Sunday, 30 April 2017

Making the appropriate contribution.

Here I go, having a Sunday morning rant about this and that.

The sultry-voiced Mariella Frostrup has a bit of an agony aunt column in the Observer. Today the headline question read: SHOULD I STOP MY UNHELPFUL SISTER BEING MY BRIDESMAID? Well, my first reaction was that just because someone is your sister that does not mean she is necessarily enough of a "best" friend to be bridesmaid at your wedding. Should the groom feel similarly pressured to have his brother as best man?

Okay, I am aware that there is only one best man, meaning that a choice has to be made. On the other hand, ever since Diana Spencer had about a zillion bridesmaid many brides seem to assume that half a dozen is the norm. This should mean that you can have your best friends, your sisters, even if you don't get on with them all the time, and your next door neighbour's four-year-old just because she is cute and pretty and will make for great wedding photos. Basically it's all a load of nonsense and if she insists on having bridesmaids each bride should make her own choice without feeling a family obligation.

Anyway, I skimmed the article and discovered that the sisters in question get along fine, or at least they did until wedding discussions came along. Then the bride assumed that her sister, as chief bridesmaid (there's another bit of hierarchical nonsense!), should organise the "couple's shower" and the "bachelorette party". Bridesmaid sister said that was not what she had signed up for; hence the description of the sister as "unhelpful" and the quandary over whether to let her continue as bridesmaid. Is life not enough stressful without making what should be a celebration into a major confrontational event?

I assume a "bachelorette party" is the "hen do", as I usually hear it referred to around here. I had never heard of such a thing in my youth. You used to hear stories of the groom's so-called friends taking him out to celebrate his last night of freedom by getting him so drunk that he had a monster hangover on his wedding day. Than I came to work in Oldham and heard about girls who worked in the local textile mills having their clothes decorated with streamers made from offcuts of the fabrics they worked with. Even their umbrellas were filled with scraps of fabric. They would travel home from work on the bus thus decorated, proudly declaring to the world that they were getting married the next day. Nowadays they go for a boozy weekend in Prague or Benidorm, wearing t-shirts with similar declarations on them.

As for the "couple's shower", I assume this is a party where they receive gifts. Isn't that what "wedding lists" are all about? Or maybe the happy couple receive gifts at their "shower" and another lot on the wedding day itself.

In the end Mariella advised a bit of common sense and choosing bridesmaid from among the people you really love and want to have close to you on the day. Talk about storm in a teacup! Maybe we should just go back to the idea that if the bride doesn't turn up then the groom marries the bridesmaid. That should stir things up!

On the subject of gifts, I read about a little controversy at the Tate. The current director is leaving at the end of May after 28 years of service to the gallery. The management has had a lovely idea for a farewell gift, something to help him to remember his time with them. They want to give him a boat because "Nick loves sailing and this would be a lasting and very special reminder of the high regard which I know so many of us have for Nick and his contribution to Tate". And so they have asked the workers to contribute to the surprise gift. It is undoubtedly a splendid idea. The trouble is that many of the employees are on zero hours contracts, some of them are not actually paid the London Living wage, and they were asked to make this contribution just one week after their canteen discount was taken away. Oops! Maybe a model boat from the gift shop?

And finally I come to the question of names: names of streets and buildings. The city of Bristol has been in the news because of a decision to change the name of a concert hall, the Colston concert hall. There are apparently lots of streets and squares and building and so on with the name Colston in Bristol. All named after the same Colston, a wealthy businessman. Unfortunately he made most of his fortune from the slave trade, a fact which is causing some embarrassment. And so the concert hall will eventually have a new name.

However, I find myself in two minds about this because there is another side to the story. All of these places were not named after Mr Colston in celebration of his ability to make money out of the slave trade but because he ploughed money back into the city, endowing schools and public libraries and generally making life better for the ordinary people of his city.

Of course we all recognise that the slave trade was fundamentally and morally wrong, however you choose to look at it. And saying that lots of other people and other cities made their wealth out of it, that it was an accepted activity in its time, does not excuse it in the least. And yet, a solution needs to be found that also remembers the good that people like Colston did in their lives.

We mustn't forget the bad in case we inadvertently repeat it. And we mustn't forget the good so that we can hold it up as an example to the wealthy of our increasingly selfish times!

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Dietary matters - cisis in the food industry!

According to wikipedia, hummus is a "Levantine dip or spread made from cooked, mashed chickpeas or other beans, blended with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic. (Tahini, by the way, is made from roasted and ground sesame seeds. This takes me back to my macrobiotic vegetarian days, back in the 1970s, when tahini paste was always in my store cupboard. The smell of roasted sesame seeds still takes me back there. There goes another Proustian moment!) The name "Hummus" comes from the Arabic word for "chickpeas", logically enough, and the complete name of the prepared spread in Arabic is ḥummuṣ bi ṭaḥīna which means "chickpeas with tahini".

So, why am I rabbiting on about hummus. Well, it seems that, along with all the other dreadful things going on in our modern world, there is a hummus crisis. Tesco, Sainsbury's, M & S and other places have had empty spaces on the shelves where hummus is usually found. Shock! Horror! (It must have been fairly short-lived because our local Co-op and Tesco don't appear to be suffering shortages.)  

Anyway, it turns out that most of the hummus sold in this country is produced by a company called Bakkavor, an Icelandic company, not one that you might expect to produce hummus at all. Iceland is hardly middle-Eastern! But hummus and other dips are their speciality and they decided to recall a batch of hummus after customers complained about a metallic taste. They think this originated in some chickpeas imported from Canada. Hmmm! Suspect, inferior Canadian chickpeas, eh?

The company hastened to assure everyone that this was a taste issue not a food safety matter. So that's all right then! And now everything is back to normal on the hummus front.

Statistics from a few years ago show the UK as the "hummus capital" of Europe. 41% of us have hummus in the fridge, almost twice as much as any other country. This is another example of our adaptability, at least in culinary matters; we adopt and adapt foreign cuisine!

I can personally vouch for the fact that hummus has been a fairly recent addition to Spanish supermarket shelves. When we went off on our first major Spanish adventure in 2008 I looked unsuccessfully for hummus. I described it to shopkeepers and to Spanish friends. All of them scratched their heads in a bemused fashion. Chickpeas are a staple in much of Spanish cuisine but they had never heard of such a use for them.

And then, last year or the year before, hummus appeared on the shelves in Mercadona, our next-door-neighbour supermarket in Vigo. Labelled NUEVO (new for non-Spanish speakers), it came with suggestions for how to incorporate it into meals.

Now they just need proper blackcurrant jam. Blueberry jam just does not have thee same tang!

Friday, 28 April 2017

Trying to ignore the news!

Mixed messages about EU membership. On the one hand, there are those who say that if Scotland were to separate from the UK then they would have to reapply for EU membership, a process which could be lengthy. On the other hand, I am now hearing suggestions that if Ireland were to become a united country once more, then the it would be easy for Northern Ireland to become part of the EU through the Southern Irish membership already in existence. How confusing the whole thing is becoming!

Meanwhile campaigning for the election goes ahead here, rather stutteringly. Jeremy Corbyn won't always stick to the Labour Party script and Theresa May is accused of speaking only to halls filled with known Conservative supporters, giving a false media impression going down very well indeed. In some parts of the country opposition parties are co-operating to ensure an anti-May candidate has a better chance of being elected while in other places no such thing is even considered feasible. A little more confusion.

Even the weather is confused; days begin fine and sunny and rapidly decline into grey and gloomy. This is probably a metaphor for those of us who wake up optimistic and then hear the morning news and sink back into depression.

And so I escape into not thinking about it all. I took a friend put to lunch yesterday. We have decided that we are establishing a new tradition of treating each other to lunch on our respective birthday. And we managed to have lunch and sit and chat about old times, planned holidays, ridiculous names people give their children, books we have read and concerts we intend to go to.

 A good couple of hours without once mentioning elections or crazy politicians' endeavours to make the world a more dangerous place.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Staying on trend!

Sales of electronic books are falling and sales of "real" books are rising. This is what I read in an article this morning. Figures published by the Publishing Association show that sales of consumer ebooks have dropped by 17%, while sales of physical books are up 8%. Consumer spending on books was up £89m across the board last year, compared with 2015.

One of the reasons given is that the kindle, once the trendy, must-have, go-to electronic gadget has become old hat, clunky and ugly when placed alongside new and elegant smartphones. It has failed to keep up with the times and demand that we all need a new one every year because model 3.8, or whatever terminology you want to use, has just been released, brighter and better than all previous models.

Who knew that kindles had to be on-trend? Perhaps they should have apps which tell you how well you are reading, how many new words you have absorbed in your current reading session, what your level of culture is on some artificially devised scale according to whether you read "Madame Bovary" or "Fifty Shades of Grey".

You can probably tell that I am not in the least bothered by the trendiness or otherwise of electronic gadgets. My iPhone is rather old, inherited in fact from our daughter when she updated to a newer model. My kindle does look a bit clumsy compared to Phil's more modern, mores slim-line, backlit version - he had to replace his original one for some mechanical reason - but it does the job.

And that's the thing: a kindle is a device for carrying lots of reading matter around with you without being weighed down by masses of books. And on the whole I do prefer to read a proper book. All of the arguments in favour of proper books - being able to flick back easily to re-read something, being able to skim through a few pages to see if you like it, the physical pleasure of holding a book in your hands, being able, if you ignore my father's horror of such desecration, to underline "good" bits and annotate your copy - all hold good for me. And I still go on buying books, despite the absolute lack of space on the bookshelves. But my kindle comes put when I go away on holiday. It's great, old-fashioned and clunky and ugly as some people might see it.

Reading on in the article about ebooks and proper books I came across this:

 "Once upon a time, people bought books because they liked reading. Now they buy books because they like books. “All these people are really thinking about how the books are – not just what’s in them, but what they’re like as objects,” says Jennifer Cownie, who runs the beautiful Bookifer website and the Cownifer Instagram, which match books to decorative papers, and who bought a Kindle but hated it.
(Catherine) Summerhayes (a literary agent for some company or other) thinks that “people have books in their house as pieces of art”. One of her authors’ forthcoming works features cover art by someone who designs album covers for Elbow. “Everyone wants sexy-looking books,” she says. She distinguishes these from “coffee-table books”, which is what we had before #bookstagram. This helps to explain the reinvigoration of independent bookshops, which offer a more styled, or curated, experience."

So some of the people buying books are doing so for the wrong reasons. No doubt they have tastefully arranged shelves with just the right amount of just the right books on them. We, by contrast, have some very tatty old books, shelves full to bursting in most rooms of the house, and piles of books waiting for a home! So it goes!

Here's another little oddity. Sometimes you read about villages in deepest Spain or France up for sale. Usually they have been pretty much abandoned and can be bought for a song, with the idea that you can do the properties up and make a going tourist concern out of the place. This time, it's a village in Yorkshire:

 "An entire English village has been bought one year after it went on the market for £20m. Albanwise Ltd, a Norfolk-based real estate and farming investment firm, said on Wednesday it had purchased West Heslerton Estate near Scarborough in North Yorkshire.

The sprawling and quintessentially British hamlet includes a 21-bedroom mansion, 43 houses, a pub and more than 2,000 acres of farmland. “Albanwise Ltd is due to become the new owner of West Heslerton Estate and looks forward to incorporating this within our North Yorkshire Estate,” said a spokesman, who said it was bought for an “undisclosed fee”. It is believed to be in the region of £20m.

The village has been owned by the Dawnay family for 150 years and the last owner, Eve Dawnay, who inherited the estate in 1964, died five years ago at the age of 84. Dawnay moved out of West Heslerton Hall, the village’s centrepiece, 30 years ago, and did not live there again.

The hall includes Dawnay’s purpose-built four-bedroom home, the village petrol station and more than 100 acres of woodland.

Her management of West Heslerton has meant very little has changed among the rented cottages for half a century for the village’s estimated 375 residents. Cundalls, the estate agents who handled the sale, put the current rental and subsidy income at about £388,000 per year."

Not quite the same sort of purchase as a village in deepest France or Spain. I have to confess that when I saw the headline I thought it said £20, not £20 million!

Imagine, in the 21st century, a family owning a whole village. Not just land around it but the village itself and all the houses.

A family member said: “We all loved it and it would be very hard to find a village with more loyal and lovely people living in it. There is a real sense of community which is hard to find these days.”

Her daughter Bridget, who still lives in the village and has been the shepherd on the estate, also said: “It will be strange to return and not be able to just wander around like I always have; that it will belong to somebody else. “But times have changed, especially when it comes to farming, and it will be lovely to see new life breathed into the estate.”

Everything has to keep up to date!

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Fame and money!

Even the seemingly good ones do it: Barack Obama is going to speak at a healthcare conference organised by a Wall Street firm. He is going to be paid $400,000 (£312,000). That's rather a lot of money. That's four years' pay at $100,000 per annum or eight years at $50,000. Call it ten to fifteen years on a more modest salary. And that's his fee for a few hours working on his speech and then an afternoon or evening of his time. Not a bad hourly rate. It is to be hoped that he donates some of it to a worthy cause, maybe something connected to healthcare!

Here's another story about money. A piano was donated to a school, a community college in Shropshire. They arranged for a piano tuner to come and give it the once-over. He discovered 633 full sovereigns and 280 half sovereigns dating between 1847 and 1915 hidden away beneath the keys. Some of the packaging suggests that the treasure was hidden somewhere between 1926 and 1946. Good quality examples of first world war-era gold sovereigns can fetch £375 each. So that little hoard is rather valuable.

The couple who donated the piano to the school seem not be claiming the hoard as theirs. Efforts have been made to trace whoever might have owned it at the time the coins were hidden. So far to no avail. The coins might be acquired by a museum, in which case the piano tuner, the discoverer of the treasure, and the school, the official owner of the piano, will be eligible for a reward. Now, that is a much better money story!

As a rule money seems to go to those who already have plenty. Nobody has offered me huge amounts of money to go and address them on some subject close to my heart. But then I am not famous.

If you are famous, people sometimes name their children after you. I read today that Syrian families are naming their children Putin as a mark of gratitude for the Russian president's support of Assad. As a Russian, Vladimir Putin will be used to such goings on. Apparently early Soviet families named their children Vladilen , for Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, or Rem, for revolyutsiya mirovaya – world revolution.

 And Kosovan Albanians showed their gratitude to Britain for their part in the NATO attack on their Serb adversaries by naming their sons Tonibler!

I do not know whether to laugh or cry!

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Modern problems!

I've been reading Hadley Freeman's question column again. Along with her praise for Serena Williams for winning the Australian Open while pregnant, she slipped in a little fact about inequality: "That’s not even mentioning the fact that Williams, shockingly, makes about a fifth annually of what Roger Federer gets in sponsorship deals, a disparity that reeks of both racism and sexism."

She was also asked about which trainers she recommends that we should buy. I am amazed that some people feel the need to ask questions like that. Maybe it's just a ploy to get their name in the newspaper. Hadley neatly avoids giving any brand of trainer a boost but talks instead about a shoe designer who feels that some of his creativity is taken away from him because nowadays everyone (by which he means all ladies) wear trainers or sneakers.

Back in the 1950s there was apparently great variety in the type of footwear ladies wore in the summer time and he misses it. That was probably because the only kinds of sports footwear available (part from football boots and hockey boots) were black or white canvas pumps. The white one had to be kept clean with a special whitener that came in a tube with a sponge on the end. But really: creativity problems in the footwear department? Such are twenty-first century problems!

Here's another one: behind the Tate Modern in London is a block of luxury flats, Neo Bankside Towers. These rich-people flats have glass- enclosed balconies or maybe just a big expanse of glass where a wall might have been. If you go up to the top floor viewing terrace of the Tate Modern you get a lovely view of London, a panorama including the done of Sat Paul's. But you also get a lovely view into the lives of the rich folk who live next door. They ate complaining and five residents have gone so far as to bring a legal challenge demanding that the viewing platform be closed down. Maybe they should invest in net curtains.

More serious twenty-first century problems relate to feeding people. It seems there has been a serious increase in the number of people using foodbanks. And there is concern about children from poor families not getting enough to eat in the school holidays. Children who receive free school meals miss out on this provision in the holidays and return to school undernourished and unprepared to take up learning again.

Somehow it puts all the other problems into perspective!

Monday, 24 April 2017

Making choices!

There seem to be two things in particular being said about Emmanuel Macron and his having taken the lead (by a whisker) in the first round of the French presidential elections.

One opinion concentrates on the fact that his party has only existed for a year and that he has never held elected office. Is it possible that a 39 year old who has never been elected into government could become president? Well, a 70 year old who had never held elected office managed to get himself elected president of the USA! Enough said!

And then there are those who take it as read that everyone in France who didn't vote for Marine Le Pen or Emmanuel Macron in the first round will automatically switch their allegiance to Emmanuel Macron in that time-honoured way the French have of keeping the Front National in its place. But this time I am not so sure. Strange things have been happening in politics in the last year or so. Nothing can be taken for granted until the last vote is counted in two weeks' time.

Who knows what deals might be done behind closed doors over the coming two weeks?

Coincidentally we have been watching a French series, "Les Hommes de l'Ombre", the title translated to "Spin" in English, all about the French political scene and the spin-doctoring that goes on, the manipulation of image and the wheeling and dealing that can undo all the careful spinning. And so, as regards who will be the next President of France,we shall just have to wait and see.

Decsribed by journalist John Crace as "zen-like", Jeremy Corbyn appears to refuse to be spun, trying hard during a TV interview to evade questions about whether he would actually press the button to fire a nuclear weapon or be prepared to send a drone to bomb a specific place where hypothetically the leader of ISIS was known to be hiding. His non-committal answers had the Labour Party in a spin explaining exactly what the party's position is on such matters and, of course, had other parties declaring that he would be chaotic as prime minister.

Here's a link to an article about the lack of idealism in the modern political world. Among other things it tells us that "Theresa May is an important example – she appears to blow with each political wind, with political expediency as her main signpost." I have no more to say about her!

