Sunday, 31 December 2017

Waxing sentimental - and why not!?

Facebook did that thing this morning where it reminds you that today is a friend’s birthday and invites you to help the friend celebrate it. Unfortunately the friend concerned is almost four years gone. Somehow deleting a dead friend’s contact makes it even more final. All the pictures and memories are still there.

Eighteen years ago, on Millennium Eve, he was hitting fifty and decided to celebrate it by inviting a bunch of friends to his house to eat and drink and make merry. Our daughter, then nineteen but the mother of a toddler (yes, the same daughter who is now a responsible and dedicated primary school teacher!) was desperate to go out and celebrate New Year’s Eve with friends. However, her usual babysitters - Phil and me - were going out to help a friend celebrate being fifty. In the end we took the toddler with us. Bright as a button and chatty, she charmed everyone. One of the guests thought she was our own daughter, not our granddaughter. Those were the days!

Midnight came! 2001 arrived in a burst of fireworks all over the town! Our friend’s house is situated in one of the high spots and so we had a splendid view. It’s funny how ubiquitous fireworks have become since then. Previously you could really only buy them in the run up to bonfire night and often shops would run out of supplies. You had to get your order in to the shop in plenty of time. Now you see them all year round. When they do the mini music festival at the cricket club up the road in August, they end with a firework display. When they switch on the Christmas lights in the village, right at the start of December, there is a firework display - just in case the fairy lights are not sufficient. And then there are the individual events: births, marriages, birthdays, significant wedding anniversaries - you name it, you can celebrate it by burning a whole lot of cash!

Anyway, after Millennium Eve we made it a tradition to celebrate our friend’s birthday and see in the New Year at his house. And then, four years ago he was too ill to host it. A couple of months later he was gone. Others have also disappeared. But since then we still trek up there and share a meal with his widow and raise a glass to absent friends. Tonight we’ll do it again and enjoy the memories. 

Happy 2018!

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Reflecting on multilingualism.

I have been listening to a programme on the radio all about minority languages, featuring comedian Rory McGrath, who studied French and Spanish at Cambridge but is a little ashamed to admit that he speaks no Cornish, even though he was born there. Considering that he was born in 1956, in an era when minority languages were not considered important and, indeed, in some countries regional languages were banned, it’s not surprising that he was brought up speaking English. He should feel no shame!

Oddly enough, even though Welsh is taught in Wales (and in fact I have read stuff which holds up the Welsh education system’s way of running bilingual schools as an example of good practice to all), Cornish is not taught in Cornwall, at least not in mainstream schools. Perhaps nobody has been sufficiently passionate about it.

I am still in two minds about the whole education in minority languages question. As a linguist myself, I find the minority languages fascinating and over the years I have found myself buying Castellano/Basque or Français/Breton dictionaries. I love deciphering reading material in Sicilian, Gallego or Catalán. And it would be a shame to see such languages disappear. Unfortunately when they become part of the educational establishment a kind of linguistic fascism comes along and the minority languages often dominate the curriculum. Moderation in all things.

Here are some odd facts:-
  • Faroese, the language of the Faroe Islands, is spoken by 66,000 people. For a long time they had no written language and still there are words used in the spoken language which nobody knows how to spell as nobody has ever written them down. They have no word for electricity. At least that was what the Faroese interviewee said at first. Then she went on to say that she is sure there is one but she has forgotten what it is as she uses the Danish or Icelandic word instead. 
  • Because of that sort of “borrowing” some minority languages kind of take over even smaller minority tongues.
  • Some people in Brittany consider themselves Breton first, European second and French third, but only if pushed to accept the third nationality. France still does not see the need for Breton in schools. 
  • There are still children in Sardinia, in the interior of the island, who hear more Sardinian than Italian at home and are at a disadvantage when they start school. 
One speaker wondered if he would be a different person if he spoke only one language. I would say he almost certainly would be. Speaking more than one language makes you see the world differently. 

Here is a link to yet another article about bilingualism. There are probably as many articles as there are opinions about it. They are always interesting. Personally I feel that if you and your partner speak different languages, then bringing up your children to speak both of them fluently is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. The writer of the article regards English as her dominant language, the one she uses almost all the time. When she had a child she spoke to her at first in English but then found it felt artificial and so she switched to Bengali. Suddenly she felt more at ease and natural in everything she did with and for her daughter. She still speaks mostly Bengali to her but wonders about helping her with homework as the demands of Maths and several other subjects run into areas where she does not have the vocabulary in Bengali.

What struck me was her saying that she felt like a different person and spoke in a different manner - not just a different language - when she spoke to her daughter in Bengali. I have a friend whose bilingual daughter speaks to her quite differently according to which language she uses. People have asked me whether I have a different voice when I speak French or Spanish or Italian. Possibly so, as I try reduce my English accent as much as I can. But I hope it does not make me into a completely different person.

Friday, 29 December 2017

More stories from the frozen north!

The weather forecast last night warned that we could expect to wake up to 10 centimetres of snow this morning. So I was a little surprised to look out at around 8.30 am to find clear road and pavements and not even an awful lot of frost. And this after what they said was the coldest night of the year so far. Very few days remain to beat that record!

I decided to forego my morning run and replace it with a longish walk to the supermarket, possibly giving in and hopping on a bus if one came my way at the right time. The plan was to pick up the few things I needed, stuff you can’t buy at the local Co-op, and catch a bus back in time for a late breakfast at around 11.00. Well, that WAS the plan!

Off I went, just after 9.00. Five minutes down the road, maybe less, it started to snow. It wasn’t windy though and I was wearing my waterproof coat with a good hood. No problem! At 9.30 I paused at a bus stop and, lo and behold, along came a bus. The number and destination notices were covered in snow but there is only one bus at that time of day along that route. Besides, rush hour was now officially over and I could travel free. So I hopped on board!

Our bus travels a circuitous route, in and out of all sorts of obscure places, ensuring that all have some kind of bus servicd, even if not very frequent. As usual, the bus turned down the steep road that goes past Greenfield railway station. We could hear the bus driver huffing and puffing. He clearly did not like the snow covered road surface.

At the bottom of that short hill the road makes a bit of a hairpin bend to the left. The driver let a number of cars go past in the opposite direction. He was preparing to give the bend a try, difficult at the best of times, when along came a rather large lorry, squeezing past us in the opposite direction. “I’m not going down there,” declared our driver, taking a right turn instead, obviously missing out Greenfield village altogether.

Those of us wanting Greenfield village persuaded him to stop and let us off and I trudged down the rest of the hill to the Tesco store. There I made my purchases, loaded my rucksack and prepared to go home, fitting nicely into my planned time slot.

Given that buses might continue to omit Greenfiled village from the route, I decided to walk back over the playing field to Uppermill in the hopes of catching the bus from there. By the time I reached the square my boots had absorbed at least half the surface water from the playing field and my feet were soaked but at least the Denshaw bus, which goes through Delph village and on into the possibly snowier wastes of the frozen north of Saddleworth, was due to arrive, Arrive it did, a good ten minutes late. The driver informed us that she was going no further.

I waited a little longer for our regular 350 bus to turn up. Two went past in the opposite direction. Three Hudderfield buses came and went. I debated sharing a taxi with two other ladies at the stop but eventually opted to start walking, something I should have done in the first place. It was now almost 11.00.

At each stop along the way I paused and chatted with people waiting, hoping to charm a bus into existence. My witch skills must have been frozen into dormant mode! Eventually, at the stop before the one where I would normally alight, a bus turned up. No use to me! I trudged on my way, feeling virtuous but wet-footed. Nothing that could not be cured with a warm towel and a fresh pair of socks, followed by a cup of coffee!

My daughter told me later that she had overheard at the local hospital, a short walk from her house, where she had taken her daughter for a routine appointment, that a bus had overturned somewhere in the area. Maybe that caused the problem or at least exacerbated it. But we have heard no more news about this.

Why do we deal so badly with weather in this country? We talk about it so much that we should be able to deal with it. We have not had three feet of snow fall in the space of two hours as has happened in some parts of the USA, prompting Trump to say we need a bit of global warming!!! The mind boggles!!!

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Cold weather stories!

A group of climbers had to be rescued in the Cairngorms today, or possibly yesterday. The rescue took five hours. I hate to be a spoilsport. I am aware that some people really relish a challenge such as climbing in difficult conditions. But surely when you know that the weather is going to turn harsh and that others might have to turn out to rescue you, is it fair to go up that mountain?

Somewhere else in the country, a young man went out and got drunk - at least that’s what they think happened - and at some point climbed into a rubbish container, where he fell asleep. And then froze to death! His body was only discovered when the rubbish container was emptied at the local dump. What an end to a night out!

These are among the consequences of the cold snap!

Stansted airport has had a load of possible passengers stuck there overnight as their flights were delayed or cancelled. Frozen runways cause chaos once again!

Friends and relations in other parts of the country have been contacting us to ask how we are coping with the cold weather. Very well on the whole! To the north of us they have snow. To the south of us they have snow. We can see white-covered hills all around us in every direction but right here, although it’s very cold, we don’t have proper snow to speak of. So we can admire the view without having to worry about slush underfoot!

