Friday, 30 November 2018

Another little rant about education!

Yesterday I came across an article about university applications, the gist of which was that universities are giving out too many unconditional offers. These are offers of places at the university which are not dependent on students achieving certain grades at A-level.

Many years ago, when my cohort were making our university applications, a friend of mine was interviewed by the Fine Arts department at Leeds University and offered a place conditional on her achieving two grade E passes at A-Level. She almost turned them down, so insulted was she, thinking that the offered implied that they believed she was capable of no more than two grade E passes. Fortunately somebody on the teaching staff pointed out that really it meant that the university was so impressed by her work that they wanted to be sure that she would accept a place on their course. Which she duly did.

And that is partly what the unconditional offers are all about: bums on seats. Funding for educational establishments relates to the number of students enrolled. One university even offers a £1000 bursary to students who make that university their guaranteed first choice. They have to do this, of course, because some students will possibly receive up to six unconditional offers!!

Sixth form teachers are understandably concerned. Some students just stop working when they receive an unconditional offer. And sixth form teachers, like everyone else in the educational world, have to prove their worth by getting as many high grade passes as possible. Indeed, they need to improve their pass rate year on year! How do you do that if you reach the point where you have a 100% A-grade pass rate? (This continual push for improvement might explain the increase in First Class degrees being granted at present, with more than a third of students receiving a first at some universities. This is something which is also causing some controversy!)

On the other hand, there are those who say unconditional offers reduce stress for A-level students. Now, I know that mental health is a huge concern at present but surely the kind of stress that comes with the need to work for your important examinations is quite a positive stress. It’s like the adrenalin rush that helps you complete certain tasks.

What we should be doing perhaps is pushing for applications to university to be postponed until after A-level or the equivalent vocational qualification is completed. Then everyone would have to strive for the best they could achieve and teachers writing references for students would not be pressured to suggest that students could achieve higher grades than realistically possible. This is what happens in some other countries.

While I am having a little rant about education and exams and achievement and stress, here’s another thing. On Question Time on BBC 1 last night they talked about mental health, in particular young people’s mental health. One of the panel suggested that now that our young people have to stay in education or training until the age of 18 we should just get rid of GCSEs, thus eliminating a stress factor.

Other European countries don’t have GCSEs went the argument. Well, no, maybe they don’t have GCSE’s as such but they all have some kind of assessment at 16. This is how they decide what kind of post-16 course students should follow. Otherwise you have students with no aptitude for science opting to do a science-based course because they have always wanted to be a doctor!

I think the speaker in question was the CEO for the Weatherspoon’s chain of pubs/restaurants. No doubt having been to school himself qualifies him as an expert on matters educational!

Okay! Rant over! For the time being, anyway!

Thursday, 29 November 2018

The meaning of everything!

The Brexit talk continues apace. Should we do this? Or should we do that?

As bankers and economists go on and on about the possible consequences of a no-deal Brexit, I find myself wondering if there is a big conspiracy going on to persuade everyone, and especially the MPs who get to vote on it, that our Theresa’s deal must be accepted.

I have absolutely no idea what the solution to the whole mess should be.

As with the global warming problem and the prospect of British summers being about 5 degrees warmer by 2070 but all sorts of less favourable-sounding consequences coming along as well, I find myself quite glad to be at the stage of life where I won’t have to see all this mess coming about.

Having said that, I intend to be around for a good while yet. I just hope our savings and pensions give us enough to help cushion the effects of Brexit for our offspring just a little.

I came across this open letter to football associations (I think) from Eric Cantona, asking what is the meaning of life and talking about his refugee/immigrant family history and reminding us all of the need to help each other. After all, if France had not taken in refugees from the Spanish Civil War, he would almost certainly never have existed.

Towards the end of his letter he says this;-

“So, please, allow me to ask this same simple question to those who run the global game ― the footballers, the agents, the sponsors and the committees.…

What is football if it is not about freedom?

What is life if it is not about freedom?

What is the meaning of life?

I think we can all agree that we can do more for humanity.”

Within his letter is this link to information about the Mexican Suitcase exhibition, a collection of photos of the Spanish Civil War by the photographer Capa and others. Cantona found a photo of his father in that exhibition. How amazing is that? The last date given in the information is for 2017 so I don’t know if the exhibition is still travelling, suitcase in hand. It would be interesting to see it.

Meanwhile, EU citizens here still find their situation uncertain, despite assurances from Mrs May and others that all will be well. I keep hearing stories of hostile receptions at border controls, rather aggressive reminders to people travelling on identity cards that pretty soon they will no longer be able to do that. Miriam González Durántez, otherwise known as Mrs Nick Clegg, in this article expressed what a number of French, German, Spanish and Italian friends of mine have been feeling. 

Like Eric Cantona, I think we can all agree that we can do more for humanity.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

From Desigual to equality of opportunity.

I wore my Desigual skirt to the Italian class the previous class the name of the Spanish company had come up in something we read and one of our number said she had never heard of it. She said so in a kind of sneery voice that implied that if SHE had not heard of it, then it could not be all that good. Judging stuff before you have seen it! Really!

So I decided to show her an example. Typical of one type of Desigual style, the black skirt is covered with embroidered flowers and butterflies in a range of bright colour. I still don’t know what she thought of it. She was very noncommittal. But then, I am pretty sure that Desigual is not her style at all.

Our Italian teacher would wear it though. She likes a bit of flamboyant wear! We agreed, however, that Desigual stuff is rather overpriced. You have to look out for sales and discounts.

Earlier in the day, my daughter and small granddaughter had been round for breakfast. Grandma’s cafe opens on a Tuesday morning almost without fail. Limited clientele and limited menu - toast, scrambled eggs, coffee, orange juice - but the limited clientele keep coming back for more. After breakfast we read books and did jigsaws, the usual sort of stuff. The small person examined the embroidered flowers and butterflies on my skirt, and the multicoloured satin trim at the bottom of it and came out with a judgment. Taking a moment to decipher her still occasionally unclear statement, we realised that she had said, “Grandma is a princess!” There you go!

And now I want to know who has been filling the two and a bit-year-old’s head with nonsense about princesses! Someone must have been reading her stories with the stereotypes in. On the other hand, her favourite games include sliding toy cars down the ramp of a toy garage. And her favourite companions at the moment are Thomas the Tank Engine and other small locomotives, all of whose names she knows!

Equal opportunities and non-gender-biased play for all!

Later in the day, after the Italian class was over, I walked from Ardwick back to the centre of Manchester and went to the Briton’s Protection, the pub where a friend of mine organises a book club on the last Tuesday of every month. It’s perhaps a good job there were not many of us last night we were fighting for space with a regular meeting of the Green Party, who also seem to meet on the last Tuesday of the month (or perhaps they meet every Tuesday), and with football fans, stopping off for a drink before going to watch United play.

We were discussing “The Stepford Wives” by Ira Levin, a science fiction / thriller / dystopian / satirical / moral lesson story about a society where the wives cook and clean onsessively and keep themselves beautiful and immaculately turned out ready for when their husbands come home. Of course, it turns out they have all been turned into robots by their scheming and very clever husbands. If they are so clever, we wondered, why would the husbands prefer beautiful robots, even beautiful sex-robots, to proper wives who could be equal companions to them? Mind you, they go to the Men’s Association so frequently that they probably don’t feel the need to converse with their womenfolk. 

Just in case we didn’t believe in the sex robots but, our group leader sent us something from the New Statesmen, to the effect that, “Rather than being a solace for lonely men, sex robots are becoming a tool for misogynists to take so-called revenge.”

And there I was, naively thinking sex robots were the stuff of stories.

So maybe the Stepford Husbands were just getting their own back on their too-independent wives.

We also discussed the question of whether Stepford Wives exist in reality. Are there women who genuinely want to spend their time being the ideal housewife, cooking and cleaning nonstop, enthusing over the best brand of soap powder? Well, I know one or two who just want to be stay-at-home mums, which is on the same spectrum but maybe does not include living in an Ideal Home magazine.

 We concluded that whether it be husbands who turn their wives into robots, or wives who really, truly just want to be “homemakers”, it demands a certain level of income. “Stepford Wives on Benefits”! “Stepford Wives visit the Foodbank”! These titles lack a certain something!

Upper middle class problems clearly!

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Understanding and interpretation and a bit of humanity.

Yesterday I went to the dentist again, to let the dentist finish off work on a crown. Very efficiently done.

