Friday, 31 January 2020

Things that are possibly even more absurd than Brexit!

I am a great fan of coffee. We drink quite a lot of it in our house. I have been called a coffee snob in my time because I don’t have instant coffee in the house. Well, there is no point in buying instant coffee when neither Phil nor I appreciate it. Neither do we like the plunger-type filter coffee makers. And we have not become aficionados of the coffee-pod machines. I did once buy us a a very fancy espresso machine, complete with milk frother but to be quite honest it was more bother than it was worth. Instead we rely on the Italian style coffee maker, the one that comes in three parts: a bottom section where you put the water, kind of basket where you put the ground coffee and through which the boiled water forces its way into the top section, from which you pour an excellent cup of coffee. 

My Spanish sister gave us one I don’t know how long ago. I suspected at the time that she got it free, or at least on a special offer, with Bonka coffee but we really appreciated it - the best Christmas present she ever gave us! The irony of it is that she never made anything but instant coffee (and still doesn’t) despite her husband really appreciating good coffee!

Anyway, I was reading about the Tate galleries advertising for a “head of coffee”. There’s a silly job title if ever there was one. Do they also have a “head of ice cream”? A” head of cakes”? This was news mostly because the post apparently pays more than the average museum or gallery curator receives per annum.

As you might expect such a job advert waxes lyrical. “The advert tells candidates the role “encompasses all aspects of coffee” within the four Tate galleries and requires them to have “extensive experience of cupping and espresso quality assessment”, while experience of developing blends for espresso and filter coffee is a must.”

What on earth is “cupping”? I must ask my eldest granddaughter. Before getting a proper job, she worked part time for a while at a local branch of Java and prided herself on being able to make one of those fancy leaf patterns on the top of a caffe latte! Perhaps she also learnt about “cupping”.

I love the flowery language used to describe such things as coffee houses. Here we go:- “Tate Britain houses the Roastery at Tate, described on its website as “a diverse and innovative specialty coffee space” that is home to the company’s Gender Equality Coffee Project and Slot Roasting Collective, “a vibrant community-led non-profit business that helps fund Tate Gallery and champion coffee producers and professionals of all genders throughout the coffee value chain”.
The head of coffee role requires blending and roasting coffee for use in all Tate Eats’ sites and managing the hot beverage team, while being responsible for “all aspects of tea and coffee”, and managing a slot-roasting programme, plus wholesale and white label contracts.”

The mind boggles!

But coffee is important, or so they would have us believe. “Research from the British Coffee Association found that the UK coffee industry’s total contribution to the UK economy was £17.7bn in 2017, and that the sector creates about 210,325 British jobs.”

There you go.

Now for another absurdity. Counter-terror police issued guidance requiring teachers to report members of Extinction Rebellion to the authorities under the Prevent powers. The guide was recalled after the Guardian revealed its existence, but later another list emerged citing the group, as well as Greenpeace and Stop the Badger Cull.

But the nonsense does not stop there.

A cycling safety and advocacy organisation has been named on a counter-terrorism watch list issued by the Home Office. Critical Mass was named among a collection of 'Left Wing and Associated Single Issue Groups' that were included in a document issued to counter-terrorism police units.

It seem that we are all potential terrorists now!

Be careful what you protest about!

Thursday, 30 January 2020

On being English?

As we approach the day when we are supposed to celebrate our leaving Europe, the day when some people will have celebration parties and other will organise a mass protest singing of “Ode to Joy”, here are some thoughts on national identity.

I have a vague memory of a day in primary school when we all dressed up in the national costume of one country or another. I cannot for the life of me remember why we did this or whether this was completely international or just the countries of the United Kingdom. Whatever it was, for some reason, maybe because of my red hair, it was decided that I would be an Irish girl. This costume seemed to consist of a longish skirt, a shawl around my shoulders and a green headscarf knotted under mu chin. To the best of my knowledge, by the way, my family had no connection with Ireland and, besides, I really had a hankering to be a Welsh girl and wear a tall hat. No such luck!

I was reminded of this when I found this collection of photos in the Guardian. Children in a remote bit of Eastern Germany, where the traditional Sorbian festival Ptaci Kwas celebrates the approaching end of winter, are dressed up in a rather fine national costume. As in so many countries of Europe, there is this bit of Germany where they still speak their own language (presumably as well as German) and have their own traditional festivals.

I was long ago impressed by the Breton ladies, in Breton national costume, including fine, often very tall lace headdresses, sitting outside making lace - a good bit of marketing for their tourist industry.

Most of the autonomous regions of Spain retain their traditional costumes and traditional dances (look in IOS photos in albums of Facebook). But we seem to have none. Even Morris dancing, such an English thing, is supposed to have originated in a Europe-wide enthusiasm for things exotic and Moorish back in the fifteenth century. So any idea that the strange costumes with bells and ribbons have anything to do with Olde Englande can be dismissed out of hand.

And our regional languages blended into standard English long since. The writer Melvin Bragg is supposed to have spoken only Cumbrian until he went to school but I wonder if he remembers it now and I also wonder wonder how many children grow up speaking Cumbrian these days. It may be that our quite early industrialisation forced movement from country to town and from district to district, wiping out regional differences in the process.

I even went and googled our national dress. This is what I rather depressingly found:-

“England does not have a national dress, but traditional dress can be found at English country fairs and within the regiments that make up the monarchy's royal guard.
There are seven regiments of the British army that guard the Queen and the Royal Palaces. Each one has a specific uniform that sets it apart from the others. The two regiments that make up the Household Cavalry are distinguished by the colors of their tunics, collars, and the plumes on their helmets. The Queen's Foot Guards wear full dress uniforms, which include a red tunic and bearskin hat, as they stand guard in front of Buckingham Palace and St. James Palace in London.
People often mistakenly assume that the traditional dress of England is the costume worn by the Queen's Body Guard, known as Beefeaters. Their scarlet and gold uniforms and distinctive black hats date back to 1552.
Scotland, Wales and Ireland all have national costumes. King Henry VIII commissioned an artist to create a template to create a national dress for England, but the artist did not deliver.”

Really we seem to be a mishmash of all the various peoples who have invaded or settled here. And on the whole I think it’s rather good that we are such mongrels.

On the other side of the Atlantic is another nation made up a similar mix of all sorts of nationalities of origin - the USA. I read today that a section of Donald Trump’s much talked about wall between his country and Mexico has been blown over in high winds. Is this a sign? Is it a message from On High that such a wall is not meant to exist?

Maybe it’s telling us all that we should be uniting and working together to solve world problems. Just a thought!

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

The selfishness and oddness of the modern world.

My morning run took me to Uppermill today, as it does most Wednesdays. As I approached the square where the market is set up I thought I might have mistaken the day. The fish-man’s van was there but apart from the chap who sells shoes and slippers the square was otherwise empty. I commented on this to the fish-man who told me that the veg-man and the cheese-and-biscuits-woman had been but had had to leave as they could not get onto the square because of parked cars.

Why did that happen? Anyone who lives locally is well aware that there is no parking on the square on a Wednesday morning and besides there are notices all over the place. Plain and simple thoughtlessness, selfishness and lack of consideration for others!

 No baking apples or ginger biscuits for me this morning. But, more importantly, a morning’s trading lost for the stall holders.

Crazy parking was in evidence along the route my bus took on the way home. It seems that some kind of exercise class has recently started up in a small industrial complex just around the corner from where i live - pilates or some other, even trendier sort of thing. There is insufficient parking space in the industrial complex so the exercisers park willy-nilly along the edge of the road on a rather dangerous curve.

My bus driver had to pause to allow a couple of white-van drivers coming in the opposite direction. According to the right of way code these should have given way to her. Another example of the selfishness of the modern world!

And now for an odd twist on modern feminism, courtesy of journalist Hadley Freeman:-

“A thrilling new trend has emerged, and it’s as seismic as the New Look was in 40s fashion, or the emergence of Mediterranean cooking in 90s Britain: it’s called being a housewife. Now you might think: “Ummm, that doesn’t sound THAT new to me.” But all fashion trends are rehashes, and “tradwife”, as this one is dubbed, is housewife with a social media spin. It’s like bringing back 90s style, but swapping that brown eyeliner for contouring makeup. It’s just so much more zeitgeist, you see?
So a “tradwife” is a woman who doesn’t work so as to look after their children, their husband, their home and then talk non-stop about how great this is on social media. Who knew being so traditional was also so modern? And so busy!
Last week alone, there were interviews with tradwives in the Daily Mail, the Times and on the BBC, This Morning, Victoria Derbyshire and, for all I know, piped 24/7 across all channels. I’m afraid that – being both non-trad and a non-wife – I am less plugged in than these women.”

It seems that this is modern feminism because the women concerned have “chosen” to live this way. And because they are modern women, they Instagram and blog about it, making much of the joy if ironing their husband’s shirts and buying onions. (Okay, I know I go on about buying stuff at the local market but I don’t quite fit the trad-wife model!)

Hadley continues with a bit of a warning about tradwives in the USA:-

 “And it’s also about something else. Rather awkwardly for the British tradwives – who like to suggest their movement is just about dressing in Cath Kidston and letting their husband choose where they are going on holiday – in the US and elsewhere it is very much part of the “alt-right” movement. It is especially popular among white supremacists, who are extremely down with the message that white women should submit to their husband and focus on making as many white babies as possible. British tradwives insist this has nothing to do with them: “Someone even said, this type of housewife was promoted by the Third Reich. And it’s like: ‘Really?! I didn’t even know that!’””


