Evelyn Wood's Blog

October 26, 2020

Agatha Christie, Pandemic, Pronunciation and Rewriting History

On Saturday we went to the Theatre. It seems ages since we were last able to go and, despite all the Covid rules the auditorium was full. The play, Love From a Stranger by Agatha Christie was performed as a 1930s radio play with a row of socially distanced spaced microphones. The cast sat at tables for two and got up to speak. It was fun watching the sound effects man and his contraptions. The performance was innovative and unusual, a perfect answer to the present restrictions. My only complaint was that the adaptation did not make it clear how Cecily Harrington suddenly realised that Bruce Lovell was a mass murderer. Who gave her the drug that knocked him out and saved her? It must have been Dr. Gribble!

Prior to the performance we had dinner at a Thai restaurant. Thai food is becoming increasingly popular and doubtless every large village will soon boast a Thai restaurant to join the ubiquitous Chinese and Indian. The restaurant was full, as were others we passed. Covid restrictions require the use of face masks and distance between seating and tables. Everyone we saw cheerfully obeyed the rules and used the hand sanitiser that are provided by all venues these days. Recently, there has been a great deal of pressure from the 'Hospitality' industry claiming they were being ruined by restrictions. I have to report that it was raining hard and, despite that, and covid, the venues we saw and visited had plenty of customers. I wonder if some businesses are using the pandemic as a cover for other failings?

In the UK we are in the grip of a determined effort by the 'enlightened' ones to change us. To rewrite history - or rather bend it to fit an agenda. The latest is the news that British people put milk in their tea last. I was born here and have never heard of that. Indeed German spies were caught out when they added milk last. We always put ours first.

Added to this is the BBCs determined effort to force everyone to pronounce Aitch with a Huff sound instead of the way it is written. They are also pushing the use of the northern English short 'A' as in GAS. Standard English uses both short and long forms of A. A Glass is not a Glas and Grass is not Gras, unless, of course, you work for the BBCs Ministry of Truth. The point of standard pronunciation is that everyone, whatever their dialect or accent, can understand what's being said. Why that is no longer important escapes me. I now look forward to the Standard German 'Guten Tag' being replaced with the Schwiizerdütsch 'Gruetzi Miteinander'. Y'all be happy with that?

I find it depressing that the past is interpreted not by the mores of then, but those of a self righteous political clique’s now. I remember a world before central heating, one where my mother would tell me how lucky I was that Jack Frost had painted my bedroom windows. Maybe that's why I suffered so much with bronchitis and pneumonia as a child. The point is that any 'history' of 1940/50s Britain needs to understand the conditions that people experienced. And that we had it better than our parent's generation. This obsession with interfering with the past is also demonstrated by the number of Remakes of classic movies. Why? Does no one have an original idea? Are we now a society so devoid of talent that all we can do is mess up the past rather than create a future? Quite sad if in a hundred years historians will sum up the first decades of the 21st century as 'Life in a vacuum bounded by a smart phone screen'. We are better than that. Time to let the creative juices flow.
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Published on October 26, 2020 08:34 Tags: bbc, history, pandemic, theatre

September 12, 2020

Near death and a crushing disappointment.

At the end of July I had emergency surgery. Ten years ago I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. I had an operation that gave me an ileostomy and made me a happy bag man. With few exceptions I led a normal life. The exceptions were dietary and not important. Then, out of the blue - excruciating pain and hospital. I had, they later explained, a strangulated hernia and perforated bowel. The operation saved my life.

I've been lucky and lived in quite a few countries. Before anything else, I'd always made sure of my medical insurance. Providential, because on a number of occasions I've had to prove my status before receiving treatment. Once, in Germany while in a semi coma. In the UK it's different. Health care is 'free' at the point of need. Well that's not really true. It costs a fortune and is paid for by every employed person and their employer. Having worked and paid in, when you retire it is indeed free except for a standard medicine fee. If you have a chronic illness, that's waived too. I'm explaining this because so many think the UK Health Service is some kind of post soviet infringement of civil liberty. It is at times bureaucratic and is over staffed with so-called managers - more chiefs than Indians. However, it delivers and compared with a friend, now in her late 70s living in Germany whose insurance costs more than her rent, I know where I'd rather be.

