Saturday, 29 February 2020

Windy weather. Boats. And words.

I stepped out onto the balcony of our flat this morning to hang put some washing and was almost blown away by the strong wind. Fortunately the clothes drier is well anchored down. Otherwise our towels might end up blowing down the main road.

As I battled with the elements I could hear the unmistakable sound of lots of Spaniards all talking at once, a sound very similar to masses of sparrows collected in a tree at dusk. Was there a political demonstration of some kind going on? They do like a good demo around here. Had there been a fire alarm at the supermarket next door, leading to a mass evacuation? Then I spotted three large coaches. I think there must be some kind of excursion for local school children, all being seen on their way by doting parents.

Looking out towards the estuary I noticed a cruise boat coming in to dock. Quite small by modern cruise boat standards but undoubtedly a cruise boat. Probably a couple of thousand tourists trying to buy goods from H&M or Mango or Zara more cheaply than they could get them from Market Street in Manchester. I may, of course, be doing them all a disservice but I have often seen the cruise boat people on Principe, the shopping street, laden with distinctive carrier bags. And I ask myself once again if they bring a spare suitcase specifically for such purchases. And does the saving make it worth while spending money on a cruise?

I hope they have brought no nasty virus with them. I can think of nothing worse than being quarantined on a cruise boat. It’s probably pretty bad being quarantined in a hotel on Tenerife, which is apparently going on at present. Imagine the scenario: the good news is that your stay in Tenerife is being extended but the bad news is that you cannot leave the hotel. Nightmare!

Words have always interested me. Here is a new one for me: “foodification”, more specifically “street foodification”. In other words, it’s the presence of stalls all over English shopping streets selling food of one kind or another. After all, a shopping trip is not a shopping trip if you don’t walk along stuffing your face!

Here’s something to put it into context:-

“The street foodification of everything is perhaps the biggest single culinary trend of the past decade. It’s about rinsing every last inch of urban space for rent extraction, as much as what’s for dinner. London in particular is awash with street food markets. Three branches of the Market Halls chain opened in 2018-19, to go with the five Kerb sites, four Street Feast sites, three Boxpark sites, two Pergola sites and countless others. In November, Kerb London opened its first fixed, indoor street food hall in a warehouse in the heart of Covent Garden, in collaboration with multibillion-pound property titans Shaftesbury PLC, which owns large swathes of the West End.

And the artisanal-fare-industrial-complex is thriving in other major cities too: Baltic and Duke Street Markets in Liverpool, Hatch and Grub in Manchester, Brum Yum Yum and Digbeth Dining Club in Birmingham. Shipping containers feature heavily throughout. Street food has developed such a ubiquitous marketing cachet that it is often now sold some distance from the street – in pubs and restaurants and other such indoor establishments.

Supermarkets sell “street food” as chilled ready meals to heat up at home. As evidence that the trend has reached a new peak of sublime bathos, even Dairylea Lunchables is now selling a “street food” range. Words start to lose any semblance of meaning.”

Here in Vigo you mostly see it only at fiesta time, when stalls selling dough nuts and packs of little cakes spring up,like mushrooms overnight. However, I would not be surprised to see the trend here as well. I haven’t been to Madrid or Barcelona in years but I suspect that “foodification” is as rife there as in the big cities of the UK. A friend of mine recently had a weekend in Paris and reported that she and her husband did not visit restaurants but simply bought street-food and ate on benches in squares and gardens.

 I know street-food might be cheaper but isn’t it rather sad to be constantly picnicking rather than sitting down to a perhaps more elegant food experience?

Friday, 28 February 2020

On being over-sensitive!

I keep finding examples of the hyper-sensitivity of the modern age. Yesterday it was the National Farmers Union declaring that famous folk like Joaquin Phoenix should be careful what they say as their speeches may adversely affect the mental health of struggling farmers. Now this article suggests that we have to be extra careful not to upset children with the bedtime stories we read to them.

Here’s a sample:

“I’m reading one of a small forest’s-worth of beautiful new picture books about the environment with my eight-year-old twins. The Sea, by Miranda Krestovnikoff and Jill Calder, takes us into mangrove swamps and kelp forests and coral reefs. We learn about goblin sharks and vampire squids and a poisonous creature called a nudibranch. Then we reach the final chapter on ocean plastics. When we learn that by 2050 there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish, Esme bursts into inconsolable tears.”

One of the purposes of reading such books with children must surely be to make them more aware of modern problems and to encourage sympathy and empathy. So it’s perfectly right and good that Esme bursts into inconsolable tears. I would be more disturbed if she just shrugged her shoulders and moved on to the next book. After all, not all fairy stories have a happy ever after ending. Well, actually, these days they tend to have been adapted so that they do have a happy ending. But at least there is a trend to try to persuade little girls that the answer to all their problems is not necessary a prince in shining armour.

Having said that, our smallest granddaughter is still buying into the whole princess thing and likes nothing better than to dress up as one of the Disney heroines. And it’s not that she does nothing but girly activities. She is quite likely sit in her princess frock and play with toy cars and a tiny garage. The cars are all given personalities though and at least one is always afraid to go down the ramp. We have been child-watching as we have been out and about.

It’s amazing how many small children are allowed, even encouraged, to make a prodigious amount of noise as they are being pushed along in their baby-carriages. This is especially so in Spain, it seems to me. We witnessed two small girls, in a double buggy, squealing at the top of their lungs, clearly for the sheer delight of squealing. Their mother ignored them altogether. I suppose she may have tried already, without success, to get them to turn down the volume and had just resigned herself to letting them get on with it. But this is how they grow up into the kind of adults who talk over each other in “conversation” round a cafe table.

Then in a cafe after lunch the other day, a child on the upstairs level dropped a toy car. It clattered down to land under a table near ours. He came down to look for it but couldn’t spot it. I told him where it was. He picked up the car and walked away. Neither did his parents acknowledge that I had been a tiny bit useful.Just a simple gracias, that’s all I needed.

Now, here’s an unforeseen, but sadly very foreseeable, consequence of the coronavirus. In the United States, I read, since the outbreak of the illness, the largest and oldest Chinatown in the country has seen a drop in tourism, as a racially tinged fear has appeared to have kept visitors from its streets. There have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in San Francisco, but even so, Chinatown regulars say the streets are less crowded, and people have begun to worry – not about the virus itself, they said, but on whether their businesses can survive this downturn.

The concern was enough that the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, made a publicized stop this week in her home town’s Chinatown to implore people to “please come and visit and enjoy Chinatown”.

Closer to home, I hear that there have been a few aggressive incidents in Manchester’s Chinatown.

Fear makes baddies of us all, it seems!

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Giving stuff up for Lent. And quarantine. And building work.

Everything stops for Shrove Tuesday, presumably so the sardine can be buried and carnival can be finished off (although I did see one small boy yesterday morning resolutely dressed up as a traditional carnival clown) but on Ash Wednesday things seemed to get back to normal and the supermarkets were open again. The local school was still closed however but today, Thursday, it’s back in business and the back street where I run was back to being a rat-run for parents dropping offspring off.

I did a bit of research into stuff I probably really knew already but had forgotten. According to the internet, “'Shrove' means being forgiven for wrong-doings or sins. Shrove Tuesday is also known to the non-religious as Pancake Day. Long ago this was a day for feasting and having a good time. People would go to church to confess their sins and would be 'shriven' or forgiven before the start of Lent. Since rich foods such as eggs were forbidden during Lent, one way of using them up would be to make pancakes. Typically, only those who are Catholic participate in confession or what's sometimes also called reconciliation. The practice is meant to help those shed their sins and be forgiven by God.” So there it is.

Growing up as a protestant child I knew nothing about confession but did have a collection box into which I was supposed to put money, presumably what I did not spend on sweets and so on as it was Lent, and then hand in to the church on Easter Sunday. And what about those eggs? If eggs were too rich to be eaten during Lent, what happened to them all? Were they just thrown away? It seems an awful waste, one of those odd things, on a par with being told to eat up all your dinner because of the starving children in poor countries.

How many people who join in carnival fun and games all over the place think about any of this? Certainly in the UK it has probably been largely forgotten and it’s just another excuse to have fun.

