Monday, 31 October 2016

Civilised goings-on!

What a civilised place this (Figueira da Foz, Portugal) is! Not only do they have bins in which to place your doggy poo at regular intervals along the promenade but the bins also dispense poo bags. Now that is what I call thoughtful!

Less thoughtful are the small birds which go crazy in the trees opposite the hotel at dawn and dusk. It was 6.45 am when I became aware of them today. That is altogether too early. In the early morning and the late afternoon the trees fill with small birds which flit from tree to tree at high speed, clearly telling all the other small birds all the news about what they have been up to. The din is immense! In no way could you call it birdsong. It is mass tweeting and twittering.

There are only two things I could possibly compare this to. One is a primary school playground full of small children who have not seen each other for the duration of the long summer holidays and are now talking all at the same time and with barely a pause for breath. The other is a square we came across in Seville years ago. As we strolled through the warm evening streets of that fair city (it was this time of year and the weather was very much like what we have here at the moment, perhaps even hotter) we could hear a sound that we had difficulty identifying. Then we turned a corner into a square where all the cafes had spilled out into the available space and all the tables were full of Spaniards, maybe a few other nationalities in there as well but mostly Spaniards, all talking at once nineteen to the dozen. Astounding!

Today is the 31st of October, Hallowe'en. All sorts of normally sensible people are wishing all their Facebook friends "Happy Hallowe'en". When did that start to happen? Cards are now sold with that greeting on. Total commercialisation! And I read somewhere that in Mexico City, in a country where the Day of the Dead / el Día de los Muertos is an important holiday (if that is the right word), they are planning a Day of the Dead Parade March. I even saw that it was to be James Bond themed. Now what does James Bond have to do with it?

Also I wonder what the pope thinks about it. It's one thing to go and clean up family graves and even have a bit of a celebration, but a full-blown march in fancy dress is something else. After all, the pope has recently said that the dead should be respected as well as remembered. He even went so far as to say that cremation is not really a good thing and we shouldn't go scattering our loved ones' ashes around the world! They might have had favourite places when alive but, no, their ashes should not be sprinkled anywhere!

At least one person has been ignoring that. In New York the City’s Metropolitan Opera was forced to cancel its Saturday afternoon performance of Guillaume Tell after an audience member sprinkled an unidentified powder, which police believe was cremated ashes, into the orchestra pit. New York City Police officials said witnesses had heard a man say he was at the opera to spread the ashes of his mentor. “An individual from out of town ... indicated that he was here to sprinkle ashes of a friend, his mentor in opera, during the performance,” John Miller, deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism told reporters.

There were no bad reactions to the substance. The person whose ashes they were was clearly not a toxic personality.

The perpetrator fled the scene so nobody knows who was scattered there.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Foreign places.

Another earthquake has been reported in central Italy. The papers said it was felt in Rome and Naples. They shut down the metro system in Rome to check that all was well. But it's the little places, closer to the epicentre that have suffered most. 

'“It all came down. Now there is no more town,” said Aleandro Petrucci, the mayor of the Marche town of Arquata del Tronto. There had already been “red zones” in place, abandoned after the previous quakes. “The few people who remained have gone out to the streets and are embracing. Now we’re going around to see what happened,” he said.' 

And we complain about parking problems and a bit of damp drizzle in the Northwest of England! Living in a place that does not really do dramatic weather has its advantages. 

And, at least until they put restrictions on flying as a way of protecting the environment, we are fortunate enough to be able to escape to places where the sun still shines hotly even at the end of October. When I looked at the weather forecast before packing the suitcases, it suggested one day with a high of 24 degrees and the rest hovering around 20, not at all bad but not spectacularly hot either. 

But today again it was already very warm by 9.00am when I went out for a run. Okay, that was really 10.00 as we put the clocks back an hour last night, but even so! Goodness, I could have brought sundresses and not felt under-dressed. 

Yesterday afternoon we sat through an hour and a half, possibly slightly longer although that might be just our impression, of Portuguese speech-making at the opening ceremony for the chess tournament here. In order to maintain sponsorship funding from the local council they clearly have to do a certain amount of praising of local dignitaries, which is all fine and understandable. Quite who decided that a talk about the Spanish poet Unamuno was just what was needed, however, remains a mystery. 

The speaker was undoubtedly an enthusiast, and very twinkly, scattering nods and smiles around the audience. We kept looking at the pile of papers he had in his hands, hoping that each one would be the last he planned to refer to. But, no, it went on and on. 

I picked up odd facts: Unamuno was a "lusophile" and an internationalist. He spent some time in Portugal but I never found out how much time or if he actually visited Figueira. He, or perhaps somebody else, believed that the Portuguese are born bilingual as they can easily learn Spanish. (Does that make them bilingual?) The Spanish have a harder time learning Portuguese. But then, I know Galicians who say they find it very hard to learn "gallego", even though they would defend their language against all comers. Spanish is the "hard" language (sounds-wise) whereas Portuguese is softer and more nuanced. It's all those liquid "l" sounds, not to mention the "sh" and 'zh'. 

And there I was, thinking that Spanish was a very romantic-sounding language! 

We sneaked out when he came to a twinkly, enthusiastic close, afraid that the follow-up speaker, who had been making notes throughout, might go on at similar length. 

Later I googled Unamuno and his links to Figueira and chess but found nothing. It remains a mystery! 

We shall just put it behind us and enjoy the sunshine and, in Phil's case, the chess.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Sunshine in Portugal.

We left a rather damp and very dull Delph yesterday afternoon to go to Liverpool and catch a plane, which set off late, to Porto. I am uncertain - no, I simply do not know - what was the nationality of the air hostess who made most of the announcements over the public address system. I am sure that on a one-to-one basis her English is excellent but as I listened to her announcements I was sometimes convinced she was speaking a foreign language, possibly Portuguese as we were flying to Portugal, and then a few words, the odd phrase, usually her closing sentence, would reveal that in fact she was speaking heavily accented English. It's a good job she didn't need to deal with an emergency, that's all I can say.

Arriving at Porto at around 7.45 in the evening, we stepped off the plane into warm air. It wasn't quite the wall of heat that hits you when you step off a plane in Malaga, for example, in mid-August but it was definitely warm. Someone from the chess organisation, a gentleman whose name we must have been told originally, two or three years ago, but which did not stick, was waiting to drive us to Figueira da Foz. Temperatures have been as high as 27 and 28 degrees over the last week, he informed us, as he switched on the air-conditioning. Wow! I had suggested that Phil might like to bring some shorts but he had pooh-poohed the idea! Such is life!

This morning I ran down the promenade and back along the boardwalks, admiring the new pathways, one for cyclists and one for pedestrians, that have been installed along the beach. Very nice! This is what all the notices about improvements to the beach area are all about then. The cycle paths have been well used this morning, as far as I can tell from our balcony. This is a good place for cyclists, rather like my hometown, Southport. It is largely flat but with a few gentle inclines to remind you what your gears are for.

In fact, Figueira is like a rather superior Southport. It has a long, very flat beach, with the sea out in the distance. The boardwalks mentioned earlier must allow sun-worshippers to walk down to the sea in summer without burning their feet. Because that is a major difference; if we think it's hot now, it gets really, seriously hot in the summer months. Also, the sea is blue, rather than the muddy brown of the Irish Sea. And there are no oil rigs. Instead of a view of Blackpool in the distance, you see Buarcos, the next small town up the coast. The beach is very clean as well. Yes, superior in all sorts of ways!

Later this afternoon we shall go to the opening ceremony of the chess tournament, celebrating the connection of the Spanish poet Miguel de Unamuno with chess and with Figueira. Who knew that there was such a connection? Nobody mentioned it when we studied his work at university all those years ago.