We have been going to this dentist for years and years. Now he is winding down, reducing the number of days he works, with a view to eventual retirement. His two daughters work in the practice so I assume they will take on more work. But what will we do? We’ll have to adjust to a stranger poking around in our mouths.

All of us resist change.

Our dentist is Asian. He told me a tale yesterday about how he had told one of his staff that he came to the UK in a boat. Where did you land? she asked him. Near the white cliffs of Dover, he told her. It was all a big wind-up and the receptionist concerned was a bit gullible. Yes, he did arrive in a boat and, yes, he did “land” near the white cliffs of Dover.

 His family were Kenyan Asians with British passports who left Kenya in the late 1960s or early 1970s, forced out by regime changes. So his family flew to Belgium and then did indeed take a boat, from Ostend to Dover.

Many Kenyan Asians moved on to Canada, he told us, but he was grateful that his family opted for the UK, where he received a good education, free of charge.

And now he is concerned about the UK and Brexit, as many of his dental supplies come from Germany. We were both a used that he was able to give me a paper guaranteeing that my new crown was made in Britain! I wonder what stories the people in the caravan making its way to, and now in many cases camping at, the Mexican border with the USA will have to tell in the future.

Here’s a segment of something a friend of mine posted today:-

“27 nov

Deplorable: Fox News host Tomi Lahren reports that watching migrant children being hit with tear gas was “the highlight” of her Thanksgiving weekend. In a mean-spirited tweet Trump-loving white supremacist and Fox News host Tomi Lahren celebrated the tear gassing of migrant children over the holiday weekend.

Responding to a tweet from actor and activist Alyssa Milano pointing out that the Trump administration was using tear gas against women and children seeking asylum at the border, Lahren declared that seeing women and children being tear gassed was the highlight of her Thanksgiving weekend:

“Bum-rushing the border is a CHOICE and has consequences. Watching the USA FINALLY defend our borders was the HIGHLIGHT of my Thanksgiving weekend.”

Lahren, a major proponent of Trump and his strict immigration policies, was praising the work of U.S. border agents on Sunday when they fired tear gas at migrants protesting at the border in Tijuana…

The gas reportedly affected some women and children and led to outrage over the Trump administration’s handling of the Central American migrants hoping to seek asylum in the U.S.”

No matter what you feel about immigration, surely firing teargas at families is not the answer. And delighting in it is unforgivable really.  

Thinking of children and how they are treated, the writer Michael Rosen often publishes open letters to Damien Hinds, Education Secretary, protesting about this and that. A recent one concerns poetry and begins like this:-

“Do you like poetry? I do. It’s an art form that can entertain, provoke, console, reflect, observe and much more. A breakthrough for me was at primary school when Mrs MacNab got us to perform poems as if we were a choir. “Choral speaking”, it was called, so there were solos, duets, sections where we said a whole line together, there were moments when we divided into “parts” and other moments where we created the rhythm with words or sounds. One I enjoyed a lot was Edward Thomas’s Adlestrop.

We didn’t have to explain under test conditions what it meant. We got the meaning through the way we interpreted the poem in building up our performance.

I’ve discovered that there are great efforts going on to wreck poetry for children in key stage 2 – seven- to 11-year-olds. I looked at last summer’s Sats paper for reading, sat by every 10- or 11-year-old child in England, which included the poem Grannie, by the late Vernon Scannell.”

The gist of his comments on what he discovered comes down to the fact children are being asked questions about poetry, question with multiple-choice answers, implying that there is only ever one correct answer. I am reminded of the Head of English at a secondary school where I worked in the early 1970s. He entered the staffroom one day in high dudgeon because one member of his sixth form English Literature class had dared to question his interpretation of a piece of literature. How daring! To believe at the age if 17 or 18 that you could have valid opinions!

 If you want absolute right or wrong answers, maybe you should stick to the realm of pure arithmetic. Literature and politics are open to differences of opinion and interpretation.

Monday, 26 November 2018

The fickleness of fashion and taking constitutional turns.

This was supposed to be posted days ago. I found it pending. Goodness knows how that happened. Here goes nothing!

Fashion is a strangely fickle beast. It throws up demands for us all to conform to certain body shapes. According to this report the thing to have at the moment is a large and shapely backside. Women are spending money to have fat removed from their thighs and injected into their buttocks! How very odd! It must makes buying clothes very difficult. More seriously, the procedure -a Brazilian Butt Lift - BBL - can be quite dangerous. Women suffer for their ”look”!

Also onto the fashion front comes the news that clunky lace-up boots with big thick soles are going to be the thing to wear this winter. So I can polish up my five-year-old brown leather lace-up boots and be bang up to the minute!

What goes around comes around and the stuff you have at the back of the wardrobe suddenly comes back into mode. Forget about the maxim that says if you haven’t worn an item for clothing in the last year you should send it to the charity shop. No, never throw anything out! Get yourself an extra wardrobe and label it “stuff that might come back into fashion”!

And as there was a sprinkle of snow on the tops of the hills around here this morning, maybe lace-up boots with a thick sole are not a bad idea!

The Brexit nonsense rumbles on, with some odd twists and turns. Theresa May’s cabinet must change as much as fashion does.

And now John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, is saying that if MPs vote down the Brexit deal, then the Queen should invite Jeremy Corbyn to form a government. Apparently he claimed that, according the UK constitution, Labour must be offered the chance to govern if Ms May is no longer able to command a majority in the Commons.

I was struck by the words “according to the UK constitution”. Whenever I have been involved in conversations about how things should be done in this country, some bright spark has sat up and declared, “ah, but we don’t have a constitution!” And someone else will explain that it is a matter of pride not to have one as it leaves us unshackled and flexible. We can tweak the way the country is run without having to amend the constitution.

So I went and looked it up.

“The United Kingdom does not have a codified constitution. However, a number of texts are considered to be constitutional, such that the "constitution of the United Kingdom" or "British constitution" may refer to a number of historical and momentous laws and principles that make up the country's body politic. Thus the term "UK constitution" is sometimes said to refer to an "unwritten" or uncodified constitution.”

It went on and on at much greater length but basically it amounts to this: we don’t have an ACTUAL written constitution as such but we have a load of CONSTITUTIONAL stuff - rules and regulations and accepted practice - just to make it possible to run the place.

Until now, I read in the article about John McDonnell, Labour’s policy has been that a general election should be triggered if the government’s proposed withdrawal agreement is rejected by Parliament, but Mr McDonnell admitted this would be “difficult” to bring about.

And maybe a general election might still not give the desired result. But running to the Queen and demanding Labour’s “turn” sounds a bit iffy to me. Isn’t she supposed to remain impartial?

I wonder what she really thinks about the mess the country is at the moment!

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Bits of crazy stuff!

In today’s Observer magazine, Eva Wiseman writes, “the vegan bleeding burger is everywhere - following Iceland, Tesco just debuted its Beyond Meat version. But: when has this ever been something to aspire to in a meal? And: why would a vegan want something that bleeds?”

Just so, Eva Wiseman!

She must have read my yesterday’s blogpost.

And while we are looking at crazy stuff, I also read something about a fashion designer called Batsheva Hay. Her name alone is enough to make you want to write a Thomas Hardy novel about her. Anyway, she has been reworking vintage Laura Ashley dresses - long dresses, lots of frills and flounces, high necklines and long sleeves - and making a fashion item of them. This all came about because her husband, brought up as a secular Jew, turned to orthodox Judaism with full observance of the Sabbath. While she did not fully join in with his new-found zeal, she went along and conformed. “But his new-found religious ardour”, the article told me, “presented her with a knotty challenge. How could she dress for the Sabbath without sacrificing her style?”

And so began a new stage in her career.


As regards her husband and his religious change-around, it led to his throwing out all his old clothes after he married her. “He had such cool clothing, really super stylish three-piece suits, things like that,” she said. She tried to persuade him to keep some, apparently, but he was adamant. Those clothes had been worn around other women and therefore had to go. So he went and had 10 Hasidic suits made by a tailor.

Well, that’s all fine if you can afford to do stuff like that. But it seems he is a celebrated fashion photographer and so the cost was immaterial. But who really needs TEN suits anyway? I doubt if that had anything to do with Orthodox Judaism.

I am left wondering at the odd things that happen because of religion. But at least this one was harmless.

Other stuff in the news has had me going down memory lane. As a child I did not own many books. I went to the local library a lot. (By the way, Kate Atkinson, the writer, was on Desert Island discs today. Only a few years younger than I am, she had a similar book experience, going to the library a lot and stating that the only books she owned as a child were the children’s classics of the time: Black Beauty, Little Women, What Katy Did, etc. Same here!) Before I went off to university I needed to buy a stack of books listed by the Modern Languages Department. So I went along to what I think was the only bookshop in town, Broadburst’s, where I presented my list and acquired a great weight in literature and dictionaries.