Moving on to other things, last week Serena Williams told the world that she is expecting a baby. Cue a whole lot of discussion about how amazing it is that she continued to play tennis (and win) while pregnant. Further discussion went on about the advisability of doing all sorts of things while pregnant. Some people are tired and ill while pregnant but for most women pregnancy is not a disease. I would imagine that Serena Williams is pretty fit and probably can continue doing what she usually does. I remember a PE teacher I worked with demonstrating all kinds of very energetic gymnastics exercises while pregnant. And don't forget all the less famous women who carry on cleaning floors, working machines in factories, carrying shopping and frequently carrying a toddler around on their hip for large parts of the day, all while pregnant!

And finally, here is a little something that amused me from an article on inventions that were not really needed:

"The US technology industry has a long history of over-engineering complex answers to problems that others can deal with fairly easily. During the space race, Nasa had to work out how to deal with the fact that ballpoint pens relied on gravity to work by dragging the ink down the tube and on to the page. Fisher, a pen company, developed the space pen, which used pressurised air in a sealed cartridge to force the ink out of the front instead. It could not only work in space, it would write upside down on earth, or even underwater, at temperatures from -35C (-31F) to 120C (248F).

 The Russians used a pencil."

Keep things simple and expect the unexpected!

Sunday, 23 April 2017

How to feed the world!

Apparently Weetabix is owned by a Chinese company, Bright Foods. Oh, no! My mistake; Bright Foods has recently sold Weetabix to a US company, Post Holdings. Bright Foods thought that they could sell lots of Weetabix in China but the Chinese have been unimpressed.

The Australians add Vegemite (Antipodean Marmite) to Weetabix, which sounds like a disgusting thing to do, but it seems that they invented Weetabix about a century ago, so I suppose they are entitled to do such things with it. However the UK buys 71% of all the Weetbix there is.

Weetabix was the go-to breakfast of my childhood, served with hot milk on cold winter mornings, allowed to go soggy and porridgy in that case, but eaten while still crisp if served with cold milk. And I know a fair few children who were practically weaned on Weetabix.

Today's post looks as though it is going to be about food. Not at all inappropriate as I was baking a birthday cake at nine o'clock this morning and went on to feed the family and celebrate our daughter's birthday. In fact the birthday is tomorrow but today was a good day to get everyone together.

As I chopped and stirred and did other culinary stuff in the kitchen, I listened to The Food Programme on Radio Four. Today they were concentrating on the humble potato, which is in reality more complicated and far less humble than we ever imagined. I learned all sorts of strange facts:
  •  The people of Peru used to dry potatoes and store them to see them through lean times. The Spaniards, the Conquistadores, were not impressed and only tried eating them because they had nothing else to eat. 
  •  When the potato was introduced to Europe the Church preached against it. There is no mention of the potato in the Bible and therefore it must be an abomination, not one of God's creations at all, and therefore should not be eaten. (I am sure the people who rail against the consumption of carbohydrates would agree with that. I was not aware that there was a list of acceptable food in the Bible. The fatted calf was killed when the Prodigal Son came home. Wine gets a mention, as do loaves and fishes. But are carrots and cabbage referred to positively? What about sweetcorn? I doubt very much whether coffee is written about in the Bible. 
  •  There are lots of varieties of potatoes. In the Andes they grew all of these varieties but only a very limited number were introduced to Europe. And so when the potato blight came along in the mid nineteenth century it was able to wipe out the crop as there was insufficient variety to provide resistance. At that time the population of Ireland stood at around 8 million. Masses of the rural poor relied on the potato for their staple diet. An acre of fertilized potato field could yield up to 12 tons of potatoes, enough to feed a family of six for a year with leftovers going to the family's animals. And so when the potatoes failed, masses of people died of starvation and masses emigrated. The population of Ireland, around 5 million now, I think, has never recovered. Amazing! 
  •  Getting back to that filed that could produce up to 12 tons of potatoes, potato enthusiasts tell us that if we switched our attention to potatoes instead of grain crops, we could solve the problem of how to feed the world's growing population. 
  •  There is even an International Potato Centre. Based in Lima, Peru (appropriately enough) it is a research facility that "seeks to reduce poverty and achieve food security on a sustained basis in developing countries through scientific research and related activities on potato, sweet potato, other root and tuber crops, and on the improved management of natural resources in the Andes and other mountain areas. It was established in 1971 by decree of the Peruvian government." 
  •  As well as giving me all this fascinating insight into the potato, a "vegetable which is rich in protein, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins such as riboflavin, niacin and Vitamin C", the programme suggested new and amazing ways of cooking it! Potatoes and lemon! How does that grab you? 

It's astounding what you can learn from the radio!

Saturday, 22 April 2017

I was right all along!

Sometimes the newspapers just confirm things that you have long held to be true.

For example, there is a type of footwear called Crocs, made of a soft plastic or rubber material. Shaped a bit like clogs, you can wear them into the sea or paddling through puddles if you wish. They come in a range of colours, mainly nursery colours in my opinion. Which brings me to my opinion of them. They are great for children. In fact, I was convinced for quite some time that they were only made in children's sizes.

And then I started to see adults wearing them! Now, they may well be extremely comfortable to wear but there are other, more adult looking shoes around which are also very comfortable. Adults should not consider wearing them except, at the very outside, to toddle down to the swimming pool on a summer's day. Anyway, somebody asked the delightful Hadley Freeman this question in her regular column: "I have read that Crocs are now acceptable, but I’m wary about wearing them because of all the old associations. Or has their newfound trendiness overcome these issues?" Her response had a lot of waffle about how we should all be more like Dylan and stand by what we truly believe in but in the end she concluded that the questioner should just give up the idea of wearing Crocs, ever again!

And then there is the question of how you should read a book. Is it acceptable to skip to the end to discover the fate of the protagonist or who did, in fact, commit the crime, and then go back and enjoy the book for the quality of the writing? I have commented before about my occasional habit of reading very quickly to discover the plot and then rereading to fully appreciate the prose style. I know people who scoff at this. But here is a link to an article saying that such a practice is really a good idea.

 “Plots are just excuses for great writing. What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing,” said Christenfeld, a UC San Diego professor of social psychology, somewhere in the article.

Vindicated! At least as regards my reading habits. Nobody finds it odd that we listen to the same piece of music over and over. Or that we look again and again at the same paintings. Or indeed, reread the same poems. So why not do the same with prose?

More seriously, today I came across a short item about A-Level modern foreign languages. Back when I was a teacher of A-Level languages I was often asked to justify why certain students who achieved the coveted A grade in certain other subjects only managed a B in French or Spanish. My colleagues and I would be mocked if we suggested that it was actually more difficult in our subjects. Some people must have half believed us, however, as I can remember at least one student advised to choose another subject as she planned to apply to Oxford University (not to study a language) and would need to achieve A grades in all subjects. The hidden message was that an A for Spanish could not be guaranteed.

And now experts are saying that the number of native speakers - usually the bilingual offspring of a Brit married to a Frenchman, German, Spaniard or Italian - sitting the A-Level exams is affecting the distribution of grades, moving up the grade boundaries and (just imagine!) making life more difficult for the non-native speaker candidates!

There you go!

Friday, 21 April 2017

Things going on in my world!

It seems as though the madness of the modern world continues: a terrorist attack in Paris last night. Isis has claimed responsibility but we have reached a point where we cannot be sure that such an attack is part of a large organisation's co-ordinated nastiness or a random individual working on his own. This one had been charged in the past with attempts to attack the police. But whatever the reality of the situation Isis have claimed it. Individual attacks still spread the fear.

One of the French presidential candidtes was reported in last night's news to have said that we have perhaps to accept such terrorist attacks as part of modern city living. And France has had its share: Charlie Hebdo, Bataclan, Nice and now Paris again. The mayor of London apparently said something similar some time ago and received a whole lot of criticism for doing so. No doubt this French politician will also be criticised. And yet, there is truth is what they say. And accepting that it is part of modern life does not mean giving in. Accepting is perhaps the wrong word; acknowledging is better. But we have to make sure that life in our big cities carries on despite the fear. Otherwise the terrorists have won.

Despite the fact that Marine Le Pen and at least one other candidate said they would not be campaigning today, the last day of campaigning before the first round of the election on Sunday, she has been accused of dirty dealing. French presidential frontrunner Emmanuel Macron has accused his rivals of using the killing of the police officer yesterday to score political points. This, of course, might well be true.

Meanwhile, back on our side of the channel, things go on in a rather chaotic fashion. The prime minister is reported to be losing her staff; public relations people are leaving her. Not what she needs having called an election. Perhaps the various bits of opposition can get together and take advantage of the opportunity. However, I am not holding my breath.

As for us, well, we spent a good part of the day building a rowing machine. The instructions that came with it were confusing to say the least but Phil cleverly found a video clip on youtube which we studied and then followed carefully, step by step, comparing our reality with what was on screen.

Job successfully completed. The wonders of modern technology!

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Getting satisfaction!

Well, there seems to be something of a consensus that the parties of the left should get their act together and collaborate to defeat Theresa May. Here is a link to the estimable Paul Mason on that subject. An eminently sensible man, from the North of course, he should be read and listened to by politicians! That's all I have to say on the matter for the time being.