I read yesterday that a number of schools in the UK remained closed after their half term holiday as they had students returning from skiing holidays in “coronavirus-hit northern Italy”. Some students have shown “flu-like symptoms”, leading to a bit of a panic. Is it just a cold? Or is it bog-standard, but still not very nice, flu? Or is it coronavirus? So pupils are being quarantined just in case. School life is being disrupted. Apparently the government says it is all under control and that measures are in place, prompting a friend of mine to declare himself very scared ... not so much of the disease as of the government declarations! And a friend here tells me her in local supermarket sanitised hand-gel has sold out. Panic buying has set in!

Now for another little oddity of the modern world. I read that the National Farmers’ Union has criticised stars such as Joaquin Phoenix who use their celebrity to promote veganism, claiming the growth in meat-free living is fuelling a rise in mental health problems among British farmers. Joaquin Phoenix made a speech at the Oscars about veganism.

The NFU president said, “Celebrities have to be careful [because] there are real-life consequences for others … Joaquin Phoenix, he’s had a really challenging life, and you really feel for him and a lot of the things he was saying, but he has to remember there are people at the end of this, there are small family farms and they get hurt too.”

As an almost vegetarian, eating occasional chicken, quite a lot of fish, but no red meat, I still sympathise with the farmers and their problems. However, I don’t think we can really blame the celebrities for the bulk of the problem. Farmers will need to find a solution and I doubt that opening a section of your farm as a petting zoo and serving cream teas with home made scones really compensates for reducing meat sales.

Here in Vigo, as in many places in both the UK and Spain, and probably other European countries too, it’s small shopkeepers who appear to be being squeezed put of business. Many of the traditional “bajos”, the ground floor sections of blocks of flats, remain unoccupied, boarded or bricked up, even close to the centre of town. And yet work is steaming ahead on the construction of a huge shopping centre in front of and above Urzáiz railway station, the town centre station. It looks as though it’s the size of a small town.

So what does the future hold for the old shopping street, Príncipe, a pleasant pedestrian area, a good place for a stroll and a bit of window shopping? Squeezed between the ugly A Laxe shopping comp,ex down by the port and this new venture, it’s going to have a hard time of it, I think.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Shrove Tuesday comments!

The fine and sunny weather of the last few days was clearly intended to lull us into a sense of security and impending spring. For today the Atlantic Blanket descended with a vengeance and we had that fine drizzly rain that Galicia does so well. The city, well our end of the city at least, had a closed-down feel. I ran in the rain this morning and might emerge later to post this but otherwise it is a day to be indoors. Heaven help those who are walking the camino. But I suppose that walking in the rain might make you doubly blessed.

 The day did improve later. Still rather chilly though.

Further to my passing comments yesterday about the Spanish not really having a concept of health and safety, this is what goes on in our flats. We rent a flat on the seventh floor of a tower block in Vigo. On each landing, at each end of the section where the lifts are situated there is a fire door, beyond each of which there are three flats. We frequently come across the doors wedged open with folded pieces of paper. These we remove, in our very British fashion, as fire doors are meant to be kept shut. Today someone among the residents has gone one better and tied one of the fire doors open, attaching the handle to a permanent fixture on the wall of the landing. I rest my case!

Further to my comments about coronavirus in northern Italy, I read that Venice has cancelled its carnaval! Things must be bad! Briefly I was worried about a friend of mine who is accompanying a group of sixth form students to Italy at the moment. But all is well. She is in Sicily with the charges, far away from the germs ... at least for the moment! She was posting pictures of teenagers running about in the sunshine on the beach. They might be mostly of Italian descent but they have grown to teenagerhood in the UK and so take every opportunity to enjoy sunshine when they can. I wonder if the rain has also reached Sicily.

Meanwhile, yesterday we admired the street decoration here for carnaval. There were still people of all ages wandering around in fancy dress. How many have been out and about in today’s drizzle?

I notice that even opticians’ shops have carnaval-related displays. Mind you, they do the same for Hallowe’en. Maybe it’s just British opticians who insist in seriousness at all times.

And, according to Abanca adverts, Galicia’s fiestas are the best in the world: - “As nosas festas son as mellores do mundo” they have even heard about them in Nepal - “E agora sábeno ata no Nepal.” Who knew? And here is a baker’s shop window full of “orejas”.

On the whole I prefer pancakes.

Monday, 24 February 2020

Health and safety matters!

It’s been a very quiet Monday morning here in Vigo. It’s not a proper public holiday as far as I know, not the kind when everything comes to a complete halt, but the schools are closed, presumably so that the children can get dressed up as superheroes and take part in “entroido”. The supermarkets are open, as are most of the small shops - those that remain as more and more of the “bajos”, small ground floor establishments traditionally shops or cafes, are boarded up these days.

The bakers shops are all selling “orejas”, strange sugared lumps of batter in the shape of oversized ears, hence the name. I just saw a group of elderly gents (yes, even more elderly than we are) tucking into one that one f their number brought into the bar from a nearby cake shop. Nobody has ever explained the significance of these strange confections to me. I suppose it might have something to do with using sweet stuff up in readiness for the fasting period of Lent, in the same way as pancakes are traditionally served on Shrove Tuesday in England. But why they are shaped like ears escapes me completely.

At the airport the on Friday we saw a chap resolutely walking around with a face-mask on. We commented, to each other but not to him, that we had read that face-masks do little to help protect you from the coronavirus. However, if it made him feel better then he is free to do what he chooses in that respect. I read yesterday that experts think we might be approaching a “tipping point” in the spread of the virus. (Is it a sign of its ubiquitous presence that when I mistype the word spellcheck immediately offers me “coronavirus”?) The World Health Organisation is urging international action. Apparently 11 towns in northern Italy have people in lockdown because of an outbreak there. Maybe it needs to get really close to home before we really start an international cooperation. Or are we all just going to be defeated by germs?

Also I was reading journalist/columnist Peter Hitchens ranting about health and safety, something which they are not really very conscious of here in Spain. Here’s a sample:-

 “My day is besieged with infuriating health and safety warnings. If I buy coffee at the station it says on the lid that the ‘Contents May be Hot’. I should jolly well hope so, just as I was rather hoping that the biscuit I have bought ‘may contain nuts’ as its label solemnly informs me. As I cross the bridge to my platform a treacly, ingratiating male voice intones ‘When on the stairs, please use the handrail – and take care!’ If I had been thinking of using the handrail, I always give up the idea as soon as I hear this. I probably take less care, too, on the principle that I will decide when to take care, not when some computerised social worker tells me to.”

I was reminded of the annoyingly, cloyingly sweet voice which informs us in Oldham bus station on rainy days that “floors may be slippery when wet”. There’s a surprise! And I regularly wait for a friend in Piccadilly Station, Manchester, close to an escalator, where an electronic voice tells travellers over and over to “Please stand to the right and hold tight”. It took several minutes of listening the first time to decipher the message and then I noticed that it was also printed on every step of the escalator. Nowadays they need to add “and be sure to wash your hands after holding the safety rail!” 

I particularly enjoyed Mr Hitchens’ account of health and safety concerns at a cheese-rolling event:-

“But what are we to make of what has happened to the cheese-rolling contest in Brockworth, Gloucestershire, an event now protected with fencing, in which a Double Gloucester cheese is chased down a steep hill for fun?  Nowadays this ludicrous but happy festival takes place in a semi-official limbo.
Growing insurance costs meant that nobody would take responsibility for it any more. Supposed ‘health and safety fears’ led to the actual cancellation of the ‘official’ event in 2010.  Now, though it happens, it is surrounded with off-putting precautions, which seem to me to be there to keep lawyers away rather than to promote safety.  Roads are closed all around the site.
One year police – police! – warned against the perilous use of a real cheese, weighing eight pounds, and it was replaced by a lightweight foam substitute.  On one recent occasion stern notices warned those rash enough to attend to go away. They stated grimly ‘Cheese rolling is a dangerous activity for both participants and spectators. The cheese roll is not managed. You are strongly encouraged not to attend. It is especially unsuitable for children. You attend entirely at your own risk’. “

There you go!