 Let's see how my very rudimentary Portuguese stands up to the cultural onslaught.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Names and songs and football fans.

The other day I found a list of names that are 'in danger of extinction". Well, I can think of quite a few names that were around when I was a child that you never come across nowadays, except for amongst people of my age: Barbara, Maureen, Margaret, even Susan. But the "official" list included the following:

Alpha (not so much a name as a category)
Barbra (surely a mis-spelling of Barbara)
Claudine (I wonder of they still use it in France)
Nanette (A variation on Anne, which has also become scarce)
Sheba (Isn't that an ancient country? The queen of Sheba and all that? Otherwise, a name for a lion in a cute cartoon film.)
Sondra (Another mis-spelling, this time for Sandra, diminutive of Alexandra, both now rare)
Thisbe (Were there ever girls called Thisbe outside of ancient myths and stories)
Zelma (The commentator on the list said that this name had been edged out by names like Selma and Thelma. The latter is another name from my childhood which has disappeared.)

And the boys names listed were:

Elmo (I have never met an Elmo but I have heard of St. Elmo's fire. Here's a little note about: it is a weather phenomenon in which luminous plasma sometimes appeared on ships at sea. It could be quite frightening but sailors in olden times regarded it as a good omen as St. Elmo was the patron saint of sailors.)
Icarus (Surely nobody ever named their son Icarus after what happened to the original!)
Inigo (??)
Llewellyn (Surely you only ever found these in Wales. Maybe you still do.) Sherwood (No! Not a name for a person!)
Remus (Well, I know a dog with that name)
Waldo (No comment)

Personally, I want to know what has happened to all the boys called Norman, Brian and Kevin. They have not made the kind of comeback that names like Fred, Wilfrid and Rupert have been making recently.

Our granddaughter has a boyfriend called Darryl. Whenever she types his name in a text on her phone, autocorrect changes it to Beryl (another disappearing name), causing great hilarity and not a little confusion. I met them them after they finished work in Manchester early the other evening and went for a meal with them. Good food and good company. Afterwards I hopped on a tram to cross Manchester city centre as I was going on to meet friends in a reading group.

The tram was moderately full when Ingot on at Victoria. At the next stop, Shudehill, masses of football fans got on. Manchester Untied were playing Manchester City. I should have remembered and avoided the tram but it was too late. When we got to the Market Street stop even more fans piled on, cramming into the already crowded space. We almost needed those transport employees you hear about in some countries, the ones who push the passengers into the commuter trains at rush hour. As we set the football fans began to sing, a range of good-natured songs saying rude things about the opposing team. So there was an element of competition as to which group could sing loudest.

Claustrophobia was setting in. Fortunately I was getting off the tram at St. peter's Square, the next stop on the line. Getting off was difficult! I had to push my way through a crowd of people, mostly men, mostly taller than I am. But I managed it. And as the tram continued into the evening dark, I could still here them singing.

Thank heavens the pub where I was meeting my friends did not have a TV or we might have continued with the football songs.

I understand that Manchester United won!

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Depressing stuff!

Something I read today: "The smell of rain can help reduce stress and improve your mood by up to 60%". Who knew? The person who posted this, together with a picture of rain pouring down, went on to suggest that this is why Mancunians are always cheerful. Personally, I try to avoid the smell of rain and much prefer the smell of summer, that smell of dry grass and slightly parched earth. Or possibly the smell of a crisp, bright frosty morning. But someone must have done some research in order to obtain the statistics. Although it is, of course, quite possible, that the statistics were simply invented. 

Whatever the truth of the matter, today started with a definite smell of rain and a fine drizzle falling all around here. This was at about 8.30am for me. According to my daughter, it was even worse at 7.30am when she drove the workers of the family, her partner and her daughter, to the railway station. I walked to the market in the drizzle and by the time I returned it had mostly stopped. Since then the day has improved significantly. So perhaps by the time I head into Manchester to meet my granddaughter and her boyfriend the sun might even shine on us.

Meanwhile out in the wider world chaos still seems to reign.

There has been a vote in parliament in favour of a third runway at Heathrow, leading to Boris Johnson declaring his intention to lay himself down in front of the bulldozers. Maybe they will sell tickets for people to watch that happen. The general consensus seems to be that, despite that decision, the runway has little chance of actually being built. It will take so long to deal with the protests and appeals, the ramifications of the compulsory purchase orders on the home that are in the way, not to mention the odd listed building here and there. Here is a link to Steve Bell's cartoon about the third runway.

Our prime minister is reluctant to discuss Brexit in parliament in case the rest of Europe finds out what the plans are. Surely she can find a way around that. Or is this more shilly-shallying to disguise the lack of real plans?

Across the channel in Calais, they say they have cleared everyone out of the Jungle ahead of schedule and demolition can now go ahead. How did matters ever get so bad over there? Between 6000 and 8000 people have been "cleared out, adults transferred to centres around France and "unaccompanied minors have been moved to shipping containers converted into temporary shelters in the camp". How terrified must those unaccompanied minors be!

I shall refrain from listing further depressing things going on around the planet.

Forget about the smell of rain reducing stress; we need a lot more than rain to clear up the mess we seem to be making of the world at the moment.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Winning battles?

Here's a hairdressing story. A Russian tennis player, Svetlana Kuznetsova, was trailing behind in tennis trials in Singapore when she took radical action to change things in her favour. After the third set she asked for a break and a pair of scissors and then sat down and chopped off a good half of her plaited ponytail. She went on to win the match. Asked about this later she explained that her plait had been bothering her by getting in her eyes. "Every time I would hit a good shot, it would hit my eye every time and I had [to] struggle,” she said. So the plait had to go.

When Delilah cut Samson's hair it took all his strength away but a haircut obviously had the opposite effect on Svetlana. Maybe the trick is that you have to have "ownership" of the haircut. Phil plans to have his hair cut later today. Will it make him stronger or weaker? We shall see!

The arguments about proposed increases in the number of grammar schools continue. Estelle Morris, Labour Party politician and for a while Education Secretary, was commenting in the paper about the plans for new style grammar schools. The idea is that each selective school should work with a local non-selective school, sharing best practice and advising them on how to get the best results. I found myself reflecting that teaching clever kids, confident kids, kids who have been assured all along that they are bright, is really a piece of cake. Almost anyone can get good results from such pupils. They practically teach themselves and the teacher is really just a facilitator, providing the information and outlining the techniques that they need. So where does the idea come from that those who succeed with selected pupils can give advice to those who teach in non-selective establishments?

And, having just expressed that opinion across the breakfast table, I read this from Estelle Morris: "Many selective schools do well by the children they choose, and of course they should contribute to education beyond their own doors. But does their success with bright, motivated young people from supportive home backgrounds give them the skills and experience to turn round schools with large numbers of struggling and disaffected children? That is where the challenge lies." 

There you go!

Over in France, possible presidential candidates are gearing up, hoping to gain their party's nomination. One of them, a certain Jean-François Copė of whom I have never heard, was asked in a radio interview if he knew how much a pain au chocolat cost. “I have no idea but … I think it must be around 10 or 15 centimes,” Copé said. Wrong! A pain au chocolate costs around €1.15 in France. Oh, dear! Even people who have been Finance Ministers, a post he has apparently held, don't necessarily do the food shopping on a regular basis. Or perhaps not even once in a while. I wonder if he has any idea how little you can buy for 10 or 15 cents.

Meanwhile, our own little battle continues: the parking problem. Plans are afoot to paint double yellow lines right outside our houses. A local councillor is coming round later to drop off a template for a protest petition which we are all urged to sign in the hope that we can prevent this latest move to make our lives more difficult.