Tuesday, 28 January 2020

About monsters!

We were walking towards our house the other day, my daughter, her three year old, the baby and me, when the three year old stopped and declared that she was going no farther as there was a monster at Grandma’s house. Nonsense, we told her, there are no monsters at Grandma’s house. And then we spotted the tail hanging down from the garden wall, the tail she had seen before us as it was pretty much at her eye level.

We soon realised that her “monster” was a pheasant but the little girl took some persuading to continue walking. The bird hopped down into the garden and walked along in that stately way pheasants have, giving the little girl a chance to admire his plumage from a safe distance. No longer afraid, she declared him “too cute”.

Looking out onto the back garden later, as the evening drew in, we saw that the pheasant was now perching in a tree. Aren’t pheasants flightless? queried my daughter. Well, clearly not, but I could see where she was coming from. Like chickens they seem to have a body much too bulky to permit much more flight than a few yards or, evidently, a flap up into the tree. And there he sat, like an oversized wood pigeon, who also look as though they are not built for flight but clearly have no problems with it.

The heron, on the other hand, a bird we regularly startle into flight from his peaceful fishing spot in the river, has a splendid wingspan and a skinnier body. He is quite magnificent when he takes off over our heads.

By the time I looked out next morning our “monster” had already taken off. No monsters in my garden. 

If only all the monsters the small girl might come across in life could be so easily explained away. 

Monsters of one kind and another keep us all awake at times. Here is an article about sugar and sleep.   As with all such articles it gives you a bit of science about mysterious things like tryptophan, found in beans, lentils, nuts, whole grains and poultry. Apparently, “Tryptophan helps to make the neurotransmitter serotonin, known as the ‘happy hormone’. One of the things it does is prepare you for sleep.” Who knew?

So, the article asks, what should those who have late-night food cravings eat? “Certain plants are seen to have a sleepy effect – lettuce, for example. A turkey and lettuce sandwich on wholegrain bread would give you slow-release carbohydrates from the bread, tryptophan from the turkey, producing your serotonin, and the soporific effect from the lettuce.”

Long ago I used to read the Peter Rabbit stories to my children. In one of the stories the small rabbits get into Mr McGregor’s garden and eat his lettuces, whereupon they fall asleep and are captured by the dreaded gardener (the “monster” of the story.

I always thought Beatrix Potter had invented this soporific affect just for the purposes of her story. I may have been doing her a disservice all these years.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Bits of unfairness in modern life!

I read yesterday that Sunderland University is reducing its courses to the purely vocational. No more modern languages course, no history course, no philosophy course. Nothing but the purely utilitarian, preparing students directly for the world of work. Something occurred to me and so I looked up Sunderland University on the internet.

As I suspected, it began life as a college of technology. Well, really I suspected it might have begun life as a polytechnic but in fact it was a step further down the food chain, the pecking order of further education establishments.

When I was a teenager applying for university only 5% of us went off to study at degree level. Most of us, the 5% that is, went to universities. A few, not achieving the grades for university course, went to polytechnics. Six years behind me, my sister opted for a polytechnic course because she did not want the traditional modern languages course I had followed and certain polytechnics were offering innovative modern languages courses. In 1992 the polytechnics became independent universities, most of them changing their names to reflect their new status. Some cities ended up with two or more universities.

Then colleges of technology, which formerly had offered diploma courses in vocational areas, began to offer degree courses as well. Some of them offered these courses in specific subject areas. And so, as a tutor in sixth form colleges, I found myself with students applying to Bolton University, formerly Bolton College, to study for degrees in IT.

Gradually the former polytechnics and colleges of technology expanded their repertoire and offered a wider range of courses, offering possibilities to students who perhaps could not afford to move away from home. After all, in the end a degree is a degree whether you get it from an old traditional university or from a former polytechnic or college of technology. A snob might notice a difference but in most fields it doesn’t matter.

And now it seems that financial pressures are such that institutions such as Sunderland University are being forced back to their roots in a way. They are not alone in bringing in such restrictions. The sixth form college where I worked before I retired no longer offers the range of modern foreign languages at A Level that I worked so hard to extend during my time there. It’s no longer financially viable.

Little by little we are heading for a situation where only the wealthy will be able to have a fully rounded education. The rest will be pushed into purely vocational areas and our society will be socially poorer as a result.

Still, it could be worse. We still have maternity and, in some cases, paternity leave. This article tells us that the US is one of only three countries in the world not to offer statutory paid maternity leave. “If you look at paid leave rates between white families and families of colour, it’s even worse,” said one spokesperson. “Parents just can’t afford to stay home with their babies.”

One young mother returned to work two weeks after giving birth by Caesarian section. She had left her previous job around a month before the birth, and said that financially she had no option but to find a job. “We had two dollars left in our bank account. I remember thinking to myself, had I not been working, my [rent] cheque would have bounced and we wouldn’t have had a place to live.” Working shifts of up to 12 hours, she found the separation from her newborn agonising.

And don’t get me started on childcare costs! Life is unfair!

Sunday, 26 January 2020

How we see people.

On a cultural review programme on the radio they were talking about an exhibition of depictions of pregnancy through the ages, from classical,paintings to social media. I found myself thinking of a young friend of mine, a former student, who posted a photo of herself month by month throughout her pregnancy with twins and then a series of posts on how she dealt with being a mother of twins, the latest being the twins at six months enjoying solid food. It struck me that she should put the lot together, with commentary, and publish it as a book.

On the same programme they discussed a recently made BBC film “The Windermere Children”, a story of Jewish children settled in Windermere during the war. Much was made of the fact that at the end they show the actual children as successful adult professionals. Nobody made a comparison with the end of “Schindler’s List”, where they do something similar.

On the 75th anniversary of releasing prisoners from Auschwitz the writer Howard Jacobson has questioned the rights and wrongs of portraying the holocaust in films, especially films with comic content.

“Howard Jacobson: 'A feelgood Holocaust exploits the dead and demeans the living' It once felt impious just to mention Auschwitz.
Now, 75 years after its liberation, the death camp has spawned a literary subgenre – and Hitler is in Oscar-nominated comedy Jojo Rabbit. Are we betraying the dead?”

And yet if nobody speaks of it, there is a chance of it being repeated. Indeed some would say it has already been repeated, just on other countries and against other groups of people.

A friend of mine, a German national who has lived in this country for over thirty years and has her settled status and everything necessary to be here legally, has nonetheless recently come across difficulties with documentation because at some time in the far distant past she decided to change the spelling of her name. So some documentation has her original name and some has her re-invented self. She has had to jump through a whole load of hoops to prove that the two selves are really one and the same. Would my sister have the same difficulty as she added an E to her name long ago? I wonder which spelling she has on her passport.

My German friend solved her problem but I keep hearing stories of EU nationals having such problems. Here is one example:-

“A two-Michelin star chef who has lived in England for 23 years has had his application for permanent residency rejected by the Home Office. 
Claude Bosi, who was born in Lyon, France and now runs Chelsea restaurant Bibendem, was told this week his application for a document certifying his permanent residency in the UK after Brexit has been refused. 

Mr Bosi told the Standard the Home Office letter denying him EU settled status says he did not provide enough P60s to prove he had lived in the UK continuously for at least five years.  But, he said the same letter recognises he has been self employed in the UK since 1997.
 "It was very upsetting to receive that letter," Mr Bosi said. “I’’ve got a wife, three kids I've been here for 23 years, it's not like I've just arrived. "I can't afford just to decide to leave. "It's like as long as you've been here and as hard as you've been working and as much as you love the country you're just not welcome."
Mr Bosi said he has been told he has 14 days to reapply and after that he is not sure what his next steps will be.  He said he has tried talking directly with people with the Home Office but "keeps getting passed around to different people".”

 This seems to be what our country has become.

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Gender conditioning?

Singer Taylor Swift, talking in today’s newspaper about combatting her eating disorder, wrote, “I worked hard to retrain my brain that a little extra weight means curves, shinier hair and more energy.” This is the pressure of the image-makers who would tell her she was either too thin - not enough of a “booty” - or too fat - having a sufficiently curvaceous backside meant her stomach wasn’t flat enough. At one point she was UK size 2, about the size of a very small child, and even now is only a size 10. I’m not sure how tall she is but if she’s about my height (around 5ft 5in - not excessively tall) than size 10 is rather skinny.

She also wrote and about disregarding her father’s instruction not to criticise republican politicians who talked about Tennessee Christian values. “I live in Tennessee. I am a Christian. That’s NOT what I stand for,” she wrote.

She went on to describe being almost conditioned to respond to praise and to shape her life around that. “I’ve been trained to be happy when you get lots of praise ... Like, those pats on the head were all that I lived for. I was so fulfilled by approval that that was it. I became what everyone wanted me to be.”

Oddly enough, that view coincides with something I heard on the radio. A female economist was interviewing a well-known American professor of economics. (No, I don’t remember the names of either the interviewer or the interviewee because as a rule economists don’t come into my sphere very much.) They were considering why there are so few female economists and the professor gave an interesting explanation. In her experience female students of economics continue to study quite happily while they are getting A+ or A grades. When they get A- they become a little shakey about continuing. And when they get B grades they tend to drop out and go and study something else. The male students, on the other hand, continue quite happily with B grades or even lower. It seems, said the professor, that women need those “pats on the head” to encourage them to continue. If their chosen field does not provide enough of them, then they transfer into a field where the pats on the head are more frequent.