Sunday, 23 February 2020

Passports, Sunshine and Dressing up.

Various sources tell me that blue passports will be available in the Uk from next month. Well, really available is not the right word. That makes it sound as though it’s optional. I quite like the idea of a choice of colours for your passport. I rather fancy a purple one myself. Oddly enough all the pictures of the blue passports show a bright blue, almost what my paintbox called royal blue, and yet all the old pre-EU passports that I have collected in a desk drawer (yes, I am that kind of hoarder!) are a dark navy blue. I think the nationalist freaks have short memories. I am really quite glad that my passport will not need to be renewed until 2016. The whole situation might be different by then.

Oh, and the blue passports will be made in Poland! We’ve taken back control! Evidently!

We wondered as we went through passport control at Porto airport on Friday, for the first time since we officially left the EU, if the electronic system would still work for us. Really there should be no problem as we are still going through the transition period. It worked fine for me but Phil had to go back to one of the manned gates. This has happened several times before. It must be the way he presents his passport to the machine.

It seems to me, from what I have heard and read about, that EU citizens going through passport control into the UK are having more problems than those of us going he other way. Over-zealous officials are stopping people and asking them why they are visiting the UK. It makes me quite ashamed to be British.

So does the rise in the number of cases I hear about of people being challenged on public transport, for instance, for speaking a language other than English. I wonder what language the challengers use when they holiday in Spain!

This morning, like yesterday morning, we woke to brilliant sunshine in Vigo, which is quite a relief. As I have watched weather maps over recent weeks the swirls of clouds seemed to cover Galicia as much as they did the northwest of England. Consequently running up the hill and round to the baker’s was quite a pleasant experience. Little seems to have changed here since our last visit. Various building projects along our street appear not to have made any progress at all. Maybe the builders don’t like working in the winter months.

We did not see the chatterbox lady on the bus to Vigo on Friday evening. So I have no idea which bus she caught to this fair city. She was definitely aiming for a bus as she loudly informed people that the bus took an hour to get to Vigo from Porto - it just seemed like two hours because of the time difference in Spain, she declared - which is a rather faster journey than we have ever done.

In the afternoon yesterday we walked to A Guía and admired the view from the chapel/lighthouse at the top. As we walked through Teis we saw a fair number of people in fancy dress. Our smallest granddaughter would have felt quite at home as she loves to dress up. Presumably some kind of “entroido” (carnival) event was going on somewhere. Teis, although part of greater Vigo, has a tendency to do its own thing as regards festivities. From the top,of A Guía we could hear what sounded like a procession of some sort but where it was taking place remains a mystery.

 I do hope the chatterbox lady managed to see some festivities in the centre of town.

Friday, 21 February 2020

Words people use. Things people say.

Just behind our house is an industrial estate. Well, perhaps I should call it a business park these days as there are more offices than industries. When we moved into the house, almost thirty-five years ago, you could see a huge old mill chimney dominating the view. After Phil commented that it was a shame that all you could see was the “bloody great chimney” we always referred to it by that name. It had long been inactive, which makes it sound like a volcano, and eventually the day came when they knocked it down in a controlled explosion. Most of the old textile mill buildings became offices and a smart, new, modern building, completely out of keeping with the area sprang up to accompany it.

The business park seems to have thrived.

In the middle of the business park is a nice little Italian restaurant. We celebrated our granddaughter’s second birthday there. The owners are friendly and the food is not at all bad. They call it “La Rustica”, which is a bit of an exaggeration as, even though the business park is in fairly rustic Saddleworth, there is no way the restaurant could really be called rustic, not from the outside anyway. Inside it’s very nicely decorated and the Italian music is fine.

Over the summer they added an ice-cream fridge, Italian style, of course. And just the other day I noticed that they are calling that addition “Rosa’s Riverside Cafe”, serving gourmet sandwiches, coffee and ice cream. Once again this is a bit of a misnomer. Technically, yes, it is beside a river. If you cross the entrance road to the business park and look down from the spot where they have set up a sort of terrazzo you can see the River Tame rushing along in the gully. So, yes, it’s by a river but hardly the “riverside” that it’s name suggests.

However, I wish them every success. I am often amused by the use of language.

I eavesdropped on someone else’s conversation on the flight from Liverpool to Porto this afternoon. One lady was going on at some length about French French and Canadian French being totally different languages. She reckoned that French people could not understand Canadians speaking French. Which is odd because I can understand both versions of the language. I suppose you need to tune in, as you might to a strong accent in English.

Mind you, we think of English English and American English as the same language. And then we discover that the Americans omit certain negatives which we put in. So where we British “could NOT care less” the Americans “could care less”. And when we say “me neither”, you hear them say “me either”. Crazy transatlantics!

I expect the French feel the same about the Canadians and some of their oddly English-influenced vocabulary.

 I am writing this in Porto airport, filling time in the almost three hour wait for the bus to Vigo. Or “Bigo” as the lady who went on about the French language informed the person she was talking to at length about her plans for the coming week. This involves her going to Vigo for the first time to visit her daughter who is teaching English there. She is going for Carnival week and expects everyone to dress up in carnival clothes as the Spanish really know how to organise a fiesta. I hope she is not disappointed. She will probably enjoy seeing SOME people rushing around in fancy dress planning to bury them sardine though.

It always amuses me to hear the semi-informed going on very authoritatively about places I know.

It was hard to blot out the conversation, which went on all the way from take-off in Liverpool to landing in Porto, but with great strength of will power I resisted the temptation to join in.

 There is a strong possibility, however, that the lady in question might be on the same bus as us to Vigo.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

On cinema- and theatre-going etiquette!

Years ago, more years than I really care to remember, Phil and I went for a short holiday in Nice. Well worth a visit, by the way! While we were there we went to the cinema. A new film with Audrey Tatou had just come out, “Un long dimanche de fiancailles”, and we decided to go and see it. The film was good but the cinema was better.

The seats were red plush, reclining, super-comfortable, so much so that we thought we might like to move in there and abandon our hotel room. Each seat had a built-in cup- or glass-holder. What a surprise! We had never seen anything like that in the UK.

When the Cornerhouse Cinema in Manchester, a wonderful little cinema for foreign and arthouse films which I visited often with A-Level students for film study days, closed all it’s business moved to spanking new premises not too far away, still in the same bit of Central Manchester. Home, as it is called, has screening rooms of varying sizes, a theatre and lecture hall, bars and restaurants. All in all, a thoroughly nice venue for an evening out at the pictures. And the cinema seats, if not as plush and fine as in the one in Nice, all have drinks holders.

Why do people feel the need to take drinks into the cinema, or indeed the theatre? And not just drinks. I find it hard to understand. There has long been a sort of tradition of taking a bag of sweets with you -perhaps in case you had a coughing fit - especially if you were going to a pantomime. I distinctly remember going to a pantomime with a friend to celebrate her birthday when we were in primary school. Her parents gave us money to spend on sweets. We spent the lot on Uncle Joe’s mint ball. By the end of the evening the roof of our mouths was raw. It was years before I could face Uncle Joe’s mint balls again. But the consumption of sweets was fairly limited as was the variety of stuff on sale in the foyer. Mostly consumption was limited to the ice creams sold by the usherettes with their trays of goodies at the interval. That was why there was a B movie and the main feature.

Nowadays there is no interval and no B movie. But there is a huge array of stuff you can buy before you go into the cinema proper. Giant bags of all kinds of sweets and, of course, popcorn! An american import! I know people who cannot even watch a movie at home without popcorn to accompany it. How strange! And now it seems that some cinema goers also take in burgers, happy meals from fast food outlets, even trays of curry and rice. It seems also that some people want to do the same when they go to the theatre.

The actress Imelda Staunton has been protesting against this. She says it is very distracting for actors to hear the crackle of sweet wrappers and the crunch of crisps when they are on stage putting their all into expressing emotion in a play. A musical, she says, is possibly a different matter; with song and dance going on you don’t notice the crackle and crunch.