The one thing that in my experience is universal, is awful food. It is as if hospital cooks go to a 'Ruin the food' finishing school. Aselle brought me in evening meals and I noticed others had that too. I'm a great believer in exercise and even tied to infusion lines I got up and pushed them about. I got to know a few of the other patients and would greet them as I walked by. Early one morning a voice greeted me. "How are you today" I replied "Too early to tell and too late to worry about." Which sums up having beaten death by an hour or two, but is maybe not bad as a life's Motto.

During a three-week hospital stay one starts to fantasise. To dream of delicious cool melon. Mouthwatering smoked trout. The most persistent was a wet shave. By the time I was able, my beard was too long for my razor and the offer of scissors filled my shakiness with dread. No, I was going to find a barber and have a good old fashioned wet shave. For those who don't know, it is (or was) a ritual. Firstly, comfortably seated, well almost lying down, one's face is wrapped in hot towels. This is incredibly relaxing and is helped by the sound of the razor being sharpened on the strop. When the towels are cool they are removed and the barber uses a brush to lather one's beard. At this point he will also talk about any topic you want from the weather to dog breeds and cricket. Then, the shave. That sound as the unwanted whiskers fall victim to the blade. Then, another warm towel. Cologne massaged in and refreshed - actually revitalised one is a different person. That was the fantasy.

These days London has increasing numbers of people who have a superficial knowledge of English. I phoned a local barber and booked a wet shave. Firstly he had a go with an electric razor. "No" I objected, "wet shave". "Wet" he asked looking troubled. "Yes wet" I replied pointing at the basin. "Ah, wet, wet" he exclaimed turning on the tap to emphasise the point. He now proceeded to rub a paste all over my face and then to use a razor. You must understand that I was two days out of hospital and with an already half shorn face felt I had no choice, but to see it through. He scraped away demonstrating in the mirror how he would like me to contort one or other part of my face as he did so. At the end he wrapped my face in a warm towel, gave it a quick massage and then beamingly presented his bill.

Alright, it may be childish, but I can hardly describe my disappointment. I now intend to search out a proper old fashioned barber and indulge myself. It will take some time because I cannot yet drink beer and there is something special about an indulgent barbers visit followed by a relaxing pub lunch.

I hope everyone is keeping safe and well.
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Published on September 12, 2020 10:20 Tags: barber, food, hospital

July 9, 2020

Frida Kahlo’s Eyebrows

Something very odd has happened in the months since the pandemic started. Many people, men and women, have Frida Kahlo eyebrows. Suddenly our screens are full of faces with, what look like, fat hairy caterpillars above their eyes. Is this 'fashion' statement a reaction to mass quarantine? A way of letting at least a part of one grow wild and free.

Another fashion that continues to grow is men's beards. Some, with bushy whiskers and Frida eyebrows resemble old English sheepdogs. Beards are a fluctuating fashion, with many positing that it is a 'cry for help' at a time when masculinity is under threat. Martial Vivot, a hair stylist in New York, says it's a way to underscore individuality. That may well have been true, but now with clean shave a rarity, perhaps more difficult to believe. It's getting a bit like 'Bruce' and flower power. Back when Peter, Paul and Mary sang their anti war songs, many of us, who were alive to enjoy them, believed love and peace were just around the corner. The power of love was epitomised by flowers. The movements most famous event was the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Attracted to the idea were disparate groups of Flower People and Hippies, and those that did not really fit in either group. I recall a group of young men who all had pony tail haircuts and wore black jeans and T shirts. Ask anyone of them his name and he replied, 'Bruce'. Challenged they would explain that it made them unique. They were unique, as a group. And that surely, is the problem when individuality is expressed by a uniform rather than character?

The other problem with beards is to dye or not. It's odd how some men have grey streaked beards long before their hair turns. I have a worse problem. As a child I had snow white hair that darkened as I got older finishing up a sort of light brown mousy colour. Problem, my beard is mainly ginger. My mother was ginger, as were many of the family on her paternal side. Faced with a choice of dyeing my hair ginger or my beard mousy brown, I shaved!

Years ago, I read an interesting article in which a historian claimed that aggression and war could be predicted by shoes. The sharper the toe point the more aggressive the society. I cannot recall the details, but it is a fact that in 1463 the English Parliament passed a law forbidding anyone from wearing "any shoes or boots with pikes longer than two inches. And no shoemaker to make such pikes."

On the subject of fashion, a great deal of fun can be had looking back through history and deciding the fashion age one finds most attractive. Men's clothing 1650–1700 seems to me to combine flamboyance and comfort with the added bonus of long boots, and hats with feathers. Women's fashion, I feel, always had an element of cruelty. Flattened chests, tiny, unnatural waists, cages for voluminous skirts. In my opinion, the fashion between 1820-1830 was the most natural and comfortable.

