Thursday, 23 October 2014

Watching all the birds go by

For reasons I won't bother to explain, I find myself standing at the bedroom window far more these last few weeks than ever before.  As a result, I have had more time to watch the birds at our neighbour's feeder.  This hangs from a plum tree and is enclosed in a supposedly squirrel-proof cage, although I have watched a squirrel struggle to get in - and struggle even harder to get out.

The most frequent visitors of an avian variety are (in alphabetical order) blue tits, great tits, greenfinches and house sparrows.  From time to time we also see chaffinches and goldfinches.  I find it interesting to compare the behaviour of the different varieties.  The sparrows, which are the largest of the four and by far the greatest in number, are the pushiest.  Once one of them gets to the feeder, it stays there stuffing for quite a while, unless another bird - usually another sparrow but occasionally one of the finches - decides that it is its turn and taps the sparrow on the shoulder.  Or, more precisely, pecks it on the rump.  The greenfinches tend to stick at it as well, but usually for shorter periods of time than the sparrows.

While the sparrows are congregating in the tree, chattering and - occasionally - squabbling, the tits are bouncing around the periphery prior to sneaking through the crowd.  They will then wait to dash into the feeder the moment it becomes free, only to grab something and fly off with it.  Whatever they have grabbed, seed or not, is then held down on the branch while the bird bites bits off in a very dainty fashion.  Once the seed is eaten, the process starts all over again.

The attractive blue tit - by John Williams

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Toad in the Hole

And that, I assume, is what most people would think of as toad in the hole - sausages cooked in a Yorkshire pudding batter. Very tasty it is, too, provided the sausages are proper butcher's sausages and not the mass produced splodge sold in supermarkets.  It is always thought of as a traditional British dish although, according to Wikiwotsit, the earlier recipes simply call for odds and ends of meat, or the remains of stewed meat, to be used rather than sausages.

But here in Silly Sussex, toad in the hole has a different meaning.  Here, toad in the hole is an pub game.   The game involves throwing brass discs ("toads") from a distance of about seven feet (I don't know the actual distance according to the rules) towards a stool with a lead top, at the centre of which is a hole only slightly, very slightly, larger than the toads.  The game can be played between two individuals or between teams, just as in darts.  Again as in darts, scoring starts from 31 with the object of decreasing this to nil.  A toad going down the hole scores two points and a toad landing cleanly on the top of the stool scores one.  A toad falling off or hitting the back board scores zero.

A toad stool
Anyway, on Monday this week several local Lions Clubs took part in a competition - the first event in our annual Olympics.  My club entered two teams with mixed results.  Each team played four games with one team losing all four and the other, winning two and losing two.  A convivial evening, with fish and chips served halfway through.

The better of our two teams came joint third - out of seven - but who cares?  There's plenty of time to catch up.  The next event: a quiz, then a beetle drive (or Scalextric), more pubs games like shove ha'penny, darts and snooker, shuffleboard, kurling and skittles.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

England expects

It was on 4th November 1805 that a naval schooner reached Falmouth, a small town in Cornwall, with the news that would bring elation and grief in almost equal measure.  Some two weeks earlier, a British fleet had defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets in a battle off Cape Trafalgar in Spain.  But the charismatic British admiral, Horatio Nelson, had been killed in the course of the action by a French sharpshooter.

It was on the morning of 21st October 1805 that Nelson ordered the famous signal to be flown:

"England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty"

Some historians contend that Trafalgar was the start of the end for Napoleon, although it would be another ten years before his final defeat at Waterloo.  He - Napoleon - had intended to invade England but his fleet had been unable to gain control of the English Channel and his armies had been turned eastwards towards Austro-Hungary.  Nevertheless, the resounding defeat inflicted on the French and Spanish navies by Nelson meant that any dreams of invasion that Napoleon might have still had were now hopeless.