The results of a recent survey show that British teenagers are amongst the most competitive but also the most likely to be bullied.

"British teenagers are highly motivated about their school work, but are more anxious, more likely to be bullied and are less satisfied with life than many of their peers elsewhere in the world, according to a survey.

Almost a quarter of British pupils who took part in the poll say they are being bullied a few times a month, while more than 14% say they are bullied frequently, making the UK the fourth worst affected of all 34 countries surveyed.

Anxiety levels are also high in British classrooms with seven out of 10 pupils (72%) admitting they feel anxious before taking a test, even if they are well prepared – the third highest in the survey. Girls are particularly badly affected, with 81% reporting anxiety before exams, compared with 63% of boys."

In a way, I suppose the bullying goes along with being competitive. Pushing others around is a way of establishing your own superiority. But why are our youngsters like this? Do we not praise them and love them enough, so that they have low self esteem and need to take it out on others? Or is it a product of all the testing?

That last is a tricky one. Throughout my school life - not so much in the infant school but certainly in junior school and in secondary school - we had internal exams twice a year and as we got the results of the exams, worked out our average marks and our position in class, which went on your school report. My girls' grammar school, emulating public schools with its house system involving house sports teams and house drama and public speaking competitions, had "mark readings" where the headmistress went through the exam results of each girl in the class, praising the "honours" (results over 75%) and expressing dismay at the "failures" (marks below 40%). Somehow your best successes (Modern Languages and English in my case) were cancelled out by your inadequacies, even if only one subject (Music). I always felt sorry for the poor girls at the bottom of the class who "failed" three or more subjects. And we were already the crème de la crème, the grammar school girls, selected at age eleven to be the ones to succeed!

And yet mostly we didn't bully each other. I suppose it must have gone on to some extent; I make no claims for us being the perfect generation. And of course there were cliques and certain groups who were more popular than others and so on. And yet, mostly we just got on and little was heard of bullying, apart from a general opinion that the PE teacher was a real bully!

Maybe it was the size of the school; with only around 600 girls it was possible for the staff to know and keep an eye on everyone much more effectively. Maybe it was just a less pressurised age. Social media was a thing of the future. Women's magazines were aimed at our mothers and teenage magazines were only just making their appearance. Ah! The age of innocence!

And now the pressure is certainly there, and especially, it seems, on the girls:

 "Obesity is higher among boys, yet girls were more likely to think they were fat, with a quarter of 15-year-old girls being on a diet. In England, 50% of girls and 25% of boys were concerned they were too fat, higher than the international average of 43% for girls and 22% for boys. In Scotland, 55% of girls and 27% of boys said they were too fat, compared with 52% of girls and 30% of boys in Wales."

That last comes from an article about levels of satisfaction among teenagers.

Maybe we just concentrate too much on the competitive elements of society, inspecting everything to within an inch of its life. A journalist called Patrick Barkham was writing about children being allowed to run free and had this to say about nursery schools:

"My three-year-old spent the holidays getting misty-eyed about his forest school nursery. And so he should. When I interviewed several innovative outdoor nurseries a few years ago, I found teachers frustrated by Ofsted withholding “outstanding” ratings. One nursery was informed that its children didn’t have enough IT opportunities."

Really? Nursery children who did not have "enough IT opportunities"? Whatever next?

He did go on to mention improvements: "Perhaps now Ofsted inspectors are learning, because his nursery has just been judged "outstanding in all areas."

So change is possible!

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

What happens when I go out to lunch!

Today I went out to lunch with a friend. Very nice it was too. We went to a tapas place in central Manchester: three tapas for £15. Of course, I was difficult and wanted the goat's cheese and spinach croquetas, one of the day's chef's special, not included in the 3 for £15 deal. I decided to go ahead anyway. Live life to the full, say I, even if it costs you a little more! But then our delightful Venezuelan waitress got all excited and said that as we were now ordering 5 tapas off the ordinary list (2 for me and 3 for my friend) we qualified for the 5 for £25 deal. Together with my "special" for £5, the end result, pricewise, was the same. If only all in life could be resolved so simply!

Of course, my glass of wine cost me rather more than it would have done in Spain but you can't win all the battles. And my friend and I had a good meal for just under £20 each and a good chinwag into the bargain.

On the tram on the way home I checked my email and other media stuff and what did I find? During my absence, that devious Theresa May has decided to call a general election! When I got home, Phil was listening to the news on the radio. There was the lady herself, sounding off about how the country could choose, not between political parties, apparently, but between a strong government (?) led by her or a wishy-washy government led by Jeremy Corbyn, backed up by other dribs and drabs of wishy-washy parties.

When did our elections become so personal? This is supposed to be a democratic battle between the ideologies of different parties, not a reality TV style personality contest. A person could get annoyed and want to escape into other things.

So here is a story I came across about a woman who bought a box of books for £14. The story did not say why she chose to buy a box of books. She wasn't expecting to find anything unusual in it. It turned out to contain an English first edition of Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment", published in London in 1886.

I wonder if it had a special version of that old book smell that I have recently heard described as being as appealing as the smell of chocolate.

The lady who found it sold it for £13,500. That's one very expensive book. The seller said she had “secretly hoped for £10,000”, but thought she was being optimistic. “I was over the moon yesterday, I’m having some building work done, so the money will be very helpful, but I might squeeze in a holiday as well,” she said.

That was £14 well invested!

And then there are pilgrimages. We hear a lot about pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain: the Camino de Santiago. Well, it seems that pilgrimages in the UK are coming back into fashion as well, probably spurred on by the success of the Camino.

Anyone who knows anything about Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales knows that there used to be regular pilgrimages in England centuries ago. Henry VIII and his mate Thomas Cromwell put an end to that tradition in 1538 when pilgrimages were banned as part of the moves against the church. "Holy" relics could no longer be worshipped and shrines visited by pilgrims were destroyed.

The pilgrimage business took off in Spain over the last thirty years or so. In 1984, 423 pilgrims completed the final stretch of the Camino de Santiago; by 2006, the figure was 100,377, and last year it exceeded 278,000, 6,000 of them from the UK. Is this down to social media and films and tv programmes featuring the Camino? Whatever the reason, pilgrimages are now part of the tourist industry.

Understandably and unsurprisingly British companies want a share. And now pilgrimages are back in business in the UK. The British Pilgrimage Trust was founded in 2014 and this year have doubled the number of public pilgrimages they offer.

Just as well really. We might end up thrown back totally on our own resources by Brexit, including the creation of our own Caminos!

Monday, 17 April 2017

What politicians say!

Our politicians have apparently been broadcasting Easter messages. Well, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have done so. “Easter is a moment to reflect, and an important time for Christians and others to gather together with families and friends,” said our Prime Minister. She went on to talk about "the opportunities ahead – the opportunities that stem from our decision to leave the EU, and embrace the world – our shared interests, our shared ambitions and, above all, our shared values can and must bring us together.”

This from a woman who actually voted to remain in the EU. But that is water under the bridge now. Alistair Campbell criticised her for suggesting that God would have voted to leave.

Even Jeremy Corbyn seems to have brought religion into the picture, talking about how we need to face up to the problems that face us: "we need to respond to these problems head on, through action and support for social justice, peace and reconciliation. Those principles are at the heart of Christianity. And Christians throughout the world will this weekend be remembering Jesus’s example of love and sacrifice, and the Easter message of redemption and peace.”

I am a little disturbed by all of this. First of all, when did our political leaders start sending out Easter messages? I suppose some spin doctor told them that sending a message on youtube is the modern way of doing politics. And when did it become part of the British way to link politics and religion so obviously. Alistair Campbell is supposed to have said during he Blair years that "we don't do religion".

Will we soon find every political speech ending with "God bless the United Kingdom" and school children obliged tonstart the day with an oath of allegiance?

Meanwhile despite all this religious feeling that seems to abound, a face-off still seems to be going on. Here is a link to an article by the excellent Paul Mason, reminding us what nuclear war is all about.

 Where will it all end?

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Counting the cost! And other comments!

Well, so far as I have been able to ascertain, World War III has not yet broken out, despite the best efforts of a trigger-happy chocolate cake lover on the one hand and an equally unpredictable "look at my weapons" show-off on the other.

And here we are, Easter Sunday, celebrating the day the Prince of Peace is said to have risen from the dead.

One news report I came across about the queen and other members of the royal family attending church this morning was much more concerned about the fashion aspect of it all than anything else. Kate used-to-be-Middleton wore a cream coat and hat while the queen herself wore turquoise. Princess Anne's son, Peter, is married to someone with the unlikely name of Autumn. (I have come across a few girls called Summer, so why not Autumn? I have yet to meet any Winters!) She wore blue. I assume that the men all wore sober suits that did not give rise to any fashion comments.

Think how much money went into clothing the royal (sometimes by marriage) ladies for that church visit! There is an article in today's paper about the cost of weddings. Couples are opting for a cheaper day than has become normal in recent years. "Couples are realising that they don't have to spend £20,000 to have a great wedding day", says one wedding blogger (a wedding blogger!!!!) although elsewhere in the article it states that the average wedding costs £30,000! Wow!!! The writer speculates on how much will be spent on Pippa Middleton's wedding dress (wedding next month apparently) since the dress she wore as bridesmaid to her sister, Kate used-to-be-Middleton, cost an estimated £20,000. Wow, again! Some people expect a whole wedding for that! I would expect a good sized new car and some change as well!