Here’s an odd feel-good story I just heard on the BBC news. A bloke called Marius - just Marius, no surname - went out just before Christmas, maybe on Christmas Eve, to have a drink with his work-mates. At some point in the evening he pulled his phone put of his pocket to take some pictures and accidentally, and all unawares, pulled out his pay-packet and dripped it on the floor under his seat. At the end of the evening one of the bar staff, sweeping up, spotted the pay envelope and recognised it for what it was because he used to receive his pay that way when he first worked in the UK. In the pay-packet he found £600!!!

(Aside note: I find myself wondering if Marius was working on the black market, cash-in-hand, paying no tax. £600 is a lot of money to get in cash. If he hadn’t got it back, he would have paid a huge amount of tax!)

The landlord put a notice out on social media, with a photo of the pay-packet. A few celebrities, including J. K. Rowling, spotted it and tweeted it onwards. Social media went mad. People all over the world joined in the hunt for Marius. Because, of course, if you live in Australia you CAN help locate someone in the UK! The landlord’s phone started buzzing “like a fridge” - his words!

And then a few days later Marius walked in and claimed his pay-packet. He said he had not noticed it was missing for a day or so! The news reporter suggested that maybe he just kept quiet about it so that his wife did not give him a whole lot of grief over Christmas - well, it’s a theory!

The moral of the tale - one moral of the tale anyway - must be that young men should not just go stuffing things into the back pocket of their trousers! An accident, or a pickpocketing opportunity, waiting to happen!

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Present and future tales!

At around midnight last night I heard geese flying over the house, in that noisy way geese have, honking all over the place, making sure none of them breaks formation and that their flying V reaches its destination in one piece. Where were they going at that time of night? Is such night flight normal? Perhaps they were escapees from some ancient fairytale and were looking for a way to regain their original shape. Or maybe they were just trying to escape the cold. Because it certainly went very cold in the night. I did not get out of bed to see where the geese were headed.

When I went out for a run this morning the air was that breath-taking, biting cold. But it could be worse. Some parts of the Uk are snowy and icy again. One driver was tweeting at 8.30 this morning about having being stuck on a snowy motorway in Northamptonshire for three hours without moving. What was he doing setting off st 5.30 am? I hope he was not on his way to sales somewhere.

Despite reports that people are spending less, there were still loads who got up early on Boxing Day morning to go and queue outside shops in order to bag bargains. There are some people who claim to buy clothes for the coming year in the Boxing Day sales. Of course that means that you have to guarantee that your size will not change over the year, you have to be unconcerned about wearing, not wearing, the very latest fashion, and, more importantly, you have to have the spare cash available! 

According to one fashion article I read recently, fashion, presumably mostly women’s fashion, has been influenced by two Margaret Atwood novels which have been televised this year, “Alias Grace” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”. So what we should expect to find in shops are quietly elegant but modest gowns, encouraging us to walk with downcast eyes. The Handmaid-look has apparently led to a lot of red clothing appearing on catwalks, while the Grace-look is more one of subdued and muted colours; a servant girl could not look better dressed than her mistress and, besides, wanted to avoid attracting the mostly unwanted attentions of the men in the family.

Incidentally we have also been watching “Black Mirror”, a series of short science-fiction films depicting dystopian near futures. Two of the stories we have seen so far involve fairly logical extensions of aspects of modern society: the game show (taking over the whole of society) and mobile phones documenting everything via photos and video (morphed into an implant in your head through which you can relive memories, sometimes with devastating consequences).

Cheerful watching for the festive season!

And now, with a vaguely science-fiction touch, our Firestick - the gadget that makes it possible for us to watch Netflix and BBC iPlayer on our tv set - has developed a mind of its own. Despite our having exited from the programme and changed the source on the tv, provoking a little message on screen “Exiting anynet device”, it suddenly switches itself back on. One morning recently I came downstairs to find that it had even succeeded in switching the tv set back on. Spooky and vaguely reminiscent of the computer in “2001, A Space Odyssey” taking control of the ship. Big Brother might be watching us!

We have taken to physically disconnecting the gadget from the tv set, hoping that it does not learn how to climb up and plug itself back in!

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Getting things boxed off!

Yesterday, Christmas Day, I decided not to run, thinking that I had too many things to do. The family was coming round for Christmas dinner and there was stuff to be organised in the kitchen. Amazingly, by midday all was under control and we were able to go out for a Christmas Day walk before the gang arrived en masse. Typically the sun, which had been showing its face quite nicely until then, went behind a cloud as soon as we stepped out of the door and remained there until not long after we arrived back home.

Lots of food and drink was consumed. Presents were exchanged. Everyone seemed content with their lot. Nobody was nasty to anyone. No Christmas Day squabbles in our house. We even managed an after dinner quiz which passed off most amicably, probably because there were no prizes.

Today, Boxing Day, I looked out and found that the white stuff had come back. The weatherman had predicted that the rain clouds sweeping across the country would shed their load as snow above a certain northerly line across the country. I thought it was further north than we are but clearly this was not so. As it appeared to be fairly dry at that point, I donned my running gear and headed out. Time to run off some of yesterday’s excesses. Five minutes up the road the sleet started to fall! So it goes! 

Boxing Day! One explanation I came across for the name says that traditionally this was the day that the servants in big houses received their Christmas Box, a present of some kind to compensate for having had to work on Christmas Day perhaps. But I expect they also had to work on Boxing Day. What compensation was there for that?

In our house we should call it un-boxing day: the day for taking presents out of boxes and finding a new home for them. Among the things to unbox is a fancy teapot, purchased by our daughter to replace the one which refuses to pour well and which traps the teabags in the spout! There is also the standing desk, purchased for Phil from IKEA so that he can work at the computer standing up if he so chooses. We were astounded to find that this piece of furniture required a screwdriver instead of the usual Allen key!

 Standing desk erected, my job now is to strip the remaining meat off the turkey crown we attacked yesterday (how do people manage an entire enormous turkey?) and decide what fancy dishes to concoct.

It’s conceivable that some of it might end up in a box in the freezer!

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Oranges - a traditional fruit!

In my experience oranges are like the little girl with the little curl right in the middle of her forehead: when they are good they are very, very good but when they are bad they are a big disappointment. They can look perfect, a beautiful golden yellowy orange colour, a good shape, even having that marking at one end indicating that they are navel oranges and will have those little inner segments we call “babies” in our house. And then you start to peel one and find it is hard to peel, leaving loads of pith, making it hard to separate the segments. Even worse, sometimes those inner segments have a tough inner skin on them, so that even if the fruit is sweet you are left with a stringy residue which is difficult to swallow and embarrassing to spit out. Then there are those which peel nicely and divide beautifully into inner segments, promising a good orange-eating experience, only to let you down by proving to be dry and tasteless. 

As you can probably tell, I have had some poor oranges in my time.

Looking to replenish the fruit bowl one day last week, I spotted some promising-looking oranges in the local co-op store. So I asked an employee, who turned out to be the manager (maybe it was his Christmas jumper that made him look less than managerial), if these oranges were good, explaining why I had my doubts. “Take one and try it,” he said, “don’t pay for it. Let me know how you find it.” Now, you don’t get that kind of customer at the bigger co-op stores or the Tescos or Asdas or Sainsbury’ses. Probably not even at the Waitroses. Not that we have a Waitrose in our neck of the woods. We must be the wrong kind of area.

So I took the free orange, we sampled it and it turned out to be a very good orange. Life is full of nice surprises. Yesterday I bought a few more and the girl on the till said, “I must buy some to put in my girls’ Christmas stockings.” And I was whisked back to an age when you had an orange, or perhaps a tangerine, in your Christmas stocking, along with a couple of small presents which you could open while you were still in bed, before going down to discover what Santa had left under the tree.

Some people, then, keep up those old traditions. (Our grandchildren turn up and raid the fruit bowl all year round: a quick “Please can I have an orange / apple / banana?” and that’s it.) For traditions are nicely reassuring. Apart from the households that seem unable to get through Christmas without a traditional family row.

Our daughter has established one where she buys new pyjamas for her children to wear on Christmas Eve, presumably to ensure that Santa sees that they are nicely dressed for bed. What is he doing in their bedrooms anyway? Shouldn’t he restrict himself to the living room? Mind you, he must have difficulty getting into their house as it is one of those modern houses built without a chimney. No chance of his getting stuck there and needing to be pulled out!

I know other people who make a tradition out of wearing their pyjamas all day on Christmas Day, making a virtue put of sheer laziness. Clearly they do not expect visitors on Christmas day. Our daughter’s lot have to get dressed so that they can come and be fed, traditional style, at our house.

All good traditional fun!

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Taking part in the feast of consumerism!

Yesterday my daughter and I joined in the Manchester madness that is Christmas shopping. I needed a couple of specific items which are not available locally. She needed a whole heap of things. She works as a primary school teacher and has bunch of children of her own and so has had little time to do much shopping for this Christmas which is almost upon us.

We were very efficient and organised, having worked out exactly which shops we needed to visit and plotted our route accordingly. Many people seemed to be in dithering-shopping mode, wandering around rather aimlessly, seemingly undecided about where to go. We felt quite pleased with ourselves with our forward planning, managing to find almost everything we had intended to purchase.