Happy days!

Monday, 24 October 2016

Some thoughts on children.

Happy families? Yesterday's Desert Island Discs featured Jackie Kay, the Scots Makar or Poet Laureate. Always aware that she was adopted, she said that when she was a child, whenever her birthday came around her mother would say to her that somewhere there was another "mummy" thinking about that little girl on her birthday. How generous of her adoptive mother to include her birth mother in the celebrations. I suppose you have to be very secure in yourself to be able to have that kind of generosity.

Later I read Katherine Whitehorn writing about families, in a way. Certainly about mothers. She commented on Barbara Judge, first female chair of the Institute of Directors, who was advising new mothers, career-minded new mothers, not to to take a long maternity leave. Bad for their career prospects! What she, Barbara Judge, suggested was that they should hire a nanny. "My mother used to say when a baby is born it needs to be fed, bathed and diapered," Barbara Judge explained, "An 18-year-old girl can do that. Your job is to get the money to pay the 18-year-old girl. When you have to be there is when the child gets smarter than the nanny." She herself, Barbara Judge, took just 12 days off when her son was born!!!!!

Hmmm! Quite a lot of questionable stuff there! Not all new mothers, no matter how career-minded can afford to hire a nanny. It's really only an option for high-flying, high-earning new mothers. And when you start to think about a live-in nanny, this becomes even more the case. But then, Barbara Judge is the chair of the Institute of Directors, not just any old working mum struggling to make ends meet.

Our daughter, herself a career-minded new mother, would question the idea that new babies need no more than feeding, keeping clean and having their nappy changed. She's very much in favour of offering babies intellectual stimulation from the word go. Not quite getting the tiny girl to do quadratic equations just yet, but talking to her properly (i.e. more than just goo-goo, ga-ga) and showing her pictures - black and white is the recommended medium for tiny babies!

Our daughter-in-law is fortunate enough to be able to work from home, keeping a small amount of work ticking over while her daughter was very tiny, and now gradually increasing the number of commissions she accepts as the small person qualifies for some free nursery school time.

No-one has mentioned the daddies in all of this. What impact does taking paternity leave have on THEIR careers? Our son has proved to be a very involved father, trying to get home in time for his small daughter's bedtime almost every day and taking over a lot of childcare at the weekend. I observe him and his group of friends, who have done that thing so many of have done - all started having babies at the same time. While I might criticise them slightly for over-intellectualising the whole process - they are all high achievers and have grown used to being able to research the best way to do everything - I can't fault the shared parenting that goes on.

Katherine Whitehorn had another solution to offer: an organisation called Share and Care which began by matching young people needing somewhere to live with older people who need company. It branched out into matching families with with young children or young adults with special needs with people who live alone and need company. She suggests that the 18-year-old nanny idea might be incorporated into the same or a similar organisation.

It's an idea. Of course, it would need a certain amount of vetting to ensure that the 18-year-old nanny was up to speed on the childcare philosophies of the modern parents, well, modern, high-flying, high-achieving parents. It's still not really a solution for the young, not so high-flying mum with several children under school age who really needs to earn some money to supplement her young, not so high-achieving husband's income. She probably still has to depend on grandparents for much of her childcare.

And none of it addresses the question of why we have the children on the first place. Does social pressure force people into parenthood? Are babies just another status symbol, like the smart house and fancy car? After all, you can't send them back to the pound, like a puppy that refuses to be housetrained, when they start to be a nuisance. And they can be amusing and even rewarding, if you don't get too stressed about it.

 In the end I suppose it depends on how important you feel your place on that career ladder is!

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Female artistry.

Today I have been reading about female artists in the newspaper.

Saturday's newspaper takes up a fair amount of the day, usually with a break in the middle when I walk to the supermarket. Anyway, today I read about female artists, among other things.

 * The British one.
The first was Pauline Boty, described as a pioneer of the British pop art movement. She died young, in 1996. Diagnosed with cancer when she went for a pregnancy check-up, she turned down the option to have an abortion, which would have meant she could have chemotherapy, went on to have her daughter and died when the child was five months old. A sad story. A lot of work remained in storage for years and years and even now seems to be overshadowed by the make artists from the pop art era. Her work looks interesting. Here's a link to the article about her.

 * The Serbian one.
Having read that article this morning, later in the day I managed to get hold of the colour magazine from today's paper. I had to return to the local co-op for that as I got home from this morning's outing to discover that part of the copious Saturday edition of the Guardian was missing. The shop assistant handed it over without a problem; she had thought that the suppliers had sent them one newspaper too few or one colour mag too many. Note to self: check more carefully in future.

In the colour magazine was an article about an artist called Marina Abramović, a Serbian, now aged almost 70 and still producing performance art. Reading a transcript of her spoken words, I find myself "hearing" it with a kind of Slavic accent: "You write of me like glorious image, then comes Ulay (her ex-partner) and I lost the case, then Abramović machine will destroy him, then calling me a racist and having three abortions for my art."

She has apparently been criticised by the media for having had abortions in the past in order to further her career. Here is what she had to say (imagine the accent): "Right now, the latest thing on the web is how I am killing children to make art. Only one man came to my rescue today and says George Clooney has two Oscars and nobody asks him why he doesn't make children. Why me?"

She has a point but I still find it hard to understand her kind of art. But that's just me. Here is a link to the article about her

* The Spanish one.
And, still on female artists, back in 2012 a certain Cecilia Giménez had a go at restoring an ancient painting in the church in her small town in Spain and became famous for making a huge mess of it.

 * The Canadian one.
Now in a place called Sudbury in Canada a similar thing has happened. The statue of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus outside Ste Anne des Pins Catholic church had been vandalised and baby Jesus lost his downtown Sudbury. Local artist, Heather Wise, offered to make a replacement, even if only temporary. Unfortunately the head in question has been compared to Maggie Simpson. Here's yet another link.

That's it for culture for today.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Places to live.

The Forbes list of the most reputable countries in the world. Each year, the Reputation Institute ranks the most nations and companies on the planet in various categories, using reams of survey data and its own proprietary RepTrak Pulse scoring system. Here are the results for 2016, based on some 48,000 responses from people in G8 countries, responding to questions on how they perceive different countries in categories from government to overall happiness.

 20 Singapore
19 Portugal
18 Germany
17 Spain
16 Belgium
 15 France
14 Japan
13 United Kingdom
12 Italy
11 Austria
10 Netherlands
9 Ireland
8 Denmark
7 New Zealand
6 Finland
5 Norway
4 Australia
3 Switzerland
2 Canada
1 Sweden

I wonder how they select the people to answer their questions and I wonder what questions they ask.

My knowledge of Sweden is rather limited. In fact IKEA is about the sum total of my knowledge. Oh, and fjords! My knowledge of Scandinavia as a whole comes down to the comedian Sandi Toksvig and quite a lot of excellent detective stories on film and in television series. There is the education system in Finland which is supposed to be very good and I hear that Finland send out "baby boxes" to all new mothers - a range of new baby essentials in a box which can be used as a crib for the tiny person - an idea that Scotland wants to pinch.

The few Canadians I have met have all been excellent people and some of my musical heroes come from that country: K D Land, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young.

So the top two countries seem fine. But they do have rather more severe winters than I am really prepared to put up with.

I half expected the UK to have fallen off the list and I notice that the USA does not appear in the top 20.

And here's a link to a series of jokes about Donald Trump, if you can stand to wade your way through them.

There you go!

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Talking to people.

Yesterday I had a good old rant about the parking situation outside our house. This morning we were having a late breakfast when the doorbell rang. Someone from the Liberal Democrats was there asking if we had any concerns about things in the area. So I bent her ear a little on the parking question. Lots of sympathy but not a great deal of practical help being offered. 