She was interviewed on the radio recently and they did a sort of sound test, trying out opening different sorts of packets of sweets and snack. Bumper packs of almost all kinds of sweets fared badly because the packets are made of stiff plasticised paper. Individually wrapped sweets also made a lot of noise. Boxes of Maltesers, provided the outer wrapping is removed before going into the cinema or theatre, are excellent; the box opens quietly and the sweets can be extracted with no noise at all. Crisps are a different matter - always crunchy! Pringles seemed to be doing well at first. The packet can be opened and individual snacks extracted silently but then comes the almighty CRUNCH! The radio presenter suggested that it might be possible to suck the Pringle until it goes soggy but it was generally agreed that this defeated the object of having a crunchy snack.

(How odd to have such a test going on. Almost as odd as the occasion recently when a late night news presenter and her newspaper commentator guests getting excited about hand-sanitiser as they discussed the Coronavirus crisis. The presenter had to exert her authority and get them back on task!) 

On the while, I am with Imelda Staunton on this. I hate sitting in a music concert and hearing the crackle of sweet papers from a row or two behind me.

Almost as bad as people explaining the storyline of a film and pointing out the good bits about to appear on screen!

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

On unfairness and discrimination!

“UK to close door to non-English speakers and unskilled workers” - so reads the headline to this article. Priti Patel, Home Secretary, has come in for criticism from some quarters on the grounds that her own parents would not have met the criteria for getting into the UK. While this may well be true, it’s not the best argument against the new measures.

And besides, how many of us are totally defined by our parents? Goodness, I remember wanting to move away from home to study in a place where I was not known everywhere as my parents’ child, my siblings’ sister. I wanted to be my own person. Granted, I did not do a total rebellion against their ideas and way of life but I definitely did not want to be defined purely and simply by my family background.

This does not mean that I totally understand how the child of immigrants ends up as a Tory politician but then, she is not the only one. Take Michael Portillo, for instance. The son of an exiled Spanish Republican who fled Franco’s Spain in 1939, he might well be expected to espouse left wing ideas. His mother, however, was the Scottish daughter of a prosperous linen mill owner, which must have had some influence on his early experience. At school Portillo supported the Labour Party but he attributed his embrace of conservatism at Cambridge to the influence of the right-wing Peterhouse historian Maurice Cowling.

Nature versus nurture, or at any rate educational influences.

No doubt all the apparent anomalies have a similar set of life influences behind them.

And anyway, I am always a little suspicious of political dynasties, where one generation seems to be a kind of clone of the previous one. I would still be more than a little surprised and even offended if our offspring suddenly spouted ideas radically opposed to our own! Such is human nature.

All of this in no way means that I approve of closing our doors to non-English speakers. How do the Welsh feel about this, I wonder? Might they not start to insist on everyone going to love in Wales learning to speak Welsh? I don’t think so. I certainly hope not. I have expressed before now my dislike, nay, disapproval, of the insistence that certain jobs in Galicia require applicants to speak good Gallego.

And what about all those English-only-speaking folk who have gone to live in France and Spain, for instance? Suppose these countries turned around and said they would only accept people who spoke their language.

Openness and tolerance should be the rule everywhere! And common sense! This brings me to discrimination, even though the case in question may be almost self-imposed discrimination. According to this article an alarmingly high percentage of Moslem marriages in England are not legally registered, leaving women in a vulnerable position in the event of divorce, more easily obtained in a religious-only marriage.

Imagine if your Christian church wedding was only legally binding if you also had to have a civil ceremony. That was avoided long ago by making it possible to sign the register in church. Surely the same should be automatic for islamic faith weddings. According to the article, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, weddings do not have to take place in a registered venue, but an authorised celebrant – including imams – can conduct legal weddings anywhere. Surely there is discrimination here. In this, as in other matter, if we are, for the moment anyway, a United Kingdom, surely we should have the same rules and regulations!

 It makes sense to me anyway.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Storm stories and the learning abilities of small children.

Hundreds of houses have apparently been flooded. On the news I heard the prime minister being heckled a) for arriving too late at one of the flooded villages, well after much cleaning up had been done, I suppose, and b) for not really doing anything about it. The last accusation is perhaps a little unfair. He can’t be held personally responsible for the storm. One could almost, but not quite, feel sorry for him.

My daughter and I were talking about it earlier today and wondered if the amount of new building in unsuitable places, on flood plains for example, has caused flooding in places which never used to flood on the past, as the water has nowhere to go. This has happened a lot around here.

House insurance does have somewhere to go; upwards! My daughter found that the insurance quote for a house she owns had increased considerably. The explanation was that her house is in a postcode area which has flooded on the last couple of years. Her house, however, is half way up a hillside, well above the streets which flooded. It took some arguing to reduce the quote.

She was lucky. Those whose houses flooded have great difficulty finding an insurer at any price. Such are the consequences of storms,

Another consequence of Storm Dennis has been stories about “ghost ships”. All this is because an empty ship washed up on the shore of Ireland during the storm. The MV Alta was an old vessel, sailing since 1976 under the flag of Tanzania until it changed hands in 2017. In September 2018 it set of from Greece to Haiti but ran into difficulties off Bermuda. The crew was rescued and taken to Puerto Rico and arrangements were made for the vessel to be towed to Guyana. But en route it was hijacked and nothing more was heard of it until August 2019 when it was encountered floating empty in mid-Atlantic. After that it seems to have floated around, only to end up somewhere off Cork. Nobody knows how it stayed afloat.

There are other stories about ‘ghost ships’:-

“In ocean lore, the story of the ghost ship the Flying Dutchman is a myth dating from the 1700s. The Mary Celeste, in contrast, was real: it was found abandoned, heading for the strait of Gibraltar in 1872, the crew’s fate a mystery.
More recently, in 2006 the tanker Jian Seng was found off the coast of Queensland, Australia, without a crew, the identity of its owner and its origins unclear.
In 2016 a wooden houseboat washed ashore on Ireland’s Atlantic coast. Made with driftwood and polystyrene and fitted with solar panels, it turned out to have been built by Rick Small, a Canadian environmentalist who had given the boat away and had no idea how it ended up crossing the ocean unmanned.”

Tall stories!

Now for a bit of sociological stuff.

I received this text about my three year old granddaughter this morning from my daughter:-

 “I just caught Lydia saying ‘Disney Life’ to the TV remote. I asked her what she was doing and she said, ‘talking to the telly like Uncle Joel does. Uncle Joel is really good at talking to the telly and getting a show to come on’.”

I was reminded of a young friend of mine who came across her three year old sitting in front of the TV set trying to change channels by swiping across the screen, as she knew was possible on the iPad. 

Small children have an amazing ability to assimilate and take for granted technology which befuddles us older adults and seems like a kind of magic!

Monday, 17 February 2020

Settled status problems and unsettled weather problems.

Here’s another of those Settled Status rejection stories:

“A 95-year-old Italian man who has been in the UK for 68 years has been asked to prove he is resident in the country by the Home Office in order to remain after Brexit, despite receiving the state pension for the past 32 years.

Antonio Finelli came to the country in 1952 when he answered an appeal for immigrant labour as part of the reconstruction effort after the second world war ended. He was welcomed with one week’s advance wages and a sandwich when he arrived at Folkestone harbour, but almost 70 years later says he has been forced to supply 80 pages of bank statements to prove his right to stay in the UK.

He was asked for proof that he had been in the country for five consecutive years when he applied for the EU settlement scheme, but the Home Office app said it could not find any record of him.” 

Fortunately he had someone to sort it out for him but it strikes me that there is something wrong with a system that can’t identify someone who has been receiving a state pension for so many years!

It used to be I found those stories only on Facebook But now I am finding them in mainstream news media as well.

I was out and about with my daughter earlier, taking advantage of Marks and Spencer giving me 20% off clothing. Just about every store seems to offer special discounts almost all the time. No wonder some of the stores struggle if they keep offering such discounts!

The wind has been bitter today but the threatened rain did not appear until later and it seems to have been short-lived. When I went put in the early evening to put out the correct bins for the refuse collectors - this week: paper and cardboard and the kitchen compostable caddy - the young man from next door, whose parents reckon he does not smoke, was sitting on their front doorstep smoking some interesting substance. Personally, if I were him, I would give it a miss on a cold night like this.

