Friday, 31 December 2010

New Year's Eve

Another year gone and it's time to celebrate, although I have never understood the need to celebrate the passing of the year. I have no idea who decided that the year number should change on the first day of January - or why - but to me the change of date from 31 December 20XX to 1 January 20XY is of no more importance that the change from, say, 17 June to 18 June. It wasn't always so. In my much younger days I worked in a bank and in those days 31 December cast a shadow over all of us bank clerks for several weeks before. That was the date of the annual balance. In the days when we were still using quill pens, well, ball point pens perhaps, ie before computers, there was a lot of work to be done. I won't bore anyone with the details but simply say that there was no chance of finishing work before 10.00pm or later: 11.00pm was nothing unusual. By the time I had got home, washed and changed, the New Year was already upon us so there was little point in going out to celebrate even if I still had the energy (which I suppose I might have done in my youth). By the time the work had been computerised and I could get home early enough to go out on the town I was married with young children.

As well as not partying, I have never been one for making New Year's resolutions. If one is going to do or stop doing something to bring about an improvement in one's life (or the life of somebody else), why wait until the New Year to do it?

The media, rather than looking forward with resolutions, tend to look back at this time of the year at the highs and lows of the previous twelve months. Today also happens to be the last day of the decade (although there are those who think that was a year ago) so it might be appropriate to look back over ten years.

There have certainly been a lot of changes in my life and that of my family during those years. There have been deaths. There was the Boxing Day when my wife's aunt didn't answer the phone. We went into her flat to find her dead in her bed. A few years later my mother died not too long before Christmas. It was a relief as she had gone blind and was in considerable pain from cancer.

There have been marriage break-ups for both my sons. I am thankful that my elder son has now found a new partner with whom he appears to get on very well and my younger son is now very happily married again.

There have been births, all three grandchildren having been born during the decade.

It was quite early in the decade that I retired, something I wish I could have done years before, and I used my commuted pension to buy a cottage in France. The Old Bat and I have had a lot of pleasure from that.

Mention of the Old Bat reminds me of one of the lows of the decade, a continuing low in fact. After a long time trying to ignore the fact that something was wrong, she finally saw a doctor about the problems which were getting worse. Many tests and scans later, the consultant to whom she had been referred announced that he and his colleagues were unable to give a firm diagnosis but they had narrowed the answer to two possible conditions. It was either an obscure form of Parkinson's disease or an equally obscure form of motor neuron disease. Which of the two is entirely academic as there is no treatment for either and both are progressive conditions with much the same symptoms. But she remains remarkably cheerful. The only time she nearly broke down was the day she was told. We had attended a London hospital for further tests and it was as we sat in the car before starting for home that she said, 'It's not going to go away, is it?'. Definitely not something to celebrate.

I do have a minor cause for celebration, though. Today, for the first time this week, I have managed to go upstairs without a twinge. I occasionally suffer a bout of arthritis and one of my legs has been particularly bad this week. Walking the dog has been painful, and I have had to cling onto the handrail when climbing the stairs. But not this morning, a fact for which I am deeply thankful.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Musings

I sometimes wonder why I start things without really thinking them through. Take my Scenic Saturday series for example. I'm not yet half way through and already I'm starting to get just a little bored with it. I will finish it though, especially as some of the more scenic parts of the country are still to come. And there are times when I take on jobs that turn out to be something other than I expect. The Lions district web site is one such. I have been happy enough to design the new site but to keep it up to date and relevant does require the cooperation of the specialist District Officers - and they seem distinctly apathetic when it comes to keeping me advised of developments. Then they complain that the page about their special subject is out of date or incorrect. There are times when you just can't win.



Our English counties do have - or have had - some rather odd names for their subdivisions. Yorkshire is perhaps the best known of these. The county was at one time divided into ridings - north, south, east and west. All now gone, as are the rapes into which Sussex was once divided. These were names after various towns and villages such as Bramber. I wonder what other names were once used in other counties?