The same applied to the public transport question. I explained the difficulties of getting back from Manchester, or indeed Oldham, to Delph at the end of an evening when the last bus leaves at 10.30. So, she told me, what she and her husband usually do is prebook a taxi to be waiting for them when they get off the tram at Oldham Mumps. Oh, my! I never would have thought if that! Of course, what a revolutionary idea: add upwards of £12 to the cost of your evening out! 

Then, almost as if something was getting to me on a transport theme, I came across some statistics. Last June, Department for Transport figures estimated that over the next 25 years journeys by train, bus, bicycle and on foot would all fall. Car journeys, on the other hand, would rise by 10%. Three-quarters of all journey-miles are now in private cars. About 90% of goods and business traffic goes by road. Half of the country’s poorest households – about 800,000 families – have cars and spend a quarter of their income on them. This is probably because the bus service to where they live is so rotten. 

Here is a link to the article about it. 

And here is a link to one of my favourite journalists, Paul Mason, on a similar topic. 

And despite my moaning I still feel that we can manage perfectly well without a car - most of the time. 

Later in the day I was walking back from Uppermill when I came across a chap taking pictures of the old burnt-out mill building just near our crossroads. It turned out that he takes photos to update information sites about listed buildings. And it just happened that the old mill building, which burnt down during the summer, had been declared a listed building only a couple of months prior to the fire. Would you believe it? Has there been a bit of a scam going on to get around planning officers? Just a little coincidental! 

It was a lovely day to be out and about taking photos. Here are a few of mine. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Problems great and small!

We have an ongoing parking problem on our street.

There have always been occasions when you had to park a fair distance from the house, most notably every year on Whit Friday. Whit Friday is one of the few occasions when we have something close to a fiesta. For years and years there has been a brass band contest taking place in all the villages around here on Whit Friday, originally celebrating a long tradition of all the cotton and woollen mills and collieries having their own brass band but later involving brass bands from far and wide, including from continental Europe. There was even a film in which it featured: Brassed Off. Because of the band contest on Whit Friday all sorts of parking restrictions came into play and I would return from work to find I had to park almost a mile up the road.

Nowadays, this problem is not just a Whit Friday, come-day-go-day problem. To begin with there are simply more cars around. Many families have two or three vehicles to park. And this in an area where most of the housing was built before cars really came along. Then the industrial park which opened a little further down the road has been a great success but simply does not have sufficient parking space for all their employees and visitors. And finally, a new, would-be posh housing estate has been built on what used to be fields, or at least open land, with an access road about 50 yards from our house.This led to immediate parking restrictions and an argument with the construction company when our promised allocated parking spaces failed to materialise.

They never did materialise. And now, to add insult to injury, there are projected plans to paint double yellow lines on sections of the road, making the very limited parking immediately outside our row of houses even more in demand. Designated residents' parking has been denied us. If there were a school nearby causing problems, then such parking would be a possibility but the proximity of a thriving industrial estate does not count! We expect a visit from a local councillor some time soon to
review the situation.

Of course, in the wider scheme of things our problem is quite minor. George Monbiot frequently writes at length about environmental problems. Today it was about proposals to extend British airports. Proposals to fly planes using some other form of energy than fossil fuels are apparently untenable. So, says Mr Monbiot, if our airports are full, there is one solution: fly less. He personally restricts his flying to once every three years. We would find that hard. But then, it crosses my mind that perhaps he makes one long-haul flight every three years, whereas we make much shorter flights on a more frequent basis. Does that sort of even it all out?

Making his suggestion that we should all fly less often, George Monbiot asks, "Is this beyond contemplation? Are we incapable of making such changes for the sake of others? If so, our ethics are weaker than those of 1791, when 300,000 British people, to dissociate themselves from slavery, stopped using sugar, reducing sales by one-third. They understood the moral implications of an act that carried no ill intent, that seemed sweetly innocent."

Who knew that such ethical protests were going on all that time ago? However, I bet there are lots of people today who would find it easier to fly less frequently than to stop using sugar!

I keep seeing exhortations from famous people to please not let Donald Trump get into the White House. I have already written about Loudon Wainwright's "I had a dream" song. Bruce Springsteen has been on interview airing his negative feelings about Mr Trump. Now Michael Moore, film maker, indeed protest-film maker, has added his but. He has made and released a film: "Michael Moore in Trumpland". It is described like this: "he thinks his way inside the head of a dejected working-class citizen from, as he puts it, one of the “Brexit states” of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin or Ohio. All states that couldstill swing to Trump and lead to to an upset victory."

(As an aside, isn't it interesting how "Brexit" has extended its meaning ?)

Another anti-Trump celebrity is the actor Charles Dance, in Washington recently to receive the William Shakespeare Award forClassical Theatre. He finished off his acceptance speech in this way: “Finally, if I may, I would just like to wish you all a Trump-free future.” 

Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, here's a little news item that made me smile: "According to members of Trainspotting’s film crew, Oasis turned down the opportunity to feature on the soundtrack to the seminal 1996 film because Noel Gallagher presumed the film was about actual trainspotters rather than a black comedy about escapist, economically crippled heroin addicts living in Edinburgh."

It's not just voters who misunderstand things.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Reflections on this and that.

I've had lunch today with an old friend and we have set the world to rights between us. Here are a few of our cogitations.

 * Theresa May doesn't want Parliament to vote on whether or not to accept the referendum result. Maybe she is afraid that after so much negative talk about it, Parliament will vote to remain in the EU. What would happen if they did? Can the things that have been broken be put right? Have we let this cat so far out of the bag that there is no getting it back in?

 * And then there are the proposed lists. Employers should list their non-British employees - that is one idea. Today I read about a proposal that schools should do a kind of census on their pupils, not just what their ethnicity is but also where they were born. While this might help schools provide the absolutely correct help that some of their pupils need with improving their English, it raises fears that the information might be used for other purposes. Parents who have perhaps outstayed their work visa but whose children were born in his country might not send them to school for fear of being deported. Here's a link to the article. What a complicated situation.

 * Another bit of news that set us thinking concerns Steven Woolfe, involved in some kind of fracas in Brussels involving at the very least some violent pushing around. He has decided to leave UKIP. He says it is ungovernable and I'm pretty sure that sometime recently he said there was something rotten within it. Has he only just discovered this? It sounds as though the party is falling apart. However, UKIP has achieved Nigel Farage's stated aim of removing Britain from the EU. So he probably won't be too upset to see the demise of the party he created.

 * Meanwhile last night on the news I saw Raheem Kassam. He is standing for the leadership of UKIP, apparently. And I found myself wondering how such a man became a member of UKIP. It's like the Hispanics and Afroamericans who support Trump. How do you manage to support a party that looks down on your ethnicity? The world is strange!

 * And finally, here is something more cheerful. It's a link to an article about Suzanne Vega and how they came to make the song "Tom's Diner".

 This is what happens when two old friends get to talking about stuff.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Time marches on!

It's mid-October. The weatherman has been telling us that the temperatures are dropping. They are predicting possible snow in the far north of Scotland. The wind here has an edge to it. So why have I seen so many men in shorts out and about in the town centre today?

Not all of them were young men either. Very few of them looked as though they were on the way to the gym.

My daughter says it's men refusing to grow up and feeling comfortable in their shorts. As evidence of the men refusing to grow up business, she cites the number of 30+ year old males who go skate boarding. She even knows of one who straps his sixth month old child into a sling and takes him skate boarding with him. Provided daddy does not fall off the skateboard and squash him, the child will perhaps develop an excellent sense of balance.