Despite my comments on how cold and blustery this evening is, once again I marvel at the fact that we seem to have escaped the worst of the weather. Many parts of the country are still on flood alert. However some places are apparently avoiding flooding because beavers have returned, or have been reintroduced, to their rivers.

Another natural solution that might work in other places.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Post Dennis ... and other stuff!

A friend of mine who lives in a house at the top of a hill not too far from here, a friend of a rather poetical bent, said that all night her house was out at sea as Storm Dennis raged around it. We are lower down just had a prodigious amount of rain. Consequently the river is very full.

As is the road into the industrial estate behind our houses.

Going through the village earlier, I noticed that the fish and chip shop, with its door at the foot of some steps, has sandbags at both the door to the chippy itself and to the family’s dwelling. Last weekend in our absence the road in that part of the village was underwater and so I suspect was their property.

We personally seem to have got off lightly.

Valentine’s day has come and gone quietly as it usually does around here. On social media it has been a different matter. Lots of young people have been sending Valentine’s greeting to all their friends and family. How odd! Someone needs to reinstitute the idea of sending an anonymous valentine to someone you fancy rather than to someone who already knows how you feel.

The artist Banksy did a lovely Valentine’s message to a whole community down in Bristol. The people whose house it is on had plans to cover it in glass to preserve it. They did not work fast enough. Some unpleasant person has already vandalised it.

In South America they have discovered the fossilised shell of a giant turtle with the wonderful name “stupendemys geographicus”. He’s not the only creature from the depths of time to have a wonderful name. “Stupendemys – meaning “stupendous turtle” – inhabited a colossal wetlands system spanning what is now Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil and Peru before the Amazon and Orinoco rivers were formed. Its large size may have been crucial in defending against formidable predators. It shared the environment with giant crocodilians including the 36ft-long (11-meter-long) caiman Purussaurus and the 33ft-long (10-meter-long) gavial relative Gryposuchus. One of the Stupendemys fossils was found with a two-inch-long (5cm) crocodile tooth embedded in it.”

There you go!

And finally, here’s a story about a golden telephone. Imagine having golden telephones in all the bedrooms of your house. Imagine using that building for another purpose and still retaining the golden telephones. Imagine the golden telephones being thrown away, simply thrown away at some time in the past. It beggars belief! Even if they were just gold plated! Fortunately someone spotted one in a skip and saved it.

 Scavenging rules! OK!

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Some thoughts provoked by thought-provoking reading.

“As English as apple pie” is one of those expressions you hear from time to time. Wikipedia defines it as meaning “having characteristics considered quintessential to English or British life”. It then points out that there is also the expression “as American as apple pie”, meaning “having characteristics considered quintessential to American life”. So both nations, both made up of a mix of immigrants from all over the place over long periods of time, have the apple pie as a kind of symbol.

Now take a look at this:-

“Given how popular they are, it’s surprising to discover that apples did not originate in the UK; they seem so British, as if they’ve always been here. But no: apple trees originally grew in Khazakstan, and were brought south and west by traders over hundreds of years, through Persia, Greece, and to the Roman Empire. It was the Romans who introduced apples to Britain.”

That must be a bit of a blow, by the way, to all those who don’t want immigrants! And even more so to those who say we should be British to the core! Maybe a question about apples should be included in the test for Britishness, since it seems to include a whole lot of questions the average person is unlikely to be able to answer, such as “In which year did Margaret Thatcher become an MP?” Not PM, please note, but MP!!

That bit of information about apples came in the author’s notes section at the end of Tracy Chevalier’s novel “At the Edge of the Orchard”, a story about people who love trees, among other themes.

Also about trees and the love of trees is Annie Proux’s “Barkskins”, a very long read but worth the trouble.

I have just finished reading “At the Edge of the Orchard”. Characters from history make their appearance, such as Johnny Appleseed, someone American schoolchildren apparently learn about as a cheerful sort of eco-warrior going round planting apple trees. It seems he was in fact more of a businessman making money out of selling apple trees but also distributing odd religious tracts at the same time.

A chap called William Lobb also pops up, a man who travelled the world collecting plants and seeds and sending them back to Britain. Would environmentalists approve or disapprove of his meddling in the distribution of plant species around the world?

“At the Edge of the Orchard” also gives an insight into the hardships undergone by settlers in the USA.

The mix of fiction with real events and real people is one of the things that makes it so interesting. For the same mix, I would recommend Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America”, an alternative history in which Franklin D. Roosevelt is defeated in the presidential election of 1940 by Charles Lindbergh. The novel follows the fortunes of the Roth family during the Lindbergh presidency, as antisemitism becomes more accepted in American life and Jewish-American families like the Roths are persecuted on various levels. Quite a relevant read for modern times!

A similar interesting mix occurs in “The Lacuna” by Barbara Kingsolver, which features the artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the assassination of Leon Trotsky, and the havoc wreaked on a writer’s life by the House Un-American Activities. This is another book relevant to modern times with the ongoing discussion of freedom of speech, and what we can and cannot say.

Who says reading novels is a waste of time?

Friday, 14 February 2020

Storm-free so far. And a rant about exam pressure!

I was expecting Storm Dennis this morning but instead I woke to a calm blue sky and sunshine. There was frost on the shed roof and all over the back garden. The seagulls were sitting on the thin ice on the millpond and the mud puddles were nicely frozen, making running along the bridle path a much less squelchy experience than it has been of late. By mid morning the frost had disappeared from the garden. So had the blue sky and sunshine! There was still no sign of Dennis. Maybe he will turn up later.

Storms and hurricanes are named but not periods of other sorts of weather. We don’t hear about Heatwave Hilda or Drought Daniel. And yet heatwaves and droughts can cause damage too. Maybe it’s because storms and hurricanes come in with so much noise and bluster, like noisy children demanding lots of attention.

On the subject of children, how about this?

“Primary schools in England are holding half-term and Easter holiday revision classes for pupils as young as six to prepare them for standardised tests known as Sats, the Guardian has learned. The use of holiday “booster sessions” for pupils in year two was robustly condemned by the Department for Education (DfE) and major teaching unions, with one union leader describing them as “an extraordinarily bad idea” with no positive impact.

One primary school in north London has invited its year two pupils to attend voluntary revision sessions during next week’s half-term holiday, well in advance of the tests on maths, literacy and grammar due in May.”

Here’s the whole article for those who want to read it.

The sad thing is that there will be loads of parents who feel the need to send their little darlings along to these classes. Some will do so because they think it is the best thing to do for their offspring, others because they don’t want to be seen as neglectful parents. Keeping up with the Joneses has a lot of force! There always have been possibly over-zealous parents who pushed their children perhaps a little too much. When we were sitting the 11 Plus exam at the end of 1950s there were parents who arranged private tuition to help their sons and daughters do as well as possible. A friend of mine was something of a nervous wreck as a result of this. But mostly we took it in our stride, which is how it really should be.

When I worked as an A-Level tutor in a sixth form college it was almost de rigueur to put on revision sessions for your classes in the Easter holidays, something I found myself pressurised into doing and which I resented somewhat. After all, I had already dedicated a lot of my marking and preparation time to extra small group practice sessions in preparation for the spoken examinations which often took place before the Easter break. We had worked hard throughout the course and I had given the students masses of revision materials, including advice on HOW to revise and tips on exam technique. And besides, independent study is a skill they need to develop ready to go on to university.

Last year I was quite shocked at how many extra classes my granddaughter’s comprehensive school was organising for Year 11 pupils in the run-up to GCSE exams. My granddaughter was turning up at school at 7.45, which meant that her teachers were doing the same and, indeed, probably arriving a lot earlier to get everything organised. As if teachers did not already have enough pressure. Because of course it is all down to the pressure to meet targets for exam passes and ever higher grades year on year.

And there is also a whole industry dedicated to private tuition in almost every subject. My daughter has friends who make quite a good living out of it. Not all of it takes place at home. In the small town where my son lives what used to be a charity shop has turned into a sweatshop for getting children through the 11 Plus exam (yes, he lives in a place where the grammar school still exists) where sad children spend after school time and Saturday mornings trying to improve themselves.