But, do not despair! You can buy a wedding dress from Dorothy Perkins for between £85 and £175 and Topshop offers dresses from their bridal range for around £400. You can get the flowers, typically £1,500 from a professional florist (another WOW!) for under £150 from Lidl. They say "under £150" but that is only just under: "A selection of spring flowers, which includes 100 roses, 80 chrysanthemums, more than 160 tulips - enough to make a bridal bouquet, three bridesmaids' bouquets, six buttonholes and eight table displays - is £149." Hmm! Since when have roses and chrysanthemums been spring flowers?

All right! That's enough of that. It's Easter Sunday. One of my neighbours is hoping that no-one has bought her an Easter egg; it was her birthday last week and she received lots of chocolates AND she is trying to lose weight.

A number of years ago we spent Easter in Salamanca, in a small pensión overlooking the impressive main square. We had an excellent view of all the Easter processions from our balcony. Indeed, we were woken in the small hours of good Friday morning by the mournful sound of the funeral march as they carried the statue of Christ crucified past our pensión. The other processions were at a more reasonable hour. I watched the "re-encuentro" where they bring together the statues of Mary and the risen Christ and make them meet in the square, the men carrying the statues dipping down to make the statues bow to each other. Salamanca does Easter well. The next morning, looking at pictures in the local paper, I saw a photo of the "re-encuentro" with our pensión in the background and my good self on the balcony. Fame at last!

Going even further back in my Easter memories, one year we were in the small town of Cómpeta in Almería, a place with fewer inhabitants than some of the large cruise ships have passenger. Despite their small size, they still managed a procession every day through Holy Week, no mean feat in a town where the streets are seriously hilly. They were accompanied by a very bad town brass band and the local madwoman who called out furiously every chance she got. Less solemn and theatrical perhaps that Salamanca and Sevilla but quite spectacular in its own way.

Enjoy your Easter eggs!

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Seasonal stuff!

Just briefly at some point in the news on Thursday I saw footage of the queen giving out Maundy Money on Thursday: Maundy Thursday. The whole thing goes back to Christ washing the disciples feet. Until the death of James II, the British monarch used to wash the feet of selected poor people. Then that was stopped and for a good long time now the monarch just gives out money, supposedly to the deserving poor. Who decides who receives the royal gift? Well, it seems that nowadays the people who are chosen to receive the money have been recommended by clergy or ministers in recognition for the services to the church or local community. There you go; I rather thought the hats on display among the 91 women receiving the Queen's bounty suggested that they were not poor, deserving or otherwise!

I see that Tesco has joined Cadbury's and the National Trust in the select group of those who offend against Christianity this Easter. They put out an advertisement along the lines of "Great offers on beer and wine! Good Friday just got better!" Vicar and broadcaster, the Reverend Richard Coles, said the advert was "extraordinarily and unnecessarily ignorant". We should remember and respect what Easter is all about, he comments. Tesco apologised but also pointed out that for many people Easter is simply a secular holiday. Judging by numbers who were stuck in traffic jams yesterday that would indeed seem to be the case.

 On the hill just outside our village every year they set up three crosses every year just before Easter. I am not sure when this particular tradition started. I don't remember seeing them when we moved into his house thirty years ago. But as I ran around the village yesterday morning, Good Friday morning, I found myself in a moment of nostalgia, remembering the Good Fridays of my childhood when I would go to church with my father. I loved those Easter hymns such as "There is a green hill far away". If I miss anything connected to the church I dropped out of long ago it's those solemn, moving hymns.

We would always return home to the smell of hot cross buns, warmed up in the oven by my mother. Why did she not go to church with us? She can't have left the hot cross buns to warm up for the whole time of the service and back then there were no timers on the oven. Maybe she stayed home with the younger children, although they did go along to the Easter Sunday service. It's a small mystery. But all my memories are just of me and my father at the early morning service. And the smell of hot cross buns can take me right back. Proust can keep his madeleines for I have hot cross buns.

Here's a link to a video clip that has been doing the rounds. An extremely articulate three year old has some difficulty understanding why her parents give her loads of chocolate at Easter and, for that matter, Hallowe'en, Christmas, and her birthday. The rest of the time they tell her it's bad for her. Besides, isn't there a big problem with obesity?

I am just astounded at how well she expresses all these ideas, especially her comments about bunnies not even laying eggs!

The question remains: why do we chocolate eggs at Easter? So I did a little research. It turns out that eggs were traditionally banned by e church during Lent. And so, for centuries, Europeans have decorated eggs to give to children at Easter in celebration of the new season. Here comes another memory: my mother used to boil eggs with onion skin in the water so that the eggs came out extra brown for Easter! The Victorians adapted "Holy Week eggs" into cardboard eggs containing small gifts. However, the first chocolate eggs appeared in Germany in the 1800s and have been around ever since. (I have been told that we have the Germans to thank for Christmas trees as well!) And the chocolate egg tradition has spread; I can remember when you did not see them in Spain, except possibly in Catalonia, which has always prided itself on being rather more cosmopolitan! Nowadays, of course, Easter eggs are all over Spain.

And, finally, we must not forget that many Christian festivities were sort of overlaid onto pre-existing pagan festivals. Christmas coincides with the winter solstice. And eggs have always been a pretty potent fertility!

Think of that when you munch those chocolate eggs tomorrow!

Friday, 14 April 2017

Big boys' toys - and other games.

As a form of escapism I have been re-watching The West Wing, a world where POTUS and his employees are idealists, mostly, and talk about fairness and doing the right thing. I've seen the episode where a young doctor is killed serving with the army in the middle east and President Bartlett wants to lash out fiercely and furiously - blow them from the face of the earth - but is persuaded to take a more reasoned and muted approach. He's not perfect but he's striving for perfection and accepts that not everyone has to love him.

In the most recent episode I have seen, an (eventually unsuccessful) appeal is made for the president to intervene and prevent the execution of a convicted man. Various religious points of view come into play: Roman Catholic - Bartlett himself calling in his priest and even wanting to call the pope; Jewish - Communications Officer Toby Ziegler's rabbi preaches a sermon stating that revenge is not the Jewish way; Quaker - a deaf political advisor talks about how wrong it is to take a life.

Toby Ziegler questions his rabbi about revenge and the Jewish point of view. The Torah, he says, calls for an eye for an eye. His Rabbi responds that the Torah also says these things:

A rebellious child can be brought to the city gates and stoned to death.

Homosexuality is an abomination and punishable by death.

Men can be polygamous and slavery is acceptable.

He then comments that those were probably perfectly good rulings for the century in which they were written but not for this modern century. And I found myself thinking about religious fundamentalists, of all religions, still insisting on living by some of those old social rules.

But not only that: I also found myself thinking of President Trump responding to news of a chemical weapons attack in Syria (still not proven to have been carried out on Assad's orders) by sending American planes to bomb Syria. Even as I thought about this last night news came of massive bombs dropped on an ISIS stronghold in Afghanistan. During his campaign Trump said, "I know more about ISIS than the generals". He did not tell us how this could be so but he promised to "blow the s***t" out of ISIS.

One news report I read this morning said:

"The US had sustained an air campaign to eradicate Isis in eastern Afghanistan for more than a year, and according to Borhan Osman, an Isis expert with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, it had already been effective. “Isis was on the brink of losing their stronghold. It didn’t seem like there was a need for such a dramatic military measure,” he said."

So maybe he didn't know more than the experts after all.

Apparently those expensive bombs killed 36 activists. And frightened a lot of ordinary folk just getting on with their lives. What it makes me think of most of all is of someone who had toy soldiers as a little boy and now has the real thing to play with. Real bomb! Real targets! Real explosions! And real consequences!

End note: This is not what I was going to write about today. I had some Good Friday nostalgia in mind that will have to wait until tomorrow. I just had to get this other stuff out of the way.

 And here is another approach to things. A friend of ours is currently in Jordan, working with Syrian refugees, organising chess events. Here's a photo from the newspaper La Voz de Galicia, showing a chess event by skype between Pontevedra and the refugees:

 It's not all hopeless.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Things people don't know.

My phone pinged me a text message at 8.30 this morning. It was my eldest granddaughter, on her way to work on the tram. She had just overheard a couple talking about the Beatles. (Goodness knows where she gets the habit of earwigging on other people's conversations. I rather suspect it might be from me!) At one point they named them:

"John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and ... Harrison Ford".

She's a very music-savvy young lady, our granddaughter, and found this rather amusing. She just had to share it and so she texted me and her mum. I should think that, despite his own fame in the acting field, Harrison Ford would be quite flattered to be taken for one of the Fab Four. It''s not everyone who gets mistaken for guitar-great George Harrison.

I should not mock. I am one of those who mixes up the names of the famous all the time. Or else I simply forget their names totally. I know exactly who I mean. I can picture the star concerned. On a good day I can tell you which films they were in, although it does have to be a good day. But can I recall the name? Not until hours later! This has little to do with old age and decrepitude. I have always been like this. Neither is it helped by having a husband with total recall, one who heard a song and tells you who first recorded it and in which year.