What is it with this fad for carrying around a bottle of water? It seems as if anybody who is leaving the house for half an hour or more has to carry water. It's not as if they were starting to hike across the Sahara so why do they think they are likely to die of thirst when walking the dog round the park or going shopping on the High Street? It does seem to be women rather than men who are subject to this fad. Could it be that women are more inclined to pick up on strange new diets like the banana diet - or drinking water every five minutes?



The snow and ice has mostly gone from round here although the main paths in Stanmer Woods were still very slippery on Tuesday afternoon when I was last there. They are probably clear as well now but I think I will leave the woods alone for the time being. What was a nice firm footing with frozen ground is now a sea of mud. mud which Fern manages to pick up all too easily. We have to leave it to dry before attempting to brush it out of her very fine, silky fur - a long job - by which time half of it is in our carpets. The joys of dog ownership!

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Agatha Christie

Over the past few weeks there has been a positive glut of her on television, mostly Poirot but with a bit of Miss Marple thrown in here and there. I idly remarked to the Old Bat that her estate (Miss Christie's, not the Old Bat's) must be doing a bit more than coining it in: raking it in, in fact. Especially as The Mousetrap, written by AC, is still running to full houses in the West End. This is the world's longest running stage show of any type, having opened in London in November 1952. Then I discovered in Wikipedia that AC gave the rights to her grandson, so presumably he is doing quite well as a result. I also discovered that the Wiki entry gives the game away and names the murderer, which I think is a dastardly thing to do.

Not that I am ever likely to see the play. I can just about remember the last time I went to a theatre. My daughter too us to see Miss Saigon when we visited her in Birmingham some years ago. I should think the time before that was when we were in New York and got cheap tickets for 42nd Street, which may well have been playing on the street of the same name. As for the cinema - I really can't remember when I last went. Probably when it cost about thirty shillings!

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Another bank holiday

As Christmas Day fell on a Saturday this year, the Monday and Tuesday following have been declared bank holidays so many workers have been able to enjoy a four-day break. Not so the armed forces, emergency services, transport workers or many shop workers. For the last, these are, or can be, hectic days. The after-Christmas sales usually start on Boxing Day and this year has been no exception, apart from just a couple of the major stores which decided to wait until Monday. I have never been one for shopping at the best of times and the thought of struggling through the hordes of people pushing and shoving to buy something just because it is a bargain although they will later wonder why on earth they spent the money - well, the thought alone horrifies me. And as for those people who queue half the night so as to be among the first into the shop!! No, I would rather pay the full price and have done with it.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Which way up?


Continuing with the theme of traditions, we have a couple in our family. Every Christmas, the Father Christmas fridge magnets make an appearance. We are still trying to decide which way up the round ones should go.

Then there are the two crib scenes. I was in The Hague visiting Dutch Scouts just before Christmas many years ago when I bought the one on the left. It sits beside the television each Christmas. The one below was made by my late father-in-law. If I say his occupation was an instrument engineer you will realise he was good with his hands. I'm not certain that he started out intending to carve a crib scene - it could be he was just making farm animals - but that is the use to which these hand-carved figures are put. They sit on the hall windowsill among a few cut-offs from the tree. Unfortunately, there is no Mary or Baby Jesus and the proportions of the figures are not quite as accurate as one might with (look at the camel on the left), But you can guess which one the children prefer.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

The 2nd day of Christmas

St Stephen's Day - or Boxing Day as we call it in England. Tradition has it, and here tradition may well be correct, that the day after Christmas became known as Boxing Day as that was the day on which the wealthy land-owners handed Christmas boxes (gifts) to their servants. Why that couldn't be done on Christmas Day itself is something I have wondered about for many years.