Now that bookshop has achieved national, indeed international, fame by selling a children’s book which had been on its shelves for 27 years. The bookseller tweeted about her sale and the tweet went viral. Here’s a link to an article about it.

The bookshop also has quite a large secondhand books department. It’s probably one of the ways for an independent bookshop to keep going. Years and years ago, on a visit to my home town, we went to the secondhand department to see if they had anything of interest. Lo and behold, someone had unloaded their collection of chess books onto the bookshop. And they clearly did not appreciate the treasure trove this represented to a chess player. Phil did and we returned home with our little car laden down with almost its own weight in chess literature!

Of course, collecting such books, and in my case tolerating the existence of such a collection in your home, is another form of crazy!

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Some thoughts about the increasingly vegan world.

I went out to lunch with an old friend the other day. We just went to the pub next door - next door to me that is - my friend comes from a bit farther afield but she probably lunches there more frequently than I do. As a result she has tried every single item, and probably every single combination of items, on the pensioners’ special menu (also for people with a smaller appetite, as the notice outside the pub tells us). This led to some commentary about how it is time the pub varied their old biddies’ menu. The food is always good but maybe they need to vary the offer from time to time.

At some point we talked about pets. I am a decidedly no pets person. Animals are fine in their place, which is not in my house. When our daughter was eight or nine the mother of one of her friends bought her (our daughter, that is) some goldfish for a birthday present. This was because she felt that every child should have a pet. I was more than a little cross, as you can imagine! There is a certain arrogance required to start organising other people’s children’s lives!

Anyway, my friend, who had had cats for almost as long as I have known her, admitted that really the animal lover in the house was her late husband. When the remaining cat pops its clogs she will not replace it. We both agreed that we would never harm an animal but neither do we really want to live with one. And most of all we bonded over the question of where pets should sleep. Definitely not on or in owners’ beds. Sleeping with animals is wrong!

We also expressed mutual horror at the new mums who post pictures of their small offspring curled up with the family dog or cat. Really! At a stage when you sterilise anything and everything that comes into contact with your precious bundle, you let the child curl up with a creature that uses its tongue to clean unmentionable parts of its body

So there I go, telling other people who to run their children’s lives!

Which brings me, via animals and lifestyles, on to veganism. Veganism appears to be everywhere at the moment. In an article in today’s Guardian Weekend magazine is an article about people bringing their children up vegan from birth. Which is fine, so long as you can manage to breastfeed. And with what they refer to nowadays as “baby-led weaning”, where you offer the baby tastes of stuff and see what s/he will or will not eat, you can probably do the vegan lifestyle thing from the word go. You might need careful planning to make sure they get the right nutrients though.

It’s a lifestyle choice and as long as you don’t impose it on the whole world, then it’s all good. It just gets a little extreme at times.

One in eight people in the UK are apparently vegetarian or vegan. I got that figure from the BBC Radio 4 arts programme last night. According to the article in the Weekend magazine, there are about 600,000 vegans in the country. Nearly half of all British vegans are aged between15 and 34. So maybe social media and trendy food fads have quite a lot to do with it.

Okay. Don’t get me wrong; I have been vegetarian and still eat more vegetarian meals than other types. And I don’t cook red meat, or even eat it unless absolutely obliged to do so. I fail to understand so called vegetarians who eat a lot of tofu. If you miss meat so much that you have to eat pretend meat, then why not actually eat meat? And I find total veganism, as I said, just a tad extreme. So long as hens and cows are not ill-treated, why not consume dairy products. After all, not all the eggs laid are going to be fertilised and turn into more chickens people won’t eat!

On the Radio 4 arts programme, they posed this question: is there such a thing as vegan art work? Oh boy!

A film maker, whose name escapes me, was praised for having a vegan film set, which meant that all food on the set was vegan. Artists materials in other fields, however, contain animal products. Red glaze for ceramics contains animal bone. Bone china contains animal bone. The clue is in the name. Artists should avoid using these products.

In the discussion this idea came up:- we are brainwashed from an early age into thinking of animals in categories - pets, animals we eat, wild animals, vermin. This should not happen (?) as we should have a completely open view of all animals as we should be tolerant of all people.

Here’s another question: can a book be written in a vegan way or be read in a vegan way?

Writers should avoid describing their characters carrying leather bags or wearing leather shoes.

A place called Wool in Dorset has been contacted to see if they will change their name to Vegan Wool, to draw attention to the whole vegan question.

Now, really, are there not more pressing issues in the modern world to get all worked up about?

Friday, 23 November 2018

Another rant about mad modern life and extra educational costs.

Further to my rant about gifts for teachers yesterday, here is something about school trips.

When I was a pupil at Southport High School for Girls, then the girls’ grammar school, now a girls-only comprehensive, every year we would receive information about a school trip to France. Every year I took the information home and every year it was beyond the reach of our family budget. Eventually, when I was in the sixth form and it was clear that I was headed for a university course in Modern Foreign Languages, my parents got together with the mother of a friend and classmate and cobbled together a way for the two of us to go the France. My friend’s older brother was married to a Frenchwoman and so we were able to stay with members of her family. The only cost was travel and spending money.

Independent travel at seventeen. It was probably much more beneficial than the school’s organised trip to France.

As a teacher of French and Spanish, I was encouraged to go along on and indeed to be the organiser of trips abroad: visits to places of cultural interest, camping holidays, conferences on Europe, exchange holidays with pupils staying in each other’s houses. Indeed, when I worked in sixth form colleges it was pretty well imperative to organise something so that it could go into the college’s prospectus and marketing material. Educational visits were a good selling point for the college.

However, one of our, or at any rate MY, major concerns was always to keep the costs as low as possible. Conscious of the fact that our college was in a largely working class area and that many of my students would have to meet the cost themselves from money earned in part-time jobs, it made sense. So I would work away at finding cheap flights or bus travel to destinations which could accommodate my students and give them a chance to practise their language skills. And I would have to justify it educationally to the senior management team if I wanted any kind of subsidy. And then I would discover that the Humanities Department were organising a considerably more expensive trip to New York, with precious little direct relevance to the subject areas concerned but looking much more glamourous in the college prospectus!

And that trend to organise prestigious-sounding trips to ever more exotic places is clearly continuing, to judge by this article from the Guardian.

School trips can cost £3000!

“Expensive school trips to far-flung corners of the globe are fast becoming the norm, not just in elite, private schools, but in ordinary state secondary schools up and down the country. Other contributors to the Twitter conversation told of trips to Japan, Madagascar and Cambodia, all costing in the region of £3,000. There was a netball trip to Sri Lanka, and an opportunity for some lucky children to travel to Uganda to see gorillas and help build a school, for a minimum price tag of £2,800. Other school destinations now include New Zealand, China and the Caribbean; there are trips to the Galápagos, the Arctic and Namibia. Really, it seems there is nowhere on the planet that is out of the question.”

Most schools these days organise skiing trips. In fact this has long been the case but surely these can be within Europe (one school I worked at took pupils to the Mont d’Or in France) not New England. The competition to provide the most exotic school trip seems to be getting out of hand. The insurance costs alone must be quite phenomenal.

And then there are the health and safety checks. When I was organising visits to France and Spain I had to fill in copious amounts of paperwork regarding what the accommodation would be, what sort of activities we would get up to, and guaranteeing that we would not be doing anything life-threatening. The accommodation question had the health and safety officer at one college suggesting we should go out and vet the homes where my students would be hosted!! You can imagine how that went down!

As regards the “no life-threatening activities” assurance, I was able to provide this as an excuse for a student of mine who was looking for a way to refuse to jump over bonfires at the feast of St John in northern Spain! He did not want to appear to be a wimp but neither did he want to risk setting his trousers alight!

But who are the parents who are coughing up these huge sums of money for school trips? Do they organise similarly exciting family holidays or do they just accept that their own holidays must seem a little tame in comparison? Are they not not setting up unrealistic expectations for their youngsters? And what about those who have mo chance of taking part?

The questions go on and on!

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Some reflections on modern trends.

The modern world is a funny place.

For example, I have young friends on Facebook, largely former students or the offspring of real-life friends, who go on frequently and at length about how they are run ragged by their small offspring. Yet they still find the time to go through the internet to find amusing cartoons to demonstrate this run-raggedness.