At least the couple who misremembered the Beatles' names did not do so in the presence of the massed press. Unlike Press Secretary Spice with his faux pas about Hitler not using chemical weapons. I could almost feel sorry for him. He is rather like a very faithful, over-eager puppy, working hard to justify his master's actions. He would have done better to say nothing at all in that regard. Instead he showed probably not a surprising level of ignorance - surely he knows about the concentration camps, although he did refer to oddly them later as holocaust centres - so much as a level of thoughtlessness. His tongue clearly worked faster than his brain! I am not convinced, however, that he should be accused of anti-semitism. It was a silly comparison to make but it wasn't really holocaust denial.

He should watch The West Wing and take lessons from C.J. on how to be a good Press Secretary.

And here are some people who don't know what's going on in their lives. A Dutch man and a Spanish woman have lived all their adult lives, indeed one of them from the age of three, in Britain. They have two children, 15 and 12, born and brought up in the UK. The two children have Spanish passports but their first language is English. They both go to school here. Nobody thought there was a problem until Brexit came along and the parents decided it would be a good idea to apply for permanent residency for their children. The Home Office has turned down their application because there is not sufficient proof that the children have lived permanently with their parents. This is a hard one; children don't have employment records and tax returns. But surely there are school records and medical histories.

Who knows?

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Fearless girls!

On Wall Street in New York there is a statue of a charging bull. It was placed there in front of the New York Stock exchange by its creator Arturo Di Modica after the 1987 stock market crash. He installed it in the middle of the night without a permit, apparently as a symbol of America's financial resilience. The authorities wanted to remove it - after all, Di Modica never asked permission to put it there - but the public wanted it to stay and so, stay it did.

Now the artist is getting cross because another statue has been erected facing his bull. Called "Fearless Girl", the work of an art is called Kristen Visbal, it is a young girl, hands on hips, chin raised defiantly. On the eve of International Women's Day on March 7th it was placed on a traffic island near Wall Street to make a point about there being a dearth of women on the boards of the largest US corporations. She looks for all the world as though she is challenging the bull. The statue quickly became a tourist magnet. Tens of thousands of people signed a petition for the statue to stay longer and the mayor Bill de Balasio extended the permit for one year.

Arturo Di Modica is not best pleased. He says it undermines the artistic copyright of his statue. Well, maybe it does. It certainly changes the way people look at the art work. But once a work of art is out there in the world - and he wanted his work to be out there - who does the interpretation of that work of art belong to?

As for embellishing works of art, I am pretty sure I read a story about David Hockney and a friend taking pictures of statues with clothes and scarves and so on added. Or maybe I just dreamt that.

Personally, I love the image of the cheeky, defiant girl facing down the charging bull. All power to her elbow!

Girls need to see some positive images. I recently read that by the age of six girls are more likely to believe that boys are smarter than members of their own gender. At that age they also start to avoid games or activities said to be for "really, really smart" children. Here's a link to some information about a series of books aimed at readers aged 5 to 8, aimed at possibly combating the stereotypes.

Written by a two women, Isabel Sanchez Vegara and Lisbeth Kaiser, they tell the stories of women who followed their dreams, women such as Marie Curie, Frida Kahlo, Amelia Earhart and Coco Chanel.

I need to find some for my three year old granddaughter who has already protested about the male dominance of the hero-roles in children's stories. 

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

A few things about language-learning!

Here is something I came across in one of the weekend papers:

"Singing in a foreign language can help you learn to speak it, according to research from the University of Edinburgh. Lead researcher Dr Karen M Ludke said: 'Melody could provide an extra cue to jog people's memories.'"

So my friend Heidy and I have been right all along. I used to get my students to sing songs in French and Spanish, having done so when I was a school-kid myself. Heidy selected tunes to go with declensions, conjugations and rules to do with word order in German. Learning lists like that with a tune meant that replaying the tune, even in your head, brought back the grammar rule. A very useful tool in a written exam situation. Less so when you need to speak the language. But singing songs in the foreign language helps you get something approaching the correct intonation.

Listening to CDs of foreign songs also helps. You find yourself singing along and learning expressions in context, sometimes only discovering later how the expression is written. When our eldest granddaughter was small and lived at our house for some time, she used to hear songs in Spanish that I played on CD in the kitchen. At three years old she was singing along nicely, totally unaware of what she was singing. Even President Trump's grandchildren are reported to be able to sing songs in Mandarin Chinese! Language classes for tiny tots should be made up of nursery rhymes and counting, clapping, repeating games. They can learn the grammar later.

In the same article I also read:

"Singing in a choir can boost the immune systems of cancer patients. A study by Tenovus Cancer Care and the Royal College of Music found that singing for just an hour boosts levels of immune proteins and reduces stress."

Join a choir that sings in a foreign language and kill two birds with one stone!

In today's newspaper I found this:

Half of young adults in the UK do not feel European, poll reveals.

Survey also finds only a third of those aged 18-30 can speak a foreign language, while a fifth do not feel British.

Here is a link to that article.

I am firmly of the opinion that a large part of the reason why so few speak a foreign language is because of decisions taken to stop making the study of a foreign language compulsory after year nine in British schools. A high percentage of those I taught in AS and A Level French and Spanish classes went on to use their language skills and consider themselves European! Learning a language makes most people more tolerant and accepting of difference. So why cut it off just at the age when young people are growing up to have their own opinions and ideas? What better way to reinforce prejudice and insularity than to say that there is no need to speak anything but English!

Other research shows that bilingual children achieve more in school. Perhaps this because their brains have been expanded by the need to learn two languages at the same time.

And finally, a link to an article about a young lady who stood up to the English Defence League and a picture of that young lady that went viral.

She is probably bilingual and tolerant.

Monday, 10 April 2017

The times we live in.

Here's a headline that struck me in the Guardian online this morning:

"Most asylum seekers put in poorer parts of Britain, data shows".

 My first reaction: what a stupid thing to do, send people in need to areas in need. That will really help sort things out. Although it quite often works out that people who are themselves struggling understand better e problems of others. On the other hand, it's a recipe for building up resentment, fuelling those who say that immigrants get everything for free!

My second reaction: well, I bet it's because there is cheaper housing in those areas.

And so I read on and got some details. More than five times as many asylum seekers live in the poorest third of the country as in the richest third, according to this Guardian analysis. Labour's Yvette Cooper says the way asylum seekers are distributed around Britain a shambles. “You’ve got the asylum hostels concentrated in the lowest income areas and also in a very small number of areas. It’s just not fair to do it that way. It’s not good for community cohesion, it’s not good for local authorities … it also creates a sense of resentment.”

She went on to say Cooper that the problems stemmed from a change of policy in 2012 by the Conservatives, which saw the contracts for housing asylum seekers privatised and given to G4S, Serco and Clearsprings. She said these contracts, and the reduced money they were given to execute them, inevitably meant that companies sought to procure cheap housing in poor parts of the country. There you go! Just as I thought!

Rochdale, a couple of stops up the M62 from us is one of those poor areas referred to. Some years ago McDonald's pulled out of Rochdale; that's how rundown the place is. Or so the story goes!

It has an impressive town hall and a lot of closed shops. And one asylum seeker for every 200 inhabitants.

In asylum Britain, there is apparently a rule: no town should have more than one asylum seeker for every 200 people. In Rochdale, the ratio is 0.99 per 200 - the most in England. For the local MP it is “far, far far too many".

It's somehow symptomatic of the topsy-turvy nature of the world at the moment.

Here's another example. The Trump administration is considering a new "extreme vetting" policy which would mean that tourists from places like the Uk, Germany, France and probably others would be asked to hand over personal information such as social media passwords and mobile phone contacts or run the risk of being denied entry to the land of the free. They might also be asked to disclose financial information and be subjected to ideological questioning. The Customs and Border Protection people maintain that “keeping America safe and enforcing our nation’s laws in an increasingly digital world depends on our ability to lawfully examine all materials entering the US." 

It's just as well I wasn't thinking of going there.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Weeds and warnings!

As spring, indeed quite possibly summer, appears to be here, I have spent part of today digging up dandelions from the patch of grass at the side of the house. Calling it a lawn would be an exaggeration. I would hesitate to say that the dandelions have been eradicated but there are now considerably fewer of them. As a matter of fact, when a mass of dandelions are in flower I think they can look quite fantastic. The trouble is that they go to seed and spread all over the place. So they had to go. Now the not-a-lawn looks as though it has been visited by hoards of mini-moles. All in a good cause!
Yesterday, returning from my walk, I also did a little to help reduce the crop of Japanese (or Chinese or Indonesian) balsam that grows so prolifically around here. I recognise the seed leaves on the tiny balsam plants and pull up a few as I go along my way. Not very effective, I suspect, but every little helps. This is another weed that looks very attractive but it is even more pernicious than the dandelions because it takes over so much ground that nothing else has a chance to grow. Apparently we have Queen Victoria to blame for this immigrant plant which can reduce the value of your house if it grows in your garden. Thanks, Your Majesty!