In spite of all this planning, my daughter’s iWatch (yes, she is one of those people who have all the latest gadgets!) with its tracking app told us that we had taken 14,500 steps and walked over 10 kilometres. All that within quite a small area, so we must have done a fair amount of to-ing and fro-ing. We did also have quite a trek to and from the carpark, being reluctant to pay the extortionate fee for the shopping centre carpark. On the whole a successful expedition!

 Today it was the Food Shop! I have been buying bits and pieces needed for the Christmas Day feasting over recent weeks, putting stuff in the freezer to be brought out to defrost in time for cooking. Consequently my trolley was not as laden as it might have been.

First thing in the morning, out on my morning run, I popped into the local co-op store. There I spotted the manager putting reduced-price labels on sprouts. He explained that he had noticed that many customers rummaged among the packs of sprouts and only bought the ones with a “best before” date of December 25th, when they would, of course, be cooked and consumed. So those with today’s date were being reduced, in an attempt to induce customers to buy them. They are only sprouts, after all, not some animal product that could go off and cause problems if you ate them. So I bought two packs for my favourite sprout recipe, involving chestnuts, lemon juice and white wine!

Later I hit the local Tesco, where masses of people were bewilderedly asking why they could find no sprouts. The store had run out! I felt like a wise creature, having already bought my sprouts, and at a good price! I was less fortunate with the Boddington’s beer, however, of which I was obliged to buy a much bigger pack than I had intended. They never sell four packs, according to the young man I spoke to. “Never mind,”he reassured me as he indicated the twelve pack, “they’ll get drunk!” Well, yes, I suppose they will but not all on Christmas Day. I only wanted the beer for those occasions when the chess-player comes in from a match and fancies one! Not a regular occurrence!

On the radio this morning, I caught the tail end of “The Kitchen Cabinet”, a food programme of sorts. Celebrity chefs swap ideas and praise each other for being really clever. So clever that one of them did not know how to pronounce “chorizo”, clearly thinking, as many folk seem to, that it is an Italian product and should be pronounced “choritso”. One of my pet hates!

At one point they discussed “good Christmas Day breakfasts”, vying with each other to suggest tasty alternatives to smoked salmon and Prosecco. Do people really have smoked salmon and Prosecco for breakfast? Apparently they do. And some of the alternatives suggested were so copious that I wondered how those celebrity food suggesters ever had room for a Christmas dinner later in the day. 

We live in a crazy world of consumerism!

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Some thoughts on “successful” tax reform legislation!

Last night on the television news I saw a smiling Donald Trump and members of his government, massed ranks of Republicans, grinning like Cheshire cats because of the legislation they had just passed cutting taxes.

In today’s newspapers I read that TJ Helmstetter, communications director of Americans For Tax Fairness, said: “This is not tax reform, it’s a money grab by the ultra-wealthy, including the multimillionaires in Congress and Trump’s own cabinet, who will benefit. When all is said and done, over 80% of the tax cuts will wind up in the pockets of the top 1%. Meanwhile, all of this will be paid for by the middle class and families who are struggling to get by.”

I wonder if the Republican in the street, the ones who work in the factories and so on, feel equally happy about the reforms. Are they smiling as much as their leader?

The newspaper also said that President Trump himself stands to save between §12million and $15million as a result of these tax reforms.

His son-in-law, Jerard Kushner will be better off by about §12million.

Various high-ranking members of the government will save millions as well.

It’s very nice to have enough money to buy whatever you want, within reason. (I still think part of the pleasure of acquiring stuff lies in the anticipation of saving up and eventually being able to afford it all, but that is another matter altogether.) However, when I read about people making savings of tens of millions of dollars, I find myself wondering once more how much money any one person needs. Do they suffer from a deep-seated insecurity that makes it necessary for them to amass huge amounts of wealth that they will never spend?

I am reminded of Smaug the dragon in Tolkein’s “The Hobbit”, sitting on top of his hoard of gold, never actually doing anything with it, not admiring it for its intrinsic beauty but just wanting to keep it safe for himself. At least the dwarves who planned to steal his hoard used the treasure to embellish their caves and loved it for its beauty. What use is a fine piece of artwork if it remains stored in a vault as an investment?

Imagine how much good could be done in the world if all the rich folk who stand to save all those millions of dollars in tax cuts were to donate those savings to the needy. Or they could put it into medical research. Or they could use it to help solve the environmental problems of the world. Oops, no! Environmental problems are off the list of threats, according to POTUS; the important thing is to make the USA economically competitive!

There you go! Rant over!

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Fog! Buses! International diplomacy! Telling tales!

Fog is funny stuff. Awful to drive around in, from indoors it gives the world a strangely muffled feeling. As the snow gave way to rain and the very cold temperatures disappeared, the world went back to being pretty grey. Monday morning dawned crisp and bright, less cold than the weekend had been, perfect for a long walk, especially as we had spent most of the weekend inside.

So I persuaded Phil to finish off the various bits of chess organising he absolutely had to do and go out for a walk, maybe even catch a little sunshine. The sun was still shining as we put our boots on. By the time we stepped put of the door, the cloud had come down and the day was closing in. We went for a walk anyway but it was all rather damp! And that is how it has been since then.

Yesterday I thought I was being really efficient. I needed to pick up Christmas gifts for a couple of people who will undoubtedly call in before the weekend with gifts for us. So I set off for the village with a stack of postcards (finally written and stamped) to post, and a smaller stack going to Europe, involving a visit to the post office to make sure they had the correct stamps for the various destination countries. It was easier to do this before catching the bus to Oldham as the central post office there is so large that you wait for ages in a queue.

These tasks done, I hopped on a bus just before 1.00 heading for the town centre. A quick visit to the local market, where there is an excellent fruit and veg stall, into Thornton’s chocolate shop for stocking filler bags of goodies, into a card shop for yet more Christmas cards so that Phil does not moan that I have used all the good ones and only left ones he REALLY dislikes, into the big store for the two gifts that had prompted the trip to town in the first place, and I was back at the bus stop in time for the 2.00 bus for home.

And it did not arrive!!

The problem with a situation like that is that you wait around for a while incase it is just going to be very late. At that point it is too late to go and visit another shop in case you are too late for the next bus. Except that the next bus was almost ten minutes late. That meant that I stood for forty minutes waiting for a bus!

Less than impressed, when I finally got on I found it full of people grumbling about the fact that the previous bus had been omitted. As it filled even more, something which seemed barely possible, with people laden with parcels and one young woman with her baby buggy full of shopping and her toddler toddling beside her, the lady on the seat next to mine was heard to mutter, “I bloody hate Christmas!!!” Great! Season of peace and joy!

Then, two stops further along, the bus paused for another five or ten minutes to change drivers! Further along the route, an elderly lady I know got on the bus opposite the large Tesco supermarket. Chilled to the bine she had been waiting there for almost an hour!!! Such is the local scene.

Now, on a different tack, here is an interesting approach to international cooperation:-

“The US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has warned UN members she will be “taking names” of countries that vote to reject Donald Trump’s recognition os Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

In a letter seen by the Guardian, Haley told countries – including European delegations – that she will report back to the US president with the names of those who support a draft resolution rejecting the US move at the UN general assembly on Thursday, adding that Trump took the issue personally. 

Haley writes: “As you consider your vote, I encourage you to know the president and the US take this vote personally. “The president will be watching this vote carefully and has requested I report back on those who voted against us,” she continued.”

 The “headmaster” effect!

I wonder if I can get him to take note of the name of my bus company!

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Christmas news and nonsense!

I know it’s Christmas but there are still serious news stories going around. Trains are being derailed. Our country is being derailed. It’s not the time of year when you expect to hear, as I just did on the BBC radio news, people getting very excited about finding ancient turkey bones!

I think it’s somewhere in Devon that an animal archaeologist has dug up some thigh bones, complete with knife marks as if they have had the meat carved from them. She thinks they are about 500 years old and may be from the original turkeys brought here from the New World!!! A local farmer was also getting quite emotional to think that these bones might be from the forebears of he turkeys she rears!!! Wow!!! I must be missing something but I find it hard to get excited about turkey bones! 

Here’s a bit of Christmas irony: Toys R Us, the massive toy supermarket chain is in difficulty. It’s Christmas! Isn’t this the time of year when the aisles os the stores are filled with parents desperately trying to find the latest fad in toy consumerism? Seemingly not! Perhaps all the children are asking for iPads and X-boxes and Wiis instead. How very strange.

Bristol is full of Christmas cheer, decorating its trees in one part of the city with the kind of spikes you see on the tops of walls and roof ridges to prevent birds from settling there. Most of us have at some time or other come put to find our car embellished with a bird’s distinctive, and corrosive, calling card. Most of us curse a little and clean it off. In Bristol they have upset bird lovers by taking more drastic action. An interesting addition to Christmas decorations. 

More in keeping with the Christmas spirit is this item about vending machines which homeless people can use to get essentials - sanitary products for women who are sleeping rough among other things. It’s interesting that those who have the special access cards for the machines can withdraw a maximum of three items a day. This is to prevent then from becoming too dependent on the machines. All in life is controlled, apparently. And can a vending machine be called a vending machine if it gives stuff away instead of selling?