And it’s not just a question of seeking an easier route.

Are we really so conditioned? Is it something in our nature or is it the way we are treated as children? Why do boys not have the same need to seek praise?

 Just another modern conundrum!

Friday, 24 January 2020

Thinking about dragons,

Documents have been signed today making our leaving the EU official. It seems to have been very quiet. Some people are saving it up for next Friday when they will have a bit of a celebration. Others are just getting on with life as ever. Life has to continue after all.

In China they are desperately trying to control the outbreak of Coronavirus. And we are all wondering how far around the world the virus has spread/is spreading. Is this the way the world is going to end? A nasty virus which has spread from animals to people? Rather like a science fiction story.

Closer to home, my daughter and her partner had been planning to take their half-Chinese offspring into Manchester on Sunday to watch the Chinese New Year processions. Now they have separately come to the conclusion that there is an outside chance that someone unknowingly incubating the virus could have flown from the stricken part of China and ended up in Manchester. They don’t want to risk their small offspring.This year’s New Year celebrations, therefore, are going to be rather more low key.

Consequently I have been recruited to crochet rats (the coming year is the Year of the Rat) for the two small people. It’s amazing what you can do with the crochet method known as amigurmi! I may be making a rod for my own back as my daughter now says she would like to initiate a tradition within her family of presenting the children with a toy version of the animal whose year is about to start.

I am quite fond of traditions though and so I went out to lunch today with an old friend to celebrate my birthday tomorrow. We’ll do the same for hers in April. This is our tradition. Amazingly, nobody said a word about Burns Night!

But we won’t be going into Manchester to see the Chinese dragon. Now, unlike the Chinese dragon which, as far as I can tell simply dances, dragons in more western folk tales are traditionally hoarders. In these old stories dragons sit on their hoard of gold and treasure, not doing anything with it, simply admiring its beauty and brilliance. As I read some statistics this morning it struck me that modern dragons are the billionaires who stack their momey on tax havens. Here we go:-

  •  “A couple thousand billionaires now hold more than half the world’s wealth and with it, much of the power to change things – or to block change.”
  •  “An estimated 10 to 12% of the world’s wealth is hidden in a maze of offshore secrecy jurisdiction, trusts and shell companies.” 
  •  “A recent IMF study estimates that 40% of foreign direct investment – about $15tn – passes through “empty corporate shells” with “no real business activities”. 
So, like the dragons, their wealth is not really doing anything. It’s just sitting there. Do these rich men sit and look gleefully at their bank statements? I wonder!

Thursday, 23 January 2020

On bookmarks, tweeting and becoming an influencer!

In my time I have used a variety of things as bookmarks: bus, tram and train tickets, the slip of paper from the automatic book-borrowing machine at the library, post-it notes folded so that the sticky bit is inside, and even on occasion proper bookmarks bought from a museum or art gallery shop. I fact I have one on a shelf upstairs with a bit of a Sorolla painting on it. I am somewhat reluctant to use it in case I lose it.

However, I have never yet used an item of food.

A librarian at the University of Liverpool has apparently discovered a cheese slice in between the pages of a book. Judging by the photo she posted the cheese slice was still wrapped in cellophane but even so it’s rather a gross thing to put between the pages of your novel or text book. In the modern way, the librarian tweeted about this and almost instantly the tweet was shared 200,000 times. Inevitably the tweet led to a lot of very bad cheesy joke! I can’t help feeling that those 200,000 people should be doing something more productive with their time, but this is the way of the world at present.

I even read this morning an article suggesting that Harry and Meghan should become “influencers”, one of the modern ways of earning a living. Meghan was already an influencer when she met Harry, so I read, and as such could help Harry get going. There have always been influencers, of course, although they were not known by such a name. Women copied the hairstyles of the famous. And the humble headscarf was given a new lease of life because Jackie Kennedy wore it tied in a particular way. Nobody made a living out of it though.

There was a warning for Harry in the article. As time passes, the writer suggested, and the immediacy of their fame fade, Harry might become the man who stands in the corner at high society parties, the one people point out and identify as “the bloke who used to be a member of the royal family”. But you never know, somebody might establish a group on Facebook, or some other social media thing, for followers of withdrawn members of the British royal family. It could even be extended to include members of other countries’ royal families, HRHs who have lost their titles or lost their way!

On Facebook I am regularly invited to join various groups but I am picky. I have, however, joined a group of fans of the singer/song writer James Taylor. Someone posted a comment about the fact that she has been driving along with her teenage granddaughters listening to James Taylor singing Carole King’s “You’ve got a friend”. Everyone in the car, including the 14 year old, knew all the words to the song. As I have commented before, it’s a hard act to follow. Have all the good songs already been written? Well, I expect there are masses of young people, avidly listening to singers I have never heard of, who would tell me that is not so.

My daughter tells me that the teenagers referred to above would have heard “You’ve got a friend” in one of the Toy Story films. Not convinced! I am pretty sure that at the time Toy Story was popular people were not downloading films and playing them over and over, as seems to happen now. 

Evidence of that is the way both my smallest granddaughters can not only sing the songs from a range of Disney animations but can quote the dialogue verbatim!!

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Taking a sideways look at things.

Another one bites the dust! Terry Jones, one of the creators of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, has gone to meet his maker, as was once said about a certain parrot. What a shame. A hard act to follow. It must be had to be a budding satirist-cum-comedian these days when you have to follow such as these.

While I think about satire and incidentally following on from my story of the MEP expressing her concern at our lack of a restraining voice in Brussels after January 31st, there is this nice little bit of satire. It begins like this:-

 “SCANDALOUS : Famous fisherman’s friend Nigel Farage has confirmed he is to launch a new EU focused, limited political company called ‘Rejoin’ the minute the UK has left the EU.
“The very fact, no, no, let me speak,” Mr Farage said to a silent room of reporters, “the very fact that the UK is leaving the EU on EU time and not, and I want to make this absolutely clear, not on GMT just shows how bungled Brexit is.
Heaven help the British fishing industry when the Eurocrats get to do exactly what they want with proper, British water and British fish and we have no elected representatives at the table!
It just shows that the current government is not committed to Brexit in any serious form at all.””

Back in the real world, I came across a story which looks as though it belongs in the world of satire. This comes from the BBC website:-

“New Tory MPs 'not welcome' at Durham Miners' Gala
  By David Rhodes Political Correspondent,
BBC Look North
21 January 2020

There is "no chance" new Tory MPs will be invited to the Durham Miners' Gala, the area's miners' association president has said.

Alan Mardghum paraphrased the prime minister to say he would "rather die in a ditch" than see members of the Conservative Party, which had done "its best to destroy miners", attend. The area was a Labour stronghold but it recently lost four of its seven seats.

The gala is the UK's biggest annual gathering of trade union members. Some of the area's new MPs have now expressed a desire to attend. Richard Holden, who took North West Durham for the Conservatives, said: "With four out of the seven seats across County Durham with Conservative MPs I think it is right that we attend one of the most important cultural days in its annual calendar. "
The Durham Miners' Gala is... absolutely central to the life of the North East and me and other Tory MPs will definitely be there." Dehenna Davison, who triumphed in the Bishop Auckland constituency, said: "Mr Mardghum's lack of willingness to engage with County Durham's new MPs speaks volumes. "

The motto of the NUM is 'The past we inherit, the future we build'. The gala is a chance to celebrate our past, and despite our political differences I would be happy to sit down with Mr Mardghum to talk about how we can build a better future together."

Richard Holden said it was "right Conservatives attend one of the most important cultural days in the local calendar More than 100,000 people attend the July event known as the "Big Meeting", with the day featuring marching bands, political speeches and a service of thanksgiving at Durham Cathedral.

It is organised by the Durham Miners' Association (DMA), and official guests in the past have included Labour stalwarts including Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Benn, Neil Kinnock and Ed Milliband.

Mr Mardghum said there would be "categorically no chance" that any Conservative politician would receive an official invite to the event. "To paraphrase Johnson, I'd rather be found dead in a ditch than invite them", he said. "They did their best to absolutely destroy Durham miners and the miners of Great Britain."”

You really couldn’t make it up!

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Meeting old friends. Name dropping. And pennies finally dropping!

This morning I went for coffee and cake with an old friend. Well, I had cake with my coffee, having deliberately skipped breakfast while my friend, who had had a late breakfast because she is a creature of routing and cannot leave the house if she has not had her breakfast, arrived late and had only an Americano coffee, without milk. We both had orange juice at some point as well.

We used to work together and now meet intermittently to catch up on news. However, since she retired my friend has been travelling to Germany more frequently to see her aged mother (how lucky to have a mother still alive to go and visit when she is now a grandmother herself!), she has been trotting off down south to see her tiny granddaughter (we both feel fortunate to have grandchildren) and, most significant of all, she has been very active with the Labour party. (She gets emails from her MP, from various other worthies and even from her hero Jeremy Corbyn.) Add to that the fact that I also move around quite a lot and consequently it has been rather difficult to arrange to meet.