Looking at one of these, I reflected on the time when my friends and I were young mums.

There was no Facebook and therefore no Mumsnet. There weren’t even mobile phones and so you couldn’t just wham out a text in a great hurry. You had to actually pick up the phone and hope a friend was available to talk. In fact, what we used to do, at least in my support network, was meet once a week at each other’s houses, taking it in turn to host the gathering, and swop notes while the rugrats rolled around on the carpet.

I hope the social-media-posting mummies actually get to meet in the flesh. There is a strange isolation in the social-media world. It is possible to have numerous “friends” but rarely actually get to see them. And we all need that proper social contact. That is why we are now seeing a trend to combine pre-school playgroups with old people’s activity groups. The social contact helps everyone. 

Then, as Christmas approaches, there is the question of presents.

In particular, presents for teachers.

And even more specifically, presents for primary school teachers.

I do not remember buying presents every year for our children’s primary school teachers. We made Christmas cards when the children were small, an activity that degenerated into selecting a card to buy as they grew a bit older. But presents? No!

Our daughter, a primary school teacher, will no doubt receive a pile of stuff. At the end of each term parents seem to feel obliged to buy her gifts, often bottles of wine that she usually passes on to other friends and family members. But her pupils’ parents seem quite restrained. I read about a Scottish parents’ organisation, Connect, calling on PTAs, local parent councils, and school associations to discourage expensive gift-giving. A kind of competitiveness has developed, with parents vying with each other to buy the most impressive gift. (It’s the same kind of thing as happens with small children’s birthday parties.) In some cases parents are being asked, presumably by some kind of class parents’ committee, to contribute £10 each towards a present for Miss or Sir.

Now, if there are 30 children in a class, that means £300! Whatever are they buying?

The mind boggles!

Well, in answer to that question, here are some possibilities:-

 “Regency Hampers sell a “world’s best teacher” hamper, containing champagne, smoked salmon, cheeses and Swiss chocolates, for £214.50.

Marks & Spencer has 85 options in its teachers’ gifts section online, which promises: “From tempting chocolates to their favourite tipple, these top-class gifts for teachers will help little ones say thank you at the end of term.” The range includes boxed shortbread and whisky for £35 and a Miltonia orchid for £38.

Not on the High Street offers over 100 options in its gifts for teachers section, including a Letters of Gratitude Personalised Envelope Book for £31.75, to be filled by the class, as well as cushions, mugs and scented candles.”

Mind you, sometimes the teachers do it in return. Our daughter buys “something appropriate” for her little darlings. One year she purchased thirty pairs of those one-size-fits-all gloves, getting a special rate from a local shop. She has given them little notebooks and pencils, novelty pencil sharpeners and erasers. You know the kind of thing.

As for me, with classes of older students, I just bought a big tin of chocolates and passed them round the class. I did, however, organise splendid end of term Christmas parties for my teaching groups when I worked in sixth form. I always had masses of Christmas cards but presents weren’t expected. It was usually at the end of the second year, the A-level year, that gifts were given, as they realised how much work their A-level teachers put in to ensure they got the grades they needed for university. And it was usually something that sprang spontaneously from the teaching group, not a competitive thing at all.

Some of those appreciative A-level students are now the Facebook-posting young mums. Time marches on!

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Weather here and there!

This evening I read that there has been snow today on the Snake Pass, a section of the A57 in Derbyshire notorious for its treacherous winter weather. My weather app predicts a possibility of snow around here for tomorrow! Winter seems to have arrived!

Today has been quite cold enough, we have had rain, rain and more rain, with just enough wind to make you feel the cold and damp. So today all of my venturing out has been from the house to my daughter’s car, from the car to the supermarket, and back again. Bang goes my exercise record for this week!

I hope they have had some of that rain in California to finish off the fires over there. The people in the devastated areas had a visit from their president who still blames the fires largely on poor management of the forests. He has maybe changed his mind a little about climate change, no longer saying it is a “hoax”, saying instead that he thinks climate change scientists are politically motivated and that he is not convinced it is a manmade issue.

On the forest management issue, he is said to have tweeted this:

‘You’ve gotta take care of the floors, the floors of the forest, very important. You look at other countries wehre they do it differently and it’s a whole different story.
 ‘I was with the president of Finland and he said we have a much different, he said we are a forest nation, and they spend a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things and they don’t have any problem, it’s a very small problem.
 ‘I know everybody’s looking at that, to that end, and it’s going to work out well.’

Apart from the typos and the incoherence of some of the sentences, his tweet gave a point of view which apparently led to some trolling responses:-

 “I'm relieved that President Trump has the answer for stopping wildfires in the age of climate change. Who knew it was as simple as a "forest rake?" I searched for them on Amazon but couldn't find any. Perhaps a new product for Trump, Inc?”

“As a Finn, I would answer something witty here, but I still have some 228000 square kilometres of forest to rake, so I’m rather busy. Sorry about that.”

“Finland has ~73% forest coverage = 222,180 square kilometers of forests (world bank study). Our forests are densest in the world, averaging 72,000 trees in sq km. That's 22 billion trees or 4,500 for every Finn (yale university study).

Please send help.

Must bring own rakes”

“Honey, don't forget to polish the lakes too, it's your turn.”

Of course, in this age of false and manufactured news stories, I have no idea how true this is but the exchange, even if invented fiction, made me smile.

Maybe the Mayor of London should have persuaded POTUS to buy the water-cannon bought by Boris Johnson, when he was Mayor of London, and never used.

Monday, 19 November 2018

And so Christmas begins!

As we waited for the bus just outside Oldham town centre yesterday afternoon/evening (that weird time at this time of the year when it’s already dark but it’s not really evening proper) we started to hear the sound of fireworks being set off. Well, that or else someone was shelling the town centre. You couldn’t see fireworks, or flashes from explosions for that matter, but I think it’s because we were at an odd angle to the centre.

Almost certainly fireworks but what was the occasion?

And then I remembered. They were switching on the Christmas lights in the centre of the town.

If they are using the same ones as last year, which would be a good economy measure, they will spell out in bright lights across the high street the words “Oldham Lights”. Not “Merry Christmas” or the more inter-faith “Happy Holiday” but “Oldham Lights”. Truly, the creative work that must have gone into that must have been quite staggering!

Personally I think mid-November is still a bit early to switch on Christmas  lights but Manchester city centre did so a couple of weeks ago. Of course, they have a whole lot of Christmas Market stalls set up and they will want to make the most of them, giving people plenty of time to appreciate the tat on sale, sometimes identical from one stall to another. (Okay, I exaggerate. There is some nice stuff, some artisan-work jewellery and so on. But really, how many woven straw or wicker reindeer can one household need?!?) So they need to get Christmas fun and games underway as soon as possible.

Get Hallowe’en over and done with and sashay nicely into Christmas.

Remembrance Sunday seems to get a little lost in there, however.

Our village centre is having a big switch-on party on December 1st. Fireworks, the local brass band and almost certainly food on sale. For there has to be food on sale. It wouldn’t be Christmas without feeding your face.

This is what goes on mostly around the Christmas markets in central Manchester: bratwurst, baked potatoes, possibly roasted chestnuts, hot dogs, glühwein, mulled wine, and lots of semi-drunk people in wooly hats with pompons!

Some people are sad this year because they have been unable to set up the Christmas Markets in Albert Square in front of Manchester town hall, because of work going on there. This also means that the inflatable Santa who is usually attached to the front of the venerable old building cannot be there either. No loss, in my opinion, but many people disagree with me.

And the Christmas adverts are all being released. I hear that there will be no Coca-cola lorry! Too sugary apparently  and bad for our health! I am fairly sure I read something recently about an argument between Sainsbury’s and Waitrose because the latter accused the former of copying their idea - something about children in a Nativity Play, I think. Surely there is a limited number of ideas that lend themselves to Christmas exploitation / advertising.

John Lewis has, as always, produced a spectacular and called it a Christmas advertisement. It involves Elton John singing “Your song” and takes us back through time, and good old Elton singing at various ages and stages, until we reach a dramatisation of a supposed Christmas in Elton’s childhood when he was given a piano.

Well, that will up the stakes in the how-big-and-expensive-a-present-do you-give-your-five-year-old? competition!

On the other side of Atlantic there is a man called John Lewis who works in a university somewhere or other in the USA. Since 2007 he has had a twitter account with the handle (is that the correct terminology?) @johnlewis, logically enough. He has to stress that he is not the department store of that name (they are @jlandpcustserv) because he receives so much twitter communication about store-related stuff, lately concerning their Christmas advert. According to this articleTwitter has paid for a spoof advertisement, included in the article, featuring the REAL John Lewis.

The Christmas madness has begun!

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Going away for the weekend and getting back home again!

Sometimes it seems to take an age to get home from places. It can take almost as long to get back from a weekend in Buckinghamshire than from a weekend somewhere in mainland Europe.

We have spent a weekend with our son and his family, which was splendid. (More of that anon!) But getting back home involves an hour on the tube onto London, a wait around for the train at Euston, a relatively fast trip on the train, then a couple of trams and a bus to get back to Delph. And today we even had a relatively short wait for the bus for the final stage of the journey. But it’s always good to arrive hime, back to the water that makes a better cup of tea than that southern water does!

On the train, as the ticket inspector checked everyone’s travel documents, we watched a young man get all in a fluster as he realised that his rail card, whatever sort it was, was out of date. The inspector advised him not to simply renew the one he has but to apply for a new one as an app on his phone and to do it straight away, to avoid having to pay large amounts for whatever kind of measure the inspector would need to take. Goodness gracious! He gave him strict instructions, chapter and verse on how to go about it. The poor young man must have spent a good half of the journey sorting it out. Then he had to go and seek out the ticket inspector to get his ticket properly checked off!

How complicated life can be!

It seems much simpler to get along on an old biddy’s railcard! Mind you, we do check that we keep ours up to date. Anyway, we have had a pleasant weekend.

There has been little time for posting blogs this weekend. I have been involved in craft projects with my daughter in law, drawing castles with my granddaughter and was made to sit down this morning and watch the film “Frozen”, which does, after all, turn out to be a story of the relationship between two sister, and not just a schmaltzy romance! I now know all about Elsa and her magic powers, Anna, or maybe Ana, the younger sister, the faithful Christophe and the dastardly Hans (possible love interests!), not to mention Olaf, the snowman. (The very small daughter of a friend of mine, having seen but probably only partially understood the film, thought that Olaf was a generic term for men made out of snow, by the way!)

I really should have been made to watch it, however, before being given instructions to act out a touching scene from the film. That happened on Friday morning and was interesting in its way, with directions to say certain lines from the film at certain times and in certain ways! Our small granddaughter will no doubt go as a theatrical director, or a big boss, or maybe a prime minister!

One high point of the weekend was a walk in some woods not far from our son’s home. I even bought new wellies so that I could stomp the muddy paths with impunity.

Here is a selection of pictures of those woods.

This next is probably my favourite shot!

All very fine!

Thursday, 15 November 2018

A short post about this and that!

Today I have travelled to my son’s house,

On the train to London, in the quiet carriage, the one where you cannot use your phone, there was a man who sniffed all the way from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston. What is the etiquette for that?

In July my sister and I were asked to speak more quietly in the quiet carriage, because the person making the request wanted to sleep. We were quite affronted!

 On this occasion, I chickened out of leaning across and offering him a tissue and recommending a good blow. Instead I put my earphones in and listened to Leonard Cohen on my iPod!

Otherwise my journey was relatively uneventful.

At Euston Square tube station the electronic display telling you which trains were due was not working. So we all had to look at the front of the train. Very annoying! I do like to know how long I can expect to wait for my tube train to arrive.

Every so often there was an announcement about it, worded strangely and incomprehensively, almost implying that the train was not working because of the faulty display. Very odd! But I arrived safely at my destination without any mishap, unlike my son, coming in the same tube train line a little later. His train got stuck at Finchley Road. When it got going again it fairly rattled along, missing out stations at which it would normally stop in order to arrive at Chesham reasonably on time. Odd behaviour! Almost worthy of a Thomas the Tank Engine!

Strange antics are going on with our government as well. Dominic Raab has resigned as Brexit Secretary. Michael Gove has reportedly been offered the job and turned it down. Something of a poisoned chalice, I imagine!

Things are unravelling!

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Waiting. WIldlife. And words.

Well, Prince Charles is 70. It comes to us all. And he’s still waiting to see whether he will make it to king.

And Theresa May has got some kind of Brexit deal together. And she is still waiting to see if she can make it work.

And we are still waiting to see what the future of our country is going to be.

And EU citizens living in the UK are still waiting to see what kind of status they will have, and what kind of hoops they need to jump through in order to keep their mixed European families together.

We live in uncertain times.

Mind you, I suppose it could be worse. When we were in Portugal we met up with a Canadian friend who told us about seeing bears in his garden and at the end of his street. I assume these were brown bears. He said they were young ones, quite big but not too big! Today I read that one of the consequences of global warming, climate change, and melting icecaps is that polar bears are being seen more frequently close to Inuit communities.

A little too close for comfort I should think.

Interestingly the Inuit and the scientists who study polar bears have differing views about how many bears there are and where they hunt for food. The Inuit claim a kind of almost genetic understanding of bear behaviour - after all they have been living alongside them for a long time - and say that the scientists miss stuff because they cannot do observations from planes on cloudy, misty days, precisely the days when the bears come out to hunt.

Perhaps so. Personally I am quite relieved to live close to wildlife no fiercer than squirrels and hedgehogs and the occasional fox!

Now here’s a linguistic thing. A friend of mine sent me a selection of English words that have different meanings in Britain and America. Here are a few examples:-              

A jumper
UK: A woollen pullover worn in the winter
US: Someone who commits suicide by leaping from a building or bridge

The first floor
UK: The floor above the ground floor
US: The ground floor of a building

UK: Flaps attached to a race horse's face to restrict its vision
US: Indicators on a car

Fancy dress
UK: Informal party wear, dressing up as a well-known character
US: Formal party wear, including ball gowns and black tie

A flapjack
UK: A flat oatmeal snack
US: A type of pancake

(By the way, since Costa Coffee opened up in the airport at Porto, it is now possible to buy flapjack, the English snack, there. I find it completely strange to see the list of coffees and snack available, exactly the same as in Costa on Market street in Manchester!)

A geezer
UK: A gang member, tough guy
US: An old man

This last one puzzled me. I thought a geezer in British English just meant a bloke, a chap, a man. Internet research tells me that since the Kray twins a geezer has a specific meaning in Cockney slang, referring to a respected gang member, or even gang leader.

There you go!

This list could go on and on, but I think thats enough. Except for this one:

UK: Slightly hungry
US: Irritable or angry

That’s all.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Comsumer problems!

On Saturday I went into Manchester to have my hair done and to have my eyebrows threaded. The hair bit is quite relaxing, as my hairdresser knows by now what I expect. And part of that involves relaxing head massage. I could quite happily go in every day and have my hair done just for the head massage.

Having my eyebrows tidied up is a different kettle of fish. When I was younger I just ignored my eyebrows. They were quite acceptable as they were. As in fact were my legs. I am not sure if this is the case for all redheads but I only ever grew very fine blonde hairs on my legs and could ignore them. Old(ish) age and (relative) decrepitude has put a stop to that. The blonde hairs on my legs have turned darker and need removing. As for the eyebrows, well they seem to have grown, thicker and coarser and have developed a tendency for one or two to grow longer than is at all acceptable. And then there are the occasional pure white ones! So something has had to be done in recent years.

Each time I go and have my eyebrows threaded - a procedure involving a young lady holding a thread in her teeth and round one hand and tweaking hairs out - I am told off by the young lady in question. The procedure is quite quick and more uncomfortable than painful, but it is necessary for the victim to hold the eye shut and stretch the eyebrow skin to ensure a quick extraction of hairs. The young lady accuses me, with some justification, of using tweezers between visits - “tweezing” she calls it x and tells me it makes the threading more painful.

She tells me I should visit her “brow bar” every month. This may be true but who has the time, or the inclination, to go and do thus every month? Besides, I suspect it is a ploy to boost custom!

Around and in between the beauty treatments I fit in a bit of shopping. One of the things I did on Saturday was visit the new Gap store in the Arndale Centre. Not radically different from the old store off St Ann’s Square, except that it has a wider range than the old store had during the time it was winding down, it is nonetheless quite bright and glitzy.

I purchased a few items as Christmas presents, it having become a kind of tradition that I buy articles of clothing for the grandchildren. At the checkout I discussed the various discounts that were available to me - quite a good range in fact. Then I remembered that I might need “gift receipts”, in case the parents of the grandchildren needed to return them to the store for one reason or other. The poor cashier got very flustered and in the end I gave up,on fancy receipts, paid my bill, packed up the goods and left.

As I exited from the store, something “pinged”. Was that me, I asked, only to be told by another shop assistant that they were doing something that was causing the ping.

And at the entrance of every other shop I visited, something “pinged”.


I went on my way.

At home, later in the evening, I sorted my purchases and discovered three items that still bore their security tags - impossible to remove! The cause of the pings. So today, when I went to Italian conversation, I had to take the stuff with me and get the tags removed!

 Very annoying but still, it could have been worse. It could have been Christmas Eve when I began wrapping parcels and discovered the inconvenient tags.

 Always look on the bright side!

Monday, 12 November 2018

Words and pictures!

I have expressed my amusement before on discovering that a mystery dish in Portugal called “frango com carril” turned out to be chicken curry. On that first occasion, I tried to get the waiter to explain what “carril” was, only to have him lean over the table and say slowly and clearly, “Carril! Carril!”. For all the world, it was like an English person repeating an English expression loudly and clearly as if that made the meaning clear.

This year, as I tucked into “frango com carril” once again, we reflected on the likelihood that the Portuguese took the word direct from their own colonies in the Indian subcontinent.

And now, in the weekend’s “Feast”, the Guardian’s food magazine section, I found Yotam Ottolenghi telling me that the word “curry” derives from the Tamil word “kari”, meaning sauce. So it could well be that the Portuguese version is closer to the original than the English one! Interesting stuff!

This does not explain to me how the Portuguese make “lanch”, quite obviously derived from the English “lunch” (but pronounced posh-wise, not Northwest of England-wise), mean a snack!

So it goes.

Last Wednesday, when we had lunch in Pontevedra with a young friend, we found ourselves with a bit of spare time before we had to go for a train and our young friend had to go to work teaching English. So we popped into the Pontevedra museum to have another look at the Castelao collection. This Galician artist, painter, cartoonist, is one of my favourites. We like to go back and look at his work again and again: caricature-style cartoons, pencil drawings of typical Galician faces, social commentary and colourful, playful representations of aspects of Galician life. Always worth another look!

 Here is a selection:-

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Force of nature!

Wild fire is no respecter of class or wealth.

“In southern California, fires tore through Malibu mansions and working-class suburban homes. State officials put the number of people forced from their homes statewide at more than 200,000. Evacuations included the city of Malibu, home to some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.”

One old man from a place called Paradise, a place where he lived for more than 80 years, went back to see what was left of his home. Basically nothing but a bit of twisted metal.

Imagine living in a place called Paradise and seeing it turn into a living hell.

 “We knew Paradise was a prime target for forest fire over the years,” he said. “We’ve had ‘em come right up to the city limits, oh yeah, but nothing like this.”

And we, human beings, have always done this. We build homes in places we know might be vulnerable to fire or flood, even earthquake and volcanic eruption. And we trust to fate and to whatever gods we believe on to keep us safe. Sometimes we erect flood defences and make firebreaks, hoping our science will help us.

And I suppose it does, to a certain extent. But at present it seems that everything is going to extremes.

What will happen, I wonder, to all those people whose homes have been destroyed. And not just their homes, but the possessions and keepsakes that had to be left behind, the vehicles they tried to flee in, and for some of them, members of their family who could not get out in time.

Will it make them more sympathetic to refugees trying to escape from disasters of one kind or another?

Will it change the mind of climate-change deniers?

That remains to be seen.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Wild and wooly weather - with a sunny interlude - and some linguistic oddities.

So the whole blog-posting this went a bit haywire over the last couple of days.

(Linguistic aside: why do we say that things go haywire? I looked it up. Hay wire, as I suspected is the thin wire used to fasten up bales of hay - before bales of hay were wrapped in plastic in a range of lurid colours! Early in the 20th century apparently they began talking about “haywire companies” in the USA, describing companies not properly set up and referring back flimsy repairs done with haywire.
But the page I found this on went on to say that it is more likely to refer to the fact that hay wire, being thin and a bit bouncy, has a tendency to get into a tangle. That seems more like it to me!)

Anyway, on Thursday morning I looked out and saw dry(ish) pavements and people walking along without umbrellas. Consequently I decided it was fit weather for running and off I went. In the time it took to don my running gear and get down from the seventh floor to ground level the rain had started. And with a vengeance! Too late! I was out in it! I got soaked. The rain was set in for the day, we did not leave the flat all day. As we have no internet in the flat, that was that. ny essential emailing was done by iPhone.

Then yesterday we just travelled. And the weather was foul once more. Our plane was buffeted all the way and when we arrived at Liverpool we were all warned, more than usual, to hold on to the rails as we descended from the aircraft - howling gale in Liverpool!

No doubt Ryanair gave extra warning to avoid possible lawsuits.

In contrast, last Wednesday was beautiful. Blue sky and sunshine. Positively balmy! Which was nice because on Wednesday we went to Pontevedra to meet a young friend, one of Phil’s chess-playing protegés, for lunch. He is coming to the end of stay in Pontevedra, part of the year abroad requirement on the Modern Languages course he is doing at university. As he is off to Jordon soon for the second stage of his year abroad, we decided to catch up with him while we were in Galicia. 

We thought we might eat at Estrella, a restaurant run and owned by another acquaintance - no, a friend by now - of ours but he was closed. I got the impression he always closes on a Wednesday but he said he had a lot of work to do clearing up after Tuesday’s stormy weather. By the sounds of it, Pontevedra had more wind and heavier rain than Vigo. And Vigo was bad enough! So we went off to Ruas, usually reliably good.

As we decided what to eat, and Phil was considering “un revuelto de setas con jamón”, a scrambled egg dish, our young friend asked how we would translate “setas”. Well, “mushrooms”, of course. So what about “champiñones”? Also mushrooms. He has been staying with a Spanish family, where the parents speak good English, and so he has been able to practise his Spanish and also have difficulties explained. He had suggested to his hostess that “setas” and “champiñones” were just two words for the same thing. Not at all, she had told him, quite different things! But no further elucidation had been available. I told him that I understood that “champiñones” are what we call “button mushrooms” while “setas” are a more wild variety, longer, less “pretty”.

At that point the owner / chief cook and bottle-washer of the restaurant came out, all apologetic, to say that they had run out of “setas”. Would Phil mind having “champiñones” in his scrambled eggs instead. We laughed and explained that we had just been talking about that very topic. She confirmed that I was correct. And we assured our young friend that “setas” are just as edible as “champiñones”. Nothing odd about them. Mushrooms are mushrooms as far as I am concerned.

However, I am not surprised to find different names for different varieties. After all, you get eating oranges, “naranjas de mesa” and juicing oranges, “naranjas de zumo”. And then there are all the fish that are available in Spain that we never come across in the UK. Varieties of apples abound, after all: “las golden”, “las pink (lady)”, “las Granny Smith” but no baking apples!

What surprises me in that potatoes are just potatoes. Our local Tesco, in Saddleworth, has a whole range of different spuds, my preferred variety being “Charlotte”. In the Mercadona supermarket, next door to,our block of flats, there are just ”patatas”. Maybe it’s because Galician potatoes are simply the best in the world and there is no call for any other kind!

Anyway, we had a fine lunch. I had yet another salad, this time a good Spanish “ensalada mixta” with all the necessary ingredients. Huge, with a large dollop of tuna fish. Final comment on the weather: late last night I saw a weather report on the television. A view of Europe showed a huge bank of cloud from earlier in the day swirling up the west side of the Iberian peninsula, across the Bay of Biscay and most of France and then on onto the UK. That is what our bus had driven through from Vigo to Porto. That is what had buffeted our plane. That is what had almost blown us off the plane steps as we got off. And that is what we drove home through with our daughter who kindly collected us from Liverpool airport.

Wild and wooly weather!

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

In Vigo. And hostility in England!

Well, here we are in Vigo. Just about everyone keeps telling us that up to about two weeks ago they had beautiful sunny weather. The “verano de San Martín” just went on and on. But yesterday we had rain and wind and almost got blown away. It was not bad when I went for a run first thing, just a bit damp, but the day seriously deteriorated after that.

This did not deter us from going down into town where Phil subjected himself to a haircut and conversation with the barber. As with my conversation with the Portuguese driver, Phil always finds that the barber forgets he is a foreign national and goes into overdrive - top speed comments on everything under the sun!

At one point the barber commented on the Christmas decorations that are going up all over town. Apparently the mayor, still Abel Caballero as far as I know, has been criticised for spending too much on Christmas lights and stuff. He defends his spending, saying that people come from far and wide to see the lights. There are excursions. People come for two or three day visits. The hotels fill up. And they spend money in the shops, restaurants, and bars. Who’d have thought it?

After the barber’s, we went for lunch at the Rosalía Castro restaurant. We don’t really need to order. They know we want chipirones encebollados - baby squid with caramelised onions. Delicious as ever!

By the way, the barber recommends we go across to Moaña, on the other side of the bay, where there is a place near the ferry port which serves the best chipirones. They actually serve baby squid that are really too small to be fished but as they catch them locally they get around the regulations. Naughty! Naughty!

On a more serious note, here is something from the Forum for EU Citizens on Facebook, posted by a Finn yesterday:-

“A fellow Finn, who's been living in Scotland for the past 2,5 years, moved to England today. This is her experience on arrival (shared with her permission; she's not in this group):

 "And welcome to England! Just got a small taster of the Brexit culture (which is totally non-existent in Scotland IMHO) while going through the border control in Manchester airport. This conversation took place between me and the border control officer (bco) and had there been any humor in his voice or kindness in his eyes, this could have actually been a jovial, funny conversation. But no.

Me: Hello
 Bco: Hi. Are you here for business?
Me: No, we are actually just moving to Chester so...
 Bco interrupts me: And who gave you the permission to do that?
Me: ?!? Ehhhmm, I guess your government still kind of allows it, ehhh...*awkward laughing and mumbling*
Bco: Well good luck with THAT! *slamming my passport back to me*

 I was so taken aback by his rude demeanor and comments I couldn’t even think of anything smart to come back at him! Fingers crossed I just caught him on his bad day and he’s not like this with every foreigner he meets because boy, has he chosen the wrong profession to be in! I’m also hoping this will not be the prevailing attitude here or it will be a long 2-3 years..."”

 This is what my country has become! I feel ashamed!

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Language skills. Moving on.

Our friendly driver, the one who collected us from Porto airport on our arrival, turned up at our hotel yesterday at 9.00 to drive a group of us back to Porto - service above and beyond the call of many tournament organisers!

I managed to keep up a kind of conversation in a kind of Portuguese most of the way. They sat me in the front seat as nobody else in the group even tried Portuguese. Behind me conversation went on in Spanish, Italian and English, with intermissions while people snoozed.

Meanwhile the driver and I went through football (Manchester United or Manchester City?), travel, nice places to go in France, memorable cities in Spain, regional languages. Occasionally he would forget that my Portuguese is rudimentary to say the least and launch into some quite lengthy explanation. A nod and a smile works wonders. Goodness knows what I agreed with!

I have often heard people maintain that language skills develop in a certain order: reading comprehension, listening comprehension, spoken expression, written expression. My Portuguese is not following that pattern at all. My reading skills are greatly assisted by my prior knowledge of Spanish and French. I can put together reasonable spoken sentences; my awareness of how words change from Spanish to Gallego helps me turn Spanish vocabulary into some kind of Portuguese. I haven’t tested my written Portuguese in a while but I know for a fact that my listening skills are abysmal! After a few words the language turns into a flow of shushing and zhuzhing and liquid ls! More practice needed! Maybe I need to travel around more with our Portuguese driver.

By the time we reached Porto the rain had let up and we had some blue sky and sunshine. Despite our having been told that we would be dropped at the airport, our driver volunteered to take us into Porto centre. There we successfully located a restaurant where we have eaten before: cheap and cheerful - fish soup, grilled sole with chips and salad, a bit of bread, a glass of wine and a coffee - all for less that €20!

Then we went and stood on Avenida dos Aliados, outside the posh McDonalds to wait for the bus to Vigo. There was the usual huddle of confused people who had been told that the bus left from there but were unable to find a bus stop. That would be because there isn’t one! You just need to know where it stops. It’s a matter of faith. Lots of open-top tourist buses came and went before eventually the AUTNA bus arrived.

When we got on, we found that AUTNA appears to have upgraded their buses. Plush leather seats and plenty of leg-room. Possible fewer seats that on the old buses, with ranks of twos on one side of the bus and single seats on the other. The seat belts were still rubbish though: difficult to fasten and then very restrictive of movement. Of course, almost nobody but us bothered to try to use them. Which probably explains their parlous state, even in fancy new buses.

Are all AUTNA buses on the new kind? We shall find out on Friday when we make our way back to Porto to catch a plane home to the UK.

Another adventure almost over!

Monday, 5 November 2018

November 5th?

Remember, remember
The fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

That’s how the rhyme always went. We collected wood for the bonfire for weeks beforehand, we trundled our guys around the streets asking for “A penny for the Guy”. And then our mother said she wasn’t having her children begging on the streets like urchins. So that put a stop to that. The local rascals ran round putting bangers and rip-raps through people’s letterboxes on Mischief Night, November 4th. And our mother wouldn’t let us do that either. In fact she blocked up the letterbox to be on the safe side!

When we moved house my parents organised bonfire parties in the slightly larger garden. My mother made treacle toffee and parkin. Friends and relations came. Everyone brought fireworks. My father wrapped potatoes in foil and set them to bake in the embers.

Years later, Phil and I did the same in our own garden. My brother usually came and brought inappropriate fireworks, the kind you were supposed to watch from 50 yards away, and set them off at the bottom of the garden. It was several years before we realised that it was also his girlfriend/later fiancée/later wife’s birthday that we were also celebrating.

And now I find this, which suggests it’s all part of an older celebration or ceremony to ward off bad spirits, all part if a more pagan samhain:-

 “Weatherwatch: bonfires began as storm-season tributes to the god of thunder.
November was sacred to Thunor – or Thor – and ‘bone fires’ were lit in his name to ward off evil To the early Anglo-Saxons, November was “wint-monath”, or wind month, the start of the storm season. It was sacred to the weather god Thunor, the Anglo-Saxon name for Thor, whose hammering made the thunder – Thunor is Old English for thunder. His popularity was reflected in the widespread presence of hammer-shaped ornaments in Anglo-Saxon graves.

 Thunor was honoured in November with huge fires to drive away evil spirits. These bone-fires or bonfires also had a practical function: animals had been slaughtered to provide food for winter, and the fires turned the bones into fertiliser. German pagans sometimes put a straw effigy of Thor on top of their bonfires, and Anglo-Saxons may have done the same with Thunor. The November festivities merged with the earlier Celtic Samhain, and were later Christianised, before being absorbed into the 5 November celebration. Though as Thomas Hardy noted in his 1878 novel Return of the Native: “It is pretty well known that such blazes as this the heathmen were now enjoying are rather the lineal descendants from jumbled druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies than the invention of popular feeling about Gunpowder Plot.”

Even now bonfires retain their primal appeal, giving us an enduring link to the old weather-god Thunor.”

Everything merges in the end.

Here’s a last word on Hallowe’en being sort of absorbed into the establishment church.  Mind you, I don’t remember our little church having problems with it. They used to,organise a hotpot supper, with the church hall decorated with pumpkin lanterns and daft games such as bobbing for apples in a bucket of water. Whoever managed to get hold of an apple with their teeth while trying not to get their face and hair soaking wet? I ask you!

Sunday, 4 November 2018


So, our last day in Figueira da Foz for this year. Well, actually we don’t leave until first thing tomorrow morning but that does not really count as a day In Figueira. Yesterday evening I hung around at the chess event waiting to catch the organiser to confirm our travel arrangements back to Porto. Trains are possible but complicated, especially so at present as there appear to be on-off strikes going on. But the eminently kind Miguel organises transport for people with planes to catch, aware perhaps his town is neatly placed between Porto and Lisbon.

Naturally, because I needed to talk to him, last night he did not appear for an hour or so after the games started. It’s a good job I usually have something to occupy me.

Transport organised, Miguel apologised for the weather this year, as if he were somehow responsible for that as well. In previous years we have had really fine weather, with plenty of sunny days. Indeed, last year we ended up buying sun hats and sun cream, so strong was the sun! This year we have had some bright moments but mostly the weather has been dull and grey, with occasional spells of rain as well. There have been strong winds too but at least we did not have the storms of a couple of weeks ago. I am still amazed at the sight of huge, mature trees, with trunks of two or three feet in diameter, just snapped half way up, as if they were mere saplings. Still, as Miguel said to me, at least nobody died. Cars can be replaced, roofs can be repaired and new trees can be planted. The place just looks a bit battered and bruised at present.

 And we have had some excellent meals and long chats with a Canadian friend about the state of the world, dietary oddities, good books and tv series, and almost anything under the sun. Including, of course, chess and chess players!