Another Boxing Day tradition is the meet. I think I am right when I say that every fox hunt in the country has traditionally met on Boxing Day. That tradition may well have gone out of the window now as the hunting of foxes by packs of dogs has been made illegal, but I understand that some hunts use a drag trail for the hounds to follow. Others just ignore the law. Another oddity: foxhounds are counted in couples so a pack may consist of, say, 12 couples (24 hounds). If there is an odd number of hounds, the extra one is half a couple.

Stretching the tradition theme a bit, it is definitely NOT traditional in England for us to have a white Christmas although many people seem to think it would be nice. (I'm most certainly not one of those people!) This year we have had endured a partially white Christmas. The snow arrived a week ago and Heathrow airport was brought to a standstill with many people still trying to get home (or away) for Christmas as late as Christmas Eve or even yesterday because of the backlog and as planes were in the wrong places. The snow has pretty well turned to ice now and when I walk the dog to the park I take care to walk along the car tracks in the road as the pavements are still very icy in most places. I slipped and fell in the woods on Christmas Eve. This made me realise I'm not getting any younger as I was still a bit sore yesterday.

It was Christmas Eve as well when our next-door neighbour knocked and asked when I would next want to get my car out. He had been out and when he parked his car on return it just slipped back down the hill until the front wheel struck the kerb and stopped the car just before it hit another. The problem is that the car is now partially blocking our drive. I'm pretty certain I can get out by bumping across the verge but getting back into the drive looks as though it will be tricky. I'm mainly concerned about the build up of ice (over an inch thick) which might cause me to drift sideways into Tom's car. We are due to go over to my elder son's for a late lunch and to spend the afternoon with the grandsons so I will have to get up the drive later and see if I can clear some of the ice to make matters easier.

If only the temperature would get up a bit. Two degrees Celsius is about as high as they have got for several days - about 35 or 36 Fahrenheit I suppose - and have always dropped below freezing at night. I growled when my daughter rang from Melbourne yesterday and said the temperature was in the mid twenties!

Friday, 24 December 2010

The magic of Christmas

Christmas past - long past. As for most children in (supposedly) Christian societies, Christmas for me as a child was a magical time. It all started sometime after Bonfire Night, probably much earlier than my mother really wanted, and probably as a result of craft activities at school with a Christmas theme. Making Christmas decorations required much patience from our teachers before they could be hung in the classroom.

Then we would decorate the house with paper chains and balloons. The front room, unused for most of the year, would be decorated with shop-bought paper chains while the back room - the one in which we lived for most of the time - would be decorated with paper chains made from strips of paper gummed at one end so they could be linked together. The shop-bought chains lasted many years, although there were sometimes one or two new ones introduced. Once they had been hung across the room from each corner to the central light and along each wall, those in the centre had to be embellished by hanging lametta (thin silver paper strips) over them. But the highlight was the tree. Two of my uncles would go out into the woods and cut a suitable branch of a fir tree for us and it would be the job of my brother and I to decorate this with baubles and the string of coloured fairy lights. My brother and I delighted in lying on the floor in the front room in the dark, late afternoons with just the fairy lights on. As the days passed, presents would be placed under the tree and we would try to guess what was in each parcel, surreptitiously feeling and gently shaking them for clues.

On Christmas Eve we would each place a pillow case at the foot of our beds in the sure and certain knowledge that Father Christmas would visit us. Of course, he never failed and we would delight in sitting up in bed in the early hours of Christmas Day to see what toys he had brought. Given the general post-war shortages, I look back in amazement at the imagination my mother displayed each year I can only think that she started her planning (and buying) pretty early, certainly before Thanksgiving!

Christmas dinner was a real treat - roast chicken. Why chicken should have been so expensive back in the 40s and 50s I really can't imagine, but it was, and to have a whole bird placed on the table at Christmas was indeed a treat.

