Evelyn Wood's Blog

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

April 5, 2019

Not Quite One Hundred

I have often written about my aunt Hazel. We all expected to celebrate her 100th birthday on 30th July 2020, but sadly it is not to be. She became ill, was admitted to hospital and was diagnosed with an inoperable condition. She spent her last days in a Hospice and passed away last Sunday.

I knew her all my life, although my first clear recollection is from about five years old or so. She was halfway up a ladder dressed in light brown dungarees, blond hair ruffled by the breeze. I remember her blue eyes smiling down; the trowel she was holding. I was smitten and remained smitten from then on. Like my grandmother, Hazel combined being a strong capable woman with femininity. In an age when the two attributes are at times considered mutually exclusive she was a beacon of common sense. She had strong opinions, but I never recall her criticising, despite my many mistakes. Indeed, she was that rare person; always genuinely interested in what one was doing.

Hazel was the youngest of three siblings, my father being the eldest. Christened Hazel Evelyn (I share my name with her and my grandmother). In 1940 she married Eric Williams shortly after his evacuation from Dunkirk. Eric, typical of that generation never mentioned his experience and I only learned of it a few years ago. I was very fond of Eric, a gentle, kind man who seemed always to have a smile and word of encouragement.

During the war Hazel worked as a Land Girl and kept in touch with her fellows “Girls” well into her nineties. She had many stories of her wartime service helping feed the nation. She took time off to have my cousin Neil her only child. But, she did have three grandchildren and five Great Grandchildren.

She was always active a keen gardner and National trust guide. Her main hobby was reading. She devoured books and until a few years ago drove herself to a weekly literary circle. Sadly, Hazel was left a widow after Eric died. After many years alone, she found happiness again at the age of 72 when she married John Shelley. They had many happy years together. John was a great storyteller and we spent entertaining afternoons in their company. Once a month Aselle and I visited Hazel for lunch. I contributed one of her favourite meals, a curry, and she a trifle. Hers were wonderful and reminded me of those my father made. She lived in the house she and Eric had built. The one I remember as a small child.

We visited her in the Hospice. I did not know what to expect, but it was bright and cheerful. Hazel's room was bright too. She had family photographs and cards from her great grandchildren. She was very much together and we talked for a while. I'm glad she did not suffer and rejoice in her long fulfilling life, but I miss her very much.

Historical foot note:
Eric was evacuated from Dunkirk on the MV Royal Daffodil. She rescued 9,500 men in seven trips. On 2 June 1940, a bomb passed straight through her and exploded under her. The explosion caused a hole in the starboard side, and the Master ordered everyone to port side, which raised the hole out of the water and enabled a temporary patch of mattresses and wood to be applied. Royal Daffodil made it safely to Ramsgate, Kent and disembarked the evacuees. Later she was sailed to Deptford under her own power and repaired. As well as the bomb, Royal Daffodil also survived machine gun and torpedo attacks.
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Published on April 05, 2019 10:24 Tags: aunt-hazel

February 21, 2019

Theatrical Genius and How to Stop a Shouting Man

We've been to the theatre twice in the last couple of weeks. The first play was ‘Rough Crossing' at the Theatre Royal Windsor. It is an adaptation by Tom Stoppard of Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár's 1926 ‘The play at the Castle.’ Set on an Ocean Liner, it's great fun. The dysfunctional cabin steward Dvornichek not only holds the plot together, but manages to offer better endings too. Charlie Stemp an actor we’d never seen before, but hope too again, brilliantly played the part.

The second was Arthur Miller's ‘The Price' at London's Wyndham's Theatre. It's an exploration of human nature, greed, sacrifice (assumed and real) and the price we all pay for our decisions. Two estranged brothers meet after many years because the contents of their late father's home have to be sold. Eighty-nine year old Gregory Solomon played by David Suchet is happy to have another lease of life in the house clearance business. The brothers beat each other up (mentally) with the help of the younger ones wife. Most actors play themselves, but David Suchet becomes the person he is portraying. No disrespect to the other cast members, but he has a stage presence that is awesome. We have seen him on stage three times before and each was memorable. I'm lucky to have seen many of our great actors including Olivier and Burton. They were undoubtedly brilliantly gifted, but for me Suchet is on a different plane. I'm hugely grateful to have had the opportunity to watch a true genius at work.