To end on a 'green' fashion note. I'm struck by the fact that many who support so-called natural energy, do so wearing synthetics. Natural fibre is good for farmers and growers, good for our health and is biodegradable too. What's not to like?
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Published on July 09, 2020 08:55 Tags: beards, fashion, frida-kahlo

June 23, 2020

Stir Crazy and Spies in the Sky

Life is slowly returning to something approaching normal. On Saturday we visited my daughter and sat in the garden - socially distanced. I find that people do that as it is second nature now. Obviously when the pubs open we will be at one meter, which does not dampen my enthusiasm for my first pub pint since March. We are opening up more on July 4th, an auspicious day and also our 21st wedding anniversary.

It will be good to start getting back to normal-ish. I don't know if the world's troubles and destruction are all to do with folk getting 'Stir' crazy, but I would not be surprised. I can never quite get my head round the fact that Napoleon Bonaparte was directly responsible for the deaths of over six million people, but is lauded as a hero. His numerous statutes and busts stand proud. Those of Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt are attacked. Go figure, as the man said.

The other thing I cannot get my head round is Window's 10. We had to buy a new computer and it has Windows 10. The operating system is like a spy in one's home, with a voice called Cortana replacing the paper clip. Yes, I'm writing a letter and no, I don't need any help. Of course it's much worse than that. Untamed, W10 will tell Big Brother more or less everything you do. I found a small program called 'O&O Shut up 10' it's brilliant and does the job while frightening one by revealing just how much we are spied upon. Having solved that problem I thought we were all set.

We were, until suddenly the printer would not print. After wasting half a day uninstalling and reinstalling software, and exploring the innards of the machine, I had a stroke of luck. On about page 20 of a search into causes and remedies I came across this. "Microsoft updates stop some printers printing." Wow, I mean why would they do that? I followed the easy instructions to uninstall the offending update and, voila! a working printer. There is something intensely satisfying about overcoming the idiotic machinations of a behemoth and I admit to feeling pretty pleased with myself. Yesterday, it happened again. I checked the Microsoft web site and there in black and white the admission that their updates can mess up users programs and equipment. I uninstalled, again, and searched for a way to stop automatic update installation. Well, big brother does not approve of you doing that and the most is a 30 day delay. I have made a note to add another 30 days in 30 days. In the meantime, I'm exploring the practicality of using Windows XP with VPN. Years ago, I employed a very bright IT specialist. I was keen to move to some program or other, and to my surprise she was dead set against it. "Never use a Microsoft program until it has been around for five years at least" she told me "They use customers as guinea pigs to sort out their problems."

XP was an incredibly reliable platform and only greed can explain its awful successors. I hate to think what is coming next? I really do not want all my files and programs stuck on a Microsoft server - cloud - fools no one. It is not a cloud, it's a remote server where heaven knows who can poke about. Maybe time to look at Linux again.
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Published on June 23, 2020 08:41 Tags: beer, churchill, covid, microsoft, napoleon, pubs

April 14, 2020

Bad Use of Words and their Consequences

Most of the world is, according to politicians and the media, “Locked-down.” I had no idea that I was living in a prison. No idea that my fellow inmates were rioting. No idea that due to that, the prison authorities had locked down the prison.

As a writer I’m careful about words. Words have meanings and as the point of using them is to communicate, it seems rather silly to misuse them. Not just silly, but potentially dangerous too.

The Covid 19 virus sweeping across the world has required governments to take emergency powers to quarantine sections of the population. Quarantine (the word meant Forty Days) has a long history of use in fighting disease from plague, to cholera and influenza. A ship flew a Yellow Jack to tell others it had yellow fever. Everyone understands the word and I’m struggling to understand why another word was needed.

Perhaps the word “Lockdown” was translated from Mandarin. A direct translation without a thought that what may be acceptable Communist terminology does not fit the rest of us. Worse, the next time there is a need for a lock down - a riot, terrorist threat, unexploded bomb - how will it be explained? Ahaa, a lockdown, so I can go out for exercise. or to get my shopping.

In future, maybe a new word or combination will be needed - Mass Isolation , Community Segregation or perhaps Criminal Sequestration. Alternatively, we could go back to old prison jargon and say XYZ Prison has been screwed down. Or due to a bomb threat parliament has been screwed down.