On several occasions over the last six months we have tried to arrange for a walk around our local beauty spots, selecting routes that her rather arthritic feet can manage. (She tells me her feet are much improved but her back-ache is worse!) Each time we have been foiled by the weather, or something important has come up for one or other of us. But finally we managed today, even though we didn’t do any walking and, as already mentioned, she arrived late!

But we set the world to rights, although we agreed to differ in our opinions of the candidates for leadership of the Labour party.

Because of her regular email contacts, she has developed a tendency to name drop, referring to political figures by their first names, as if they really are old friends. Perhaps they have become that! One of the names she dropped was her MEP, who is of course about to lose her job. But the MEP is more concerned apparently about her staff, who also lose their jobs. And no doubt she is right to be concerned about them. The MEPs will almost all of them fall on their feet but the various assistants and secretaries and the like are in a more difficult situation. The law of unexpected consequences!

Talking of unexpected consequences, I read about a Brexit Party MEP who seems only just to have realised what leaving the EU really means:-

“A Brexit Party MEP has prompted derision after complaining that Britain will have no representation at EU level after it leaves. June Mummery, one of the party's 29 representatives elected to the European Parliament last year, suggested the loss of MEPs would make it hard to hold Brussels to account.
"The big question now is, who will be here to hold these people to account while they still control Britain’s waters, but the UK has no representation?" she tweeted.”

So “taking back control” in the UK means “losing control” in the EU, does it? Well, there’s a surprise!

Maybe someone should have thought of that at an earlier stage in the proceedings!

Monday, 20 January 2020

Gender matters!

I have just completed a huge number of exercises about words for my Italian conversation class homework: masculine and feminine forms of words for the most part, recognising patterns in the way words change from one gender to another. It was a series of exercises intended to make us extend our vocabulary - not difficult, just time consuming. It’s the kind of thing I used to set my students back when I was a teacher of Spanish and French.

And it brings me to this article about opinions in Spain about the gender of words. It’s not that people object to words having gender but that some people think that this gender question is discriminatory and puts women down. Here is a little sample:-

“Montero, the equality minister, was ridiculed when she referred to a spokeswoman (portavoz) as a “portavoza” because voz is a feminine noun, whether it pertains to a man or a woman.”

What a load of cobblers! Or is there a feminine form of “cobblers”?

There is no such word as “voza” in Spanish. “Portavoz” is what they call in linguistic circles a portemanteau word, made up of a bit of a verb + a noun. So a spokesman (or woman) is really a voice-carrier. Other examples are “abrebotellas” - bottle opener, “sacacorchas” -cork screw, literally cork -taker-outer, “limpiabotas” - shoe-cleaner.

All these words are masculine. It’s just the way it is.

Now, as I have often explained to students, designating a word masculine or feminine is completely arbitrary and has nothing to do with gender equality. It all goes back to Latin.

If “el portavoz” discriminates against women, then “la persona”, always feminine regardless of the gender of the person concerned, discriminates against men. Yet you can say “Pedro es una persona simpática” - Peter is a nice person - and the adjective is feminine because the noun is feminine, not because we have any doubts about Pedro’s masculinity.

And to think that in English we are supposed to refer to women who act as “actors” because the word “actress” is considered to be discriminatory.

 It’s all crazy! Surely there are more important equality issues to get worked up about.

Sunday, 19 January 2020

Reflecting on a bit of Sunday stuff.

And it goes on. Harry and Meghan are losing or giving up their HRH title. Or maybe they still have it but don’t get to use it all the time. Well, it seems to me that if you want to be normal, whatever that means, it’s probably as well not to go around insisting on some fancy letters before your name. And they plan to repay the £2.4m that went to refurbishing the home that they won’t live in most of the time but plan to keep as theirs. I never understood why the taxpayers paid for it in the first place. Most young couples don’t expect their employers to provide and pay for improvements on their accommodation!

In fact, most have great difficulty getting anywhere at a reasonable price anything like big enough for even two people to live in, let alone two and a baby and a parcel of staff and servants as well! In fact, again, I have been hearing about people who have bought or are renting flats and now find themselves being bankrupted by the cost of re-cladding their buildings or paying for a fire-watch service 24/7.

I don’t know about crowd-funding getting Big Ben to bong unnecessarily. We should be crowd-funding sorting out that mess.

Here in the frozen north, as the weathermen predicted it has been very cold today. Frozen duckponds and heavy frost. It was very cold in the night as well. I woke in the small hours with frozen feet, so cold that I had to fill a hot water bottle to thaw them out before I could get back to sleep. The temperature was still at -1 degrees when I went out running just before 9.00 am so goodness knows what it went down to in the night.

It was, however, a beautiful day despite the chill. Here are some photos to prove it. I do like photos of reflections, as you might have guessed.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Bits of nonsense abound - from the sublime to the ridiculous!

Here is a selection of items which convince me that the world is going crazy - or perhaps just crazier than ever.

  • Peaceful protest groups, including Greenpeace, are being included on police lists of terrorist organisations. Surely there has to be a bit of common sense working on this. 
  • Meanwhile Gwyneth Paltrow gets away with marketing very dodgy-smelling candles. Maybe she is an economic-terrorist! However, people are buying her candles!! 
  •  Then there is developer-terrorism. A developer working in some capacity on the walls surrounding the city of Chester caused a section of the ancient Roman walls to collapse. His work “compromised the integrity of the ancient monument”, said the report. Oops! The walls are rather old, the most ancient bit dating back to 120 ad. 
  • I also discovered this: “The walls are also famous for an archaic bylaw that states that any Welshman loitering within the city walls after sunset may be killed by decapitation or shot with a longbow.” I bet not many people know that. In fact, perhaps I should warn a friend of mine who lives in Wales, speaks some Welsh, and regularly travels through Chester on his way to and from the Italian conversation class. How many other cities have ancient bylaws of a similar nature? 
  • On the subject of developer-terrorism we should consider the case of Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens. What was once a rather pretty sunken garden where finely dressed ladies and gentlemen could promenade has gone through various ugly developmental incarnations and is currently a hotbed of drugs and violence after dark. Here is a link to an article about it
  • I read that Oxo is about to start selling a vegan version of its stock cubes. Okay, I thought, Oxo could make vegetable stock cubes. Lots of other stock cube companies do so already. Then I read on and found this: “Premier Foods, which is also behind brands such as Mr Kipling and Bisto gravy, said the beef-flavoured stock cubes would start appearing on supermarket shelves soon”. That’s right: BEEF-FLAVOURED. Is this because vegans really love the taste of beef? Or is it to pander to the veganuary people? 
  • And finally, here is a story from the USA: “A Kansas man has asked an Iowa judge to let him engage in a sword fight with his ex-wife and her attorney in a trial by combat that will settle their ongoing legal dispute. David Ostrom, 40, of Paola, Kansas, said in a 3 January court filing that his former wife, Bridgette Ostrom, 38, of Harlan, Iowa, and her attorney, Matthew Hudson, had “destroyed (him) legally”. The judge had the power to let the parties “resolve our disputes on the field of battle, legally,” David Ostrom said, adding in his filing that trial by combat “has never been explicitly banned or restricted as a right in these United States”. He also asked the judge for 12 weeks’ time so he could secure Japanese samurai swords.” His wife does not to fight; her attorney could be her champion. 
Maybe Mr Ostrom has been studying the same old ideas for settling things as are present in the Chester bylaws.

The mind boggles.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Some thoughts about addiction.

There have been news items again recently about the problems of gambling, specifically about the NHS having to pick up the pieces as addicted gamblers fall apart mentally. Gambling is a big and successful business. They reckon it takes £14.4bn from Uk punters every year. This is equal to £200 from every man, woman and child in the UK. This may not sound a huge amount per person per year until you take into account that most children do not gamble - although this is becoming a problem with increasing numbers of young people, still officially children, addicted to gambling - and there must be quite a lot of people like me who have never laid a bet in our lives.

Consequently betting bosses have made vast fortunes. The Bet365 boss Denise Coates has received more than half a billion pounds in salary and dividends in the past two years. The Betfred bosses Fred and Peter Done have a combined fortune of more than £1.25bn. Wow!

I remember a friend of mine who used to bet on a regular basis. I would be walking down the road with him and he would mutter something along the lines of “I just need to pop in here” and he would disappear into a betting shop, very quickly, not even long enough to make me wonder how long he might be. He always said it was his Irish heritage that made him bet. Nowadays he would be doing it online and it would not just be bets on horses and football matches but all sorts of gambling games on the computer and the mobile phone. As far as I know, he never won a substantial amount of money. 

Apparently this is another thing that we can blame Tony Blair’s government for. His government passed the Gambling Act 2005, dramatically liberalising the laws governing betting. The late Tessa Jowell, who pioneered the legislation, later described this as one of her biggest regrets.

Now, recently we have watched a number of TV series on channels with advertising. Apart from our having almost forgotten how infuriating it is to have your viewing interrupted, sometimes quite arbitrarily in the case of certain French and Italian series, for publicity, we have been astounded at how much advertising is for gambling. The ads are almost always accompanied by a little reminder to keep gambling fun and to stop gambling when it stops being fun, which is about as much use as the warning in the cigarette packet that SMOKING KILLS!

Then there’s the sports stuff. Apparently an episode of Match of the Day can feature more gambling logos than a Sky broadcast because of visible branding on pitch-side hoardings and elsewhere. Not to mention sponsorship of clubs by the gambling industry.

Time for the advertising and sponsorship to stop!

Getting back to the health problem, one little irony is that one of the companies making money from gamblers, Betfred, is also making money out of government contracts to provide health programmes to treat gambling’s addicts. It’s also rather unlikely that the government is going to put a stop to this as the brothers Done, who own Betfred, have donated £375,000 to the Conservative party since 2016.

Well, there you go!

Addiction is everywhere, it seems, to a greater or lesser extent. We discussed this in my Italian conversation group the other day. One of our number told us she is doing Dry-January ... to prove to herself that she is not an alcoholic. Her problem, she told us, is that when she opens a bottle of wine she feels she has to finish it. The idea that she could have a glass with her evening meal and then pop a bung in the bottle until the next day is one that she finds quite incomprehensible. So apparently is having specific “dry” days each week. She’s not alone in this. I have a friend who can’t keep bottles of wine in the house. She, or more frequently her grown-up daughter, could not resist the temptation to open on and drink it up.

The same works for sweet things, of course. Another friend of mine, when she has a box of chocolates, keeps it upstairs in a cupboard, on a high shelf, so that she has to make a special trip and climb up a set of steps if she gives in to temptation. Mostly though, she simply doesn’t have chocolates or sweets in the house.

And I have been known to hide biscuits and chocolate from my husband - just mildly addicted!

As for me, I confess to a mild addiction to buying clothes, kept in check mostly by the limited space in the wardrobe!

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Relative values. A bit of nostalgia. The important things of life.

I am frequently amazed when I watch documentaries about famous Americans, singers and the like, who profess to come from humble origins but have immense amounts of home movie footage of their childhood. Good grief! Did they give cine cameras away in packets of breakfast cereals in the USA in the 1950s and 1960s? Some of these famous folk talk about having been poor, not dirt poor like some of the hillbilly country singers but still poor. No, poverty is all relative!

Back then we considered ourselves fortunate to have a camera, an ordinary still-photos camera, until my older sister, aged about 3, got her hands on it one day and had a poke about to find the “birdie” we were told to look out for when a picture was being taken. That was the end of the camera for a good while. But no cine camera. And we were not considered poor. My mother would turn in her grave at the very suggestion!

Then, yesterday a friend sent me a link to an article about today’s poor. Apparently hundreds of thousands of people in the UK are living without a fridge according to a report from a charitable organisation. As I read the statistics I thought back to my childhood when it was fairly common for families not to have a fridge in the kitchen. How did we manage?

One house my family lived in had a “pantry” a little room off the kitchen that was generally chillier than the rest of the house. Cheese and eggs and milk would be stored in there. And of course, the house did not have central heating, so the kitchen was a cooler place. Outside the back door was a rainwater tank. In the summer time bottles of milk were suspended in there in an attempt to keep the milk fresh.

My mother shopped for food every other day, if not every day. This was not unusual. There were no huge supermarkets and so people did not go and do a major shop for food for a week or more. You bought ice-cream from the ice-cream man, sometimes planning your meal so that his arrival coincided with time for dessert. The lack of a fridge made meal planning into a different art from what it is today!

Good grief! This is turning into one of those poverty-nostalgia pieces. I’ll be living in a brown paper bag next!

It was a different time, however, and the pace of life was perhaps slower. We managed without certain things. However, the fact that we managed does not make it right that so many people can’t afford a fridge nowadays.

And “nowadays” is a funny age to live in, in many ways. Here’s an article about how people steal cuttings from parks, garden displays and garden centres. The desire to have a fancy houseplant is great, but not so great that they want to pay over the odds for it. Instead they are prepared to steal for it.

Then there are the odd things that are commercialised and marketed. I read about a mattress company that doesn’t consider itself to be a mattress company at all. Instead it is a “pioneer of the Sleep Economy” with a mission to “awaken the potential of a well-rested world”. And so, as well as selling mattresses it also provides customer with “performance pyjamas”, whatever they are, and sleep supplements. “We believe that sleep consists of more than just the act of sleeping,”

Their marketing material tells us, “and instead, includes the entire set of human behaviours that span from bedtime to wake-up and affect sleep quality – this is what we refer to as the Sleep Arc.” The “sleep arc”!

I am aware that I have in a way bought into this idea of measuring sleep quality. My Fitbit “analyses” my sleep,pattern and tells me whether I have met my “sleep goal” of 8 hours a night, and lets me know how much of this is deep sleep, light sleep or dreaming sleep, and even gives me a quality score!!

But I take it all with a pinch of salt. There are more important things going on in the world!

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Freedom to roam. Freedom to take pictures.

This morning I ran along the Donkey Line bridle path to go to the market at Uppermill. The bridle path itself was quite passable but the path leading to the start of the Donkey Line was a positive quagmire. Of course, this may be because it is supposedly a piece of private land. At one point it was actually fenced off, despite local,people having walked, run, cycled, ridden their horses there for donkey’s years. (Totally intentional play on words there, by the way!)

Part way along the Donkey Line is a stile that gives access to a field, a place where we took our children sledging, back in the days when the snow hung around long enough for sledging to be a realistic option. Next to the stile there is now a large notice which tells us that this is PRIVATE LAND, that you can’t go in, and that, in case you are tempted to go in anyway, there are CCTV cameras keeping an eye on the place. I almost felt personally insulted!

Walking to and from our village you come across a bit of a footpath that goes through the shared gardens of a row of four houses. In fact, the footpath doesn’t so much go through the gardens as just go past one end of them. Technically on their shared land but not really intrusive. We always used to walk that footpath, regarding it as a public right of way. Nowadays there are signs at both end reminding us that this is private land, we go a different way round now.

Now, here is George Monbiot talking about that very problem. The legislation he talks about is intended to stop travellers/gypsies taking up residence of empty land but it might affect all of our right to roam. Complicated stuff!

When I am out and about, I take photos of where I’ve been. I don’t take selfies. People who want to see me can see me without my being all over social media. But I take and post pictures of places I go. And I take and post pictures of interesting stuff I eat. And now the chef Heston Blumenthal has criticised people for doing just that. Well, he criticised diners who appear more interested in photographing their food than eating it.

Well, there’s no chance of that being the case with me.

Apparently he has to resist the temptation to go and tell people what he thinks. “At the Fat Duck, we’ve debated this for several years now. If we say to people, ‘Your food’s going cold’, you put up a barrier between you and the diner,” Blumenthal said.

Yes, I suppose you do. More importantly, food-photographing diners might not return if told off.

Such are the problems of famous foodies.

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Who’s that knocking at my door? And why are they not ringing the doorbell?

We were finishing breakfast this morning, albeit a late breakfast (in my defence, I had been out for a run, done a pile of washing and tidied the house up a bit although I have not much of a defence for Phil who just stayed up late last night and therefore woke up late this morning), when Phil looked up and asked, “Was that a knock at the door?” This was quite remarkable on two counts: I had heard nothing at all, and Phil usually doesn’t hear quiet sounds - possibly selective deafness? Somewhat sceptically I went upstairs to investigate.

I should explain that our house is idiosyncratically typical of this area with a front door apparently at ground level and then stairs down to what should be a cellar but in fact opens onto the back garden, the land sloping down at the side of the house.

And yes, there was a delivery man with a parcel for me at the front door. As he was a one-off delivery man, of which there are many these days, rather than the regular postman, I didn’t even bother to point out that there is a doorbell which he could have rung.

Hardly had we got that out of the way than there was a sharp rat-a-tat-tat at the back door. Now, nobody ever knocks at the back door. It just does not occur to anyone to try to access the house that way. Intrigued, I went and unlocked the door. There stood a workman in a hi-vis vest. He was checking electricity cables on our house and the neighbouring houses, he told me, and just wanted us to be aware that he was not just a random stranger marauding around our shared garden area. “I did knock at the front door,” he said, “but I don’t think you heard me.” So this time I did point out the existence of a doorbell. “Oh, I don’t use doorbells,” he said, “I don’t trust them. You never know if they’ve been heard.” Well, they won’t be heard of you don’t ring them, I thought to myself.

The thing is that because of the geography of our house we have placed the ringing bit of the doorbell system, the chimes, I suppose you would say, at the top of the stairs that lead to the downstairs kitchen-dining area. That way the doorbell should be audible upstairs and down. Occasionally Phil will be working in the study, at the front of the ground floor, ironically enough closest to the front door, with the door closed and so will not hear the doorbell ring. (What did I say about selective deafness?) Consequently I then have to rush up or downstairs before the caller gives up and leaves. 

The chap who mistrusts doorbells does not seem to be in a minority, it has to be said. An amazing, indeed an inordinately large, number of people ignore the bell and tap at the door. I say tap rather than knock because tap is what most people seem to do. A good forceful knock would be heard, I am sure. In fact, I know that a good forceful knock can be heard very well, even by a man with selective deafness.

I am seriously considering having a decorative plaque made to attach to the door, in a very visible position, saying something like, “RING THE ******* DOORBELL AND KNOCK FORCEFULLY ON THE DOOR.”

That might work!

Monday, 13 January 2020

A mixed bag of mild anti-royal and anti-Brexit stuff!