But to put such pressure on six year olds is quite beyond belief. In fact, it’s morally wrong. We hear a lot about children, even very young children, suffering from stress. Surely one of the causes of this stress is the excessive importance given to SATs by both parents and teachers. The teachers’ nervousness about meeting targets and the parents’ worries about their little ones perhaps not achieving as well or better than their peers transfers to the children who have to sit the test. And how unnatural to test small children in a formal manner! On the one hand we teach and encourage them to be cooperative, to share and to talk about their ideas and their schoolwork. On the other we make then do an individual test.

Their has to be a better way to organise things.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Continuing chaos!

So there has been a cabinet re-shuffle and Sajid Javid has resigned. Well, there we go! It would seem that clever boy Dominic Cummings is quietly taking over the country. So much for democracy. There are going to be some interesting times with the Conservatives’ backbenchers though. Together with Mr Corbyn suggesting that Mr Johnson should be deported for his past behaviour, things are getting a bit stirred up. 

Most of us have sort of put the whole Brexit question behind us, or at least on a back-burner for the time being but the country is in a bit of a state. People are still being deported or not allowed back on if they have been to visit family in their country of origin. My daughter sent me a link to a story from the Independent, summarised as:-

“Arrive as a child refugee, study then work here and gain British citizenship, live as a model citizen then coming back from holiday find you’ve been stripped of your right to travel back to the place you’ve called home since the age of 14. Disgusting.”

Within my own circle of friends and acquaintances I know of at least two people who have been refused Settled Status, despite having lived and worked in this country for quite a few years. In one case, an Italian friend seems to have scuppered his chances by going back home for about six months to see his ageing mother through her final illness. The other is a Spanish woman, a Basque to be exact, who has grown-up British nationality children. Somewhere along the way she has not provided the right documentation.

I think of my sister who has lived in Spain for 40+ years and has Spanish children and grandchildren. Supposing she came to visit UK family and then found they would not let her back into Spain?!

I wonder how many of us could provide documentation to prove where we were and what we have been doing for the last fifteen or twenty years, or even five for that matter. I suddenly find myself very glad to be married to a man who insists on filing away every bank statement, tax code letter, piece of pension information and almost everything else that comes through the letter box. Lots of fiscal documentation. Mind you, I am not sure I could pass the test for citizenship. I would probably be thinking, “well, I know the answer to that - it’s on the tip of my tongue - now, what is it?”

We talked about this in the Italian conversation class the other day when one of the group asked our “professoressa” if she had applied for settled status (at an earlier stage she was refusing to do so in case, or perhaps hoping that, Brexit would not happen) and had it been as difficult as some people have been saying. Yes, to the first part, she had now successfully completed it and, as she had put it off as long as possible, she had not had to pay any money for the process, unlike some early applicants. As regards difficulty, well, it was easy with an android phone. But an I-Phone doesn’t do it and neither does a computer apparently. It’s something to do with scanning documents and passports and heaven knows what else. You can use someone else’s android phone but it is advisable that it be someone close to you in case the Home Office can contact you quickly.

Just as I began to think the whole business was full of all sorts of restrictions and possibilities for confusion, I came acrss this story in the Guardian:-

“A 101-year-old Italian man who has been in London since 1966 was asked to get his parents to confirm his identity by the Home Office after he applied to stay in the country post-Brexit. In what appears to be a computer glitch the Home Office thought he was a one-year-old child.

Giovanni Palmiero was told that he needed the presence of his mother and father when he made his application for the EU settlement scheme at an advice centre in Islington, north London. When the volunteer who helped Palmiero, a great-grandfather, scanned his passport into the EU settled status app to share the biometric data with the Home Office, the system misinterpreted his birth year as 2019 instead of 1919.

“I immediately noticed that something was wrong because when I scanned in his passport, it imported his biometric data not as 1919 but as 2019. It then skipped the face recognition section which is what it does with under-12s,” said Dimitri Scarlato, an activist with the campaign group the3million who also works for Inca Cgil, an organisation that helps those of Italian descent. He was then asked whether he wanted to put in the residence details of Palmiero’s parents or proceed independently of them.

“I was surprised. I phoned the Home Office and it took two calls and a half an hour for them to understand it was the app’s fault not mine,” Scarlato said. The Home Office then accepted the mistake and took Palmiero’s identity details over the phone.

Last Thursday he was told he could resume his application as a 101-year-old. He was then asked to provide proof of residence for five years in the country, even though he has been in the UK for 54 years and the Home Office is supposed to be able to access national insurance and tax records to corroborate five years of continuous tax residency.”

 That sounds pretty complicated and not terrible user-friendly to me.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Taking risks ... or not!

Normally on a Wednesday I get up and run to the market in Uppermill, then catch the bus back, shower and have a late breakfast. This morning, having listened to hailstorms at various points in the night I gave in to the need for sleep and stayed in bed a little longer. Eventually I climbed out, did some indoor exercises followed by my morning ablutions and organised a quick breakfast. The idea was to get on with the rest of the day.

As I left the house I spotted a milkman making a delivery at a neighbour’s house. He commented that the weather was a lot better now and that it was warming up quite nicely. Well, I suppose that if you have been up at the crack of dawn then the 10.30 temperature would be a big improvement. It still felt pretty chilly to me though.

I had already read this in the Guardian online:-

 “The Queenferry Crossing, the bridge that connects Edinburgh and Fife, remained closed on Wednesday morning resulting in commuter chaos and lengthy tailbacks on the 35-mile diversion necessary for drivers.
The £1.35bn bridge, which opened to traffic in August 2017 and had been hailed as a crossing that would remain open in all weathers, has been closed since Monday night when snow and ice fell from cables on the bridge causing damage to eight vehicles, resulting in strong criticism of the Scottish government after reports that ice sensors had not been fully installed.”

I wonder if such things will be kept in mind when Mr Johnson talks about building a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Will it ever come to pass? Will it have to close when Storm Whatever it-happens-to be called grows a little extra fierce?

As ever when the weather is a little extreme we have had the regulation group of people who needed to be rescued from a mountainside. Why do people think it’s a sensible thing to do to set off up a mountain in trainers and light jackets when howling gales are forecast.

Mind you, I suppose the same could be said of my daughter and me setting off a drive from Buckinghamshire to Manchester in the rain and wind on Sunday!

Monday, 10 February 2020

Stormy travels!

There’s nothing like a good bit of weather. We British love to talk about it. But then, so do the Galicians in the northwest of Spain. Maybe it’s because both places can have unpredictable weather - unpredictably bad and unpredictably good.

This weekend has been a case in point. On Friday my daughter and I set off on a road trip with her two smallest children. We were off the visit my son, just to see him and his family but also to help celebrate his daughter’s sixth birthday. We travelled to Buckinghamshire under blue skies and sunshine, a perfectly lovely to be out and about, with wonderful views of the changing countryside as we went on our way.

We were probably only five minutes along the road when the three year old, rather excited at the prospect of visiting her cousin, started the regular litany of “are we there yet?” but that’s a different story.

All the way down we saw notices warning us of high winds tomorrow, ie Saturday, but in fact Saturday was another lovely day, perfect for a stroll into town for breakfast in a local cafe and a runaround in the park.

On Sunday the promised Storm Ciara arrived with a vengeance. We had a large amount of stuff to transport from my son’s house to the local town hall where they had hired a room for the birthday party. Just getting out the house was difficult as the wind kept trying to tear the door out of our hands. Next was the garden gate, a serious hazard to be negotiated. Finally though my daughter-in-law and I managed to load everything up and made our way down into town to set up the party. (This was a “craft party” - around fifteen children spent a good part of the party time happily making masks, crowns, fish, octopi and goodness knows what else out of paper plates and crepe paper and a lot of sparkly bits - a very good alternative to running around screaming for the whole time. An excellent idea. After lunch, with cake and sweets, of course, there was a certain amount of running about with a sugar high but I was quite impressed with the party organisation!)

My son and daughter followed us down a little later with the birthday girl and her small cousins. By then the rain was lashing down to accompany the high winds. A couple of fences had been blown down and one of the guests, or rather her father, regaled us with tales of the blown-down tree he had to circumnavigate.

In late afternoon, the party proper and the after-party back at my son’s house for the closest friends and family over and done with, my daughter and I decided to brave the weather and head for home, perhaps a foolish decision! But by the time we were stuck in a queue of traffic waiting to get round an overturned lorry it was too late to reconsider. So a rather slow return journey we had of it, with lots of splay from standing water on the motorways, not to mention intermittent torrential rain. Between the rainstorms we had a splendid moon and starlit skies however. Eventually we made it home without mishap.

Another adventure done and dusted.

This morning I have friends from my Italian class contacting me about the local weather forecast. One in particular is concerned that he could be trapped in Greater Manchester tomorrow evening if the stormy weather continues, unable to make it back to Wrexham or wherever he travels from. Optimistically I have advised him to postpone his worries until tomorrow morning.

Ciara may well have blown herself further north by then. And at least we have not been flooded out!

Saturday, 8 February 2020

How we look at the way people dress!

Our society is very funny about dress codes. On the whole, anything goes, although we are often rather suspicious of young men in hoodies if they walk along with their hoods up even when it is not cold. And hoodies are so ubiquitous that really we should bot worry about them. I say that as a frequent hoody (hoodie?) wearer.

Our grandson has just managed to make a hole in the elbow of a new one he had as a Christmas present and is reluctant for me to patch it as he “doesn’t want to look like an old man”!

Despite our relatively relaxed attitude, a Labour MP has been criticised for her attire in the House of Commons because she had a bare shoulder, not going out for the evening bare, apparently, but too revealing for some people!

Then there’s the question of what pregnant ladies should wear. (I suspect, by the way, that some people will object to my calling them ladies. According to this article pregnant bellies should be revealed in all their splendour. I beg to differ. I have no objection to pregnancy being obvious and evident. Wear tight-fitting clothes by all means. And bellies out on the beach and by the pool are fine. But I don’t see why they should be paraded along the high street. In fact an expanse of non-pregnant belly doesn’t need to be paraded along the high street either.

Call me old-fashioned but I do think that a girl can show off her curves without having to reveal all her skin as well. That’s all!

And just now I came across this: -

“Bids on an off-the-shoulder dress worn by Tracy Brabin in the House of Commons have passed £14,000 in a charity auction. The Labour MP was forced to defend her attire after the dress slipped off her shoulder when she leaned on the dispatch box because of a broken ankle on Tuesday.

Brabin decided to sell the dress for charity on eBay, where bids reached £14,200 on Saturday afternoon. The auction ends on Thursday and the money raised will go to Girlguiding, a charity for girls and young women in the UK.

Brabin’s outfit had been criticised on social media earlier in the week. It was a topic of discussion on the BBC’s Question Time on Thursday – where one audience member described it as “a disco outfit”.”

 Such is the oddness of the modern world!

Thursday, 6 February 2020

Listening to languages!

As a young teenager, just getting into learning foreign languages, I was known to stay on the bus past my stop so that I could continue to eavesdrop on people speaking something foreign. Okay, maybe I was a bit geeky but I was mostly harmless.

Here’s a different view. From the Manchester Evening News, I think, the other day I got this:-

“One in four Brits are 'bothered' by hearing non-English languages in the UK Nearly a third of Brits said that disliking people speaking languages other than English in public is not racist behaviour - while nearly 60 per cent said it was .

More than a quarter of Brits are 'bothered' by hearing non-English languages when they are out in public. One in four Brits say that hearing people talk in languages other than English in the UK bothers them. A new survey has revealed that 26 per cent of Brits are bothered by hearing conversations in other languages while they are in the UK.

YouGov asked 1,461 British adults the question: "When in the UK, are you bothered when you hear those from a non-English speaking country talking to each other in their own language, or not?"

The majority of those surveyed said they were not bothered at all, while eight percent said they would be 'very bothered' and a further 18 per cent said they would be 'fairly bothered'.”

Now, my daughter and I walked through the centre of Manchester the other day,  commenting on the fact that one of the things we really love about our city is hearing so many different languages spoken in its streets. It’s really good to live in a cosmopolitan city. We are not bothered in the least by foreign languages being spoken. Quite the opposite.

Then, regarding the notice that everyone in the block of flats in-the news should speak only English, I came across this that someone posted:-

“Here’s a deal:

I’ll stop speaking Romanian with my Romanian friends, colleagues and family in the UK when every British migrant in Spain and France will also speak in Spanish and French with their British mates.”

 Quite so!

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Travel stories.

For the last few weeks a fellow member of the Italian class has given me and a friend a lift to Piccadilly station after the class is over. This means that my friend can catch an early train and that I am in with a chance of arriving at Oldham Mumps interchange in time for the 19.30 bus to Delph. It’s still a bit touch and go and mush depends on how speedily the tram from Manchester Victoria makes its way to Oldham Mumps. It only needs to held up for a couple of minutes somewhere along the route for the whole thing to go pear-shaped. However, for the last few weeks all has been well. Yesterday evening proved to be the end of my run of good luck. I got off the tram and could see my bus waiting at the bus stop. Now, there is always an outside chance that the bus will have to wait while the current driver is replaced by a new one. This always seems to happen when I have caught the bus in the town centre and would like to whizz straight through Mumps.

So last night I scuttled down from the tram platform and ran along the pavement towards the bus stop, not an easy thing to do with a small rucksack full of books on your back. When I was within yards of the stop the bus pulled away. I was a little peeved to say the least! As there was no other bus for another hour, I set off to the taxi rank and requested a ride home.

My taxi driver was a very chatty young Asian who told me he was fairly new to the job and asked if I could give him directions. He had never been to Delph before. Judging by his accent, I guessed he was an Oldham boy, born here rather than newly arrived. He confirmed this to be the case and told me where in the town he was brought up. So, I asked, which secondary school did he attend? The one where I started my teaching career. Small world syndrome strikes again! So we had a little chat about teachers we both knew - not many as I stopped working there when my son was born, but enough for a bit of reminiscence. So it goes!

My bus adventures continued. This morning I ran to Uppermill market. It is Wednesday after all. Having called in at various locations, I wanted to visit the fruit and veg man and the fish man before my bus arrived. The queues were huge at both stall. As I stood with onions and potatoes, and my eye on some baking apples, my bus showed up. So I dumped the veg and hopped on the bus. Discretion is the better part of getting home from the market! And besides, I was planning a trip to Oldham later. I had no bus problems on that excursion. Sometimes things work out right.

Things did not work out right for David Cameron’s bodyguard. According to this article he managed to leave his gun, his own passport and the former Prime Minister’s passport in the toilets. While I am a little concerned at the idea that our politicians need armed security men around them, and that it is possible for said armed security men to take their guns on board planes in our airports, I did find the story rather amusing.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Having a day out - getting away from it all.

For a while my daughter and I have been planning to take her small daughter to Manchester Museum, one of our favourite haunts. We have taken all her older offspring, who have all enjoyed it on the whole.

Coincidentally her car was due for a service within the next I am not sure how many miles. As this was fewer miles than we are going to cover next weekend when we head south to visit her brother and his family, meaning that the service would be overdue, we thought that this would be a good moment to kill two birds with one stone. Other factors came into play, such as that the garage doing the service could not offer her a courtesy car as they had none available and so she would have to hand about in Manchester until the service was complete.

Consequently she came round and collected me at around 9.30 this morning and off we went. We dropped the car off and stomped across Manchester, skirting the actual city centre and finally reaching the museum late in the morning, no mean feat with a sleeping baby on one level of the buggy and a three year old on the top level. Goodness knows how long it would have taken us if the toddler had had her way and had walked under her own steam. As a rule we are in favour of her walking but as it was damp and drizzly, not to mention windy, we went for the speedy option and put her on the top level of what is a little like a set of mini-bunk-beds on wheels. This is a far cry from the huge pram I remember my mother pushing my younger brother and sister around in when he was a toddler and she a small baby! But still, a heavy load to push across a city.

The three year old was quite impressed with her visit to the museum, despite being rather frightened of the skeletons of various animals and needing some reassurance that stuffed foxes, wolves, lions and tigers were not going to be able to get out of the glass cases and chase us around. On the whole though I suspect that her favourite bit was the museum shop! We were all impressed by the vari-coloured tree frogs.