Live performances can be magical even when one least expects them. The other day a man got on the bus and started shouting. He was making a phone call, but at a volume that made one question why he didn't just stick his head out of the window. It was becoming unbearable when suddenly the lady behind me started singing. “Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah.” I've always loved that song, especially the Peter Paul and Mary version, but this rendition was superb. The loud man tried to compete, failed and got off at the next stop. Hallelujah!

The Windsor theatre visit was a matinee. We chose it because we'd decided to have a night away. Hungerford is a small town in Berkshire an hour's drive from Windsor. We stayed the night in (for the size of the town) a large hotel. The next day we did some exploring in the area as we had never been before. Our day ended in Wantage famous as the birthplace of King Alfred the Great. He's the only English monarch to have earned the title “Great.” He was an extraordinary man who, in a 28-year reign, defeated and then made peace with the Vikings. He reorganised the military and the navy and created a taxation system to pay for it. He created 33 burhs (modern Boroughs) as defensive towns able to withstand attack and give assistance to others. He reformed the law, encouraged education and insisted his officials could read and write - English. A devout man, he also translated parts of the Bible into English.

The town has a large statute of Alfred by Count Gleichen whose mother, Princess Feodora of Leiningen, was Queen Victoria's half-sister. The Count served in the British Navy and was made an Admiral after he retired. He was a gifted sculpture and bore a resemblance to his cousin Edward V11. I confess that I had always imagined Victoria growing up alone and unloved. In fact, she and her half-brother and sister lived together with their mother after Victoria's fathers death. They had a common ‘Enemy' in the shape of their controlling mother. Despite the age gap Fedora and Victoria had a close relationship all their lives. One surprising fact is that Victoria's eldest grandson, Kaiser William II, married Feodora's granddaughter Auguste Viktoria of Schleswig-Holstein, who became the last German Empress. Would less intermarriage have made a difference to history? I wonder.

It is unusually warm in London. Lots of spring flowers and the days are getting longer. I just hope that the snow forecasters keep promising fails to materialise, until Christmas.
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Published on February 21, 2019 11:33 Tags: david-suchet, king-alfred, shouting, wantage

January 16, 2019

A Merry Town and a Bath Singing City

We spent three days, before Christmas in Wimborne Dorset. It's a charming place that is too small to be a town, but is too big for a village. The Minster, dedicated to St Cuthburga sister of King Ina of Wessex, dominates the town. She founded a Benedictine Nunnery there around 705 A.D. Nuns from Wimborne joined St Boniface's Anglo Saxon mission to the German parts of the Frankish Empire. As a result, Wimborne still has links with the Bavarian town of Ochsenfuhrt and its Benedictine nunnery.

On our first evening we joined hundreds to listen to a local amateur band. They played seasonal tunes and anything they lacked in professionalism they more than made up for in exuberance. Following them, Radio Wimborne put on a sound and light show. The first half was a mix of Santa and his reindeer plus some much loved Disney characters. These images, accompanied by suitable music, were projected onto the Minster. The second half was surreal. Star Wars! Well I suppose Santa would be more productive in a space ship,

The next day we caught a bus into the local seaside town of Poole. Every town planner on the planet should be forced to spend 48 hours in the 1970s shopping precinct. It's truly awful. Depressing is inadequate to describe the empty shops and air of gloom. We ploughed on into the high street and were encouraged by signs to ‘Old Town.' When we finally reached it. It was a delight, its high street leading to the quay.

Back in Wimborne, we went to the evening carol service. The Minster was packed and the congregation in good voice. All the old favourites featured with the original music. It's a beautiful church and we will be back to explore it.