The dreadful, ongoing soap opera of the tiff in the Windsor household continues to dominate the news. So I thought I would include another royal family story that I came across in Hadley Freeman’s report of her interview with actor Brian, who claimed to have been “touched up” by Princess Margaret some fifty years ago:-

“I was at the Royal Court. I was doing a play with Alan Bates and it was my 23rd birthday and I’d been given a red shirt from Lindsay Anderson. I’d just washed my hair so I was sort of glistening, heh heh heh, and I walked in and was introduced to her.
She put her fingers on my shirt, and said: ‘This is a lovely shirt.’ And she started to run her fingers down the inside of my shirt. And I went: Uh oh! What do you do when you’re being touched up by a royal?”
“It was so funny. James Bolam, he could see what was going on and started going ‘Ooooh’ out of the side of his mouth, which somehow said princess didn’t take in at all. She just kept saying: ‘You were so wonderfully hooded on stage. I wanted to know more about you …’ She was an extraordinay creature. I excused myself and said: ‘Thank you, ma’am,’ and it came to a natural end.”

So perhaps it’s not just Prince Andrew!

There you go.

On the bus yesterday I was on the edge of a conversation with two old people. Yes, I know I could be included in the “old people” but these were older, or at any rate less mobile, than me. I was on the edge because I was not quite eavesdropping, but not quite fully participating, just occasionally joining in.

The gentleman was going on about his diabetes and how he doesn’t go out at night as he can’t see well enough, because of the diabetes. The lady just casually dropped into the conversation the fact that her two sisters and her brother all suffer from dementia. So what chance, she smilingly asked, does she have?

Oh boy!

Then this morning I found this article about looking after people with dementia, or rather not looking after people with dementia but exporting them. It seems that the care situation is so bad here that some people are taking their relatives to Thailand and putting them in dementia-care homes there. The care is apparently much better.

How did we get to that situation?

On the Brexit front, it seems that plans are afoot to have big celebrations on January 31st - possibly a commemorative coin, street parties and Big Ben ringing out. Churches are being urged to ring their bells too, I hear. This is being compared to the bells ringing out to celebrate the Allies victory in 1945. Really? I never knew we were at war with the EU!

A pro-Brexit businessman Lord Ashcroft is said to have offered to foot the £120,000 cost.

A Downing Street spokesman is supposed to have insisted that no final decisions have yet been made on how 31 January will be marked. Some in the Government are nervous about holding too many flashy events in case it alienates people who voted Remain.

Quite so! I could feel alienated.

When my mother organised a party in her garden for the Queen’s Jubilee, we did not go. My mother understood. Besides she had plenty of other people attending. I don’t think anyone told the queen.

When Charles married Diana, we went to a friend’s ‘stuff the wedding” party, where we all studiously did not watch the wedding or talk about it. I doubt that anyone told the queen about that either.

So on January 31st, I want no flag-waving close to my house, thank you!

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Quiet Sunday thoughts!

Today has been one of those days that improved weather-wise as it went on. The torrential rain that began in the late afternoon yesterday seemed to go on all night and was still at it first thing. I decided that running in the rain was not my thing this morning. Some other time maybe. Besides Phil was off to some chess event quite early in the morning and so I decided to see him on his way and walk into the village later.

By the time I set off, having done a variety of housekeeperish things beforehand, the rain had stopped but I opted for wellingtons as I knew that the bridle paths where I intended to walk would be quagmires. I was not wrong.

And by mid afternoon, the day was considerably brighter, bits of blue sky around. By then, however, I was dedicated to a mammoth weekend newspaper reading session. How do people read a whole newspaper every single day? They must have no time left for any other activity.

Further to yesterday’s comments about the chief executives of FTSE 100 (33 - the number of hours it took the typical FTSE 100 boss to earn more than typical worker’s annual salary. The average boss is paid 117 times more than the median worker.) here’s a bit more info, also gleaned from the newspaper:-

£901.30 - Typical hourly pay of FTSE 100 chief executives, according to the High Pay Centre thinktank.

£14.37 - Median hourly rate earned by UK employees.

Bear in mind that many people earn far less per hour than that amount!

Now I may moan about a bit of water here but other places suffer far more. I am really glad we visited Venice going on for fifteen years ago. I was reading about Venice’s problems, not just flooding but depopulation and overcrowding at the same time:-

 “Recurrent flooding, a soaring cost of living, lack of affordable housing and badly managed tourism have driven 120,000 people away since the early 1950s, the majority across the lagoon to the mainland, but over the last 20 years the pace has hastened alongside the advent of cheap flights and flourishing cruise tourism. As many as 60,000 tourists each day in the summer flock to the historic centre where 52,000 people live.”

When we went, at least twice, there were quite a lot of tourists but it wasn’t unmanageable and cruise ships didn’t sail along the Grand Canal. I would love to go back but I suspect it has been ruined for me.

Over-tourism is a 21st century problem, possibly exacerbated by social media. Barcelona has suffered from it with young people priced out of the city centre by air b’n’b. And the people of Edinburg were up in arms recently about arrangements for New Year’s Eve celebrations, arrangements that involved residents needing wristbands to get to their own homes, as did any guests who might want to visit them for Hogmanay!! Just a little lack of spontaneity there.

A large amount of the complaining was about the Disneyfication of their city, a lot of which was coordinated by companies from outside the city, and the city’s Christmas markets being no different from any other city’s - probably selling the same tat as was on sale in Manchester.

As you can guess, I am not a fan of the Christmas markets. Perhaps the only real fans are people who don’t mind paying over the odds for a paper cup of mulled wine! Another tourist gimmick!

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Fairy stories!

I have spent part of today playing the part of a small Lego character. Lego these days produces sets linked to Disney animation films. Consequently I was Jasmine. I have no idea which film Jasmine comes from but she was interacting well with Ariel, who is apparently the Little Mermaid. I had called in at my daughter’s so that she could sort our the transfer of my phone stuff from my old phone, also inherited from her, to a newer phone. She has just updated her iPhone contract and my old phone has been having battery problems so we were giving me an update as well.

Anyway, on arrival I was shanghaied into playing the part of Jasmine in an imaginative game with my small granddaughter. She is quite impressive in her ability to keep a game going. Also in her bossiness! In the background “Tangled” was playing on the tv set. “Tangled” is the Disney version of the Rapunzel story. When it came to an end and Rapunzel was returned to her real parents, along with a love interest who had been instrumental in freeing her from the witch who held her, and her hair, in thrall, my small granddaughter said, “Now they can live happily ever after!” Oh, boy! She has really drunk the cool-aid as regards fairy stories. But then, when you are three years old you should still believe in magic and happy endings.

Well within the world of fairy stories is the world of the rich.

Here’s a statistic I came across in today’s newspaper:-

33 - the number of hours it took the typical FTSE 100 boss to earn more than typical worker’s annual salary. The average boss is paid 117 times more than the median worker.

There’s a bit of a difference there! And then there are these, also from today’s newspaper:-

£5m the annual sum Prince Harry receives from his father’s Duchy of Cornwall estate.

£20m Estimated inheritance that Prince Harry received from his mother.

£4m Meghan’s estimated net worth having starred in the legal drama Suits.

You might think that was more than enough for Harry and Meghan to buzz off and live independently, even if they don’t find gainful employment. And even if the amount Prince Harry gets from his father’s estates were to be stopped, as 63% of a YouGov poll think.

I will never cease to be amazed at how much money some people seem to need to live on.

Here’s another bugbear of mine:

 P“The ‘most realistic’ plant-based steak to date has been revealed, mimicking the texture and appearance of a real cut of meat.”

To me it beggars belief. If you really think eating meat is wrong, morally, for health reasons of whatever, then why do you so crave to continue eating it that you need to eat a plant-based substitute?

Meanwhile, more serious problems are going on.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is still in prison in Iran.

Let’s hope people like Nazanin do not get forgotten in the middle of the conflicts and negotiations.

Friday, 10 January 2020

Rich people problems and ordinary folk’s culinary conundrums!

It’s only been a couple of days but I am heartily sick of all the princely posturing. (Sorry, I just had to get that bit of alliteration in there!) There really is altogether too much analysis of the whole thing.

And there seems to be a split between those who regard Meghan Markle as a poor, picked-upon, media-harassed, victim of racism, young mother who just wants to enjoy her family and those who think she is a selfish cow who just wants her own way and anyway, how could she do that to her 90+ year old grandmother-in-law??!

Harry gets a lot less social media stick but there is still a four way split between seeing him as a poor sadness-afflicted boy who lost his mother, a brave young man finally standing on his own feet, a henpecked young husband doing what his wifey wants and a selfish rich boy.

Let it go, for goodness sake.

What I want to know is where has little Archie been while all this has been going on? Did they take him with them when they went on their holidays? Has he travelled to Canada with his mummy or was he already there being looked after by a nanny? I don’t think the young-mother-who-wants-to-enjoy-her-baby thing rings true if you farm him out to someone else to look after. He’s going to be another mixed-up kid! But then I am not a rich person. 

Enough of that! Those are rich people’s problems!