Years pass. While I am a teenager we move from Gillingham to Hangleton and start attending church regularly. St Helen's is a small church, almost 900 years old, and our there from home walk takes us along a footpath beside a field. Although St Helen's is no longer isolated on the South Downs, much of the area is still farmland. Christmas Eve midnight mass and the church is packed. Eighty people would fill the pews, but for this service chairs from the church hall have been placed down the aisle and in front of the choir stalls. Still people have to squash five and six to a pew made for four. There's a feeling of magic in the air, especially as the congregation sings the last him - ‘Christians, awake, salute the happy morn'. We walk home with the tune still ringing in my ears and I want to burst into song.

More years pass. With three young children in the house Christmas is different again. Both sets of grandparents and the OB's unmarried aunt join us for the afternoon and for tea, Christmas dinner having been eaten at lunchtime. After the adults have tried out all the children's toys and the young ones are in bed, we get out the playing cards. Sevens and Newmarket are the favourite games with matches used as counters - a ha'penny a knock is the rule.

Still more years pass. The children are children no longer. Indeed, we are now grandparents ourselves - albeit with just the one grandson. Christmas dinner is now eaten in the evening with ten or eleven of us round the table. I should say tables plural, as the dining table is too small and we have to extend it by bringing in the kitchen table and chairs. Grandson is tucked into his carrycot, the washing up is done by many willing hands and the cards come out again, only this time it's for a noisy game of Uno. The OB's aunt takes great delight in forcing whoever is next to her to pick up half the pack.

This year things will be different again. Older son and his wife split a couple of years back and the grandsons are with their mother while their father and his new partner (with her daughter) will celebrate on their own. My daughter and her partner are in Australia to watch the cricket so she won't be with us for the first time in many years. There will be just five at table this Christmas lunchtime - the two of us with younger son, his wife and our darling granddaughter. It will be a quieter Christmas than for many years (despite the non-stop chatter from the youngest one) but just as joyful for all that.

My wish is that all who read this may have as joyful a Christmas as I shall.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

That tree . . .

I mentioned the other day - ah, you're back again. Good. I'll carry on.

I mentioned the other day that we had a change this year and bought an artificial Christmas tree as we were just not prepared to pay the prices being asked for proper trees.



As you can see, it's really, really naff. Indeed, they don't come much naffer. Well, I went to collect the meat today (I forgot to say: I managed to dig the car out on Tuesday and some considerate neighbour has spread grit on the ice so I can get back up the road again.) and there outside the butcher's shop were just three Christmas trees. I could see no price tag on them and rather assumed they would be a little on the pricey side as they all seem to be this year. There was quite a queue in the shop but when finally I was handed the meat the Old Bat had ordered several weeks back, I asked the price of the trees.

'£20.'

'I'll give you £10 for one.'

'Tell you what, your meat comes to £88. Make that £100 and you can have a tree.'

'Done.'

The smile on the Old Bat's face when she saw the tree was well worth £12.

The spirit of Christmas

From our local paper (The Argus):
Parking wardens will be issuing tickets on Christmas Day in Brighton and Hove.

Brighton and Hove City Council’s enforcement officers will not be taking a break over the festive period.

It means action could be taken if drivers without a permit use residents’ parking bays on December 25 or Boxing Day.

Failure to get a ticket in a pay and display bay could also result in a fine.

Parking fines in the city range from between £25 and £70.

Motorists will still have to pay to use the city’s car parks, both council-run and those operated by NCP.
I make no comment.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Bad news sells papers

I'm getting a little fed up with picking up the morning paper and finding it full of reports of unfortunate people stranded at airports or stuck on icy roads. Nor am I very interested in reading the gruesome details revealed in the trial of the so-called Crossbow Cannibal who murdered several prostitutes and claims to have eaten some of their body parts. The squabbles between divorcing couples over alleged hidden millions of pounds leave me cold.