Quarantine is clearly a word that has the connotation - saving life by preventing disease. Lockdown, and the ones I suggest have the connotation force and removal of individual rights without due process. I think the issue is serious. Destroying clear communication can only aid those who will benefit from obfuscation - and that is not democracy or the law abiding.

It seems that panic buying is universal. Many ordinary items are scarce or non existent. The most surprising, to me, is eggs. They are not really suitable for hoarding and I wonder what has been done with them. Anyway, the shortage took me back to post war rationing when we had one egg a week each. It was a treat! We did have National Dried Egg, a bright yellow powder that reconstituted (with water) into a bright yellow liquid. Most recall it with horror. I do not. One of my aunts dipped bread in it, which she fried and served with jam. Heaven! When fresh or dried egg was not available for cake making we used vinegar and bicarbonate of soda. A teaspoon of bicarb and one and a half of Cider or Wine vinegar equals one egg. (some use three spoons of vinegar, but I think that’s too much. The WW2 and post-war rationing was a pain, but oddly enough we were really healthy. No obesity, no tooth decay - try it!

Apart from that, we are safe, well and looking forward to the party that will celebrate V V Day (Virus Victory) I hope all of you are well too.

Note: In Victorian prisons those condemned to hard labour might have to crush stones with a sledge hammer. However, there were machines too. A treadmill and a cranking machine. The latter was a drum filled with sand that the prisoner turned with a handle. The prison warder could make it more difficult by tightening the handles screw. For this reason, prison wardens are known as ‘screws.’ It is also the origin of ‘A turn of the screw’ to describe a bad situation becoming worse.
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Published on April 14, 2020 10:33 Tags: covid, lockdown, quarantine

February 18, 2020

I'll Believe it When I Can't See It

Between Christmas and New Year, we stayed at a ‘Gastro’ pub ‘The Dog’ in the small Kentish village of Wingham near Canterbury. The village was charming and even had a bakery - rare these days. The weather was wonderful. Crisp with clear blue skies that were the perfect backdrop for the churchyard’s winter flowering cherry pink blossom. There are a surprising number of winter flowering trees and shrubs. They lift winter dampened spirits, and add a welcome hint of spring to come.

I’m always nervous of places that use the term ‘Gastro’ to describe their restaurants. It often means that the aspiring cook has watched a few TV chef programmes and serves up a pyramid of food with artistic ‘splodges’. Thank heavens that was not the case at The Dog. Obviously, they had real chefs preparing our delicious food. I was thrilled to find Hogget on the menu. It’s the meat of 1 to 2-year-old sheep, full of flavour although not as strong as Mutton. Years ago, there was a wonderful restaurant in London called Stones Chop House. It was founded in 1770 and always had roast saddle of mutton on the menu. Wonderful place, sadly now closed. Mutton and Hoggett is out of fashion, sad for those who do not know what they are missing. The team at The Dog are to be congratulated for including it on their menu.

We took in a wine tasting at a nearby vineyard. Barnsole Vineyard produces excellent white wine and a spectacular champagne - sorry, English Sparkling Wine. Kent’s chalk soil is the same as that of Champagne. French producer Taittinger have invested in a Kentish vineyard that will produce 300,000 bottles. We go to Epernay once a year to buy champagne - now we can buy a comparable product here too.

We were not familiar with this part of Kent and had many pleasant surprises as we discovered new places and beers! Canterbury is world famous and full of history, but in common with so many places of worship now charge for entrance. In fairness one can claim to be a pilgrim, but even then large parts of the cathedral were ‘out of bounds.’ The Church of England is immensely wealthy and I wonder at their priorities. £25.00 for two seems steep - turning a church into a tourist attraction, rather unchristian. Maybe, the Archbishop should decide if he is spreading the faith or just running a theme park.

We have been battered by Storm Ciara. High winds and at one-point rain such as one normally only sees in the tropics. That has been followed by Storm Dennis causing even more destruction. I don’t know whether it was called after Dennis the Menace, but the havoc certainly lives up to his unruly reputation. Interestingly, a Comic strip ‘Dennis the Menace’ debuted in March 1951, in the Beano a British comic. The same month and year by, apparently, pure coincidence a character by the same name appeared as a syndicated cartoon strip in the USA.

The rather odd title of this piece needs explaining.

Late last year at my annual opticians’ examination I was asked to look at a grid. Right eye, straight lines. With the left eye they curved to look like an egg. “I think you have AMD and need an urgent appointment with an eye hospital,” the optician told me.

Three appointments later and, yes - I have AMD (Age related macular degeneration) in both eyes and some holes in the retina of my left. Strangely, I have 20/20 vision and with my right eye lines are still straight. “What’s the prognosis?” I asked the specialist. She had already explained that for my ‘dry’ type there is no treatment, no cure, but vitamins might help a bit for a time. “In a matter of a few months to a few years you will lose central vision - you will have peripheral vision.” In other words, it will be like looking at a total eclipse with some detail round the rim. I do not dispute the science or the prognosis, but I do wonder about the time scale.

I’ve noticed an increase in the ‘alarmism’ of the medical and pharmaceutical professions. Read the side-effects on prescribed medicines and one has to be brave to take the risk. Doctors are savagely brutal to the point of callousness in relating a prognosis for their diagnosis. Perhaps they are all so terrified of being sued that they use a scatter gun approach. Hit every possibility, however remote. Of course, the specialist may be right. I know someone with the same condition and it took her eight years to lose most of her central vision. So, who knows? I’ll believe it when I can’t see in the middle.

In the meantime, ever the optimist, there is always hope that a cure may be discovered. Failing that, I know that one can be taught to see ‘sideways’ and, of course, correctly angled mirrors may also help. If and when it happens, I’ll miss painting, or is that how ‘modern’ art is created? There are audio books and of course, machines that will type the spoken word.

Ultimately, mortality mocks all our eternal desires. I like the late Waylon Jennings sentiment, in his 1978 song, ‘I've Always Been Crazy.’ The end of verse two is apposite: “It ain't been so easy, but I guess I shouldn't complain. I've always been crazy, but it's kept me from goin insane!” Although the song reflects his own struggle with drugs it has many levels. Including, perhaps, the bitter sweet memory of giving up his seat on the plane that crashed killing Buddy Holly. Perhaps in today’s frenetic world being a little crazy is no bad thing.

Life is ever changing. New challenges seem daunting, but what new adventure is not? For me, a hole is not a pit to fall in. It’s a valley offering possible new knowledge and sunny uplands beyond that I will be able to feel, even if I can’t see them.
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Published on February 18, 2020 10:09 Tags: amd, champagne, gastro, kent

December 23, 2019

Travel and farewell to a dear friend.

We have been travelling. Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. The flight from London to Bangkok (and back) was via Dubai. Long flight and the connection time short, but all very efficient. One surprise was that having been through exhaustive security checks in London, we had to the same, as transit passengers, in Dubai.

Smog, created by Indonesian farmers' crop burning, joined the humid heat to hang like a blanket over Bangkok our first stop. The difference to late September London was a shock. Less of a shock was driving on the left and familiar UK store names like Boots the Chemist and Tesco.

Bangkok is magical. The Temples and Royal Palace are wonderful and even the humidity and heat did not detract from our enjoyment. A highlight for me was a visit to the Jim Thompson silk museum. Thompson, an American architect, fell in love with Thailand during a visit during WW2. He moved there in 1948 and set about reviving the design and manufacture of Thai silk; it is now a vibrant industry. In 1958, he began constructing a home, for which he used six traditional houses. It is in the house that the museum is located. I'm a collector (and wearer) of bow ties and bought a wonderful light blue one with an elephant motif.

Mysteriously, Thompson disappeared in 1967 on a trip to Malaya’s Cameron Highlands. No trace of him was ever found. The two usual theories are that he was eaten by a Tiger or captured by communist guerillas - he'd been in the CIA.during the war. Our charming (lady) guide added her opinion that he'd been captured by a Thai-Girl. I hope so and that he ended his days happily.

Kuala Lumpur is impressive. Some how they have managed to merge new and old while keeping a green field look. There are fascinating local areas to explore, and having asked to go where the locals eat we had a delicious curry in a local eatery. I suffer from vertigo, but Aselle visited the Petronas Towers also known as the Twin Towers. At 451.9 m (1,483 ft) the 88-floor towers are the tallest twins in the world and offer an amazing view.

We were also impressed by the immaculately clean multistory malls. I'm not keen on malls generally, but these were calm and had every kind of shop from IT to designer outlets. As someone who needs disabled toilet facilities, I was delighted to find every floor well provided.

Singapore is truly amazing. A notoriously expensive city state until you discover food courts. These covered markets consist of individual stalls offering a variety of different foods and drink. Pick up a tray at the entrance and visit each stall to pick up a dish. I chose Szechuan Prawns after being assured they were genuine and spicy. They were, and I was glad of the beer I'd bought.

Singapore has vibrant Indian, Chinese and Malay quarters and we enjoyed exploring - and eating! We also took one of the metro lines to its end. The metro is air conditioned (Stations and trains) and super clean. At the end of the line was a new town with new schools and an impressive looking hospital. The tall apartment blocks have green areas, shopping and an overhead railway that operates on a loop serving the whole area.

2019 has also been a difficult year, first losing my aunt and then unexpectedly my best and oldest friend. Trevor and I went back a very long way and shared much - I miss him. He left instructions that no one was to wear black. We all obeyed and I gave a eulogy. Of course one cannot summarise either a life or a friendship in a few minutes, but I hope he enjoyed my attempt!

January sees the start of a new decade and for us in the UK, a new era. Woody Johnson, the US ambassador, predicts the UK is going to enjoy the “Roaring 20s” I have a feeling he is right as there is a new air of optimism here.

Merry Christmas and a healthy, happy New Year.
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Published on December 23, 2019 09:22

September 3, 2019

Deadpan poets, singing saws, paddle steamers and all-knowing crows.

So far our summer has lived up to expectations. A blazing hot week followed by lots of rain and below average temperatures. The weather forecasters promise that there will be a summer, but with autumn fast approaching, if there is one it will be short.

We belong to a literary dining club in London founded in 1868. After dinner speakers, have included such luminaries as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Frederick Forsyth, Rider Haggard, Lady ‘Nancy' Astor, J.M.Barrie, and many more. Our most famous member was Sir Winston Churchill elected in 1900. Except for a summer break we meet once a month for dinner and to listen to an after dinner speaker. In February Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody.) gave a fascinating talk about script writing. On another occasion a well-known lady novelist discussed her favourite historical genre, but for me the most fascinating moment was when she discussed teaching creative writing. In a nutshell, she did not think it possible and told us that, having been begged to do a course she was confronted by eight eager students. “What books have you read?” she asked. “None, not one.” “How do you expect to write if you have never read a book?” “We expect you to teach us” She gave up!

That leads me to the subject of poetry. I listen to a radio program called “Poetry Please.” It is usually a request program, people asking for a reading from their favourite, often little known, poem. Recently, there has been a segment given over to “Modern ” poets to read their latest work. I cheerfully admit that I am not an expert, but most of it is not poetry. Yes, I know it does not have to rhyme, but surely there should be a rhythm? Worst of all are the voices. All of them deliver their work in a droning monotone. Monotone shares its root with monotonous, which means "dull and tedious." What is the point? Writing is about communication, painting word pictures. Surely, rendering it in a totally lifeless way defeats the purpose, destroys the art. Pretending that words are one-dimensional seems to me a cop out. Think about the word “Really” its many meanings conveyed simply by the tonal quality of its use.

We took the river bus to the city a few weeks ago. The boats are comfortable and it's fun to see London from the river. We had lunch in a pub and the walked to Borough Market. It's a wholesale market, but the public can buy too. On the way we heard what sounded like an opera singer. As we turned the corner we joined a crowd enjoying a young man playing a saw. I had not heard the saw played for years. It's a remarkable sound and he was a master.

We had a long week end break in France. A good friend had served, as a young man, as a seaman on a paddle steamer ‘The Princess Elizabeth.' She had a long career including taking part in Operation Dynamo the Dunkirk evacuation. Saved from the breakers yard she enjoyed a brief life as a floating casino in Paris. Finally, she was bought by the City of Dunkirk and is now a restaurant. Peter had not seen her for about 50 years and was obviously moved by his reunion. It was certainly wonderful to see a grand old lady, now in her 90s, having a new life.

Aselle has taken up golf. She plays every Saturday. My job is caddy and chief scorer (not that I have a clue what I'm doing). She plays with two other ladies who all started about eight weeks ago. So far, they play on the nine-hole course. The sixth hole has a murder of crows that struts about. I like crows. They are rather noisy and bombastic, but have an intelligence that goes beyond that of most birds. The golf club residents have always treated us with disdain, barely bothering to flutter a few feet away as we approached. Everyone's game is improving and on Saturday we had the confirmation. As Aselle, the first player, prepared to tee off on the sixth all the crows took off and settled down out of site. Whether one of them was following the ladies play, I have no idea. As there were no protesting caws I have to assume they knew that it was time to move or buy a hard hat.
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Published on September 03, 2019 07:24 Tags: crows, golf, saws, thames

June 12, 2019

Gas, Black Mould and Seaside Fun

The Greens are on the march. On a daily basis we are lectured on the perils of greenhouse gas. Those who suggest that, perhaps, Mother Earth has cycles of warming and cooling are attacked as heretics. I'm just glad the Inquisition no longer exists and the Auto-da-fé is not in town.

Despite the fact that humans are not equipped to digest many vegetables and starches, an increasingly vocal lobby wants to ban ruminants. To achieve this, we are all to become - Ruminants. The case against ruminants is that they produce gas. Well, so do humans. According to Purna Kashyap a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic we produce between 500 and 1,500 ml a day. Multiplied by 7.6 billion (the world's current population) that's a lot of global warming. The UN estimates that the world’s population will reach 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100. Surprisingly, I cannot find any campaigns to reduce population growth - indeed the Chinese one child policy was attacked as inhuman.

I was thinking about this because of the steady increase in allergies. In order to become carbon neutral (ignoring gaseous humans of course) we are encouraged to insulate buildings. The lack of airflow in buildings is leading to the growth of black mould that causes allergies - amongst other ailments. I say, fling open your windows and eat steak. After all, fresh air is free and as cows only eat grass, steak must be a vegetarian option! On a slightly more serious note. What about light and noise pollution? Most city dwellers don't see stars and people shouting at their phones is a universal disease.

Before moving on, I must share a story from Stephan Pile's 1979 book “The book of heroic failures.” In 1977, he relates, a Dutch veterinarian called to a sick cow inserted a tube into the animal to investigate its internal gasses. For a reason that remains unclear, he struck a match. The resulting flame set fire to much of the farm causing £45,000 worth of damage (Equivalent value today £300,000) the veterinarian was fined £150 for arson and the cow, although shocked, made a full recovery.

As a boy, I was a cub and rose to the position of Senior Sixer. It was a proud moment when I led my first “Grand Howl.” I recall we had a totem with a carved Wolf's head around which were pinned the names of all those who has been Senior Sixers. I squatted before it and called Dyb - dyb - dyb -dyb" The word "dyb" means "Do Your Best. The Pack answered dob-dob-dob-dob" meaning "We'll do our best." It was great fun every week and I especially enjoyed camping. There were stars in the sky, a campfire, sausages and singing. We sang songs, some old favourites, some new ones we had heard on the radio. The point is that there were tunes, proper memorable tunes. Don McLean's wonderful “Bye Bye Miss American Pie” has the line, “The day the music died.” I know he wrote it on the death of Buddy Holly, but it foresaw the death of participatory popular music. I grew up in a world that had not changed since the dawn of time in the sense of participation in making music. Popular songs were popular because everyone could join in. I don't suppose that I was different, as a nine year old signing around the campfire, than one of my Stone Age ancestors. Now, it seems to me, we are consumers - voyeurs not participants. Throbbing base notes and head banging have destroyed melody!

Recently we were in Somerset. It's a county in the south west of England and has some stunning scenery. We took a trip on the West Somerset Railway. It is a 23-mile heritage railway line and we were careful to choose the steam train service. We travelled the full-length to Minehead a seaside town that is so reminiscent of the 60's that I thought I'd time travelled. It was wonderful to see the shops with children's buckets and spades, although I did not see my favourite, a shrimping net. This had a wide straight mouth and one pushed it along to catch shrimps. The catch was put into a bucket of seawater and I would rush to our lodgings where my mother boiled the seawater before tossing the shrimps (and sand) in to cook. A few minutes later and there was a feast of seafood.

On the return journey we passed Dunster station. The day before we had driven to Dunster, which has a 1,000-year-old castle and is a very pretty unspoilt village. A few stops further on we broke our journey to explore Watchet a harbour town packed full of history and character. It was one of Alfred the Great's Burghs as well as the place Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." It’s the poem that gave us the Albatross metaphor as well as the quotations "water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink" and "a sadder and a wiser man."
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Published on June 12, 2019 07:57 Tags: gas, global-warming, seaside, steam-trains

May 9, 2019

The French Cannot Cook and Other Tourist Impressions

We have just got back from ten days in France. It's a huge country twice the size of the UK, but with two million fewer people. Because it's so big we could only spend time in Champagne Ardennes and the Loire Valley of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté. Mostly we had fabulous weather for our trip warm and sunny. French hotels can be awful unless one pays a lot so we chose our stays from the 20,645 wonderful B&Bs listed on the Chambres d'hôtes web site.