Just in case anyone should think this is turning into an anti-men rant, let me say that I have seen examples of women dressed in an inappropriate fashion as well. On Saturday I saw two women - they looked like mother and daughter - both sporting those off the shoulder tops that you normally see at the beach. This was in the middle of Uppermill village centre on a Saturday afternoon in October! Maybe they felt a burning desire to show off their suntan before it fades. Or maybe it was the autumn sunshine that led to the exposure of flesh. I must add that other people were wearing scarves and, in some cases, gloves!

 I have grown used to young people going out half dressed in the evening: girls in skimpy, strappy dresses and boys in t-shirts, all with goose bumps. We saw a number of examples when we were in Manchester on Friday evening. During the daytime, however, when they are not going to be in a hot club without a cloakroom, people usually dress according to the weather, even young people.

 Does this inappropriate dressing happen in Mediterranean countries, I wonder? Do Spanish and Italian girls go out for an autumn evening dressed in flimsy frocks and without a coat? If they do, then they must do an radical re-think at some point because as a rule the more mature ladies get their fur coats out in the late autumn. And judging by the surprise with which people greet my sandals in April or May, they clearly expect you to wrap up warm in the north of Spain at least.

It must be a British thing!

Out and about in the shopping centre, I noticed a certain confusion. Shops do not seem to know whether to promote Hallowe'en, only a couple of weeks away, or Christmas, a bit more than a couple of months away. And so Hallowe'en masks and spooky skeleton suits jostle for space with Christmas cards and advent calendars. And mince pies are suddenly ubiquitous.

If you start eating them now you will be sick of them by the time Christmas comes round properly. Not only that; you will have already put on the extra weight that Christmas almost inevitably brings. 

Never mind, we can look forward to them all disappearing (magically, overnight) by Boxing Day.

And then we can start on hot cross buns and Cadbury's cream eggs. How the time does fly!

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Weekend activities.

So, I began this sentence consciously with "so" as many politicians and pundits appear to do this when interviewed. It seems to have replaced "well" as a kind of filler word while you get your thoughts a little organised. Strange! 

So, we went out early on Friday evening to get into Manchester in time for a Loudon Wainwright concert. He's always worth listening to and live is even better. His support act was Chaim Tannenbaum, who has accompanied Loudon Wainwright, and other members of the extended Wainwright clan, on a fair number of occasions. This time he was promoting his own CD. As support acts go, I would say he was rather superior. 

Loudon Wainwright sang, among other things, his recent song about Donald Trump. It recounts how he had a dream that Donald Trump was elected president and ends by warning us that nightmares sometimes become prophecies. Here's a link to a recording. Loudon said it started as a joke but is becoming more serious by the day. If Hillary Clinton is elected he expects to be okay but should Trump win, he told us, he might be arrested! I wonder! 

After the show we had the usual dilemma about getting back home from Manchester in the late evening. In the end we opted for the last train to Greenfield, hoping that we might be in time for a last bus from there or possibly find a taxi - probably cheaper from there than from Oldham. In the event we were clearly too late for any kind of bus. I asked a taxi driver waiting outside the station if he was free. No, pre-booked for some chap called Ash. As we set off to walk, a voice asked where we were headed. Young Mr Ash, who has a contract booking with the taxi company, was going part way along our route and was prepared to share his taxi with us. So we had paid for our bit of the ride and had a much cheaper taxi after all. The sense of community and general helpfulness has not entirely disappeared from the world! 

The rest of our weekend has been very quiet and tame. Listening to quite a lot of Bob Dylan - probably provoked by his winning the Nobel Prize. Shopping and cooking and walks in the sunshine. 

Yesterday we made the decision to go for a walk as the sun was shining. By the time we set off the clouds were moving in. predictably! But at least we did not get rained on. 

This morning we woke to rain. Well, I didn't realise it was raining until I stepped out of the door to go for my morning run. But I was all sorted for running by then so I just put my hood up and ran anyway. By the time I got back, the rain on the window had woken Phil. A rather inauspicious start to the day all round. 

However, the day improved and this time we set off while the sun was still shining properly and had a windy walk up one of the local hills. 

Another weekend sorted!

Friday, 14 October 2016

The rights and wrongs of things.

We went along this morning to the local clinic to have flu jabs. One of the perks of being an old fogey is that you can have this inoculation for free. Someone must have worked out that this is more economical than treating lots of old biddies who actually catch flu. Younger people have to pay to have a needle stuck in their arm.

Later I was reading about cortisone, the discovery of which earned a group of scientists the Nobel Prize for Science in 1950, and which has since been routinely used by sportsmen of almost every kind. Or so it seems. Cycling has been undergoing investigation and soul searching since the Russian Fancy Bears hacked into and revealed the medical records of the likes of Bradley Wiggins.

Apparently the known side effects of prolonged cortisone use include osteoporosis, cataracts, muscle weakness, mood swings and psychosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, ulcers, necrosis of the hip and thinning of the skin. So is it really worth taking the risk for a moment of glory? Maybe I am just not sufficiently driven by the will to win.

As I read about the powers of cortisone to help fight fatigue and increase endurance, I wondered in passing, and somewhat tongue in cheek, why nobody has offered it to teachers. After all, it has been recognised that they work longer hours and take their work home with them more frequently than most other professionals. (I know my brother used to go on and on about the so called short hours that teachers work - the school day finishes at around 3.30 after all - and those looooong holidays but he never lived with a teacher and, besides, he really only said it to wind us up!) And then there are the nurses who also work silly hours and, after all, could probably access the stuff ore easily than teachers. But, no, just sports people apparently! The rest just have to rely on coffee.

On the subjected of working conditions, here's a link to an article by Jay Rayner about the trials and tribulations of the people who work in restaurants cooking food for us. Basically, he says, they are underpaid and exploited. I often wonder how Spanish restaurants manage to keep their prices down, and Portuguese restaurants even more so. One answer is that food is cheaper in those two countries. Another is that they often employ family, which means that their staff are even more underpaid and exploited. And, of course, if you set about it, you will find restaurants in Spain and Portugal which are just as expensive as those in the UK and where they put a mark-up on the wine in exactly the same way. I just don't go to those. However, I feel that in the UK we are lacking the small restaurants where you can get a good menú del día at a reasonable price. That's all!

Some time ago I wrote about appeals for women to boycott the women's chess championship in Iran. Here's a link to an article on the same topic by a woman called Goncheh Ghavami. She talks about her own experience in Iran:

"My personal experience might be helpful to other chess players considering whether or not to follow Paikidze’s example or to support her position. Two years ago, I was detained in my home country Iran by the morality police for not adhering to hijab standards. I was transferred to a detention centre, and what I saw there took me by surprise.

Iranian women are not afraid of these detentions any more. They are usually released within a few hours, and afterwards they go back to the same loose, half-hearted form of hijab they were wearing before. The morality police have been defeated by the daily actions of millions of ordinary Iranian women, and this policing is failing to bear the fruit its founders had hoped for. Women have challenged the official standards of hijab promoted by the government and have pushed boundaries by simply refusing to keep out of public."

It's worth reading the whole of her argument.

That's all.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Sorting out the words!

It's that time of year again when I get out the CDs and books and have another rather undisciplined go at improving my somewhat basic Portuguese. In a couple of weeks we are going to Figueira da Foz again, where Phil will play chess and I shall stroll up and down the beach and explore places of possible interest and, just maybe, engage in conversation in Portuguese.

When I decided to learn Italian I was doing a regular commute to and from Salford and spent at least 45 minutes each way listening to CDs and repeating bits of Italian out loud. Other drivers might have thought I was a little crazy but I really think it makes a lot more sense than trying to text or phone people while on the motorway. We also went on Italian-learning holidays to places like Taormina in Sicily and Viareggio in Tuscany. And then I signed up for evening classes and took a couple of exams. And here I am, a reasonably fluent Italian speaker.

My Portuguese learning has been far less systematic. I have listened to the CDs and repeated stuff and learnt quite a lot. But I have not done it on a daily basis, repeating the same things over and over. And so far I have not found Portuguese-learning holidays to coincide with the chess tournaments but I can't say I have really investigated properly. I have tried on numerous occasions to attend classes. Each time I have enrolled on a course it has run for about three weeks and then folded for lack of sufficient numbers. So I am thrown back on my own resources. And the trouble is that, since Portuguese is in the same family as French, Spanish and Italian, I can read it without difficulty and even understand and speak quite a bit. Consequently, I know I am not really trying hard enough to improve.

Another determined effort is called for. Ten new words a day and that sort of thing!

Enough of that. Here is something else about words. My iPad newsfeed has just informed me that Bob Dylan has won the 2016 Nobel Prize for literature, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Good for him! Sara Danius, permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, describes Dylan as “A great sampler … and for 54 years he has been at it, reinventing himself.” She described Blonde on Blonde as an "extraordinary example of his brilliant way of rhyming. putting together refrains, and his brilliant way of thinking.”

When Phil expressed some doubts about the "literature" element of Dylan, I quoted Sara Danius at him: “if you look far back, 5000 years, you discover Homer and Sappho. They wrote poetic texts which were meant to be performed, and it’s the same way for Bob Dylan. We still read Homer and Sappho, and we enjoy it.”

So Homer and Sappho were the Dylans of their day.

I wonder what Dylan himself thinks about it. He clearly enjoys playing with words but he always denied serious intent behind what people saw as his protest songs. However, once the words are out there, even if the writer (or his/her agents) has the copyright, they are in a way public property and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. 

Now, maybe someone should start nominating other singer-songwriters. Joni Mitchell has some interesting stuff. And Leonard Cohen, who after all started out as a poet rather than a performer, says that he still has a lot of poetry and song waiting to be organised. He is just a little concerned that at 82 he may not have the time and energy to sort it all.

 Someone else needs to make a determined effort. It's not just me!

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

On Facebook with the famous!

On Monday we travelled back to Manchester after a weekend visit to our son. Arriving at Piccadilly Station, Phil and I parted company; he headed for the tram to continue the journey homewards with the suitcase while I went off to meet our very grown up granddaughter. She works in Manchester and we had agreed to go to a Suzanne Vega concert together that evening. I had very efficiently remembered to take the tickets with me.

So I zigzagged my way across the city centre to an approximate meeting point. We checked up every so often by text message to find out where the other was on the journey. Finally we did that thing where you actually speak on the phone, a conversation that goes through variations of "Where exactly are you?" until the moment where you simultaneously say, "Oh! I can see you now!"

We ummed and ahed about where to go for a bite to eat before the concert, ending up with tapas at La Viña on Deansgate. Then, finding that we were nowhere near a convenient tram stop and that neither of us had any idea where to catch the much vaunted free shuttle bus across central Manchester, we set off to walk to the venue, the Royal Northern College of Music. It's a nice venue, not too big, far preferable to the huge, anonymous concert arenas with their huge screens so that the poor souls at the back can see what happening onstage.

The first time I saw Suzanne Vega live was, I think, at the Lowry Theatre in Salford umpteen years ago. There the start of the concert was delayed - well, stopped and then restarted - because someone had had the bright idea to make it all look very atmospheric with a smoke machine ... which gave the singer an asthma attack. She had to leave the stage to find her inhaler! Not an auspicious beginning!

A couple of years ago my granddaughter and I saw her at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. My granddaughter remembers somebody calling her a young whippersnapper on that occasion. Neither of us can remember what provoked the name-calling!

Anyway, on Monday evening we walked to the venue, discovered that we still had a while to wait
until the start of the concert and sat and chatted about this and that, interspersed with Tas quietly singing bits of Paul Simon songs and then getting embarrased when a lady sitting next to us began  nodding along to the songs. Eventually we went in, listened to a rather ordinary support act and watched a good 50% of the audience go out during the interval only to return with plastic glasses charged with drinks of various kinds. Is it not possible to sit through a concert without refreshments? And how do they not need to go out again to the loo? Well, in fact some did!

It was a good concert: some very old songs, some less old songs, some more recent songs and some brand new songs. And a fair amount of good humoured advertising for the new album out on Friday of this week. Afterwards, as we were near the back of the concert hall and so were able to get out quite quickly and join the queue with only about five people in front of us, we waited around to buy a collection of songs and have it signed by Suzanne Vega. Tas has a collection of signed albums by a range of artists she has seen with my brother-in-law who has been taking her to concerts since she was quite small. I have never stopped to chat to an artist before. There is a first time for everything and it's never too late to start! Even for a bus-pass carrying pensioner!

I "follow" Suzanne Vega on Facebook. (There's an odd expression: following someone on Facebook.) And yesterday I gave in to the temptation to comment on a photo of one of her appearances during this tour. You know the kind of thing: "lovely concert in Manchester!" This morning my Facebook notifications told me that Suzanne Vega had "liked" my comment. Another first!

How very nice!

Of course, she undoubtedly employs someone to monitor her Facebook page for her, putting on photos of the singer in the park with her dog, and probably "liking" every single comment from every single "follower". But it's a pleasing bit of attention to detail!

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Some bits of frivolous/unnecessary research.

The personality quiz in the Observer newspaper usually asks a couple of questions and defines your personality according to the answers. Today it didn't really do personality so much as life circumstances, asking if your income and your wellbeing are related. So it asked which salary band you fit into from £11k (bottom 20% of the UK) to ££36k (top 20%) which seemed quite a low total for the top 20%. It then asked how often each day you experience feelings of happiness, enthusiasm or satisfaction and, on the other hand, how often you notice feelings of anger, frustration, sadness and worry,

It turns out that your earnings makes very little difference to how often you are likely to experience positive emotions. However, the higher your salary, the less likely you are to experience those negative emotions of anger frustration, sadness and worry. There's a surprise; the more you earn the less likely you are to be worried about such things as paying your bills or feeding your family and so you are less likely to feel angry, frustrated or sad. It all makes sense; if you earn plenty you are not so likely to have to worry about how to pay the rent and feed the family. Conclusion: money can't buy you happiness but it can, and often does, buy the absence of sadness.

I could have told them that without their having to do a great big research project on it!

Here's another bit of research that's been going on. They gave a group of people a story to tell which involved them telling a lie either by email or over the phone, and then they gave them a random list of groceries and toiletries from which they had to choose items to put in a virtual basket. Those who had written a lie tended to choose to include handwash in their basket while those who has spoken a lie chose mouthwash. There's a creepy thing. Shakespeare knew about this already; after all he made Lady Macbeth keep on washing her hands after committing murder.

It's a funny old world!

Nearly as funny as the fashion page in the Sunday magazine. This featured an outfit which went as follows:

Hat         £225
Coat       £2,150
Dress     £1,750
Corset   £455 - this was a "corset" worn on the outside, not as an undergarment.
Belt        £280
Pink agenda         £305
Off-white agenda £215  - I always thought an agenda was a list of items to be discussed at a meeting but here it seemed to mean a diary or organiser, as in some other European languages. So why does the model need two?
Tortoiseshell key charm  £195
Key charm       £180
Boots              £1,070
Tights           £535

That's well over £7000 for one day's clothes, without asking what her undies cost! Even bearing in mind that she will wear each item more than once, it's still a silly amount of money.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Things read and seen while travelling to London.

Here's a sample of stuff that attracted my attention this morning.
  • American actor Michael Peña plays only Latinos. If the character he is playing has a non- Latino name, he asks for it to be changed. This is, according to Mr Peña "so maybe some Hispanic kid might hear that and be inspired." Very laudable! I wonder of he ever does Shakespeare. If so, can he only ever play Iago? 
  •  In a similar vein, there was an article in the paper about the difficulty black actors have in being cast at all in British films. Apparently 60% of British films made in the last ten years featured no named black characters and only 13% cast a black actor in the leading role. This is why so many have gone across the pond to the USA to become famous. I first saw actors like Idris Elba and Thandie Newton in American TV series. Actor David Oyelowo reckons the casting is colourblind; it has to be a film about Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King or, of course, slaves! 
  • In a coffee shop on Piccadilly station, prior to catching the train to London, I ordered two flat whites, the least complicated coffee I can ever deal with in this crazy country with its caramel lattes and hazelnut lattes and huge variety of sizes of cup. I thought the price board said £2.50 and counted out my loose change accordingly. Then I realised that, not having my glasses on, I had misread; it actually said £2.60. As I offered an extra 20 pence, the young man serving me pointed out that there is an extra charge of 10p per cup for drinking the coffee in situ. So, an extra 10 pence for having a proper cup and a proper spoon. And no free biscuit or piece of cake as I would get in most places in Spain. Maybe the extra charge pays the wages of the plongeur! 
  • And what is a chai latte? This item is on the list of hot drinks. Is it a fancy way of saying tea with milk? Or is it something completely different? 
  • In the same coffee shop, I saw a young man with a semi-shaved head; the lower half was very 
  • close shaved, or perhaps just very, very short, while the top half was longer, clearly gelled and combed upwards to stand like a glossy block on the top of his head. To complement this, his face was also very close shaven, so much so that his beard and moustache, for he did indeed have both, looked as though they had been drawn on, in the way some girls draw their eyebrows. Curious! 
  • Toys predicted to sell well this year in the run-up to Christmas: a BMW min-beachcomber car - £300; the Alpha 1S Humanoid Robot - £500. If those are too expensive for you, encourage your child to learn to tell the time by giving him/her the VTech smartwatch for £43 and help him/her get fit by having it count his/her steps at the same time. And for your toddler, there is the Fisher-Price Code-a-Pillar, a caterpillar which can be assembled in different sequences, helping to develop the child's critical thinking abilities. At least that's what the traditional posh toy shop Hamley's says. The article in the paper suggests that children receiving it might be more impressed by its flashing lights and blinking eyes, reminding me of a fancy toy my brother-in-law, then aged seven I hasten to add, really wanted one Christmas and played with on Christmas morning only, after which it stayed in his toybox untouched. 
  •  Nothing new under the sun!

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Elements of madness.

There's the Conservative government proposing to take us back in time: grammar schools, military cadet groups in schools to teach "British Values" and businesses to declare how many foreign nationals they have working for them. 

I saw a breaking news headline this morning about a UKIP MEP being punched in a fracas of some kind at a meeting at the European Parliament and thought that maybe someone had finally got fed up of the sort of things UKIP says. Then I found out that it was at a meeting of UKIP MEPs. They can't even behave reasonably among the selves! Are these "British Values"? 

And then I went on to look at what the Guardian calls The Long Read, this time about bottled water. Now that is a crazy thing! 

They've been bottling and selling water in Harrogate since 1714. Those who could afford it were able to drink water that would not make them ill while those who could not afford it just had to carry on taking pot luck. I read somewhere else a while ago that that is one reason why you read about people drinking so much ale in Dickens and so on. 

By 1914 Harrogate Spring was apparently the biggest exporter of British bottled water in the country, “proudly keeping the troops hydrated from England to Bombay”. I wonder of we still export or simply import water from elsewhere. Wondering if it was still a British company I googled them and found this: 

"Harrogate Spring Water is England's oldest bottled water manufacturer. It dates back to the 16th century when the first springs were found to be therapeutic. Harrogate Spa Water is used locally, nationally and internationally, being exported to as far away as Australia. Many of the UK's largest companies supply this water to their customers and colleagues. For example, coffee chain Cafe Nero's own brand bottled spring water is sourced from Harrogate. 

The company is owned by Harrogate Water Brands, which also owns the Thirsty Planet brand of bottled water." 

This did not actually answer my question. Instead it raised another: is Cafe Nero, with its international sounding name, a British company? 

Back to bottled water: it has become the fastest-growing drinks market in the world. Sales of water are 100 times higher than in 1980. I can believe that. You only have to see the Spaniards leaving the supermarket with their trolleys full of bottles of water, literally FULL, often without any other product in there! Maybe they just don't like the taste of what comes though the taps, because I regularly see people queuing to fill bottles at the spring, now piped and coming out of a tap, at the bottom of the street where our flat in Vigo is situated. 

It's more complicated than that, however. There is a snobbery attached. You have to drink the RIGHT kind of water. And be seen to do so. Some brands are more classy than others. And there is whole science behind it, so that you know exactly how the water is doing you good. There are even people who train as "sommeliers", not for wine but for water. 

There is a German called Reise who got himself a certificate as a mineral water sommelier from the German Mineral Water Trade Association and then moved to America in 2010 to be their very first mineral water sommelier. 

Reading about him, I came across a new verb: to sommelier. Apparently Reise "sommeliers" at a fancy restaurant in Los Angeles. His technique goes like this: 

First: “Do you prefer sparkling or flat?” 
Then: “Do you prefer your bubbles a little bit more progressive, like very intense, or do you like your bubbles a little bit on the smaller side, like champagne bubbles, very tiny?” 
Finally: “Do you prefer something on the high mineral end, on the salty and bitter side, or do you prefer something on the smoother side, with a lower mineral composition, like maybe a little bit on the fruitier side?” 

All this to choose water to drink with your meal. Personally I usually ask for the stuff that comes from the tap. But I must be unsophisticated. 

Apparently in 2013, Reise launched the longest water menu in Los Angeles at Ray’s and Stark Bar. Now, the pub next door to our house boasts the largest selection of gins possible and I can just about understand that but a huge list of water to choose from simply seems mad to my simple taste. 

Just when I was thinking to myself that the next thing would be bottled air, I came across this: 

"as Andrea Leadsom excitedly pointed out in her recent Tory party conference speech, a young British entrepreneur, Leo de Watts, now sells glass jars of Dorset, Wiltshire, Somerset, Welsh or Yorkshire air for £80 each, mostly to the Chinese." 

The world has gone seriously mad. I wonder how you stop your bottled regional air from escaping all in one go when you open the lid. 

Ah, well, here are a couple of pictures of the autumn colours that are starting to appear around here. Enjoy them before someone finds a way to charge for them. 

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Understanding words!

For the last couple of days the television weatherman has been telling us about Hurricane Matthew and what havoc it has wreaked and is predicted to wreak ... in the Caribbean! Does he not realise that we are not actually in the Caribbean but in the UK?   

In fact, far from hurricanes, we have had another splendid day. A bit windy though, so maybe we are not so far from hurricanes as I thought.   

Maybe it's all in how you understand the words.   

Yesterday our Italian teacher/friend was telling us that she had "gastrite" from time to time, caused by stress of one kind or another. Did none of us have the same thing? We said that sometimes stress can give you stomach ache but she dismissed this as something much less important. So, "gastrite"? Well, of course, it's gastritis. An inflammation of the stomach lining, caused by acids in certain foods, according to Wikipedia. And I suppose stress can cause acidity and so on. However, all our explanations were dismissed. The Italians, like the French and the Spanish, clearly have ailments which the English do not have.   