Often London seems like a foreign, un-English place. Once outside the metropolis people greet each other cheerfully and display the trust that I recall used to be seen in London. In 1960s London it was common to see news stands with saucers of change. If the seller was not there you took a newspaper and either put the correct money in the saucer or a larger coin and took the change.

Sadly, it's not just trust that's changed. With the advent of ‘Smart phones' (how long before they are as big as bricks?) human contact and communication have too.

Shakespeare's lines,
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.

Appear to have, for many, a new meaning. A world stage is replaced with a few square inches of phone screen on which its owner lives a digital life. Mainly, the life is that of a consumer or more properly a spectator. I think this is a waste. Those alive today have a better opportunity than ever to fit more than one life in the one they have. Life is too short and precious to waste on introspection

The spectator phenomenon was ably demonstrated on New Year's Eve in London.

The Mayor decided to use the annual fireworks display to promote his own political view. Whether one agrees or disagrees with his politics is not the point. London taxpayers of all persuasions pay for the fireworks as a community effort. It is above politics – or should be.

To cap it all the entertainment was what I call ‘Bath singing.' I guess everyone has at some point lain in a bath and pretended to be a famous orchestra or choir. Blowing bubbles at appropriate moments adds tympanic genius to the performance. It's huge fun adding ones own interpretation, but it's personal. Some who should know better have decided that they will reinterpret music and that others WILL listen. Traditionally we welcome the New Year by linking hands and singing Auld Lang Syne. The tune is known to all and because of that we can all join in. This year some bath signer employed by the mayor warbled his or her version of the tune. An event that should bring folk together turned into a display where participants were forced to be spectators.

I don't make New Year's resolutions, but if I did it would be the hope that in 2019 we can rediscover community, participation and trust.

Happy New Year
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Published on January 16, 2019 04:19 Tags: bath, shakespeare, smart-phones, wimborne

December 19, 2018

The Parrot has it!

Almost Christmas and I have been busy. Mince pies made and eaten – my favourite way is with blue cheese. I made the marzipan last week and on Friday I'll ice and decorate the cake. All things I learned from my mother. I'm going to try a recipe for Marmalade ham this year. We like it cold for Boxing Day together with cold goose, stuffing and of course bubble & squeak. I like to keep the old traditions alive as I have such vivid memories from childhood.

Christmas starts in October these days, which is a shame. I recall the anticipation that started late November as we rehearsed for the Nativity Play and Carol concert. Then, Christmas Eve and excitement reached fever pitch. Mother was superstitious and would not allow decorations until the 24th and we had to watch neighbours having fun with theirs. Now it was our turn as we helped my father with decorations. He festooned the house with paper chains, multi-coloured paper bells and balloons. Mother complained he was overdoing it – he was, and we loved it. There was always Mistletoe and Holly too. The Holly was important because a sprig was kept to prick the first pancake on Shrove Tuesday thus ensuring good luck for the year.

Before going to bed, we always placed a mince pie and glass of Sherry by the hearth. Convinced Santa would accept our gifts; we were blissfully unaware that if he drank all the Sherry left out for him he would quickly end in a merry stupor. It was pretty impossible to sleep and in the early hours I would wake up, light my smuggled candle and explore the stocking Santa had left on my bed. Apple, Orange, Tangerine, Nuts and some wrapped sweets plus a diary and small toy like a car. What joy, sitting in bed by candlelight, eating sweets and a tangerine while reading interesting facts in my Boys-own diary.

New Year is becoming more important these days. When I was young, New Years Day was not a holiday in England. Christmas day was not a holiday in Scotland until 1958. In 1974, Scotland adopted Boxing Day (26th December) as a public holiday and England New Years Day. I gave up on New Year's resolutions as a child. I always made the same one, to write every day in my diary. I think February 1st was the best I managed. It's a balance. There is a lot to be said for Socrates statement that, "An unexamined life is not worth living” Tempered by the observation that. A self-obsessed life denies the possibility of living.

