Tuesday, 2 February 2016

More weather

Some people were predicting, last autumn, that we were in for a bad winter.  Their forecast was based on the fact that a Bewick's swan arrived at Slimbridge several weeks earlier than usual.  (See the report here.)  And what happened?  We had the warmest December since records began!

Winter-visiting birds have been fewer in numbers and some summer visitors have over-wintered.

Fieldfare, from RSPB
But, this morning I saw a flock of fieldfares in the park, something I have not seen for several years.  And, of course, since we are only just into February, there is still time for winter's icy grip to get us by the throat.

It was early in February 2012 that the car broke down while we were driving through France. We were put up overnight in an hotel and woke up next morning to this sight:

Six inches of snow had fallen overnight. Mind you, that was a very good restaurant!  All the same, I'm keeping my fingers crossed for tomorrow when we are off again.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Lewes

To Lewes yesterday evening where, together with Lions from Brighton and other clubs, we helped the members of Lewes Lions Club celebrate the 45th anniversary of the granting of their charter.  A good meal with excellent service from the young staff at the old White Hart Hotel.  This is an old coaching inn on the High Street, complete with an arch leading into what was the stable yard and is now a tiny and awkwardly-shaped car park.

Plaque on the wall of the White Hart
After the meal, and before the entertainment, there were the obligatory speeches.  My entries in the filibuster were for these to last about 30 to 33 minutes, with one optimistic guess at 23 minutes.  In the event, they took only 16 minutes - which must be something of a record!  The Mayor of Lewes said how impressed she was by the friendliness seen between the Lions of different clubs, something which we perhaps tend to take for granted but which can surprise non-members.

The Old Bat and I like Lewes and would happily live there.

By the way, 'Lewes' is pronounced as two syllables, almost Loo-ess but perhaps more like Lewis.

The River Ouse has cut its way through the South Downs and at the northern end of the cut stand the two towns of Lewes on one side of the river and Cliffe on the other, although Cliffe has long been subsumed.  The river is still tidal here and, centuries ago, was navigable as far upstream as Lewes.

The River Ouse just downstream from Cliffe

Because of the strategic importance of the town, the Normans built a castle here and it still dominated the skyline from some angles.

Lewes seen across the watermeadows

The narrow High Street has a delightful mix of architectural styles.




One of the joys, for me, is that there are still many independent shops, although national chains are gradually appearing.

There is so much else to say about Lewes: the battle of 1215 which was a precursor to the sealing of Magna Carta; the burning of Protestant martyrs which has led to the famous - almost infamous - bonfire societies and the celebration of the capture of Guy Fawkes; the Cluniac Priory of St Pancras, once one of the richest monasteries in England; Southover, with Anne of Cleeves House and one of the oldest mulberry trees in the country.

Maybe we'll come back one day.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Weather forecast

Many moons ago I added a widget to this blog, a widget forecasting the weather here in Brighton.  That's it, over there on the right, looking rather like this:

Now, I can't honestly say that I take much notice of it.  Which might be because
a) I rarely look at the blog as a blog;
b) I tend to distrust weather forecasts; and
c) if I want to know what the weather will be like in the next hour or so, I look out of the window.
(Side note, a digression.  Did you notice that I wrote 'out of the window', not 'out the window'?  Dropping the word 'of' seems to be creeping into use more and more and is, I think a ghastly Americanism!)

But to get back to the weather.

I'm reasonably sure that after the late news last night, both the local forecast and the national indicated that here in south-east England we were due to get rain today.  And then more rain.  And strong winds as well.

Well, there was a shower early on, but I have walked the dog twice today and stayed dry both times.  Mind you, it is windy!

But looking at that picture above (or over on the right if you are reading this today), there are yellow warnings for ice and rain, an amber warning of snow and a red warning of wind.  There is no warning of fog.

I had to go out a short while ago - just round the corner to a fellow Lions - and there was damp in the air but still no rain, the wind is blowing a hooley, and the fog is coming down.  The forecast scores just one out of five.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Investments

My record as an investor on the Stock Exchange is quite possibly second to none.  Second to none as the world's worst.

It started out well enough, even though it was in a very small way.  I was working in a bank as what was then called a securities clerk.  Basically, the securities clerks in the branches were the ones who dealt with peoples stocks and shares, foreign transactions and safe custody and handled all the rigmarole of taking charges (mortgages) over property and other security for loans.