Today I have also produced a late-birthday/early-Easter cake for the granddaughter whose birthday we missed while we were away. She has also been pestering for one of the "babies" thrown out by my spider plant so today I repotted all the runners and will pass one on to her.

Yesterday I mentioned plain packaging for ready meals (no regulations yet) and cigarettes (regulations coming into force). Well, today I read that tobacco companies are getting around the regulations by putting competitive price stickers on their plain packets. The objective is to "attract cost-conscious poorer smokers". But then I suppose nobody expects tobacco companies to be truly bothered about health matters. They are in the business of making a profit after all.

Also in today's paper is yet another report on how over-use of the internet is making our young people lonely. It's not just the cyberbullying but the pressure they feel to conform to certain norms of social media behaviour. And so they can have loads of virtual friends but few real ones and a great sense of isolation. Today's report began with a statement that Facebook should come with a health warning. However, in the report I read yesterday one of the young people they interviewed said that the young do not use Facebook. Facebook, it seems, is for the older generation. The young have moved on to other stuff. What they really want is parents who actually speak to them properly. As ever, they need guidance along the way.

 Nothing changes apparently!

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Some things change - others stay the same.

As promised, the sun came out and shone for us today. It was still fresh and cool when I went out running frost thing: not all that first thing really as it was rapid,y heading towards 9.00. And this despite my good intentions to get up earlier! I ran into old Jack and his little dog Rosy. He told me there had been frost on his car when he got up: not really surprising considering what a clear night it was!

But the sunshine saw me hanging washing out in the garden for the first time this year! That's a standard reaction around here to really good weather. Later I went out walking. The other standard reaction to good wether around here is to go out and walk along the bridle paths and tow paths. There were loads of people out and about.

My progress along the Donkey Lone was impeded by a whole family of cyclists who seemed to be just learning to use their gears, judging by the number of times they had to stop and sort themselves out wrong change of gear had bounced the chain off. And they had their little dog Betty running along as well which caused problems when they had horses to contend with as well: all stop and grab Betty before she gets over-excited and spooks the horses. 

Changes have been noted here and there. Time clearly does not stand still in our absence.What looked as if it was going to be an extension on a house up the road has turned out to be a HUGE conservatory, with a floor area almost as big as an extra house. It has been very nicely done, I must say, and I hope they get years of pleasure from it.

The bobby on the beat was back in the village again this morning. Is this a move to prevent weekend excesses? Or is he really just a glorified traffic cop, checking that the double yellow lines outside the shops are respected? As a rule they are not!

The work on the canal banks appears to have been completed. The canals are full of water again and the barges are chugging up and down once more. As I set off on my walk today I was stopped by someone looking for the barges, the canals and the viaduct - one of our local landmarks. I gave him directions. When he discovered that he would have to walk his dog a couple of miles, which seemed to me quite reasonable, he baulked and asked if I could give directions to go by car. Which I duly did!

The park in Uppermill was full of people, most strolling around or watching their children on the playground. Some had clearly settled in for the duration. No simple picnic blankets for these. Folding chairs abounded. One family group had brought with them two of those folding picnic-table-with-benches-attached affairs. These were neatly set out with picnic plates and glasses and cutlery. A fine déjeuner sur l'herbe if ever you saw one. They were as organised as any Spanish family out for a day at the beach! Impressive!

I wonder what they were eating. Masses of people were busily tucking in to fish and chips from the three chip shops on the high street. Others had huge sandwiches or pies or pasties from the local bakers. No doubt they would be frowned on by the healthy eating brigade.

Later I was reading yet another report in the paper about obesity. This one said that the problem is that the British rely too much on pre-packed food and ready meals. Not enough people eat freshly cooked food, which is, of course, much better for you. We are too gullible, it seems. Last month, I read, a professor of neuroscience advocated that high calorie food should be sold in plain packaging to make it less attractive. It's the same argument as for putting cigarettes in plain packets with no more than a health warning.

"Colourful wrapping of high energy foods of course makes you buy more of the stuff, and once you have it in your fridge, it's in front of you every time you open the fridge and ultimately you're going to eat it and eat too much."

 So there you are: we are all too weak-willed. Upon which, I shall go and chop up some fresh vegetables ready for this evening's meal!

Friday, 7 April 2017

Coincidence and likely stories

Yesterday we left the Iberian peninsula in sunshine. Beautiful views of northwest Spain from the plane windows. The north coast clear as a good picture postcard, a whole geography lesson laid out below us. The pilot told us we were flying out over the Atlantic towards Ireland, to avoid problems with France's airspace apparently. Are their air traffic controllers creating problems still/again? On reaching Ireland we would take a right turn and head for Manchester. Ok. It sounded like a reasonable route plan.

As I said, over the north coast of Spain the air was clear as clear could be. Moving out over the Atlantic, little dots of cloud started to appear, rather like a poor imitation of a Magritte painting. The further north we got, the closer together the clouds became, at first a thin, pancake-like layer but gradually growing thicker. By the time we started our descent, it was a good thick roll of cotton wool cloud, looking almost solid. Back in the UK!

And so I found myself, on Friday morning, bright and early, sitting in the cafe at Rochdale infirmary waiting while Phil has his second cataracts operation. After this he should be a new man with almost 20-20 vision. The wonders of modern surgery! It's a good job I have my trusty kindle with me.

I am coming to the end of a re-read of "The Lacuna", by Barbara Kingsolver. When our son was in his early teens he developed the habit of reading a book very quickly, to sort out the events, find out the ending and so on, and then going back for a second read to savour the good bits. Occasionally I do the same now. It's just as well I did so this time, for on my second reading I discovered a whole chunk of book which I had somehow missed first time around. This is one of the failings of the kindle; there is a button which takes you to the start of the next chapter rather than to the next page. Somehow I must have pressed this button by accident! Ridiculous! My brain had filled in background gaps for me as the book moved towards its end on my first reading, but it was so much better to actually have the extra detail! Give me a paper book any time!

It is odd that I have read this book immediately after completing Julian Barnes' "The Noise of Time". This latter book is a novelisation of, or perhaps a meditation upon, the life of Shostokovic, his trials and tribulations in Stalin's USSR and his efforts to remain true to his own ideals. The Barbara Kingsolver novel tells the story of a young man of dual nationality - Mexican mother and American father - who through one of those twists of fate ends up working in the household of Diego Riveira and Frida Kahlo when Trotsky took refuge in Mexico. And so we see the death of Trotsky through his eyes. More importantly we see his own struggle as a grown up writer against the machinations of the FBI and McCarthyism.

In both books we witness the fear generated by a regime that says "If you are not totally, obviously, evidently with us, then you must be against us", a regime that demands total conformity to an establishment way of thinking, and where questioning or criticising the regime in any way leads to persecution in one form or another.

In this age of media control of opinion, "fake news", and the threat of restriction of freedom of speech, these two texts should be set in tandem for political/literary study in colleges around the world!

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Tourist interest!

And suddenly summer is here. All right, I exaggerate somewhat but walking into town yesterday it almost felt uncomfortable walking across the long stretch at our end of Rosalía de Castro. That was not the only reason we stopped for a little refresco en route. We were heading for the barber's shop down near the port, where Phil reckons they do a much better haircut than the local barber back in the UK, and he wanted some small change for the barber's tip.

So we stopped off for a mineral water and were given huge raciones of very tasty-looking tortilla to go with it. Unfortunately we had had lunch not long before setting out and really could not do justice to it. It seemed a shame to leave it to be thrown away, which is what I suppose happens to stuff that is left on the tables. So I explained the situation to our waitress, telling her how much we normally appreciate the free tapas they provide. After all, we don't want to to go there on another occasion and find that they serve us nothing, believing us to be ungrateful foreigners.

While Phil had his hair cut I was harangued by an old bloke with only one tooth. He was telling me a long and rambling story about someone who had died after drinking large amounts of brandy. I have no idea who it was who had died, nor why he felt the need to talk to me about it. Finally he asked me if we were still in March. When I told him that, no, in fact we are already in April and yesterday was the fourth, he went into a minor panic, picked up a tray of plants of some kind that were on the window ledge and hurried off! Strange!

Meanwhile Phil was manfully setting the worlds to rights with the barber. He claims not to understand more than a third of what the elderly chap tells him but they managed to cover a range of topics: the weather, terrorism, Brexit, Donald Trump, and the tourists the barber had seen that morning, walking past his shop on their way from the cruiseboat to the town centre. He was amused to see them all in shorts and summer shirts, the women with bare arms, all shivering at 9.00 in the morning. The sun was shining and the sky was blue but it was still early(ish) morning and this is the northwest of Spain not the Costa del Sol.

Just as many Spaniards still believe that England is permanently foggy, so many English believe that everywhere in Spain in baking hot and sunny all year round. By mid afternoon, of course, their garb would have been perfect. I spotted 27 degrees on one chemist's sign: perhaps a little over the top but not far off. The locals, naturally, are mostly not out and about in shorts and summer frocks. Far too early for that. They must have heard, and adhere to, the old north of England saying about not casting a clout until May is out!

According to something I read last week, there will be fewer cruise ships calling in at Vigo than in previous years. I wonder why it has fallen out of favour. In its heyday there were often several ships a week in the summer months and sometimes three ships in one day. I would imagine Vigo is one of the few places that could accommodate three such huge tourist boats at one go.