What impressed me most, however, were several sets of primary school children, some appearing to be little older than our toddler. Dressed in their hi-vis vests, to a man they were attentive and interested and did what they were told. We complimented their teachers on their behaviour.

And suddenly it was lunchtime, indeed rather well past lunchtime. We found a pizza place and fed everyone. Heading back in the direction of the garage, we parted company at Piccadilly station, my daughter to continue on her way to collect her car and me to walk down to Ardwick and speak Italian for a couple of hours.

 An excellent bit of escapism!

Monday, 3 February 2020

More modern madness!

When I first read reports of a notice going up in a block of flats advising all residents that from now on, Brexit having been “done”, everyone had to speak English I thought it was perhaps a spoof, fake news, a wind-up, a provocation. Now it seems that it was placed on all the fire-doors of a fifteen storey block of flats. If that was a “joke” of some kind it was a very well-executed one! I wonder how the Welsh feel about being told that now we must all speak only English in the UK. Or perhaps the “jokers” meant it only for England.

Then this afternoon there has been this: “Political journalists have boycotted a briefing at No 10 Downing Street after one of Boris Johnson’s aides banned selected reporters from attending. The walkout took place after a confrontation inside No 10 in which Lee Cain, Johnson’s most senior communications adviser, tried to exclude reporters from the Mirror, i, HuffPost, PoliticsHome, Independent and others.
Reporters on the invited list were asked to stand on one side of a rug in the foyer of No 10, while those not allowed in were asked by security to stand on the other side. After Cain told the banned journalists to leave, the rest of the journalists decided to walk out collectively rather than allow Downing Street to choose who scrutinises and reports on the government.”

I do like a nice bit of solidarity. After all, if the journalists accept the exclusion of some of their number today, tomorrow it might be their turn to fall out of favour. It’s all just a little disturbing though.

Yesterday, as I returned from my run I came across a young man putting party banners up on the entrance to the tunnel next to the pub near our house. The pub was originally a coaching house, which explains the tunnel. At the far end of the tunnel was a huge puddle and so, as I am a helpful soul, I pointed out to him that there was another way round for pedestrians so that they did not have to navigate the small lake. But in fact the banners were for motorists who would not be able to follow satnav as the local council, busy with their work on the water drainage works on our road, had blocked the other road entrance to the industrial estate, where the party venue was situated.

He then revealed to me, with great pride, that his small son was one year old and they were throwing a party at the aforementioned party venue, which they had booked before the council decided to make access difficult.

Time was that for first birthdays you invited the grandparents round for tea and that was about it. Now you have to have a big party for your family, all your old friends and the new friends you made at the National Childbirth Trust classes, accompanied by their small offspring. And you can say what you like but the party is for the parents, not for the children at all.

Columnist Zoe Williams has been expressing her amazement at the extravagant party Kylie Jenner threw for her two-year-old daughter, the improbably named Stormi. But, as MS Williams points out, it’s not just the rich celebrities who have such parties. It’s become big business and “children’s parties have gone bananas. One New York City party planner, Anne Ligeard Murat, revealed recently that her basic children’s party package started at $6,000 (£4,600).
It is not unusual for the high-net worth parent to drop 50 grand on a sleepover, complete with bespoke soft-play ball pit.
A couple recently spent six figures recreating a Parisian scene in Washington – for a one-year-old.”


You can’t blame the party-planners for cashing in on such collective madness but surely there are better things you could do for your one-year-old with such amounts of cash!

Sunday, 2 February 2020

On growing plants, online knitting and bits of useful media.

It’s not often that I read the gardening section of the Observer magazine but today there was a picture of an avocado pear plant, remarkably like one I have sitting on my kitchen window ledge. so I took a look. James Wong was going on about how it has become a bit of a hipster thing and said that it is now possible to buy avocado seedlings in trendy garden centres. He went on to talk about growing your own, poo-pooing the theory that you have to perch an avocado pear stone on the top of a milk bottle, the old-fashioned glass kind, half filled with water, encouraging the stone to send out roots to reach the water. This always struck me as a bit odd and Mr Wong seems to agree.

Instead, he says, mirroring my own practice, you plant your avocado pear stone in a pot of damp compost, with the pointy end of the stone sticking up, so that about half the stone is visible. He then recommends covering the pot with a plastic bag to keep the warmth and moisture in. I have never done that. My stones just sat on the windowsill. Then you wait. And keep the compost nicely damp. Usually at the point when you have given up and are seriously considering throwing the whole shebang away a little shoot appears. And that’s it.

I have quite a long history of germinating avocado pear stones. One of my early successes turned into failure because I kept neglecting to water it and leaves kept falling off. One day I returned home to find Phil had radically pruned it, in fact simply chopping the top off, in an attempt to encourage growth. I have since read that on a healthy plant chopping the top of will encourage branching but there have to be healthy leaves on the rest of the stem. What Phil did, however, was just to kill the plant.

Another plant was killed by my daughter. She borrowed it as a visual aid during her final teaching practice, promising to care for it well. Unfortunately the youngsters charged with the task of watering the plant did not realise that when the leaves drooped this indicated the need for LOTS of water. The teaching practice science project went well but my healthy, leafy plant came home a leggy skeleton!

Okay, I can’t quite believe I have spent so much time writing about plants! But here is the current crop.

Now, how about racial tension in online knitting? Well, first of all ... online knitting? Is that real? Amazing stuff! On the radio I have been listening to a man who has a “Diverse Knitting” site on the internet. I think he calls it ”Diverseknitty”. He follows other knitters on twitter and instagram so on. One day he realised he was only following white female knitters and so he started to encourage diversity - black knitters, gay and lesbian knitters. It has been a great success. But who knew that there was racial tension in the world of knitting? But it seems that this is the case. Women who have knitting websites are receiving hate mail about their being privileged, white, nazi knitters. This aspect of the modern world is one I find really strange.

On the other hand, our obsession with media technology can have surprising uses. There was an article in the Guardian’s Weekend Magazine yesterday about people who had lost their homes in the fire in Australia, with pictures of the charred remains of people’s homes, often un-insured, and details of how they could or couldn’t rebuild. The surprising media technology thing is that some of them were following the progress of the fires on the Fires Near Me app on their phones. Without that bit of technology they might not have got out of their homes in time to save their lives.


Saturday, 1 February 2020

The day after Brexit thoughts!

Yesterday a friend of mine received flowers and cards of condolence, such has been her long and vociferous dismay at our leaving the European Union. This may have been a little over the top! Others held parties one way or another. We just let the day go by and consciously and deliberately did not watch the news.

In fact I spent a good part of the day helping my daughter to declutter. The problem with helping others carry out such tasks is that you never get around to getting rid of your own surplus stuff. So today I have made yet another desultory attempt to rid my wardrobe of stuff I no longer plan to wear ever, ever, ever again! In the process I came across a brand new sweater, still in its packaging which I must have bought who knows how long ago as a present, presumably for Phil. This demonstrates the danger of buying presents too far ahead of time. How many people, I wonder, lose the presents they purchase in the January sales with next Christmas in mind?

News from the environmental front. We are apparently being advised not to mow our lawns as we might mow dandelions in flower. Our grass (you can’t really call it a lawn as that is far to flattering a term for our garden) is undoubtedly far too wet to think about mowing it for about six months I should say. Neither should we use weedkillers on the dandelions and other flowering weeds. We never do that although I have been known to go around uprooting dandelions if they get too prolific. On the whole though, I quite like the look of a garden full of bright yellow dandelions, at least until they turn into dandelion clocks and blow their seeds all over the place.

This gardening advice is all because of bees. Until other sources of pollen come properly into flower, early arrivals like dandelions are apparently a principal source of sustenance for the bees. So let them grow and bloom. And weedkillers simply kill off the bees.

Better news for or about bees is that the bees of Notre Dame in Paris have not only survived the fire but are thriving. Huzzah!

Bad news for vegans and vegetarians who have facelifts, or even just use anti-wrinkle creams, in this letter published in today’s paper: “I wonder how many of those who use beauty enhancement products are aware that some products are derived from rooster combs or pig collagen. Wake up and smell the bacon!”

 Oops! You can’t be too careful!