I was the junior of two in the securities department at the branch when I started investing on the Exchange - allow that is perhaps a slight misnomer.  It was my senior colleague who introduced me to stagging.  Stagging involves applying for and buying shares in a company just coming to market, ie the Stock exchange, and selling as soon as dealing in that company's shares opens.  Hopefully at a profit.

And we did.  Make profits, that is.  £20, £30 or so pounds here and there.  Not exactly a fortune, but this was back in the days when my annual salary was probably less than £1,000 so those profits were very useful.

Then my grandmother died and left me a useful sum of money.  I decided that I would use half to gamble, to buy speculative shares, and the other half i would invest in a blue chip company, a solid company representing no (or very little) risk.  I chose Rolls Royce as the blue chip.

All, or very nearly all, the gambles paid off, although none was a spectacular success, but I didn't lose any money.  Rolls Royce, on the other hand, went bust and I lost all that investment.

So I decided to leave the Stock Exchange alone and invest elsewhere.

When sterling went decimal, I anticipated that the 'new' halfpenny coin would be around for only a few years before it was withdrawn.  Anyone with a few mint specimens might expect to see them increase in value.  Eventually.  So I acquired - quite legitimately - a £20 box straight from the Bank of England.  The coins inside were straight from the Royal Mint in their original packaging.  Perfect.

I still have that box today.  And, I suspect, it is still worth no more than £20!

Warren Buffet is in no danger from me!

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Ice fishing

My Californian friend was telling how his PHG, who is now his one-time PHG or O-TPHG, had a yearning to go ice fishing.  Frankly, I think she must need her head examining.  I have never been ordinary fishing (as opposed to the frozen variety) but it always looks to me just about as boring as watching the grass grow.  Throw into the mixture the ice and snow, and... well, you can keep it!  The idea of just sitting on the ice for hours on end in the hope that some passing fish will show an interest in the poor worm one is drowning simply appalls me.

Anyway, it reminded me of a story about a blonde who fancied the idea of ice fishing.  She placed her little stool on the ice, assembled her rod, poured a cup of coffee from her flask, and was just about to start cutting a hole in the ice when a voice boomed out,

There are no fish under the ice!

Startled, she looked around her but could see nobody.  All the same, she threw away the undrunk coffee, dismantled her rod, picked up her little stool, and moved away.

Further down the ice she set up her little stool, reassembled her rod and poured another cup of coffee from her flask.  Then, just as she was about to start cutting a hole in the ice, the voice boomed out again,

There are no fish under the ice!

Startled again, she looked round but still could see nobody.  But reminding herself that discretion is
 the better part of valour, she once again threw away the undrunk coffee, dismantled her rod, picked up her little stool, and moved away.

Not to be beaten, once she had moved farther along the ice she set up her little stool, reassembled her rod and poured the dregs of coffee from her flask.  Then, just as she was about to start cutting a hole in the ice, the voice boomed out yet again,

There are no fish under the ice!

Still there was nobody in sight, and in a small voice she all but whispered, "Is that you, God?"

"No,"
replied the voice.

"It's the manager of the ice rink."