One consequence of the weather is that I have taken fewer photos than usual.

So it goes.

In the online newspapers the other day I came across a feature entitled: Matt Hamon's best photograph: his daughter Lur feeding a beheaded deer.

It was a nice photo of a small girl, looking rather bewildered, trying to feed a deer’s head! Hippy trippy stuff from a man who shoots animals, mostly to eat, but even so:-

“Lur is my daughter. Her name means earth or homeland, the place where you’re from. She’s five now, but she was about three when I shot this. It was in the fall and that’s a deer I had harvested. Wild game is the primary source of meat in my family. We live in rural Montana, on 11 acres in the forest. Typically, when we butcher a deer, a certain amount of the animal is left around before it’s taken to be composted. I’m not sure if Lur took the head out there to where we chop wood, but that’s where the image was shot. She was picking grass, putting it in a yogurt tub, and feeding it to the deer, not yet totally understanding death. It was around this time she started to ask questions. Are the animals asleep? Do they wake up?

Usually, when we’ve hunted an animal, the first thing we do is put a handful of grass in its mouth, symbolising its last supper. We pause and thank the animal and the landscape for this opportunity to harvest that meat. Lur may have remembered me describing all that to her. And she would have talked to the deer. She still does. What has surprised me most about Lur is seeing how she has maintained not just a respect for the natural world, but also a sense of inanimate things being alive or having a spirit. She’ll say hello to trees and goodnight to the stars and the moon.”

Each to their own, I suppose, but Mr Hamon seemed a little over the top to me.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Food for thought! Lies and come-backs!

For lunch yesterday we went back to the restaurant we discovered last Saturday: Cais do Heleno. We took a friend with us. The young lady who served us the other day, probably the daughter of the chef, was pleased to see us again. The menu on offer was little different from the other day: roubalo (some kind of fish I have not yet identified) or mixed grill or roast chicken. We ordered fish for the three of us, but after a while the young lady came back, crestfallen, to tell us they only had two fish left. So, never mind, I had yet another salada mista, this time with grated cheese, but it was a different restaurant from the place where I have had three different salads.

At one point the chef popped up to see if everything was all right, full of apologies for the shortage of fish. They had been very busy, he told us, and he is the only cook. He spoke to us in Portuguese, Spanish and English. I bet that doesn’t happen often in the UK. As we came to the end of our meal we were the only remaining customers (I think we had arrived rather late as it was quite a long walk from our hotel) and we noticed the chef and his two waitresses - sisters? - sitting down to their own lunch.

A lovely, family run place. The service was great, the people friendly and the food excellent. And three of us ate well for under twenty euros in total. Now for something else. From the Washington post I found some stuff about POTUS. In a television interview on Wednesday Mr Trump maintained that he tells the truth when he can.

 “Well, I try. I do try . . . and I always want to tell the truth,” Trump said in an interview with ABC News. “When I can, I tell the truth. And sometimes it turns out to be where something happens that’s different or there’s a change, but I always like to be truthful.”

There is something fundamentally wrong with a president who says he TRIES to tell the truth. He does seems to have a problem with it though. He tells the truth when he can but, presumably, many times he simply can’t do so. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker reported last month that Trump had made more than 5,000 false or misleading claims in the first 601 days of his presidency — an average of 8.3 claims a day — and that the pace is picking up.

For instance, he said a middle-class tax cut would be passed by Nov. 1, even though Congress wasn’t in session and had no plans to reconvene before the elections.

He has repeatedly asserted that Republicans are more committed than Democrats to protecting people with preexisting health conditions, despite numerous past actions contrary to that claim.

And he has asserted that the United States is the only country to grant automatic citizenship to children born on its territory, despite the fact that more than 30 other nations have a similar “birthright citizenship” policies.

Jane Fonda, still active at 80, says he is dangerous, but reckons that some of his odd behaviour is the result of bis having had an abusive father and a neglectful mother. Really? It’s all too pathetic!

In the New Yorker Magazine, Susan B Glasser explains that she has been listening to all of Trump’s campaign speeches/tirades during the midterms. She points out that his own advisers have said not to pay attention to the tweets; forget the overheated language and the alarming one-liners coming out of Trump’s constant campaign-style rallies. Pay attention to the policy.

But she reckons we should not dismiss him out of hand: “I listen because I think we are making a mistake by dismissing him, by pretending the words of the most powerful man in the world are meaningless. They do have consequences. They are many, and they are worrisome. In what he says to the world, the President is, as Ed Luce wrote in the Financial Times this week, “creating the space to do things which were recently unthinkable.” It’s not a reality show; it’s real.”

Is he planning a second term?

 In the UK rumours abound that David Cameron would like to make a come-back, maybe as Foreign Secretary. Apparently he feels a “vocation to serve”. His people deny that he plans to come out of retirement. But he is still quite young enough to do so.

We shall see!

Friday, 2 November 2018

What’s in a (salad) name?

Three times in the last week here in Figueira da Foz I have ordered salada mista, each time in the same restaurant and each time I have received something slightly different. Now, you might be mistakenly led to believe that salada mista is a direct translation of the Spanish ensalada mixta. No doubt that is so linguistically but the two are quite different beasts.

The Spanish enslada mixta, even when you ask for a small one, is a creature that seemingly grows in the making: lettuce, tomatoes, onions, a bit of grated carrot, some sweetcorn, hard boiled eggs and the inevitable huge dollop of canned tuna fish. When it arrives at your table there is enough to serve three of you at least. The Portuguese salada mista is more like the spanish ensalada simple: lettuce, tomatoes, onions, grated carrot and that’s about it.

Anyway, on the first occasion of my ordering salada mista it was the evening. I do not know if that made a difference. I had ordered creme de marisco - an excellent seafood soup - and then the salad, which probed to,be a tastefully arranged small amount of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, grated carrot and red cabbage. Rather nouvelle cuisine but just the right amount. Small but perfectly formed. The restaurant has been refurbished since last year. Perhaps, I reflected, they are going all trendy foodwise!

The second occasion was a lunchtime. The chess people organise a system of dinner tickets for the restaurant; for a prepaid €9.50 chess players can choose from a set menu do dia: soup, something fishy or meaty with veg or rice, a drink, dessert and coffee. We only had one ticket so Phil went for the menu do dia and I opted again for creme de marisco and salada mista. This time the salada was a huge plateful, Spanish ensalada mixta proportions. and included sweetcorn - no eggs or tuna fish though. We were lunching with a friend and I shared my salad with him and with Phil. 

Yesterday I decided that, given the size of the lunchtime salada earlier in the week, I would not have soup. The salada would suffice. So about half the amount arrived, this time served in a bowl. Without sweetcorn and with fewer tomatoes. Decanted onto my plate it was plenty.

A nice salad and a glass of crisp white wine is a fine lunch. The inconsistency amused me though.

My salad and wine selection works out cheaper than the dinner ticket and I include a dessert. We usually opt for salada de fruta, a reliably good fresh fruit salad, as the other options in the dinner ticket menu do not appeal to us. However, yesterday, as I was not tied to the menu do dia choices, I selected pannacotta com frutos vermelhos - red fruit pannacotta. Very good it was too!

Finishing off a meal with coffee, as a rule we ask for a cafe pingado, the equivalent of a café cortado. The waiters accept this term but on the bill it always appears as a garoto. Odd! As sometimes happens in Spain, the cafe pingado / café cortado in that restaurant can be a little bitter. Requests for extra milk make little difference. In Spain we might order a small café con leche instead. Here our experience has been that asking for a meia de leite, a white coffee, results in a breakfast-sized serving. Not what you need at the end of lunch. Our Portuguese is limited but we thought we had indicated to the waiter that we would like two SMALL meias de leite. He seemed to understand but clearly did not, or perhaps he forgot and just went on automatic end-of-lunch pilot; two pingados arrived as usual at our table!

Such are the vagaries of eating out!

And, before Hallowe’en is too far in the past, I came across a discussion of how the word should be spelt: Halloween or Hallowe’en. People have told me in the past that I am too picky when I insist on the apostrophe. The discussion site vindicated me: Hallowe’en is the Eve of All Saints, hallow being an old word for holy. I knew that already.

What I did not know was that trick or treating may have originated back in sixteenth century England as “souling”, when people went from house to house offering to pray for the souls of the dead. Not an Americanism at all.

And then there is this alternative version:

The name Hallowe’en is a corruption of the words Haribos evening, named after the better-than-nothing cheap sweets which are traditionally given out on October 31st.