

Almost every one of them was equipped with an iPhone. They were comparing apps and photos. Is this the case in other countries? I wonder! When I got home I came across an item in the news about cyberbullying, sexting and other aspects of online life that cause teenagers misery. Apparently Jeremy Hunt, Health Secretary, believes that this can all be if the phone companies ban these activities. He says, “There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.” and asks himself “why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18” and “why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it”.

The writer of the article says, rather scornfully, that technology doesn't work like that. The kind of scrambling of an image that takes place when a photo is sent means that you can't tell whether the photo is sexting or cyberbullying or just plain harmless until it arrives. Education programmes are what we need!

Quite so!

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Embarrassing reactions!

Some people are complaining that Prince Harry has been put in an embarrassing position because he had to take part in a minute's silence in remembrance of Fidel Castro. Our Prince Hal is on a tour of the Caribbean at the moment and therefore was there when the news of Fidel Castro's death broke. And so he found himself with various local dignitaries at a reception on the island of St Vincent during which a minute's silence was called for.

Conservative MPs have said that it was unfair that the prince had been put in this position, one of them going as far as to say that the British government should make it clear that it was unacceptable. Another however said, “I am no fan of Fidel Castro, who was more of a tyrant than an enlightened leader. But I am a fan of Prince Harry. It must have been an awkward moment for him but hey, what else could he do?”


What was the young man supposed to do? Walk out of the room and create a different kind of embarrassment?

Personally I find it more embarrassing that the queen will invite Donald Trump into the palace but that's how these things go.

Besides, when did we start celebrating the death of anybody? What makes it right for an MP to say, as one of them did, "Castro was a murderous dictator. He is dead, and good riddance." Surely it is possible to accept that you have a different life view and still be respectful or, at the very least, just keep quiet about the person who died. I was impressed by the number of Cubans interviewed who said that they had disagreed with Castro but were nonetheless sad to see him go.

Much better than the undignified partying by former Cubans who "escaped" to Miami. After all, he kept children fed and clothed, even if it was quite basically and perhaps shabbily, and educated. And he provided a better health service than many other places, even training doctors and sending them to places worse off than Cuba. Not a bad record for a "murderous dictator"!

This dancing on the grave of those you disagree with is a worrying trend. Apparently when the MP Jo Cox was murdered there were masses of tweets celebrating the event and calling her murderer a hero.

I find myself wondering what kind of world we are living in at the moment!