Maybe the city needs to work a bit harder on smartening up the old quarter and tidying up the main shopping street, Principe. Walking along it yesterday, we noticed rather more boarded up shops than ever there used to be, making the place look rather scruffy and run down. And there has been scaffolding around the rather posh Club Social for almost a year now. It looks as though they have gutted the inside: total renovation with only the old grand facade remaining as it was. But, once again, it doesn't look good!

All is not doom and gloom on the tourist front however. The Faro de Vigo newspaper that I looked at in the barber's shop reported the great success of the Reconquista celebration events, held in the old quarter last weekend. Apparently the city has put in a bid for the event to be officially declared a "fiesta de Interés Turístico"! Watch this space!

Back in the UK, tourists will soon be able to see a display of gifts the queen has received during her visits to foreign parts. "Some of the more unusual gifts presented to the Queen, including a beaded throne, a totem pole and a novelty Buckingham Palace London Underground sign, are to go on show in a special exhibition. Previous exhibitions of gifts at Buckingham Palace have included a yellowing cloth rectangle, spun as a royal wedding present by Mahatma Gandhi, and once erroneously believed by Queen Mary to be a loincloth. Other gifts have found good homes, including a pair of sloths from Brazil, and an elephant called Jumbo from Cameroon." So said part of a report in the newspaper.

As for us, we are still waiting for work to start on the "humanizaciön" pf our bit of the street! Life goes on!

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Beggars and passports!

Today I went running again, even though I was taking the risk that the threatened temporary water cut-off might have come into force, making showering difficult. Yesterday I did not run as the water was supposedly being cut off at 8.30, meaning I would have had to go out to run at 7.30 or even earlier in order to have time to shower afterwards. There are limits to my devotion to fitness!

Today, however, I chose to refuse to be ruled by arbitrary workmen's decisions and followed my normal routine. No problems at all. No water restrictions. Perhaps they underestimated the length of time it would take them to reach our stretch of the street.

As I turned left by the lighthouse roundabout and started to pound my way up the San Joan do Monte hill I realised that someone was waving to me. It looked like a couple of children. Then I realised that it was Soy-Muy-Pobre, who used to be our regular supermarket beggar, and her son. She looks about 16 but I know for a fact that her child is at least 7. So she must be in her twenties, even assuming she was very young when the child was born. Being small, of course, makes her look younger. Her son is almost as tall as she is.

After she had got over the delight of seeing me again - she is always pleased to see me - she told me how she had been outside our Mercadona on Saturday and had wondered if she would see "la señora" (me) again. She went on to have a little moan about her son's school being closed this morning, for no apparent reason and without prior notice. (Maybe there water has been cut off instead of ours!) She had walked her son up the hill to the school despite his having a bad cold and being unable to breathe well. The child obligingly sniffed impressively to prove that his mother was telling the truth. All of this she told me in a perfectly normal voice, speaking perfectly comprehensible Spanish. Then, as if remembering that I was a possible source of income, she slipped into her I'm-only-a-poor-little-beggar-girl whine to tell me that she can't afford to take him to the doctor or to buy medicine for him. Did I not have a little something to give her? To which I had to say no. I was out for a run and had no money with me. Maybe next time. I have to say though that and the child looked better dressed than the last time I saw them. Maybe things are looking up for them!

In the cafe yesterday evening, a table near ours was full once again of women talking, not so loudly this time, about everything under the sun. At one point Phil leaned across to me and commented: "I am amazed that the world champion fpr speed chess is not a Spanish woman because these women speak faster than I can think". And he is not wrong; there are some Spanish women who speak at a hundred miles an hour. Maybe they feel the need to say everything before they are interrupted by another member of their group. Which is something that quite often happens. If you pause for breath in such a conversational situation it is generally assumed that you have had your say and someone else can take over. What I want to know is how they speak so fast without tripping over their tongues!!

Nobody here has mentioned Gibraltar to me so far but I see that the nonsense is continuing. Here is a link to an article about it.

One theory is that it is all about national identity. Which is a matter which has some people yearning for the old blue passports that we British folk used to have before our maroon ones stamped with EU at the top of the front cover. According to the Independent newspaper some pro-Brexit MPs have been calling for a return to the dark blue passports and now the Home Office has confirmed that some £500 million will be spent redesigning the passport. They say that this is not because of our leaving the EU but because the current contract for passport design is coming to an end in 2019. What is wrong with just renewing the old contract and simply changing the colour? And why does it have to cost so much? Don't we have schools and hospitals and social services in need of money?

Personally, I couldn't care less what colour my passport is but some people think it is important. Here is a bit of information about our very British passports:

"The blue booklet passport was not introduced until 1920, and it was only issued for 68 years. We’ve had the burgundy version for 29 years – about a third of the time the UK has been issuing passports in book form. Around 24 million people iin the UK under the age of 29 have never held a blue British passport."

The journalist Emma Brockes is quite attached to her burgundy Uk passport. Maybe she is one of those who never had a blue one! Here is her opinion:

"I’ve been lucky enough to have freely lived and worked in both Greece and Austria in the last decade, thanks to that little burgundy document and what it represented. In their quest to restore this visual symbol of British identity, leave voters have diminished what you can achieve with it.

 Nothing says home quite like a red passport."

 She has two children who were born in the USA and would like them to benefit from dual nationality and have a UK as well as a USA passport. But it's not quite so straightforward as she expected it to be: "What, HM Passport Office wants to know, is the depth of the child’s claim to be British? Were the maternal grandparents married? When were they married? Where were they born? Before now, I have taken my nationality entirely for granted and in the face of these questions find myself fighting the urge to ask: what’s it to you?"

Somehow I find that quite disturbing. It smacks of ensuring the "purity of the nation", which is a dangerous concept!

Monday, 3 April 2017

About pensions and such!

Well, as midday approached today we still had water. So the promised "suspensión de suministro" obviously did not happen to schedule. They must be planning to lull us into a false sense of security. Then, just when we feel that it is safe to take a shower, set the washing machine going or clean the windows, the water supply will disappear. So it goes!

Fortunately we are not held to any strict schedule, being fortunate pensioners.

I have been reading quite a lot lately about how long people are going to have to work before they will be able to collect their pension - if such a thing exists by then. Nostalgia politics, with its longing for grammar schools, good, old-fashioned values, bobbies on the beat (I'm not sure that's really on the list), and (pretty soon) doctors who send you a bill for treatment, will have people back to working until they are 80 and then going off to a public workhouse. Laurie Lee country, here we come.

Some things in the reporting surprise me a was a young man in his early thirties, a young man with a young family, bemoaning the fact was just managing to make ends meet. He had no chance of saving money for the future. Now, I can remember when we were in our early thirties, with a young family, just scraping by, juggling money to get to the end of the month. It wasn't until later, when I was able to get back into full-time employment, that we could start saving again and put money into pension schemes. Mainly, we just didn't expect to go on expensive holidays or to run a fancy car and certainly not two cars.

But, yes, we were in a more secure situation than some young families find themselves in nowadays. We had managed to save for a mortgage before we had children and we knew that we could both count on a professional pension (once I got back into full-time work) as well as the state pension. And that was one of the things that struck me in my reading: as always, those with a professional qualification are still more likely to have a pension scheme set up. Although how long that will continue to be the case is perhaps debatable. As well as that, if you have to work until you are eighty, it will be much easier to do so if you have a fulfilling job that interests you.

Here's an idea that cropped up in my reading: a "slow retirement". It's not a new idea but something called the New Economics Foundation is arguing for a scheme where employees give up an hour of work per week every year from the age of 35. The idea is that older workers will release more of their work time to younger ones, which will allow a steady handover of retained wisdom. A universal basic income, whereby everyone receives a set sum from the state each year, regardless of how much they do or don’t work, might have a similar effect, enabling people to move to part-time work as they age. It seems like a good idea to me but maybe I am just a bit idealistic. Because, of course, there would need to be an agreement about that universal basic income. And there will always be those who do not want to relinquish the perceived "power" of their professional position by even a little move towards retirement. Perhaps we also need another look at those programmes which advise people on how to enjoy retirement, something I have not had problem with!

Another fortunate member of our generation I was reading about the other day is Prince Charles. The article was all about his hugging a young boy in Romania. It turns out that this child is the son of a close friend of the heir to the British throne. He is quite used to being hugged by the prince when the latter visits Romania, which apparently he does quite regularly.

Young Valentin Blacker is the child of an old Etonian and a Romanian gypsy. (Make of that what you will!) he lives mostly n a remote village in Transylvania but once a year he spends a month in a Church of England school in the UK. His father commented, “Valentin is well travelled but when he’s in Romania he is the same as all the other boys at school. He doesn’t get any special treatment. He just mucks in. I have taught him all the important things, which are speaking English, playing tennis and swimming."

It's reassuring to see that his old Etonian father knows what the important things in life are!

Two questions spring to mind:

Does Prince Charles receive a state pension? (Indeed, has he paid National Insurance contributions in order to qualify for one?)

And, given that we are leaving the EU, will young Valentin Blacker be able to continue attending school in the UK once a year?

Food for thought!