I have a French friend in Spain who suffers terribly from what she calls "cervicales" (for some reason she always uses the Spanish name) and what the Italians call "cervicale". Now, to most English women "cervical" is connected to the cervix. "Cervicales" or "cervicale" refers to bits of the spine, specifically at the back of the neck. The dictionary says it is neck pain but what my French friend suffers from is a lot more than a stiff neck; in fact she has been hospitalised for it before now. I have never come across an English person suffering from it but my Italian friend knew immediately what it was: definitely more serious than a simple stiff neck!   

Do they all just know more about their anatomy than we do. We have back ache, a broad term covering all of the back. The French have "mal aux reins" - pains in the kidneys! I have only the vaguest idea about where my kidneys are located.   

Then there is the Italian "colpo d'aria" which the dictionary says is a "chill" but which looks as though it should mean a draught. It's sort of  a "blow from the air", I suppose. Basically, if you go out in a short sleeved shirt on a day like today, sunny and bright but with lots of wind, you will catch a chill, a "colpo d'aria".  My Italian friend says she always warns her husband about it but he ignores her and then three days later he gets the snuffles. I suspect he has come across germs in some other way. 

This belief in the "colpo d'aria" is probably why Spanish mothers wrap their children in large towels and make them stay covered up for at least half an hour when they get out of the swimming pool, instead of running about in the sunshine like hardy English kids on cold English beaches.    

As you might have guessed, I tend to disregard the "colpo d'aria"; we English are made of tougher stuff. My mother, though, believed that you caught cold from getting your feet wet!   

That "colpo" is a useful word. Our Italian friend asked if we had a term for the "colpo della strega"; according to her, this is the sudden sharp pain that you get sometimes in the small of your back when you bend over to pick something. We all recognised the ailment and suggested lumbago: no, lumbago is something else altogether. So, another thing we have no name for.    

I rather like the term "colpo della strega", literally a blow from the witch! Considering that they also use this term for whiplash, a magical illness that many people suffer from after minor car crashes, the name seems appropriate. We told our Italian teacher that many of us had suffered from "colpo della strega" when bending but none of us knew that there were witches involved.   

Unrelated to illness, unless falling in love is deemed to be a malady, is the term "colpo di fulmine", which the Italians use for "love at first sight", although it actually means being struck by lightning!   

Isn't language lovely?

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The uncertainty of privacy, celebrity marriage and public transport.

Sitting in Waterstone's cafe in Manchester, earwigging on other people's conversation, I am amazed at the volume at which some people discuss their life, their problems, their ambitions. It's as if being at a table provides a little bubble of privacy. Maybe it's the lack of background music here or maybe it's the open plan aspect of the cafe here but sitting alone, you can here other people's talk without any problem. Note to self: never discuss anything really intimate and personal with anyone in Waterstone's cafe!

I am here because I have been to the hairdresser's this morning and have time to kill before going on to the Italian conversation class later this afternoon. As usual I had my fix of gossip magazines while having my hair done: who has put on weight, who has lost too much weight, who is doing what. September's Hello magazine still goos about how lovely the Brangelina family is. That issue of the magazine must have been printed just before the great split. Deadlines leave you with egg on your face. Other magazines reveal that the Brangelina split is not as smooth and painless as some would like us to think. He smokes pot first thing in the morning - "waking and baking" is the term for it, apparently - and has been known to be verbally and even physically aggressive with at least one of the children - my guess is it's the teenage son! She has too many eating disorder problems!

 Oh my, if there is one thing a gossip magazine loves more than a celebrity wedding it's a celebrity divorce. The first gives them romantic photos and the second gives them a chance to recycle those pictures together with a whole lot more demonstrating that the romance is dead and gone!

My hairdresser told me she is moving on, going to another salon somewhere else in Manchester, trying to be very discreet as she gives me her phone number in case I should want to follow her. (Probably not as it is on the other side of Greater Manchester and more difficult to get to.) she may be leaving that salon but she still has to work out her notice and doesn't want any ructions.

And then, sitting in the bookshop cafe, i realised I was running out of time. I needed to get over towards the universities to the Italian conversation class and had half an hour to do so. Everything packed up, off I went. After a happy two hours talking Italian about this and that I made my way homewards.

Going to Manchester is not a problem. Getting back is a pain. My timing was all wrong for the train so I caught a tram, arriving at the bus-tram interchange in Oldham about ten minutes too late for the connecting bus to home. And there was not another one for about 50 minutes. I went to examine other buses, on a route that would leave me with a 20 to 25 walk at the other end. However, some helpful souls had removed the timetable for that service! Great!

As I stood there fuming, trying to decide whether it merited a £10 taxi ride, the bus which should have come at 19.28 arrived - it was now close to 1945!

Sometimes the unreliability of our service works in my favour!

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Ways of looking at life.

Who would imagine that healthy eating could make you ill? And yet there is now a new, well, new to me, eating disorder called orthorexia. Presumably the name has suggestions of orthodox ways of doing things. It involves "clean eating" and can be so extreme that some sufferers won't drink tap water because it is not the brand they are used to. You start off with good intentions to eat healthily, preparing all your own meals from scratch instead of eating convenience foods and ready meals. Then you cut out certain food groups such as dairy products and food containing gluten. Then, before you know it, it's no longer about healthy eating but about obsessively watching you weight and refusing to eat a whole load of things. And there you are, just another sad case who needs help!

I think I have always enjoyed food too much to fall into the trap. For a while we were macrobiotic vegetarians - no meat and a diet based on whole foods. We were kind of persuaded into it by some French friends who were so full of life and vitality on this regime that we opted to follow their example. Like so many of these diets, it began with a "cleansing". For ten days you were supposed to eat nothing but boiled brown rice. After that you could gradually add beans and pulses and stir-fired vegetables. I seem to remember that we grew tired of boiled brown rice after about three days and decided to skip to adding vegetables to the mix.

That was an improvement and we kept to the macrobiotic way of life for a good few years, growing our own vegetables and even for a while drinking no alcohol. But we proved to be very poor obsessives and slowly but surely introduced other elements of variety into our meals. A sir-fry of onions, carrots cabbage and brown rice is greatly improved by the addition of prawns and other shellfish. And of course, a nice glass of wine goes down well! And so nowadays we eat most things, although red meat still does not figure in our menu. Not only do I find it hard to digest but I really cannot cope with handling it raw. Consequently red meat doesn't stand much of a chance. And then, I really enjoy trying out new kinds of cake and desserts. We just make sure everything is balanced and nothing is to excess; that's as far as the obsession goes in this house.

 Side by side in today's Guardian are photos of Presidents Clinton and Obama, former Prime Ministers Blair and Cameron, and heir to the British throne Prince Charles, all of them at the funeral of Simon Peres, and an article about Iranian women appealing for the women's world chess championship to be allowed to take place in their country in 2017. Or at least, an appeal that it should not be boycotted. All of the men in the photos are wearing the kippah, although none of them is of the Jewish faith. Presumably they are wearing it as a mark of respect for the culture and religion of the country as well as out of respect for Shimon Peres. The Iranian women are having to appeal because there have been calls for a boycott of the championships as all women taking part will be asked to wear the hijab, compulsory wear for women in Iran since 1979.

Those calling for the boycott say that the headscarf is a symbol of Islamic repression. The women who oppose the boycott said that it would undermine efforts to promote female sports in their country, or even to gain the right to watch sports. "This is going to be the biggest sporting event women in Iran have ever seen; we haven't been able to host any world championship in other sporting fields for women in the past," said Mitra Hejazipour, a woman chess grandmaster. "It's not right to call for a boycott. These games are important for women in Iran; it's an opportunity for us to show our strength."

I just find it rather interesting that these two religious/cultural symbols are viewed so differently.