The year has been marked by further inroads by unintelligent artificial intelligence. In fairness it's still true that “Rubbish in = Rubbish out.” As I was taught when I learned my first programming language. I'm not sure, but I think answering questions one did not ask is actually the new corporate wheeze to stop consumers complaining or even just asking questions.

My 2018 award for fighting against machine domination goes to Rocco the parrot. Rocco discovered that Google's Alexa not only talks to him and plays his music, but takes orders too. So far, he's put in orders for watermelons, raisins and broccoli – ice cream, a lightbulb, kite and a butter knife. His owner had cleverly “locked” Alexa so that the orders could not be paid for. Just wait until Rocco learns to program! I'm convinced that sooner or later someone will wake up to the value of pen and paper. Until then I wish Rocco a successful 2019 shopping year.

I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy, Healthy New Year.
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Published on December 19, 2018 03:41 Tags: christmas, mince-pies, new-year, parrot

November 21, 2018

The End of the World

Well at least the end of the world I knew and have cherished since childhood. On Sunday we were meeting a friend at Stansted airport, one of London's four airports. The flight was delayed by five hours and so we decided to explore the surrounding countryside. Only an hour drive from London, the countryside is a delight. Small villages, many thatched roof cottages and country pubs. We had lunch in Rickling Green, a pretty village whose pub The Cricketers Arms overlooks the village green. With time to spare we went on to visit towns and villages in the surrounding area.

Our first stop was Bishop’s Stortford. The name is Saxon in origin and, probably uniquely, the river Stort is named after the town. As we wandered the streets we came to a sweet shop. I cannot pass an old fashioned sweet shop without buying two of my favourites. Violet creams and Newberry fruits. Newberry fruits are sugar coated jellies with a liquid centre and were first made in 1931.”Sorry,” said the shop owner, “we've just been told they have stopped making them.” Horror! Part of my life swept away with the stroke of an accountants pen.

The day’s last discovery was by far the best. Saffron Walden is a picturesque market town that has many medieval buildings. Saffron was added to the name because in the 15th and 16th centuries it was widely cultivated. Together with wool, the Saffron trade made the town an important place. Now it's a quiet backwater.

My paternal Grandmother introduced me to Newberry fruits. I was delighted to discover them sprinkled on my breakfast cereal when I was about five. Other children's grandparents bought them comics or books; mine gave me sweets for breakfast!

On a recent visit my 98-year-old aunt told me that her mother did not much care for children, her own included. I'm old enough not to be traumatised by this knowledge. Indeed, unless she had an evil plot to kill me with sugar, she seemed interesting to me. She was always busy spinning, weaving, knitting, embroidering or crocheting. When not so engaged she collected antiques, helped my Grandfather (he was a civil engineer) and bottled things. Fruit and vegetable preserves plus homemade jam; made her pantry a place of joyous wonder. She was an active member of the Women's institute and made cakes too. She made fruit cake for Sir Winston Churchill whose Chartwell home was only a few miles away.

I have many happy memories and I'm grateful to her for being busy. She hated not doing things. When we went for a walk we would always be given a bag to collect wool from fences. Or berries from the hedgerows in the autumn. Idleness was not tolerated, but she made being busy fun. It's a lesson that has stood me in good stead.

When we lived in Bishkek I used to buy my razor blades in the market. “Schick have gone out of business,” the stallholder told me in answer to my request for two packets of blades. I checked elsewhere in the city and there was not a Schick blade to be had. Of course they had not gone out of business it’s just there was no local supply. I am hoping against hope that the Newberry fruits story is Schick revisited. I have looked on the web and the signs are not encouraging. It's possible to buy them on Amazon, but – antique candy?

Guy Fawkes day has gone by with its customary bang and fizz. At least that's part of my childhood that lives on. This year there were wonderful rockets that shot multicoloured balls high in the sky. At their zenith they seemed to pause and then splinter into a myriad of twinkling stars falling gently to earth.
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Published on November 21, 2018 06:27 Tags: guy-fawkes, newberry-fruits, saffron-walden

October 25, 2018

Captain Cook, Robin Hood, Stealing Apples and the Trouser Mouse.

A few weeks ago we had a short holiday on the Yorkshire coast, a part of the country we had never visited. It's one of those areas that's so wonderful one cannot imagine why not.

The coastal villages are full of quaint cottages, steep streets and history. Our favourite is Robin Hood bay. It nestles between two cliffs and is reached by a steep road that leads to the slipway for boats. Although it has always been a fishing village its most lucrative trade was smuggling. There were many fights between the smugglers and excise men in the 19th century. The first record of the name is in the early 14th century. Robin Hood is the outlaw of Sherwood Forest, which is 130 miles south of Robin Hood Bay. Was he a Yorkshire man? There is a record that Robert Hod, a fugitive, had his chattels (value 32s 6d = £1.62) seized at York assize in 1225. Maybe he fled south.

James Cook is a famous man about whom there is no doubt. He came from a poor family, had only five years education, but went on to become one of the world's greatest navigators and cartographers. Age 16, he was apprenticed to a grocer in Staithes a pretty fishing village. His heart was not set on shop keeping and after 18 months he was released from the contract. His erstwhile employer introduced him to ship owning friends in Whitby. They apprenticed him as a merchant navy seaman. The James Cook museum in Whitby has fascinating exhibits. It's housed in the 17th century house in Grape Lane where the young apprentice lodged. For me, the highlight were some candle stumps. The cook gave these to young James so that he could study at night. They tell such a wonderful story. Following a career in the merchant marine, he joined the Royal Navy and eventually became a captain. He was so renowned in his own lifetime that countries at war with Great Britain ordered their forces to let Cook pass without hindrance. Quite an accolade.

The North Yorkshire Moors Railway is a heritage steam railway operated by volunteers. Planned by George Stephenson, it opened in 1836. It runs through the stunning scenery of the North York Moors National Park. The train still uses the 120 yard Grosmont tunnel, the oldest railway tunnel in the world. It was great fun, and the smell whisked me back decades.

The most breathtaking visit was to Fountain Abbey a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Abbey was founded in 1132 and is Britain's largest monastic ruin. Its founders, Cistercian monks, were seeking a simple life. Despite that, they finished owning vast areas of land across western Yorkshire. Although a ruin, what's left is awesome. Set in 650 acres of parkland it's truly breathtaking. One can easily imagine the splendour and wealth of the abbey.

I think that I have previously confessed my criminal past. I cannot pass an apple tree without picking at least one fruit. I've been doing this (we call it scrumping) since I was a boy and I'm afraid I'm incorrigibly set in my ways. You can imagine my delight when we entered a small orchard. Helpfully, each tree had a small plaque giving the varieties name. One, called ‘Forty Shillings,' was well worth the risk of prosecution. It's a rare species now and first recorded in 1800. The ones I picked, yellow green and streaked with red, had four distinct flat sides. They were delicious. Among the things I miss when away from the UK are the variety of apples, we have hundreds of different types. Oddly, perhaps, also the variety of potatoes. We have ones for roasting, baking, sautéing, mashing, ones that stay firm in stews. Some are for salads, others just plain boiled and some that make perfect topping for old favourites like Lancashire Hot Pot. When I lived in Germany I was shocked that there were only two types of apple – yellow/green or red and one type of potato.

It's getting colder. At this time of year, I check our mouse proofing. They are a pest and seek warmth. We bought a ‘Sonic' mouse deterrent system at the week end. It is supposed to emit sonic waves that are so unpleasant for mice that they pack their bags and leave. I heard of a similar system for moles. One user reported that far from deterring, it encouraged them to dance on the lawn! We shall see.

All this reminded me of the mouse that ran up my father's trousers. I was about six. We were going out when a mouse ran in and dashed for the nearest hole – my father's trouser leg. He started hopping up and down. The cats fled. Grip, my dog, thought it was a game and jumped up and down too. Out of options, my father took off his trousers and started jumping on them. We laughed, which made the trouser jumper even angrier. We were left in helpless hysterics.
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Published on October 25, 2018 11:29 Tags: captain-cook, forty-shilling-apples, smuggling, whitby-robin-hood

September 25, 2018

Bulls, Dogs, Sheep and a Shilling for the Boy

We always had a dog and cats when I was a child. I did not much care for cats. They never understood boys, or tomboys! Dogs are different. Grip, my childhood pet, was a great friend. Always ready for adventures or to eat the stuff I hated. Above all he accepted me the way I was and I loved him and he loved me.

My early working life was in farming. I especially enjoyed working with dogs. On most farms there were terriers, to control rodents, and border collies. Borders are amazingly intelligent and, in my view, unsurpassed as sheep dogs. They are born to the task. I've seen a bitch train her puppies by using puppy size hens. They are a joy to work with, partly because they seem to have such fun. I usually worked with two - shouting to one and whistling the other. It is exhilarating to watch the white tip of a dog’s tail as it races through bracken before turning, on command, to collect a flock.

These happy memories came back last Sunday. Countryfile, a BBC TV program, featured the final of ‘One Man and His Dog.’ It was a delight. The competition is between teams, junior and senior, from each of the UK’s four countries. For me, the star was Scotland’s 11-year-old Murray Common and his dog Queen. He's been training her since he was eight and says they are really good friends. Together they took the junior lead with a score of 90%. The senior event involved using two dogs and the winner was England with 121 points. But, points are combined and Murray's 90 added to his senior partner’s 104 saw Scotland winning by just one point!

‘One man and his dog,’ was originally a series of eight programs televised by the BBC. It started in 1976. Each featured individual country’s trials to pick their champion. In the final, the champions went head-to-head to determine the UK champion. For a reason that escapes me the series was merged with the BBC’s Countryfile in 2013. Countryfile is a magazine program covering countryside, farming, rural crafts and food as well as wild life. It’s a great program, but when it comes to sheepdog trials it cannot do the same job as a dedicated program.

There is a working relationship between sheep and dogs. The sheep do as they are told and as they mature they do it more quickly. Once I was checking fences and noticed a small flock of our sheep trying to get through the fence onto the hills beyond. Worried they would get out, before I could get the dogs, I decided to experiment. Getting behind the flock I started whistling and shouting as if I had dogs. Amazingly the sheep did what my phantom dogs ordered. It was rough hill country and I was lucky that most of the journey was routed past dry stonewalls. At the danger point, open grassland, I was relieved to see the dogs racing to join me.

One farm I worked on had grazing rights over a huge area of hill land. Rough country, but from late spring to early autumn it supported sheep and cattle. Hill grass is poor and the stock had to be moved every other day to allow it to recover. I lived my childhood fantasy and became a cowboy! Horses, like dogs, enjoy their work and I quickly learned that I could let the reigns loose and allow the horse to ‘dance’ as he guided the cattle. When not moving stock, we chased wild ponies. I think he preferred the freedom of that game.

That farm had a bull, a handsome Hereford. He always sat on his haunches, like a dog, proudly surveying the cows gathered around. He loved cattle cake and would always come if I called and held out a handful. It smelt of malt and appealed to his Bovine sweet tooth.

Smaller farmers could not afford a bull and brought their in-season cows for service. As the youngest it was my job to open and close gates. I also made sure the dogs were out of sight. Bulls don’t like dogs at the best of times. After a successful visit, we returned to the yard. My reward was a shilling. I think it must have been a shilling for many years. It does not sound much (five pence in modern currency), but in those days it bought several chocolate bars. If no one was looking it also bought a pint of beer!
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Published on September 25, 2018 10:00 Tags: border-collies, hereford, horses, sheep