The first five days we spent in a small village near the city of Epernay - the “Home” of champagne. The usual history is that a monk, Dom Pierre Perignon invented Champagne in 1697 at the abbey of Hautvilliers. Scandalously, from the French point of view, Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, head of Taittinger Champagne, claims it was invented - by mistake - in London. He says that barrels of cheap still white wine from Champagne were left on the docks. In cold weather the wine underwent a second fermentation and voila the result was champagne. What is beyond dispute is that in 1662, 35 years before Dom Perignon's discovery, Christopher Merrett presented a paper to the Royal Society. In it he detailed a method of producing sparkling wine by a process of double fermentation. Whatever its origin, exploding corks made the wine dangerous until Adolphe Jaquesson invented the wire cage that keeps the cork in place.

French villages are quiet. One sees few people during the day. Early evening, the shutters come down and silence descends. A silence broken only by teenage Mobylette riders who plague France like demented mosquitoes (It's a 49 cc two stroke engined Moped that sounds like an hysterical grass trimmer). We enjoy walking and did so every evening, conscious of our footsteps and the barking dogs we awoke. Despite all that, we were rewarded by the heavenly scent of Lilac and masses of wonderful Wisteria blossom.

Throughout the areas we visited, every Town and Village had numbers of derelict houses. Most boarded up, but some just falling down. We were told that high unemployment has led to an exodus to large cities.

There are two things I've noticed about France and the French, which have never changed since I first visited the country back in late 50s.

Firstly, the food is truly awful. Restaurants and Bistros are so bad that one can imagine McDonald's getting a Michelin Star for exceptional cuisine. I realise this goes against everything everyone else believes, so let me explain. Just like anywhere else in the world there are excellent restaurants if one is prepared to pay. Also, there are a few modest ones that are excellent too - we know two of them. One is in Epernay and another in a village near Dunkirk. What's different in France is that people whose only talent is to make cheese and ham on toast eulogise about it with mouth-watering sentiment. Apparently, they think it's great cuisine. I think its ham and cheese. Apart from that, my real problem is that there are no vegetables. The markets are full of them. Restaurants have potatoes and if you are lucky some gloopy puree artistically splodged on the plate with a fancy vegetable name. Ten days of eating in France is like living in the land of the Emperor's new clothes.

Secondly the people are of two distinct types. The first type is charming, helpful and interested to ask questions and share knowledge. The second type, and thankfully the smallest, is plain silly. I have no idea whether they are motivated by xenophobia or a massive inferiority complex. This type will not allow a word to escape your lips without arching an eyebrow and repeating the word you just said, finishing with a Gallic shrug. I was thinking about this the other day. A French archaeologist presented a TV program about ancient Egypt. His heavily accented English needed the listener to concentrate. It occurred to me that if we had the equivalent of type two, the poor man would not have got beyond “EET” before someone disdainfully corrected him by declaring “IT”. That would be a shame for the expert, but an even bigger shame for those who would miss out on the wonderful knowledge he was willing to share. I suppose that we in the Anglophone world are lucky. Not just that English is the world's language, but that it has such a variety of accents and dialects. The purpose of language is to communicate and English speakers grow up realising that they must accommodate other speech patterns to do so. I believe that enriches us. I feel sorry for type two - they don't know what they are missing.

Moving on to the Loire Valley we stayed in a village close to the town of Sancerre. It's a beautiful place on a hill and famous for fine white wine. There is so much to see in the area that we will definitely go back for a longer stay. In addition to wine the region is also famous for pottery. We visited a number of museums the most memorable in Nevers. A small city packed with fascinating history, remarkable architecture and public spaces. The museum is mainly devoted to the local blue porcelain. An added bonus is a virtual reality section. Don the mask and enjoy swimming in a tropical paradise, looking up at sharks. On to dry land and a tour of Versailles with a knowledgeable guide. It took time to adjust to moving around to enjoy all the virtual tour offered, but it was well worth the effort.

Our last day was spent near Dunkirk at a B&B we have been going to for 15 years. Our dinner at the local restaurant was, as always, excellent. Flora, the owner and cook, is always welcoming, believes in vegetables and should, in my opinion, set about teaching other French hostelries how to cook.
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Published on May 09, 2019 06:46 Tags: champagne, food, loire, sancerre