And finally, I have come across another of those things about which names are banned in certain countries. I have often expressed my disgusted amazement at anyone calling their child “Summer”, for example. I have yet to come across a Spaniard naming a child “Verano”! And yet it is a direct translation.

Anyway, in New Zealand you can’t name a child “Justice” because it is an official title. Neither can you name a child "Lucifer," as the name has an (obvious) religious meaning, but “Number 16 Bus Shelter” has been allowed. So it’s okay to leave a child open to ridicule from the very start but no matter how wicked the child he can’t be names after a fallen angel!

France has eased up considerably in what they allow so long as it is not too embarrassing. In 2015, a French court rejected a couple's decision to name their child Nutella, noting that the name, while creamy and delicious, wasn't in the child's best interest. Instead, the court ruled that the child be named "Ella." And even dog owners there come under naming jurisdiction. One dog owner named his dogs “Itler” and “Iva” and was made to change them. "It's not a question of how dangerous the dogs are," said the town mayor, who made the decision. "It's a question of principle."

"Most people are reasonable and have the welfare of their children in mind," said a Munich judge.

Maybe so, but you still come across people who call their daughters “Sydney”.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Cards and Carols and Christmas traditions!

According to something I read recently, religious images are disappearing from Christmas cards. Or rather, Christmas cards with religious imagery are simply not being bought and sent as frequently as they used to be.

“Out of almost 6,000 types of Christmas card on sale in supermarkets, card shops and convenience stores sampled, only 34 featured nativity scenes.

Even when cards with other vaguely religious images, such as choirs or church pews, on the front were included, the total amounted to only two per cent.

Some shops had no Christian-themed cards at all on sale while others had only a handful, with the rest dominated by images of Father Christmas, snowmen or Christmas trees.”

So read the report. I did my own bit of research. Out of the twenty cards I can currently see on the mantelpiece here, four have religious imagery. 25%!!! Our friends must be quite conventional!

Add to the shock-horror thing the fact that another poll found that most people do not know the words to well-known Christmas carols. (Hmm! If people do not know the words, can they still be regarded as “well known”?) I am not surprised. If people do not go to church, how are they going to learn the words to the Christmas carols? And then there are the schools, where sometimes traditional carols are rejected as “stuffy” and are replaced with new and trendy songs.

We were pleased this weekend to have our southern-based granddaughter sing “Little donkey” for us: a good, traditional children’s song for Christmas. She also sang “Jingle bells” and “We wish you a merry Christmas”. All these are featured in her pre-school nativity play, complete with actions: “follow that star tonight” with her had indicating a sweep of sky!

Mind you, back when I was of an age to be a nativity play (I was an angel in a white nightdress with fine, white, feathery wings fastened to my back) we had to learn all the verses of “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem”. And there was absolutely no mention of asking for figgy pudding!

The whole awareness thing gets worse: “a test involving 2,000 adults and children found that while basic knowledge of the Christmas story is still strong, some people mixed up the Shepherds and Wise men with Father Christmas”. As a non-believer who gave up church going in my teens, I am possibly the last to insist that people should go to church. But I do think everyone should learn the bible stories. They are part of our culture after all. And our children should be learning about other religious beliefs and stories as well. Understanding breeds tolerance! Well, that’s my take on it anyway.

For the last few years, indeed the last six or seven years, a friend and I have sort of begun our Christmas by going to a carol service. Her daughter worked for some time for Addiction Dependency Solutions in Manchester and they organised a service to raise funds every year. So along we went and sang our hearts out. This year it has not happened. No carol service organised. My friend found an alternative but it coincided with the weekend visit by our son and his family.

So singing “Little donkey” and “Rudolf, the red-nosed reindeer” in my kitchen had to do instead. But we gathered all the family together and had an early Christmas celebration. Repeat performance next Monday but minus the southern branch of the family!

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Shopping and snow and changes!

Yesterday we managed not to have an excess of anything at the Italian class Christmas shindig. Moderation in all things! We had a nice panettone, bought from Aldi of all places.

I remember when they opened the first Aldi around here, opposite the community centre where I taught Spanish to adults. I used to stock up with cartons of orange juice at bargain prices after I had finished teaching. They sold a limited range of goods, their presentation skills were minimal - piles of boxes basically - but their prices were also minimal. This was the first supermarket I had come across where you had to put a pound deposit in your trolley. I suspect that this was to ensure that the trolleys were returned to the trolley store, avoiding the need to employ someone to round up stray trolleys. They ran a smooth and economical organisation!

The girls who worked on the tills had to learn the prices and codes for all the items on sale and were given a trial period to ensure that they worked fast enough. Those who could not put stuff through fast enough did not get a permanent job. No bar-code readers in those days! The cashiers still work super-fast - no chatting about the weather or how nice your ear rings are for them - but at least they don’t have to memorise all those prices. Which is just as well as the range of goods has gone up considerably.

I remember some people being very snobby about the store, saying it was for poor people, and others being rather shamefaced about shopping there, not really wanting to be seen there by the neighbours. And now I have my Italian teacher recommending the panettone and the Serrano ham, sold on the bone, complete with stand and special knife, for a very reasonable price! How things change!

And when Aldi shuts its door at 4.00pm on Christmas eve, they have arranged for charitable organisations to collect boxes of unsold goods to pass on to the needy. Very good, if a little Dickensian!

The country, or at least parts of it, almost ground to a halt at the start of the week after Sunday’s snow. Our second grandchild, the 14-year-old, was keeping her fingers crossed in the hope that her school would be closed. But no! She had to attend as usual. We got off lightly. For a change!

In the early evening yesterday it started to rain. That did for most of the snow around here. The hills that were white and Christmas-cardy have returned to a sort of dull greenish grey. Only on the footpaths, where compacted snow has been polished up with a slick of rain, are we reminded of the deep cold. Those footpaths were treacherous this morning and I found myself forced to walk in the road.

So it goes!

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The ornithological post!

Today we are having a bit of Christmas shindig at the Italian conversation class. It’s one of those things you do at adult classes: everyone is supposed to turn up with something to eat or drink and you keep your fingers crossed that you don’t end up with ten lots of mince pies or ten bottles of wine and nothing else. By some kind of magic, it usually works out fine.

So, with these festivities in mind, this morning I stuck my robin redbreast ear rings in my ears and pinned on my jingly robin redbreast brooch. You have to get into the spirit of things, after all! And then I scanned the newspapers online and found this article about what murderous little beasts robins are. A “vicious, murdering bully” is how the robin is described. Apparently 10% of adult robin deaths are “robin-on-robin incidents” and they get into fights with other birds too. They use their cute, pointy beaks to sever the spinal cord of their opponent! Well, I knew they were territorial but, as we often have several in the garden at the same time, I had always disbelieved the story that you only saw one in at a rime in the same area. I never had them down as the tiny thugs of the ornithological world though. It just goes to show that it’s not just your screen idols like Kevin Spacey who are revealed to be beastly! It also applies to our feathered friends and heroes! Who knew?

And yet we have always had this sentimental view of robins. After all, it’s a robin in “The Secret Garden” who reveals to Mary the whereabouts of the key to get into the eponymous garden. And did we not all learnt that nursery rhyme about the north wind blowing and the snow coming and asked what would poor robin do then, poor thing? It turns put he would probably viciously attack another robin!

It seems that robins got in on Christmas back in Victorian times when postmen wearing red coats were nicknamed “robins”. Then robins carrying cards in their beaks appeared on Christmas cards. And, besides, they stand out so nicely against the snowy background of a sentimentally white Christmas. And the rest is tradition!

But I’ve got my robin-themed Christmas jewellery on now and I can’t be bothered changing it.

The writer suggested that we replace the robin with little jenny wren. Wrens, he maintains, are bit like us in that they will snuggle together for warmth. And they have a very nice, cheerful song. Okay, but they are perhaps a little drab. I am pretty sure I saw on on the outside window ledge of our bedroom this morning.

If it wasn’t a wren, it was something very small and brown and feathery. Then I came downstairs and saw a tiny blue tit on the outside window ledge of the living room. This is clearly my morning for bird spotting! It’s good to know we have something in our garden other than raucous rooks and quarrelsome magpies. We do get an awful lot of both of those and it is a delight to see these quite large birds trying to hang upside down from the bird-feeders our neighbour fills, presumably with smaller birds in mind.

While I’m on about birds, the other day I was amazed at the number of starlings there were by the tram stop in nearby Ashton-under-Lyne. This is a species that is supposed to be growing scarce, or so I have been told, and yet there were masses of them, all singing quite tunefully as well.

Life is full of surprises!

Monday, 11 December 2017

Christmas trees and decorations and such.

I notice that the house across the road now has a large Christmas tree in the bay window. They’re usually the first to put up a tree, at least one visible to passers-by. It is not, of course, beyond the bounds of possibility that others have trees hidden away where the rest of us cannot see them. The across-the-road neighbours are not, however, the first to put up decorations of one sort or another. Some houses are already well and truly festooned with climbing Santas, inflatable snowmen, wicker reindeer and masses of twinkling lights.

So today the across-the-road neighbours have been busy hanging baubles and lights on the bushes and shrubs in their front garden, presumably in an attempt to catch up. Who says the spirit of competition is dead?