But even if Trafalgar was not the tipping point in the Napoleonic Wars, it could be said to be the one event that led to the establishment of the British Empire.  For the rest of the 19th century, the Royal Navy was supreme and it was because of this power over the seas that Britain was able to contain French ambitions in the Indian sub-continent and gradually exert control over much of southern Africa and substantial parts of west Africa. It was also British naval might that led to the cessation of the slave trade from Africa to the West Indies.

Nelson had gambled by adopting new tactics when the two fleets met.  Traditionally, battles at sea were fought between fleets sailing parallel to each other, thereby ensuring that all the guns on one side of each ship could be fired in broadsides.  Nelson, however, split his fleet into two columns and sailed directly at the French and Spanish ships.  Each column was to drive through the enemy fleet.  This meant that as the British ships approached, they would be under sustained fire but, having no forward pointing guns, would be unable to fire themselves.  Until they cut through the enemy fleet.  Then they would fire through the bows or sterns of the enemy ships, an action known as raking, causing considerable damage the length of each enemy ship before turning to fire broadsides at the weakened enemy.

Nelson's body was brought back to England and he was afforded a state funeral.  In January 1806, he was buried in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral in London, after five days of ceremonies, a demonstration of the widespread affection in which the dead hero was held.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Blood swept lands and seas of red

It started back on 4th August - the anniversary of Britain declaring war on Germany - and will continue until 11th November, "it" being an evolving installation at the Tower of London.  Gradually, volunteers are "planting" ceramic poppies in the moat, one for every Commonwealth serviceman killed during that conflict, all 888,246 of them.  The installation is entitled "Blood swept lands and seas of red", the first line of a poem written by an unknown World War I poet.

Photo: Paul Cummins

Every evening, at about sunset, the Last Post is sounded and names from the Roll of Honour are read.  The names are submitted by members of the public so I have today submitted the name of a distant cousin, just one day before the anniversary of his death in 1916.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Spending a penny

I was amused to read in yesterday's paper that President Obama experienced a potentially humiliating episode recently when eating in a New York restaurant.  It was reported that when he came to pay the bill, his credit card company refused the transaction!  Luckily, the First Lady had her handbag with her - and her card was accepted.  This is a problem that can happen to any of us - it happened to me one time - but I was surprised by two things in this story.  First, that the President of the USA was expected to pay for his meal when he was in New York on official business.  I would have thought the US government would have picked up the tab.  And secondly, I was just a little surprised that the restaurant expected to be paid, despite having the privilege of feeding the most powerful man on earth.  Or maybe he is only the second most powerful these days; I just don't keep up with these things the way I ought.

As I said, I once had my card rejected.  The Old Bat and I had been staying on the farm and we had taken my cousin and her husband to a local pub for a meal.  When I went to the bar to settle, the girl received a message on the card terminal to telephone the card company.  When she did, they asked to speak to me.  After going through a rigmarole to prove that I was me, we got down to the matter in hand.  Had I, the voice on the other end asked, spent a penny lately?  I very nearly replied that my personal toilet arrangements were just that - personal - and it was no business of theirs.   But before I could do so, the voice explained that a transaction for one penny had been attempted and had been flagged as the forerunner of a fraudulent transaction, somebody just trying to see if they could get something small through before attempting something considerably larger.  I managed to convince the voice that this was a transaction that should be allowed but I was warned in no uncertain terms that I needed to telephone the credit card company's security department post haste.

Another time, I checked my credit card entries on line only to see three that had nothing to do with me, two charges from Madrid (one for airline tickets) and a refund of the flight charge for a slightly different amount.  I assumed that the transactions had been levied in euros and the difference was due to exchange rate changes.  Anyway, the card company immediately refunded the charges - but they never did reclaim the credit.

I now check my credit card and bank statements quite frequently.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Memories unlocked

While visiting Youtube yesterday to find Val Doonican's Walk Tall, I stumbled across another song from the 60s which unlocked memories of things I haven't thought about for many a year.