Here’s another little grumble of mine. The Guardian has an ongoing from-time-to-time series called “How to Eat”. Do we need to be told how to eat stuff? That’s a deeper question. Today’s offering was How to Eat - apple crumble. Whatever my feelings about being told how to eat, I found myself agreeing with this section about the selection of fruit for this dessert:

“You would think in an apple crumble (tip: the clue’s in the name), the fruit would be uncontroversial. It’s apples, right? Judiciously sweetened but still-tart cooking apples (eg bramley), with a third of the total softened in a little reduced apple juice and spices before baking to give the filling a fluffy, almost pureed edge around the larger pieces of fruit. Simple. This is no place for sweet golden delicious, pink ladies and gala eating apples. Such varieties are an unpredictable nightmare when cooking. Some disintegrate readily, others retain a firm shape entirely unsuitable in a crumble.” 

Now, I have long had this argument with Spaniards about which apples to cook. Bramley apples are simply not available. Nobody has heard of them. Even my sister, the one I usually refer to as “my Spanish sister” as she lives in Andalucia, tried to persuade me that another kind of apple could substitute. She told me about some good, tart apples she bought from her corner greengrocer. We went to look.

I asked the greengrocer what variety were these so called “baking” apple.

Granny Smith, he told me.

Yet another variety of eating apples!

 I rest my case!

Thursday, 9 January 2020

A bit of a rant about wealth and privilege!

Last night I finally watched John Pilger’s documentary about the NHS. Here’s a link to a review article about it. It’s a very disturbing film. Everyone should watch it.  I can understand why certain people might not have wanted it aired before the recent election but quite how they got away with delaying the broadcast escapes me. We might live in the age of social media and total disclosure but it’s still possible to keep people in the dark, with apparent ease!

Or to distract them with trivia! Here we go!

Later the news app on my phone pinged in the middle of the evening with the latest story about rich people’s problems.

Prince Harry and his Meghan plan to step back from being senior members of the royal family (I refuse to say “royals” - it is a term that annoys me) and try to be financially independent. I bet they don’t have to try very hard. As a first step towards independence, they made the decision all on their own and did not consult other members of the royal family. They did not even tell her majesty until last week. The queen is saddened and angry! Charles and William are outraged! How do the news people know these details. Then they announced it on instagram. Shock! Horror!

Apparently this is all very sad as they were thought to be a way of making people love the royal family even more!!! One spokeswoman said that Harry and Meghan are much loved and people will be sad not to see more of them as they flit between the UK and north America.

That story was the first headline on the BBC 10 o’ clock news yesterday evening coming ahead of news about Iran. And it’s the top headline in newspapers online this morning. This is probably what amazes me most of all. However, it could be that the very fact of putting the Sussexes’ story at the top of the bill is just part of the bread and circuses element of the news. Give the people something to get sentimental about and maybe they will concentrate less on the serious stuff.

By the way, did anyone ask the people of Sussex if they wanted H & M to be their duke and duchess? Similarly, did anyone ask the folk of Cambridge if they wanted William and Kate? We might have a parliamentary monarchy / parliamentary democracy but it seems as though giving out bits of the country as dukedoms in rather mediaeval and absolute monarchy style. Just an aside-thought!

Getting back to the H & M story, which is bugging me (a fact which bugs me even more, as I really don’t want to be interested in the lives of the rich and famous), much has been made of the racist element in the Meghan story. It seems that she has suffered because the British do not want to accept a black woman into “our” royal family. Really? A commentator on the BBC news last night went on and on about it and yet I don’t know anyone who thinks her provenance is a problem. Even the news presenter, in discussion with pundits, admitted that it is possible that commentators see the whole thing one way and the public see it in another! Interesting!

Besides, both H & M come from privilege.

Meghan is hardly your typical black American girl. Her father may well be estranged from her but still he is a retired television director of photography and lighting director who was able to pay for her to go to private schools and presumably to give her a bit of a leg-up in the acting business. Oops! Can I even say things like that? It does seem, though, that almost everyone who has some modicum of success in films and television these days has a family connection to the industry.

And as for Harry, well, we all know we have to feel sorry for him but in the end he’s just a rich boy from a rich family!

I wish them all the best in their quest for independence and my advice to them would be to just get on with it, let the media say what they like but simply ignore them. Eventually they will find someone else to harass!

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Some thoughts about bees, alternative eating, and words.

As I spread almond butter on my breakfast toast I read an article about bees. In California beekeepers, apiculteurs, loan their hives to almond growers. They put their hives in a trailer and take them off to the almond orchards, if such a term exists, set the hives up during the blossom season and then take them home again when pollination is deemed to be complete. I never knew you could move hives around in this fashion. And now I have an image in my head of a trailer with several beehives on board and a trail of stray bees following behind, like a plume of smoke! The reality may be nothing like this but I rather like the image.

Anyway, it would seem that this system of renting out your pollinators, mutually satisfactory up to a point as the almond growers get their crop of nuts while the bees make very fine almond blossom honey, is not working well recently. The bees are coming home with deadly diseases, are being attacked by mites and are dying in large numbers. The probable cause is chemical insecticides. Even if the almond growers agree not to use them, grape growers in the vicinity continue to do so. And the bees won’t always keep to the boundaries of the almond orchard.

There is a solution of sorts, being tried by some almond growers and apiculteurs together. Wild flowers are being planted in between the almond trees instead of completely clearing the ground between the trees, providing a natural mulch for the trees as well. At the same time, flowering hedges are being planted around the almond orchards, instead of plain fences, making a natural barrier that the bees appreciate. And there is plant diversity as well. Rewilding here we come! Old remedies proving to be the best again.

But now I feel guilty because it’s people like me spreading almond butter on my toast, and masses of vegans insisting on an alternative to cows’ milk, such as almond milk, that is causing an increase in demand for almonds and, therefore, an increasing use of bee-hire to pollinate the blossom. Oh boy!

Talking of veganism, there is this:-

“Burger King has launched its first plant-based burger in the UK, but it is not suitable for vegans because of the way it is cooked. The soy-based version of the chain’s Whopper beefburger will be available in UK restaurants from Monday, but is cooked on the same grill as meat, meaning that many non-meat eaters will refuse to eat it. Instead, the fast-food chain is aiming the new burger, which it has named the Rebel Whopper, at “flexitarians” – people who eat meat but are reducing their intake of animal products. Toni Vernelli, international head of communications and marketing at Veganuary, a campaign to encourage people to go meat, dairy and egg-free for the month of January, complimented the burger.”

And yesterday I walked past a Greggs, the bakers, where they had big posters about their really successful vegan sausage roll. In fact, it has been so successful Greggs are paying all their employees a bonus in gratitude for the their part in the success of the sausage roll! Gone are the days when vegetarians and vegans ate plates of lentils. Now they can pretend to eat ordinary food and feel smug about it. Although personally I have never understood the need to have pretend meat products if you are a determinedly ethical vegetarian or vegan.

However, according to George Monbiot “Eating is now a moral minefield, as almost everything we put in our mouths – from beef to avocados, cheese to chocolate, almonds to tortilla chips, salmon to peanut butter – has an insupportable environmental cost.” In the not too distant future, he tells us, we need to be eating lab-made food instead of naturally grown food. Hmm! So much for natural remedies. Maybe we have gone beyond that point.

Ah well, here is a new acronym: FOMO - FEAR OF MISSING OUT!! This is a very modern phobia.

And here are some words that the BBC says have fallen out of use, but which I think we should try to re-introduce:-

 Vizzying-hole A Scots word for a peephole in a door, derived from the Old French word visée meaning ‘look’. “Sheila, have a quick shufty through the vizzying-hole and see if the maid’s coming while I stuff these towels in the suitcase.”

 Gongoozler A person who likes to mindlessly stare (at anything). If only we all had more time to stare idly and do nothing. The word survives in and around the canal boat community, to this day. “Yeah, I’ll try and make it to your wedding, but I’ve got a lot of gongoozling planned for that weekend.”

Snollygoster A 19th century American term for an unprincipled, dishonest person, especially a politician. “That snollygoster came up to kiss my baby, but nicked my phone when I wasn’t looking.”

Mumpsimus An obstinate person who holds on rigidly to a certain set of beliefs even though they are wrong or disproved. The term may have been coined by Erasmus. “That silly mumpsimus still thinks Sporty was the best Spice Girl when everybody knows it was Posh.”

 Wamblecropt To have digestive issues that are so severe, you can’t physically move. “I should never have had that sixteen piece chicken finger combo pack and Viennetta all to myself, now I’m wamblecropt.”

You can see where Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl got some of their strange vocabulary ideas from.

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

It’s all about how we see things!

Someone showed me a photo of Australia seen from space. Today’s Australia. With fires blazing away. Almost the whole continent ablaze. If it had featured in an apocalyptic movie we would no doubt have said it was an exaggeration.

Also impressive are the images of Australia superimposed on the map of Europe or of the USA. Australia is away on the other side of the world and we tend to forget how big it is. And then I imagine almost all of Europe ablaze in the same way. Frightening!

The smoke from the fires is causing problems all the way over in New Zealand - the same hemisphere but still along way away. Scary stuff!

I came across an article about an Australian Aboriginal elder who had developed a bushland property with a main house and several huts, offering cultural camps for tourists and Indigenous youth. He had to evacuate a few weeks ago because of the fires but when he returned, expecting nothing but ashes, he found his property intact. The fire had gone round it. Why? He put it down to the traditional Indigenous technique of cultural burning conducted on their land three years ago. The only hut not protected by cultural burning, 500 metres from the main house, was destroyed in the blaze. 

Apparently there are modern techniques of hazard reduction burning, creating firebreaks, so that fire cannot spread. Those in favour of cultural burning, a practice which they say is informed by thousands of years of traditional knowledge, maintain that unlike hazard reduction burning, cultural burns are cooler and slower moving, usually no taller than knee height, leaving tree canopies untouched and allowing animals to take refuge from the flames. And they are more effective. Small fires are lit with matches, instead of drip torches, and burn in a circular pattern.

If Australia manages to put this fire out and recover from the current situation, maybe they should listen to older wisdom.

We see the same sort of thing with flooding. Modern techniques work to some extent but in places where older ideas such as planting trees, which take up a lot of the excess water, have been followed these seem more effective. We must get away from always thinking new is best.

But we are all great followers of fashion. Just take the example of little Archie’s beanie. Prince William and his Meghan were given a knitted hat for their baby, during a visit to New Zealand I think. This hat featured in a photo as part of their Christmas or New Year message. (It seems that everyone and their grandmother send out such messages nowadays. Oddly enough, Princess Anne dies not appear to share this activity. I may come to admire that lady!) They must have revealed where the hat came from as the company who made it, accustomed to having maybe 30 or 40 orders a month, suddenly had 300 orders overnight! They were a little overwhelmed!

Now, this is a perfectly ordinary knitted hat with a couple of bobbles, a bit like ears, instead of one single bobble on the top. I could knock one up in a day or so, as could any half-way competent knitter. But, of course, it would not be “Archie’s beanie”.

A similar phenomenon is what is happening to the little village of Hallstatt in Austria - just under 800 inhabitants. It seems it was the inspiration for the town of Arandelle in the Disney film “Frozen” and now tourists are turning up in their thousands to take selfies.

We live in an increasingly odd world!

Monday, 6 January 2020

Talking to strangers!

I bought some stuff in The Body Shop in Oldham the other day. As I put my purchases down on the counter the assistant said to me, “Oh, you look lovely!” How nice to be greeted with a compliment. Of course, it might just be my natural loveliness but I think that what provoked the compliment was my matching bright yellow accessories; beret, gloves, bag, brightening up a dull day.

Okay, perhaps I go a little,over the top with matching or coordinating accessories and maybe my daughter and granddaughters call me “the coordination queen”, with some reason, but I grew up in an age when if you bought a pair of shies you did your darnedest to buy a matching handbag. Goodness, I worked part time in a shoe shop in my late teens and we were not just encouraged but positively instructed to press lady customers to purchase a matching handbag!

Anyway, getting back to random compliments I came across this in the Guardian online. For some reason I didn’t get the link but simply copied the content. Neither did I get the name of the journalist. But here it is, all about how we find it hard to give and accept compliments:-

“When I was about 12, I distinctly remember being in a branch of Sayers the bakers. (Sayers was a very popular chain in the north-west before Greggs came along – in completely the same colour scheme, I might add – and somehow became “cool”. I don’t think this injustice has ever been fully acknowledged.)

Anyway, I was in Sayers the bakers, and I complimented a woman on her earrings. The woman didn’t thank me; she instead looked very embarrassed and proceeded to deliver a five-minute monologue about how rubbish her earrings were. How they were actually really cheap. And the colour washed her out. They weren’t real silver, either. These earrings were basically the source of all that was bad in the world. I remember it because a week before I had read in some teen magazine that girls and women very rarely accept compliments – and here was empirical proof.

I resolved then to always accept a compliment. In truth, I often add a self-deprecating aside, but, more than I used to, I will just smile and say thank you. It feels good. Is it better to give or receive? With compliments, as with sex, these are equally pleasurable. I give a lot of compliments. I love to give compliments. I compliment people on the street, sometimes weaving between commuters like the opening scene of a Bond film where he’s giving chase, to ask someone where they got their awesome top (it’s never, say, “Jigsaw last month.” Always: “Oh! A tiny off-the-beaten-track stall in Peru four years ago!”).

Most of the time, people beam at random compliments. If someone is looking great, why not tell them? Likewise, if someone has produced something you have really enjoyed, tell them. As a novelist friend recently tweeted: “If you spot a harried husk of an author looking broken in the tinned mysteries aisle at Lidl, and you are considering engaging them in excited chat about their last book… do. Made my week.” We don’t often get things for free in this world. But a compliment is free and easy. It can make a heavy heart lift. Or quell an insecurity, or remind you what a good friend somebody is, or that there are benevolent people in the world, just floating about.

I am writing this on the decking of a cafe, pavement-side. A man just walked past looking very dapper. I told him so. “Thank you very much!” he replied. I can see him walking into the distance, grinning.” 

There you go! And here is a link I did get, Gaby Hinsliff going on about how we don’t talk to people on buses and in cafes.

And here is Daniel Lavelle, on the same subject. Now, personally I talk to people at bus stops and on public transport all the time.. And it has led to some very interesting conversations on aeroplanes as well. But I am aware that this is a little unusual. It’s just me

However, I rather object to the suggestion that I hear all the time that this reluctance to talk to strangers is a particularly British trait. I have travelled quite a bit on Spanish buses and trains and find that Spanish travellers are just as reluctant to communicate with strangers as their British counterparts. The same applies to people sitting in bars and cafes. As a rule people sit in their little groups and communication only takes place between tables if something unusual takes place.

The exception, of course, is when you sit on a terraza and have to fight off the onslaught of silly pigeons and aggressive seagulls seeking to eat your free tapas before you do. Then people talk, but only to moan about the flying vermin!

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Some thoughts on being positive and on the pursuit of happiness.

My daughter and I were talking the other day about being happy with what you have. Well, actually, it began with her saying she almost feels guilty at times because she enjoys her babies so much. So many people, she commented, go on and on about how difficult motherhood is. Were there really as many cases of postnatal depression when I was having babies as there are now? Because it seems, she said, as if there is an epidemic of it, as if it’s almost de rigueur to suffer from it, almost as if those who don’t are somehow not fashionable. Of course, as her latest baby is her fifth, she has a fair bit of experience behind her in the bringing up babies field and it has to be said that the one before this, now three years old, has been singularly delightful and easy to be around.

The answer to her question is that I really don’t know but I get a sort of gut feeling that maybe there were not so many cases. However, we need to take into account that we didn’t have social media and so there was no great pressure to keep up with others or to make yourself important by posting again and again about how hard life is.

Some of the solution, we concluded, is relaxing into enjoying the good goes on in your life, in all aspects, not just raising babies, making sure you focus on that and not on the bad, difficult stuff. In fashionable terms, this is all about finding the joy. Everyone is talking about it, in all sorts of areas. Here’s a link to an article about how to make 2020 as joyful as possible.

The writer of the article tells us this: “ Many of us treat joy like the good china, only warranted on special occasions. Even if we know it is within our reach, we may not see it is within our control.” For her article she interviewed a “happiness expert”, one Nataly Kogan, who has written books about happiness and is the founder and chief executive of the wellbeing business Happier, which apparently helps companies to improve their workplace culture and professionals to foster joy in their lives.

Oh boy! Now, she may well have set up is business as a consequence of “lessons born out of her experience of career burnout and personal dissatisfaction in her late 30s”, but I still remain amazed at the ways people can make money out of almost anything!!

By the way, Nataly Kogan lives in Boston, Massachusetts, if that makes any difference to her chosen life path!

Everyone appears to be writing about seeking happiness. There are two articles, one of which seems to be in favour of finding happiness as you go along while the other suggests that the pursuit of happiness makes you miserable.

I suppose in the end it comes down to whether you are a glass half full or a glass half empty person.

Saturday, 4 January 2020

A rather pessimistic little post!

2020 lulled us into a false sense of security with some fine and even sunny days to start the year with. Today we are back to normal with dull and drizzly weather and rather chilly as well. Rain is forecast for he next few days. Bang goes our almost established routine of heading out for a long walk just after the one o’ clock news!

Christmas seems to be officially over in Delph village as well, despite it not yet being Twelfth Night. As I ran round this morning, men in hi-vis jackets were taking down all the “flying Christmas trees” (my five year old granddaughter’s description of the trees fixed above each shop doorway). I did think they might have waited until Monday.

Oldham town centre still has it’s Christmas lights burning brightly though, even if they include a big sign, in lights, that says “OLDHAM LIGHTS”, just in case you thought you had wandered into Rochdale or Ashton by mistake!

But on the international plane, the season of peace and good will to all men is well and truly over with America’s drone attack on Iran. I was struck by the fact that this has been justified as a defensive act to protect American soldiers from future attacks. Imagine a mother who smacks her child, just in case the child is naughty tomorrow!

That’s a good start to the year!

Are we due for a whole new series of apologies?

After all, we have already had the pope apparently apologising for slapping a woman’s hand on New Year’s Eve as she tried a little too insistently to kiss his hand. It”s a hard life for pontiffs!

So what does the future hold for our grandchildren?

Our three-year-old granddaughter tells me that when she is a grown up she wants to be a “maker”. She was busily stitching cards together to make a Little Red Riding Hood character, an activity-based Christmas present. A “maker”, eh? Quite a good ambition.

But since when do three-year-olds have to decide what they will be in the future? How does she already have that concept in her little head?

Where is the carefree magic of childhood?

I have to say, however, that I’m not really pessimistic. It just sounds that way from time to time.