The daughter of a good friend of mine put the following post on Facebook, together with a photo of her apparently inadequate tree:

“Christmas tree is up!! As you can see, it is far too small for our new house, so we are going to be selling it after this year for £175 to upgrade to a bigger one. Including this year, it will have been used only twice and cost us £419 last year!!! It is a Balsam Hill 6 foot European Silver Fir Tree, prelit with clear LED bulbs. It is 78% true foliage - each individual needle has been moulded, which makes it super realistic!!

We will drop it off anywhere in London, the South East or Greater Manchester before next Christmas. Please let me know if you are interested xx”

Okay, I should not be surprised. This is the young lady whose wedding was choreographed to within an inch of existence, ensuring not only that nobody upstaged the bride but that the guests all co-ordinated nicely! And I have heard of some of the birthday parties she has organised. She is a young lady in search of perfection!

How did she and her husband ever save up for a deposit for a house if they were going round spending £400+ on an artificial Christmas tree? They must be earning too much money! I wonder what happened to young people scratching around to make ends meet. She is obviously much more into gracious living than is the ageing hippy writing this blog. No doubt she would find my tiny tree quite ridiculous.

All of this Christmas ostentation - making sure your tree is visible to all the neighbours, decorating the outside of the house and putting baubles in the trees in the garden - goes against all my mother’s ideas of Christmas decorations. She always grew sniffy about people who put their tree on the windowsill, visible to all who went past but often invisible inside the house once you drew the curtains in the evening. She did not see the point of decorating a tree just to show off to the neighbours. Quite what she would think of some of the overdecorated houses I can’t imagine. 

Personally I don’t mind a bit of garden-decoration at Christmas but I am sufficiently my mother’s daughter to say that a line should be drawn. Discretion is the better part of good taste! Besides, are not some pensioners perhaps using their winter fuel allowance to finance the electricity bill for these outdoor lights? Is that right and proper?

My tree is a very small rooted tree in a pot. It stands about 2 feet 6 inches tall and cost me a grand total of £10 from one of the local supermarkets. I was hoping to recycle last year’s tree - also small and rooted - but at some point over the last year it lost most of its needles. I was convinced it had died but at the last minute it started to put out new growth. This new growth looks fine and healthy but the bare bits of the branches make it look terribly scrawny. So it has to stay in the garden, its place usurped by a healthy - for the time being anyway - newcomer.

The usurper is currently residing in the kitchen, waiting to move into the living room on Friday, in time for a visit from our almost four-year-old granddaughter who will help to decorate it. Tastefully, of course!

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Drugs policies. Food for thought.

Last week I read about Portugal’s drug policy, which basically decriminalised drug use and set up very good clinics to help drug users. Here’s a link to an article about it. Today, I have been reading about Uruguay, where some chemists are legally selling marijuana, state-controlled, high quality marijuana, thus avoiding the problems of the adulterated stuff they sell on street corners. There are a few anomalies: medical marijuana is still illegal in Uruguay; purchasers have to be registered and so (a) tourists cannot buy the good quality stuff and (b) pushers still have a market; not many pharmacies are taking part yet as the banks have been putting pressure on them, threatening to close bank accounts if they sell the drug. But they are working on ironing out the wrinkles.

Two smallish countries are attacking the drugs problem in an innovative fashion. Time for others to think about it in a new way too?

Uruguay sounds like a very modern, forward-thinking country. In 1913 - yes that’s 1913 - a law was passed that said that women could separate from their husbands just by asking a court for permission. And it is still the only Latin American country apart from Cuba to have legalised abortion. Apparently part of the reason is a longstanding separation of church and state. There is no official Christmas Day on the state calendar; it is called Family Day. And Easter week is referred to as tourism week. There you go!

Here’s something else: every week in the Saturday Guardian there is a column which consists of readers’ responses to a question which was asked the previous week. This week people were offering advice in response to this question:

Should I try recipe meal kits? My partner and I work long hours, and I’m looking for a quick, healthier alternative to similarly priced takeaways.

Here is a link to the column, in case you would like to see all the replies.

In the meantime, here are a few examples:

“I've tried both Hello Fresh and Gousto, and am a big fan of the latter for its interesting recipes, tasty meals and clear instructions. (Though Gousto is the worse of the two for quantity of unnecessary packaging.) I tend to use them occasionally, but keep the recipe cards to make the same dishes again and again on my own, more cheaply and in larger batches that can be frozen or see us through a fewbusy weekdays. I'd suggest you try the same - not least because preparing the same (tasty) meal repeatedly sees you doing it considerably faster than getting to grips with a new recipe each week”

“They are a reasonable hands-on approach to cooking if you're not so confident. Having everything available, like in the TV demo, and ready measured is a relatively painless way to concentrate on the mechanics of cooking, like temperature, timing and when to stir. They do have more detailed instructions than any cook book would provide, and that's what some find useful. And there are places where having only just enough of all the ingredients is ideal, at a rented holiday cottage for instance.”

“But the cost should tell you it's a premium way of learning to cook or expanding your range. It shouldn't be your default meal choice; that's only a marginal improvement on ready meals. If you're cooking the same meal from the box for the third time, you're not making the most of the learning opportunity.”

Now, I know about these services in a roundabout, secondhand sort of fashion. Last time I visited my son and his wife, a number of their friends were talking about using these services while away on holiday in the UK. As a way of having all the ingredients you need for a good meal while in a self-catering holiday place it sounds ideal. And you get to keep the recipe cards! They were all pretty sensible about it and pooh-poohed the idea that it might be a solution to everyday catering needs.

Two partners working and meals to cook! A very “modern” problem, this one! Or is it? Haven’t almost all of my generation had the same thing to deal with? Most of us just cooked double amounts of whatever dish we were preparing, eating half and freezing the rest for future occasions. That way there was almost always something ready to defrost for those days when you both arrived home feeling too weary to start major cooking.

Don’t the younger generation have freezers?

Saturday, 9 December 2017


Pope Francis seems on the whole to be a good bloke, trying to be as modest a pope as possible, maybe not as penniless as his namesake St Francis, but reducing papal grandeur as far as the system will let him. Now he wants to change the wording of the Lord’s Prayer. Apparently he is not happy with the line that says “lead us not into temptation” because he believes that God does not lead people into temptation; that is the Devil’s work. We’re getting back into angels on the head of a pin territory here. Surely there are more important things to pontificate on!

An Anglican theologian has said, “In terms of church culture, people learn this prayer by heart as children. If you tweak the translation, you risk disrupting the pattern of communal prayer. You fiddle with it at your peril.” Which says something about how much people think about prayers as they say them. It also says something about the conservative nature of church establishments.

The French have adapted their version of the prayer so that it says “do not let us fall into temptation”. Very nice!

Nothing seems to have stopped Mr Trump from being led into temptation or from falling into temptation as regards declaring that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. There is nothing quite like a bit of extra potential for conflict as Christmas approaches!

And Theresa May has given in to the temptation to accept a deal with the EU. Let’s see how things develop from there.

Royal family watchers have been having fun in recent days with the announcement of Harry’s engagement and the Queen’s imminent 70th wedding anniversary. (Two royal events for the price of one!) In one photo of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburg as a young couple that appeared in the media, I was struck by how much the young Philip looks like his grandson William. So Kate has advanced warning of what to expect as her royal husband grows older.

We have deliberately avoided watching the TV series, The Crown, which is starting a second series today. John Crace, in his “digested week” column in the Guardian, comments: “I can’t help wondering how the queen must feel at having her life picked over and being reminded of Prince Philip’s affairs. Though perhaps she thinks her life can’t get any more surreal than it already is.” Quite so!

Meanwhile, we have been escaping from all of these things by going off yesterday for a reunion meal with friends we have known for more than fifty years, and in one case more than sixty! How did that happen? It was an excellent fine winter’s day with blue sky and rather weak sunshine that did not manage to melt the thin snow and ice. It’s good job we did it yesterday, however, as today is much greyer and the snow is falling steadily.

We might have to fall into the temptation of sitting by the fire and reading the paper all day!

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Trains and boats and planes ... well, anyway trains and trams!

I fear I may be turning into a grump! It’s all the fault of school kids on buses!

Today I spent a good part of the morning helping out my daughter by doing some touching-up of paintwork at her house. I then went on to the local Aldi store and stocked up with odds and ends they sell at good prices. Then I caught the bus home. All very efficiently done!

It started to go a little haywire when the bus arrived at Uppermill and was invaded by pupils from the local high school. For some odd reason they finish at a ridiculously early hour on a Wednesday. If they can be catching a bus before 2.00pm, they must finish at about 1.30. How is this possible? Whatever the answer to that question, the fact remains that masses of school kids got on the bus, pushing and shoving each other until they had somehow managed to accommodate themselves almost all standing as close as possible to the doors.

At the next stop several adults had to struggle through them in order to get off the bus. One elderly lady with a stick almost fell and had to be helped by a number of other adult passengers. By now there were empty seats in the rear section of the bus, not to mention a completely empty central aisle. However, at the stop after that, where one person alighted, the bus driver refused to allow anyone to get on, declaring that his bus was already too full. You can imagine the reaction of the high school pupils to this. The air was blue. Modern twelve- and thirteen-year-olds know words that I never heard when I was that age. Clearly that aspect of their education is working.