Elusive Butterfly was a song sung by quite a few people other than the original Bob Lind, who reached number 5 with it in 1966 (or so I have learned).  Val Doonican, Petula Clark and even Dolly Parton got in on the act.  And I tried to as well.  I really don't know quite what made me think I might be able to play the guitar, but I decided I would like to.  I don't remember if the electric guitar was being used back then, but that wasn't what I wanted.  I simply wanted one of those ordinary guitars that singers strummed to provide a musical background to their singing.  Mind you, I couldn't sing any better than I could play the guitar!  Anyway, the Old Bat bought me a guitar and one of the songs for which I bought the music was Elusive Butterfly.

I didn't bother with lessons, thinking I could teach myself to play the instrument.  Of course, I failed - apart from managing to pick out a few simple tunes.  I don't remember what happened to that instrument but it must have been thrown out at some time.

Almost twenty years before the aborted attempt to learn the guitar, when I was about 9, my mother signed me up with a piano teacher.  I don't know if she had dreams of me becoming a famous pianist - like Semprini.  Remember him?  Or Liberace?  If she did have such dreams, they faded pretty quickly.  She must have acquired a piano from somewhere so that I could practise between lessons and I can still remember the smell of the paraffin heater that was lit in the front room to provide (imaginary) warmth for me while I thumped the keys.  What a horrible smell that was!  Anyway, the lessons stopped when I was sent away to school - and by the time I came home again several months later, the piano had disappeared.

Mind you, I would love to be able to play like this:

Friday, 17 October 2014

Walk Tall

I don't know when it happened - I just didn't notice at first - but those television adverts for magic potions and such like have changed.  They used to feature a sentence along the lines of "89% of women agree".  It was always women - it still is - possibly because men just couldn't care a tuppenny damn about having softly illuminating skin (or whatever it is) but there is a small difference nowadays in that sentence.  Small, but significant.  Well, it's significant to me.  Have you noticed, they now state the number of women quizzed and the sentence now reads "89% of 154 women agree".  I can't claim to have made a deep study of those adverts but it seems to me that they always, always, mention a surprisingly low number of women.  I think 216 is the highest number I've seen.  Why is that, I wonder?  Do the snake oil salesmen have difficulty in finding women who will admit to have used their product?  Or is it that they just can't be bothered to do the research?

It really is on no consequence.  But on the matter of research, I gave up counting the number of articles in today's newspaper reporting the results of research undertaken.  There were just two where the headline caught my eye.  The first concerned pasta.  Now I do enjoy eating pasta dishes and, now that I seem to be always the duty chef, I cook pasta at least once a week.  The Old Bat enjoys pasta dishes as well and I'm trying to get some weight back onto her bones so this seems a good idea.  But what I will not be doing is leaving the pasta to go cold and then re-heating it.

The first article I read reported that, for some reason I really didn't grasp, research was undertaken into how pasta affects people.  As far as I understand it, pasta, when served hot, is a carbohydrate and, if the calories are not burned off by exercise, weight will increase as a result of eating it.  For some reason, eating the pasta cold has less of an effect.  But re-heated pasta is not a carbohydrate; it is fibre, so doesn't lead to weight gain.

Did you really want to know that?  I'm sure I couldn't care less.  But now for that other research.

People who are down in the dumps tend to walk slouched, hands in pockets.  Sort of scuffing along.  Happy people walk with heads up, shoulders back and arms swinging gently.  Yes, I knew that from my own experience - and I'm sure plenty of other people have spotted it as well.  But, and here's the rub, research shows that how we walk affects our mood.  if we slouch along, scuffing the ground, with our hands in our pockets, we experience negative feelings, increasing the down in the dumps mood.  But even if we start off feeling that way but hold our heads up, walk tall, shoulders back - we experience more positive thoughts and feelings.  And it's quite true.  But why it needed a university (or whoever) to conduct that research is beyond me.

And just to prove that it's old hat, an Irishman named Val Doonican sing a song about it way back in the 60s.  Here he is: