Thursday, 31 July 2014

Back on driverless cars...

Any more for the Skylark?

Eastbourne lies a little more than 20 miles along the coast from here.  Once best known as a genteel resort favoured by geriatrics, it does seem to have become more popular with younger people in recent years.

Seeing the pictures of the fire reminded me how these (mostly) Victorian structures are so peculiarly English - and I think that English rather than British is the correct adjective here.  I can't recall seeing pleasure piers like these anywhere else in the world - not that I have travelled that much of it.  My thoughts then wandered off to recall one of the pleasures of seaside holidays when I was a lad, a pleasure which I doubt can be found nowadays - the boat trip round the bay.

The boats used for those trips were built of wood, completely open to the weather and seated about a dozen people.  There would be a landing stage with large wheels at the seaward end, nothing inshore.  This stage could be pushed up and down the beach according to the state of the tide and it enabled the passengers to reach the boat for embarkation.  One man would collect the fares on the landing stage while a second boatman would help people off the stage and into the boat.  For some strange reason, these boats always seemed to be named Skylark, hence the cry, "Any more for the Skylark?"

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Keep your mind on your driving

Keep your hands on the wheel
Keep your snoopy eyes on the road ahead

How long will it be, I wonder, before those seven girls in the back seat, a-huggin' and a-kissin' with Fred, won't need to give those instructions to the driver?  The British government has announced that three UK cities will be allowed to experiment with driverless cars on the road early next year.  OK, so we will be almost light years behind other places, notably California, but at least it will be a start.

I occasionally cause people to break out in almost hysterical laughter when I produce my mobile phone.  Although not the size of a house brick like those very early examples, mine is, shall I say, a little elderly.  I can't surf the web with it, I can't even use it to take photographs and texting is nigh impossible - press a button three or four times for some letters - but I can use it to make and receive calls.  Seeing my mobile phone might give people the impression that I am a technophobe.  That's not really true.

All the same, I am, well, not worried about driverless cars.  Perhaps a little concerned - or maybe perhaps not even that.  But I am puzzled.  There must be so many challenges to be overcome by the designers before truly driverless cars can become a reality.  That said, I suppose one must first ask, what exactly is the definition of a driverless car?  Will it be truly without any need of a driver?  Well, of course not.  Somebody will need to do something to start the vehicle moving even if by some miracle this could be achieved simply by a thought process.  And presumably somebody will be needed to actually instruct the vehicle to stop at the destination.  Or will they?

I'm told that there are already cars on sale that can park themselves, although I have yet to witness such a feat.  I know also that there are cars that automatically apply the brakes if the driver fails to slow down when approaching another vehicle on the road.  Given that satellite navigation is now commonplace (even my car has it) it is no great stretch of the imagination to see the possibility that the driver could state his/her destination and voice recognition software would lead the in-built sat-nav to calculate a route.  Another command, and the car would automatically start to follow the chosen route.  On reaching the destination, the car would, presumably, seek out a parking place and stop.  It's that seeking out a parking place that causes me to stop and wonder. 

I think that before this could happen, the sat-nav systems would need to be improved considerably.  For instance, a simple postcode leads one to a street or part of a street in England.  In France, a postcode can cover a whole town.  Some refinement would appear necessary.  And how would the car know if the house it was going to had a drive to park in?

Another problem would be sudden road closures.  Not all road closures by any means involve putting a barrier in place, especially if it is simply a temporary closure for something like a carnival procession.

No; it sounds a good idea - in principal.  But I think I will stick with my trusty steering wheel, accelerator, brake pedal and manual gear change.  At least for the next year or two.  Perhaps I might think about a new mobile phone instead.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

A trivium for Tuesday

In order to ensure the full and complete accuracy of what we are about to tell you, we have spent more hours than we could really afford searching the inter-thingies for confirmation.  And what have we achieved?  Zilch.  Zero.  Splat.  Not a thing.  We shall, therefore, rely on our increasingly unreliable memory for the nugget that is today's trivium, the pearl we intend to cast before the swine.

Although the swastika is most commonly associated with Hitler and the Nazi party of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, it is in fact a very ancient symbol which for centuries had positive meanings.  Before Herr Hitler adopted it, the swastika was associated with Hinduism and it is, I believe, still viewed positively in parts of the east.  But here in the west, we regard it as symbolizing evil.

And today's trivial question:  which is the only Christian church in which one can see a swastika?

I'll give you a clue:
Photo: Dr Thomson's Tours
 Still not sure?

Think Thomas à Becket.

You must have it now.

The answer, to the best of my belief, is Canterbury Cathedral.  I have been trying to find a reference to a modern (post-WW2) stained glass window on the south side of the cathedral in which are depicted the gates of Hell.  The keyhole in the gates is in the shape of a swastika.

Another delight in the cathedral is a double row of pillars, four on each side.  These pillars are, as I recall, in the crypt and date from many centuries ago.  The first pair are intricately carved all round.  The second pair are plain, but the third pair are also carved in great detail.  The fourth pair . . .  Well, one of the pillars in this pair is plain and unadorned.  The other one is plain and unadorned also - for the most part.  There is a bit at the top which is partly carved.

The mason who did the carving on that pillar must have spent many hours on his work, using, as he would, only chisels and hammer and working very delicately.  I love to imagine his reaction when the foreman pointed out that this pillar was supposed to be left plain!

And here is a picture of those pillars.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Thankful villages

I'm reasonably sure that by the time this year is ended, let alone by the time we get to 2018, I shall be suffering from World War I overload.  I am not meaning to be disrespectful to those of my grandparents' generation who suffered so much, but still, today, we are battered almost senseless by a seemingly never ending procession of wars.  We have had Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine . . .  But to revert to WWI, it was only this weekend that I first heard of the Thankful Villages.

Occupying a prominent place in most towns and villages in England is the war memorial.   This was probably erected in about 1920 to commemorate the men from the town who gave their lives during what was then called the Great War.  Very few war memorials existed before then, but the war of 1914-18 had affected every family in the country in one way or another, the first war ever to have had such wide-ranging reverberations, and there were few families which had not suffered the loss of one or more menfolk.

But there are a few villages - just 53 in England and Wales, none have been identified in Scotland - which are collectively known as the
The Rodney Stoke memorial
Thankful Villages, a term coined in the 1930s by the children's author Arthur Mee.  In these villages, every man who left home to fight in the war, returned alive.  Not necessarily whole, but alive.  There was no memorial erected in those villages to commemorate the local men who had died fighting for their country.  That does not mean that those villages have no memorial.  In Rodney Stoke, Somerset, there is a memorial window in St Leonard's church inscribed, "All glory be to God who in his tender mercy has brought again to their homes the men and women of Rodney Stoke who took part in the Great War 1914 - 1919".  (I wonder how many other memorials erected then mention women?)

Of those 53 villages, there are a smaller group of 13 which are Doubly Thankful, having lost nobody in the Second World War either.

What a pleasant change to learn that there are places with no war memorials as we know them.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Food fads

Our dinner last night was salmon en croute with parmentier potatoes and French beans, which might suggest that my culinary skills are improving dramatically.  Not so.  Marks & Spencer were offering "dine in for £10" this weekend and I took advantage.  It really represents pretty good value: a main dish, a side dish, a dessert - each for two people - and a bottle of wine, all for £10.  Inside the pastry and on top of the salmon was watercress sauce.  I'm sure it's not a new dish, but this is only the second time I have ever eaten it.  The previous occasion was when, not all that long ago, we bought some salmon fillets from another superwotsit and they came with a sachet of the sauce.  I suppose this - watercress sauce - will be the in thing, the flavour of the next few months, before a new fad hits the block.

I've noticed that while some dishes stay around for years and years, others come and go.  Go into any pub where food is served and you will almost certainly find scampi and chips on the menu, just as has been the case for many years.  But prawn cocktail, a regular on restaurant menus 50 years ago, disappeared for decades and has, in the last year or so, made a return.

On the dessert side, it is almost impossible, either in England or in France, to find a menu without tiramisu.  But whatever happened to Black Forest gateau?  Another common feature of the dessert menu in France is ginger ice cream.  This is generally served with apple dishes such as tarte Tatin in place of vanilla ice cream and the slight sharpness complements the apple beautifully.  It is possible to buy a common brand of ginger ice cream in French shops but although the brand is widely available here, the ginger ice cream has yet to make an appearance.  That said, I understand that Tesco's sell it under their own name but in small tubs and at a high price.  No doubt it will be sold over here before too much longer.  But what, I wonder, will be the fad after that?

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The ham sandwich

It's too hot and sticky this morning for my brain to get properly into gear so I shall tell a simple story of the best ham sandwich I have ever tasted.

I was reminded of that sandwich just the other day.  The OB was feeling unwell - again - and had said that for dinner she wanted just a baked potato.  I decided that I would bake another for myself and serve it with slices of the gammon joint left over from last Sunday and some tinned spaghetti left in the fridge.  Easy enough for my almost non-existent culinary skills and making use of left-overs at the same time.  But the OB changed her mind - she would have a gammon sandwich.


It was about 1950 and I was about 8 or 9 years old when I came down with pleurisy.  Fortunately for my parents, the National Health Service was up and running (it started in about 1947 or 48, I believe) - and possibly fortunately for me as well as I'm sure my parents could not have afforded to cost of my treatment.  I'm told that I was deemed too ill to be moved, even by ambulance, although I should really have been in hospital.  The doctor called almost every day, sometimes more than once a day, and the District Nurse was also a regular visitor.  A portable x-ray machine had to be maneuvered up the stairs and into the bedroom on at least one occasion.

There was, my mother told me, great rejoicing throughout the land (a little hyperbole there perhaps) when I actually expressed a wish to eat.  I asked if I could have a ham sandwich.

Now you need to remember that this was in England back in about 1950.  The Second World War had been over for a few years, but there were still food shortages and even some rationing.  Soap was rationed until 1950, tea until 1952, sugar till 1953 and meat stayed rationed until 1954.  And here was I, asking for a ham sandwich!  Back in those days the only ham we ever saw came in tins - from Canada.  These was none in our house.

There was no point in going to the shops, so my mother went the rounds of the neighbours in the hope that there might be a slice of ham with which to make the sandwich I had asked for, but they had none either.  However, one neighbour had a chicken and she cared enough to give it to my mother.

These days chicken is possibly the cheapest meat in the shops.  It is certainly plentiful.  Back then, nearly 65 years ago, chicken was a luxury, so for one of our neighbours to give my mother a chicken was quite something.

I can still remember the taste of that sandwich, the best ham sandwich I never had.