As the bus continued on its way I found it difficult to see exactly where we were on the route and so I stood up in order to have better view. As I edged my way forward, in order to be slightly closer to the door and thus able to avoid having to manoeuvre past too many adolescent bodies with my large bag of shopping, I explained to the young people that if they were to move down the bus and perhaps sit on the available seats or stand in the available aisle space then we might all be more comfortable. In response I received a lot of blank or even puzzled looks.

Obviously the only cool way to travel is standing crushed at the front of the bus. And the best spot of all is leaning against the driver’s cab, beyond the notice that says “NO STANDING PASSENGERS FORWARD OF THIS POINT”. I could almost have understood if the driver had been a good-looking young man - most of front space hoggers were young girls - but this was not the case. Amazing! 

Clearly public transport is not working well for me this week so far. Travelling to my daughter’s house this morning, I grew bored waiting for my usual bus and made the mistake of getting on a different one, but still one which went close to my destination. I knew that this bus went on a more roundabout route but I had not realised, or maybe I had perhaps forgotten, to what extent it did this. Back and forth it went through a hundred and one out of the way housing estates, visiting places which probably only see a bus once in a blue moon. I began to feel like an outside, an intruder, as one passenger after another got on, sometimes not even at a “proper” stop and greeted the driver like an old friend. This feeling was reinforced as they greeted other passengers by name. It was as if I had sneaked my way into a cult outing! It was quite a relief to get off the bus.

Even the trams yesterday were not without their little problems. On the way into Manchester my tram was held up at Victoria Station. Two passengers alighting there had stopped and indicated to the driver that there were two young men towards the rear of the second carriage semi-conscious with the drug Spice. The police were called and the young men were escorted off the tram. It’s a sad and strange aspect of the homelessness problem that you see numbers of young men lying, sitting, semi-standing, leaning against walls, completely oblivious of their surroundings, having taken enough of the drug to remove all awareness.

(Ironically in Frank Herbert’s science-fiction story “Dune”, spice is the name of a drug of a quite different kind: “In the series, the most essential and valuable commodity in the universe is melange, a drug that gives the user a longer life span, greater vitality, and heightened awareness; it can also unlock prescience in some humans, depending upon the dosage and the consumer's physiology. This prescience-enhancing property makes safe and accurate interstellar travel possible. Melange comes with a steep price, however: it is addictive, and withdrawal is fatal.” Thank you Wikipedia.)

During my return tram journey in the early evening yesterday the tram jerked to a halt. Passengers were thrown around but nobody was hurt. The driver apologised before setting off once more and, when we reached the next stop minutes later, popped put of his cab to check that all was well. In the evening gloom a car had pulled out in front of the tram and, realising what he had done, the driver had then come to a full stop right in front of the tram. Hence the emergency stop. All could have been worse.

Such are the trials and tribulations of public transport!

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

A little rant about things educational.

Theresa May is struggling with the Brexit talks, foiled by the DUP at the moment when she thought she had cracked it. If I were Theresa May, I would be asking the DUP to give the money back. I wonder if she ever wishes she had stuck to the Remain position that she held during the referendum. 

Not all is doom and gloom though. This report tells how English nine- and ten-year-olds have gone up to eighth place in international reading exams. We used to be in third place apparently and then slipped a long way down the ratings. But now we are on the way back up - hurray! - although still behind places like Finland.

It’s interesting to see the various ways groups of youngsters differ in their reading skills:-

“More than 319,000 students worldwide were tested in 2016 as part of the 2016 assessments. Girls scored higher than boys in 48 of the 50 countries – in the two other countries there was no significant difference between the genders.

Students who attended pre-school and whose parents regularly read with them at an early age had higher reading achievement. The study also recorded a decrease in parents’ positive attitudes to reading in 31 countries, while 17% of parents reported they did not like to read themselves.

The study also found that one in 4 students arrived at school hungry every day, and had an average reading achievement score 32 points lower than students who arrived at school never feeling hungry.”

Some of it is just plain common sense. I could have told them that children whose parents enjoy reading and, perhaps more importantly, whose parents read to them are more likely to be readers themselves. We read to our children and I am aware that all my grandchildren have been read to regularly, practically since birth, although with with differing results. I remember sitting on the floor in a bookshop with the oldest granddaughter when she was about three, surrounded by all the books she had gleefully taken from the shelves to have a look at. She still reads a fair amount now, although computer games take up some of her time. The second one reads books on the bus on her way to school. Their brother has had periods of being a fairly keen reader, although never as keen as his big sisters, but mostly prefers other pursuits. He does, however, enjoy reading stories to his tiny sister. Grandchild number four, three-year-old girl cousin of the ones already mentioned, has her own section of the family bookshelves and has long kept herself busy with her story books. The youngest member of the family, the one whose big brother reads to her, will already at 15 months old go and fetch a story book and nods her head in time to the rhythm of the rhyming stories. On the whole a success, I think!

The high school our teenage grandchildren attend has a policy that all pupils should have a book with them at all times, somethin that they read for pleasure. They are encouraged tonread i  soare miments, this does not, however, prevent the granddaughter who reads on the bus from being teased for the amount of time she spends with her nose in a book. Goodness knows why this should be. I have never really understood why reading is sometimes regarded as odd and boring!

I find it quite horrific that the report says one in four children arrive at school hungry every day. Of course, circumstances vary from one country to another but in the 21st century statistics like that should be disappearing. Of course children will not learn well if they are hungry!

The estimable Paul Mason writes about the social mobility that was evident when we oldies were growing up has largely faded away nowadays. Something has gone wrong with the system. Perhaps priorities need to be re-examined. Maybe if university vice chancellors were not paid such silly salaries, then some of the money could be ploughed back into improving other aspects of our education system. I am pretty sure that the rich will disagree with me - and don’t get me started on how much more they could contribute to our society - but really nobody needs £300,000 or £400,000 or more per year to live on. It’s all out if proportion!

Monday, 4 December 2017


There is a story going around that Nigel Farage has stated that he will not be turning down his £73,000 a year pension from the EU. On the one hand you might think that a man who does not like the EU, who worked hard to get us put of the EU and is supposed to have become an MEP with just that purpose in mind might not want any more to do with the institution. On the other hand, it’s perhaps what you might expect from him.

He is apparently reported to have said that of course he is accepting the pension as he does not see why his family should suffer even more! What exactly has his family suffered, by the way, from the UK being in EU? And I think that we have to continue contributing to his EU pension even after we leave. Brilliant! I would like to opt out. Just as I would like to opt out of contributing to David Cameron’s Prime Ministerial pension. I am pretty sure neither of these gentlemen is short of a bob or two.

Meanwhile, for those of us who live in less exalted circles, I came across this:-

 “Hundreds of thousands of children and older people have been plunged into poverty in the past four years, according to a stark analysis laying bare the challenge to families trying to keep up with the cost of living in Britain. The research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found almost 400,000 more children and 300,000 more pensioners in the UK were living in poverty last year compared with 2012-13, the first sustained increases in child and pensioner poverty for 20 years.
The foundation warned that decades of progress were at risk of being unravelled amid weak wage growth and rising inflation. The thinktank urged the government to unfreeze benefits, increase training for adult workers and to embark on a more ambitious house-building programme to provide affordable homes for struggling families.”

Phil and I are fortunate enough to be among the people who managed to retire with a reasonable work-related pension, nowhere near the Nigel Farage EU level but with more than enough to get by on and some left over to help out the offspring if necessary. We hear a lot about the Bank of Mum and Dad these days. However, the Bank of Mum and Dad only works if there are funds available and I think younger generations are finding it hard to set up those funds for when their turn to be the bankers comes around.

Here’s another story:

 “The Co-op will start selling food past its "best before" date for just 10p as it looks to tackle the issue of food waste. From Monday shoppers at 125 Co-op stores in East Anglia will be able to purchase "perfectly edible" items as part of a campaign to reduce the chain's impact on the environment. Items such as tinned goods and dried food which have a "best before" date, rather than "use by" dates, will be available for the reduced price as part of the scheme. The "best before" date is about quality, not safety, so the food is fine to eat beyond even though it has gone beyond its optimum.”

I have long argued that sell-by dates were a bit of an anomaly. Meat and fish and other produce that might cause you harm if eaten when they start to go off need a sell-by date but is it the case for fruit and veg? Recently I have bought apples at reduced prices because they have gone past their sell-by date and then had to keep them for a week while they ripen up to a truly edible condition. Similarly, avocado pears at their sell-by date are like rocks. And yet some people are still ruled by sell-by dates. Crazy world!

 And Aldi, a quite excellent store these days, has a scheme in place to deal with food left in the shops when they close at 4.00 pm on Christmas Eve. Organisations can contact Aldi,before December 8th and arrange to collect left-over food so that it can be distributed to the needy.

It’s all beginning to seem a little Dickensian!

Sunday, 3 December 2017


Well, she’s committed now, that Megan Markle. Barely was the engagement announced than she was off on her first royal “engagement”, working the line and meeting the people. And people were picking out the best spots on the streets two hours before the happy couple were due to turn up. Oh boy, they must be desperate for something to go on in their lives!