Monday, 25 January 2016

Road trip to Bosnia, part 3

I was telling how I travelled to Bosnia with an aid convoy organised by Lions Clubs in south-east England not long after the end of the war in the 1990s.  On my return I wrote an article which was published in a national newspaper.  This finishes the piece which I started two days ago.

~~~~~

Vitez, Bosnia – Monday

Here for another night in the guarded compound, and now on the homeward journey. We are all tired, but exhilarated.

This morning, the lorry guards started work at six o’clock, moving supplies from the larger to the smaller lorry. The idea was to speed up delivery when we returned to the camp. The smaller, 16-ton lorry can be driven into the camp but the articulated truck is too big, and had to be left almost blocking the road. By nine o’clock we were all at the camp, with the smaller lorry being unloaded. The remainder was later trans-shipped in three or four loads.

Unloading . . .

Most of the work was done by the women and young people. It seems that in this culture the men just stand and watch. Most of the children should have been at school. We all spent time talking with the refugees as best we could. Fortunately, there are four children who speak some English. Otherwise sign language suffices.

. . . while the men stand around and watch


As well as more coffee, we were given walnuts and corn on the cob roasted in the ashes under a still. Some of the older men asked us to take their photographs. By dint of crossing themselves and then holding their index fingers in the form of a cross, they indicated that the photographs were wanted for the headstones on their graves.

Distilling slivovitz - plum brandy, or firewater!

One man was so overcome with emotion that he spent five minutes shaking hands, completely speechless, while tears ran down his cheeks.  

Dover – Friday

Back in England almost 12 days to the minute since we left the country. More than 3,000 miles have been covered, with only 120 to go.

On the ferry, we took the opportunity to assess our reaction to the trip. The poverty and destruction had been far worse than we had expected. On the other hand, the people, including the refugees, had seemed reasonably well-nourished. Perhaps there is a magic ingredient in the coffee.

Oliver had told us that our supplies would see Visegrad through the winter, which was a comforting thought. We remembered, too, the gratitude of the refugees, not just for the food and clothes but also for the fact that somebody, somewhere had cared enough to do something.

We reminded ourselves how we had to show the children how to unwrap sweets and to teach then to use skipping ropes, and how the sheets of hardboard used in the packing were prized almost as greatly as the aid itself.

Learning to skip
 
Even hardboard is valuable


There was no doubt in our minds that this had been a very worthwhile exercise.

With smiles at the memory of one little girl fiercely clutching her new teddy bear, we started on the last lap for home.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Road trip to Bosnia, part 2

I was telling how I travelled to Bosnia with an aid convoy organised by Lions Clubs in south-east England not long after the end of the war in the 1990s.  On my return I wrote an article which was published in a national newspaper.  This continues from yesterday.

~~~~~ 

Visegrad, Bosnia – Sunday

This morning we discovered that last night’s disturbance was just a high-spirited wedding party.  We all hoped that the next weddings we attend will be a little calmer!

We met Oliver, the project manager for Children’s Aid. He has three refugee collecting centres that are in need of aid such as ours, but he recommended that we visit just the one outside Visegrad, near the eastern border of Bosnia. This is the one which is best organised, which means that there is less chance of our aid ending up on the black market. Furthermore, because we are so far behind schedule, there is little time to see the country.

Visegrad is a five-hour drive from Vitez. Our route took us through many villages and towns, including Sarajevo. Nowhere has been spared the destruction of war. In Sarajevo, high-rise blocks of flats look like ruins – then one spots just one or two flats with washing hanging on the balconies. In some places, wooden huts not much larger than garden sheds have been built at the roadside and serve as shops. There are bailey bridges over rivers and across bomb craters in the roads. Bridges and important road junctions are guarded by soldiers from the UK, Canada, Italy, Portugal and Malaysia with tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

We stopped for coffee at one of the canvas-roofed cafés that have sprung up amid the ruins where the convoys for Gorazde were assembled in less peaceful times. These cafés were opened to serve the troops of the Portuguese battalion now guarding this most important of road junctions.

Coffee stop

We had passed through Visegrad and travelled for some miles along a lane when we saw, on top of a bank beside the road, a couple of transport containers. A second glance showed that these containers were different. They have windows and chimneys and are being used as dwellings.

A second glance


The main part of the collecting centre is in a large building that was once a school. At first sight it appears almost pleasant as one looks down the drive through the trees. Then one sees the extra plywood shacks, the mud, and the women doing the laundry in a stream beside the drive.



There are about 350 people living here. We have qualms about their ability to store 30 tons of aid, but the medical supplies will be taken to a hospital and the refugees’ eagerness to take what we offer dispels our doubts.

Today there was time to unload only the smaller lorry before dusk fell. When the work was done we were invited inside for refreshment, including small cups of thick coffee.

Cooking for 84?
Privacy
The refreshments were taken in one of the dormitories, a classroom that is now home to 84 people. They live and sleep in bunks not much larger than double beds, three to a bunk, with the bunks stacked two high. The only place to hang clothes is on the side of the bunks. An ancient wood-burning stove provides cooking facilities. We would consider it barely large enough for a family of five or six, so we have no idea how 84 people manage.




We eventually tore ourselves away with promises to return early tomorrow.

The vehicles are now parked outside a hotel some five miles from the camp. We wanted hot showers and a good meal. This, we were told, is the best hotel in the area. We shudder to think what the rest are like.

The hotel seems to be in use as a psychiatric clinic, but we have taken two rooms just the same. Three of us will stay with the vehicles, but there is no reason why the rest of the party cannot have a little more comfort. Unfortunately, the hot water runs only fitfully, and when it does run it is only just the tepid side of cold. The meal, when it was eventually served, was of the same standard. But at least the beds are clean.