But if the young lady wants to change her mind now, she’ll not just be breaking Harry’s heart but she’ll be disappointing a nation. I have often wondered how it feels to give up your free life to marry a prince, even if it might mean you are not so very rich. When the Duchess of Cambridge was a teenager and thought about a possible future with a husband and children, did she really plan on her children spending a lot of time with a nanny? Although I suppose it’s not that different from a working mum whose children spend a lot of time in nursery. And at least Kate doesn’t need to worry about childcare costs taking up 75% or more of her take-home pay. Anyway here is a link to another American’s opinion of marrying into royalty.

I suppose all this royal-watching gives people something to think about other than austerity and Brexit and people sleeping on the streets. Today comes the news that Alan Milburn, who chairs the governments’s social mobility commission, is resigning. What’s more, the other members of the commission are going with him. Milburn says the government is making lots of promises but not actually doing anything. Everyone is too busy with Brexit! Which is a mess that gets messier, and seemingly more expensive, by then day.

So I guess I’ll work on not worrying about it and concentrate on other, more trivial, stuff.

I came across this article about how we should be keeping more and more fruit in the fridge. This includes bananas, which I was always told go brown and soggy if you store them in the fridge! Soft fruits I can understand but they have to come out and be brought up to room temperature before you eat them. There’s nothing so disappointing as a chilled and tasteless strawberry, no matter how perfect its shape and colour.

But mostly I am ignoring this advice. Ye gods! There will be no room in my fridge for stuff that REALLY needs to be there.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

The perils of tweeting or not tweeting!

I cannot say that I have ever been a fan of Taylor Swift. This is not from any great dislike of the young woman. Indeed, I am nor aware of even having listened to her sing, unless accidentally when I was out and about. No, I am just pretty much indifferent.

However, the Guardian seems to have printed an article about her, wondering why she has not tweeted anything about President Trump. I am afraid I have not read the article in full either but here is a link to it.

I only became aware of it when I came across some letters criticising the Guardian for printing the article. The paper was criticised for “wasting ”editorial space printing that story when more time and space should have been devoted to that instead of talking about the NHS. Here’s an excerpt from one of the letters:

 “In the article, you portrayed Swift as embodying the values of Trump because she: has written songs about her life; is adept in the use of social media; has the temerity not to give her music away for free on Spotify; wishes her biggest fans to get tickets to her concerts; has a friendship group from a similar social and ethnic background; and fails to explicitly condemn President Trump and all his works.”

Another letter writer pointed out that nobody expected Elvis to give his opinion about the Vietnam war. Indeed!  So why should Taylor Swift be expected to comment on today’s political situation?

Mind you, back in the day they tried to pin down Dylan and persuade him to express political views. After all, his songs seemed full of protest. But he wasn’t prepared to play ball.

Nowadays, of course, everyone is an expert. And yet it seems as if you are criticised if you tweet (especially if you retweet other people’s racist stuff - more somif you tweet the wrong Theresa May!) and also if you don’t.

 Once again I grow nostalgic for simpler times!

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Unlucky for some! Superstition and corruption!

In the Italian conversation class we have been reading and talking about Totò Riina, the mafia boss who died very recently, on Friday 17th November.

Friday 17th is the Italian equivalent of our Friday 13th. Our Italian teacher did not provide much of an explanation for this superstition so I did a little research. I already had an explanation for Friday. It was the day Christ was crucified. This also works for Friday 13th. We have 13 as the unlucky number, by the way, because Judas was the 13th disciple. Lots of superstations go back to religion. So why the 17th in Italy? According to some sources, it goes back to ancient Rome. In Roman numerals 17 is XVII. If you play round with the order of the letters you get VIXI, Latin for “I have lived”, with the implication “My life is over”. Well, it’s a theory. Add to that the fact the great flood, the one for which Noah built the ark and improbably filled it with breeding lairs of all animals, is supposed to have happened on the 17th day of the second month of the year. There you go!

Apparently Alitalia do not have a row 17 on their planes just as some American hotels do not have a 13th floor. The date is understandably avoided for weddings. Renault sold its "R17" model in Italy as "R177." Finally at the Cesana Pariol the bobsleigh, luge, and skeleton track in Cesana, Italy, turn 17 is named "Senza Nome”. I suppose it’s always good to hedge your bets. However, I doubt that many teenagers would skip over their 17th birthday and forego the presents!

If Friday 17th pops up in November, as this year, it is extra unlucky because November also has All Saints’ Day, November 1st, and All Souls’ Day, November 2nd. When November includes Friday 17th, it is knowns as the Month of the Deceased. It was certainly a bad day this year for Totò Riina.

In Spain and Spanish-speaking countries, and possible also Greece, Tuesday 13th is the unlucky day. One explanation is that the Spanish for Tuesday is “martes”, which is also the Spanish for Mars, God of War. On Tuesday 13th May 1453 Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, although why this would so upset Spain is a different matter. Also Tuesday is the third day of the week and, as my mother firmly believed, bad things go in threes.

My research also gave me a bit of linguistic information. If someone looks gloomy, you can ask "Qué pasó?" (What’s the matter?) and the stock answer is “martes” (Tuesday). Which seems to me a better exchange than the English “What’s up?” - “The sky”.

And, a last comment in this topic, the Italians combine Friday and Tuesday in a proverb: “Né di venere, né di marte ci si sposa, né si parte, né si da principio all'arte!" It means “Neither on Friday nor on Tuesday should one marry, set off on a journey, or start something new”.

Getting back to Totò Riina, capo dei capi, boss of bosses, mafia king, he was, as they say in many parts of the UK, a right one. He killed his first victim at age 18, served part of a sentence for that, and went on to kill many more, including being involved in the death of anti-mafia campaigner and judge Giovanni Falcone in 1993. Sentenced in absentia to umpteen life-sentences, he lived many years in hiding. This did not prevent him from running the Sicilian mafia nor from being present for the birth if his four children at one of the best clinics in Palermo. He was only captured when he was betrayed to the police by mafiosi, probably because they had someone lined up to replace him.

Most striking in all of this was the amount of collaboration between police and mafiosi and local government. Lots of tangled threads held all the elements together. No wonder they are still working on it. And Totó, who was rather proud of his life’s work, took his secrets to the grave with him. 

Incidentally, or coincidentally, Phil and I have been watching a Spanish thriller/detective/crime series: “Sé quien eres” - “I know who you are”. A high-flying, highly successful lawyer loses his memory in a car crash. At the same time one of his students, a young woman, disappears. The mystery is solved after many twists and turns and red herrings and blind alleys. Much depends on the lawyer being a rather cold-blooded creature, prepared to do anything to protect the life he wants to lead, starting the whole business off by shooting someone who was blackmailing him for, guess what, having bribed a jury about twenty years previously to find in his favour! No more details; you might like to watch it!

It really was not a good advertisement for the Spanish legal system. Not only was the reptilian baddy lawyer prepared to manipulate facts and falsify evidence, but even the goodies lied about stuff at the drop of a hat and advised their clients to lie, helping them invent stories and coaching them on how to sound convincing. Corruption right, left and centre!

How reassuring to live in a country where such corruption could not happen, where the Prime Minister’s husband would never benefit from off shore tax havens and the national television company could not possibly be accused of spending so much time on news of a royal engagement announcement that items on such things as cuts to benefits could be relegated to a lesser position, probably missed altogether because viewers would grow tired and switch the television off!

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The power of words!

The Church of England recently issued guidelines which tell teachers that children should be permitted to wear tutus, tiaras or superhero capes “without judgement or derision”. It’s good to see the church preaching tolerance. We need some more of that.

The Church of Sweden has gone one better in the equality stakes, urging its clergy to use gender-neutral language when referring to the supreme deity, refraining from using terms such as “Lord” and “he” in favour of the less specific “God.” This is a step further than the feminists saying that God is a woman. A spokesman said, “Theologically, for instance, we know that God is beyond our gender determinations, God is not human.”

Of course, there has been criticism. Some people say it undermines the Trinity. Although “Parent, Offspring and Holy Ghost” does not quite have the ring of “Father, Son and Holy Ghost”, it should still be possible to keep the basic idea. Similarly, the Lord’s Prayer (which would need to be renamed to avoid use of the word “Lord”) could begin “Our Parent, which art in Heaven, ...”. Of course, hymns would be a bit of a problem. Imagine singing, “Jesus, good above all other, In a stable born our sibling”.

It could all get to resemble discussing how many angels can stand on the head of a pin. I think that perhaps they should just quietly forget the whole idea. By which, I don’t mean forget about being tolerant and egalitarian but about changing the terminology. It’s like the business of using ‘they’ and ‘their’ to avoid saying ‘he or she” and “his or her”. Or calling actresses actors.

Tolerance and equality are, of course, absolutely essential in the world but the semantics just gets silly!

And yet use of language is so important and can be so influential. We have seen so many arguments in recent years about the use if regional and minority languages. And here is a link to an article about a dispute over use of the Irish language threatening the political gains of Northern Ireland’s peace process.

In future years, people look back on us and think we were all crazy.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Important news! Really?

It’s coming on Christmas; they’re putting up trees in the village, to misquote Joni Mitchell. Everyone is shopping excitedly, even me, rushing off to the supermarket to buy wine at bargain prices, following the advice we found in a weekend magazine.

I ran into a friend in the supermarket today who told me, in response to an ironic comment of mine about excitement, that all she has heard in the news all day has been about the engagement of Prince Harry and Megan Markle. Everyone has apparently been waiting with bated breath for an announcement about the engagement. Here’s an excerpt from the Guardian, prior to the announcement, when they were still going on about the nation being at fever pitch:

“Was it supposed to have happened last Thursday? Maybe it will be this Tuesday? Speculation and rumour about a possible engagement announcement from the US actor Meghan Markle and Prince Harry reached fever pitch at the weekend, although Kensington Palace aides are keeping tight-lipped. For months it has been clear the fifth in line to the throne has found a serious partner in the star of the TV legal drama Suits, whom he met in summer 2016. But the sense that an engagement announcement is imminent has been stoked by reports that Markle has already packed up her rented Toronto house and is moving into Nottingham Cottage, the prince’s home in the grounds of Kensington Palace. The 36-year-old American divorcee was photographed shopping on Kings Road, Chelsea, last week.
The bookmaker Ladbrokes stopped taking bets on the engagement last week and Sunday saw press reports that Theresa May had “cleared her diary” on Thursday in expectation of an announcement. This was emphatically denied by Downing Street, which pointed out that less than 24 hours after the budget, the prime minister had other priorities, such as spending half a day in Leeds with the chancellor, Philip Hammond, to promote the government’s house-building policies.”

What I want to know is why the Prime Minister, who surely has more important stuff to do, would need to clear her diary for this. What does it have to do with her? Does she expect to be invited to the celebration party? I expect she is rather relieved that it has finally happened though. This will presumably take some attention away from the Brexit negotiations fiasco. Nothing like a bit of bread and circuses to keep the people happy!

On the radio news I have just heard that the wedding is planned for the spring. Will this be before or after the next royal baby is born? Will Kate have time to get her figure back for the great event? Will little Charlotte be a confident bridesmaid? These are all important questions!

I saw somewhere a statement thatvthis is the first time a royal family has been linked to showbusiness. Does being a newsreader count as showbusiness. If so, I should like tompoint out thatvthe Spanish royal family has already done it. King Felipe is married to Letizia, a divorcee who used to work on television news!

Here are some other important things:

Liverpool has apparently contributed two new words to the British Library’s Evolving English Word Bank. They are “webs” and “trabs” and both mean “trainers”, the footwear, not personal trainers. My source talked about dialect words such as “mardy” meaning “sulky” and “nesh”, which it defines as “susceptible to the cold”. Now, I would have defined “mardy” as meaning a whole attitude of sulkiness, complaining about things and being generally a moaner but I’ll accept just “sulky”. “Nesh”, however, is not just “susceptible to the cold” but implies that the person so described is a complete softie who complains about the cold even when the weather is quite mild. “Spelk”, a dialect word for a splinter, the kind you get when a bit of wood or similar under the skin. This is a good word and we should try to bring it back into general usage!

Tim Peake, the astronaut featured in the regular “This much I know” item in the Sunday Observer. Here is something he said:- “Sandhurst is not posh at all. It’s a completely level playing field, everybody is treated the same ... and that’s abysmally! The first few weeks is all about breaking you and then they rebuild you into the mould they want you to be. It was an incredibly positive experience for me.”

His final sentence there suggests that the brainwashing worked totally on him. Or am I becoming a little cynical.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

On love and marriage and global issues!

This morning I listened to Naomi Klein on Desert Island Discs. Some of her music choices, but not all by any means, were protest songs of one kind or another, including Manu Chao’s “Desaparecido”, which I used to use when teaching the topic of immigration as part of the A-level Spanish course. A little trip down memory lane. Another of her choices was a Blondie song, “One way or another”, because before she became a social activist, writer and film maker, Naomi Klein just wanted to be a teenager and specifically to be Blondie, if at all possible! We have all had such ambitions at some time.

At one point Kirsty asked if we are not in fact living better, longer than ever before. Maybe in western society, although this is no longer exactly so for the working class, replied Naomi Klein, but certainly not in all parts of the world. And then a little later, I read yet another article about climate change ruining the fertile soil in places like Mozambique and Malawi and families not being able to feed all their children. One solution they find is to take their adolescent daughters out of school and marry them off. That way the family has one less mouth to feed. The daughter becomes the responsibility of her husband.

 One girl had wanted to be a midwife but was married instead at 13. She gave birth to a son a year later. Because they could not afford to go to a hospital with an incubator the baby died. Here’s a link to the whole article.  The girls are not always, or indeed often, resentful. 17 year old Majuma, married at 15,now the mother of a little daughter, says, “I don’t blame anyone. The weather just changed.” Such is the modern world.

Later still in the morning I heard someone in the food programme talking about how she had given up being a chef because the stress was making her depressed and she discovered that her emotion was being transferred from her, via the dishes she cooked, to the people who ate them. Just as I was being reminded of that very book, she mentioned Tita from Laura Esquivel’s “Como agua para chocolate” (“Like water for chocolate”). Because family tradition says the youngest daughter in the family may not marry but must stay at hime to look after the ageing parents, Tita cannot marry the man she loves. He marries her older sister: the next best thing as it kind of gets him close to Tita. (Really? do we think even he believes that?) As Tita stirs the cake mix that eventually becomes her sister’s wedding cake, she is unbearably sad and may even shed a few tears into the mixture. When the wedding guests taste the cake, they are all overwhelmed by the sensation of having lost the love of their life and leave the party to weep uncontrollably.

Every chapter in the book ends with a recipe. The cookery message is that you should always cook with love. If you live on pre-packaged sandwiches and ready meals, I wonder if your prime emotion in life is that you have a routine task that you need to finish as soon as possible. Unless, of course, all the sandwich- and ready meals-makers really enjoy their work and transmit joy to those who consume them!

And finally, for today anyway, I heard a little bit of a history programme about women involved in the Temperance movement in the United States at the end of the 19th century. What struck me was how this was an early example of the power of mass media. A group of women in one town were campaigning, marching and singing songs (Lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine), praying in the streets in an attempt to stop men from drinking to excess. There it might have ended but because of the new spread of national newspapers, within six months it had become a national movement.

Nowadays it would have gone viral on social media within hours but that was perhaps one aspect of the start of the whole mass media junket.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Black Friday to White Saturday!

My daughter doesn’t work on a Friday and contacted me on Thursday evening, proposing that we should do something together as she has just been too busy recently for us to see much of each other - no quality time.

As the day was so fine and bright we opted to walk to the local garden centre, just for a look around so that I could see what they are charging for potted, growing Christmas trees. (Last year’s appeared to die off and then grew again but not in a aesthetically pleasing way. The poor thing is simply too half-bare to be worth decorating!) We looked at the high quality tat on sale and marvelled at how garden centres have morphed into places where you can buy useless ornaments such as antelope skulls complete with horns!
After that we continued our walk to a coffee shop and then on to the park where the smallest grandchild played on the swings. All in all a good morning spent getting some exercise, catching up with the gossip and setting the world to rights!

We had considered going into Manchester centre but rejected the idea when we remembered that it was Black Friday and that the centre was likely to be full of people hunting for bargains they never knew they needed and spending money they don’t have. This morning’s paper reports a slow start to Black Friday with a drop in the number of shoppers visiting stores. But all was well in the end. As the paper put it, “momentum built up during the day and Barclaycard, which processes half of all debit and credit card transactions in the UK, estimated Black Friday spending finished up 8% on 2016”. Phew! What a relief! I can relax about that now!

What a lot of nonsense! Whatever did we do before there was Black Friday? And we don’t even have the excuse of the day before having been Thanksgiving and all the shops being closed. Mind you, it would not surprise me if we started celebrating Thanksgiving soon, if only to say how glad we are to live here and to give is another excuse to cook a huge meal and drink a lot!

But seriously, what DID we do before we started celebrating Black Friday? How difficult life was when we had to wait for the January Sales, which now begin on Boxing Day, by the way! Personally, I avoid the sales as far as possible; I must suffer from a specialised form of claustrophobia which deters me from fighting my way through crowds in order to rummage through piles of stuff that I might want to buy atba reduced price.

Besides, nowadays almost all shops seem to have special offers going on almost all year round. The only difference is the percentage reduction. With a bit of careful observation you can buy stuff with a 40-50% reduction at just about any time. What a strange world it is!

This morning we woke up to Christmas card scenes. Snow, but not too much of it, had fallen overnight. Indeed, it started to fall again when I was out running. At the cricket club up the road a mysterious teepee has appeared. Goodness knows what that is about. Probably nothing to do with the weather though.

When I popped into the local Co-op store to buy the Saturday newspaper, one of the assistants reminded me that last year at exactly this time the store was being refurbished and the store was closed. As this is the only shop in the village they were selling essentials like milk and bread and a very limited range of goods from a “pop-up shop” in a portacabin on the carpark. And on this very weekend, as they opened their very cold “pop-up shop”, it snowed.

History repeats itself!