Newspaper editors claim to publish what their readers want. I have no doubt they are right. As long ago as the 18th and 19th centuries men would hawk penny broadsheets containing the last speeches of executed people so this is no new phenomenon. But I do wish we could read a little more good news. The television news programmes manage to find good news quite frequently. Only last night the national news covered a story concerning a child saved from an almost certain early death by a new medical technique and this was followed by the local news broadcasting a story about Christmas hampers being delivered to needy pensioners courtesy of a company which had spent £2,000 on them. (They never mention all those Lions Clubs doing the same thing.) It's not just the television news that covers good news. Last week, for example, there was a programme which ran for an hour and a half in which servicemen received awards for doing things which many would consider beyond the call of duty. There was a bomb disposal officer who had defused 139 improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan, including no fewer than 14 during one nine-hour working day. A day or so later there was a paragraph in the paper reporting that he had given a very high gallantry award but not even a photograph of this extremely brave man. There has been no mention in then papers of the team of Royal Marines who worked for half an hour in a burning helicopter to free the trapped pilot despite the ever-present risk of the fuel exploding. If the television people can find these stories why can't the newspapers?

No, I don't want to see headlines like "Fog in the Channel: no ships collide" but I do think there could be space for more good news. There must be other readers like me surely? Or am I just not normal?

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

A new word in the English language

Language, as I am sure all readers of this blog will already know, is constantly evolving - and none more so than English. I was reading an article in the paper the other day which reported how many new words had been added to the language in the past year - or maybe it was the past ten years: I forget which. I have also forgotten how many new words were claimed - it ran to hundreds if not thousands - but the number doesn't really matter. One of the (fairly recent) new words consists of just three letters, all of them capitals - CRB. Of course, CRB is really a set of initials much like BBC, but it seems to have been accepted as both a noun and a verb even though the initials are, in truth, themselves merely an abbreviation of the full term.

The letters CRB stand for Criminal Records Bureau, an office which was established to maintain the criminal records of the entire population of England and probably Wales. I can't say if Scotland is included but I suspect not and Northern Ireland is almost certainly excluded: both Scotland and Northern Ireland have different justice systems.

Some years ago our Government was concerned to provide greater protection for vulnerable persons and legislation was enacted whereby anybody working with such people would need to be checked. This requirement covered (and still covers) both paid workers and volunteers such as Scout leaders, youth football team coaches etc. The check costs money - £32 seems vaguely familiar - which has to be paid by the employer although at least volunteers (who are not paid for their work) are checked free of charge. It doesn't help that a CRB check undertaken by one organisation cannot be considered by another, which will have to make its own check. For example, I have been checked by the Lions. As a service, several members of the club drive blind people to their social meetings - and we have all been checked again by the blind association.

As with any broad-brush approach, there has been confusion. For example, exactly who is to be considered vulnerable? Children, obviously, and those who are mentally incapacitated. The blind and the elderly. But just how much sight should remain and how elderly should an elderly person be before either is considered vulnerable? This is where the ages-old principle of "reasonableness" applies - and that is a subjective point of view until tested in the courts.

The confusion also extends to who actually need to be checked. Again, there are obvious examples: school teachers and nursing home employees are but two. But what about Father Christmas in the department store? He is never alone with children (and they no longer sit on his lap just in case he is a pervert) who are always accompanied by a parent (or other responsible adult). Does he really need to have a piece of paper confirming that he has never been convicted in a court? And what about the hospital car driver, himself an elderly man, who is required to be checked because he collects elderly patients - many of whom are actually younger than the driver?

Some people and organisations, as is only to be expected, do more than just cover themselves. There have been a number of examples quoted in the paper recently of what could been considered as over-zealous checking. A school governor who has been a governor for many years and who attends governors' meetings in the evenings when the school is closed to children and who would, in any case, never be in the presence of children without being accompanied by a teacher. Then there was the lady who arranges flowers in church. Just who was thought to be vulnerable to her was not made clear.

But all this is getting away from the fact that CRB has become a word in its own right. As a verb - "You'll need to be CRBed" - and as a noun - "Have you got a CRB?". (It's pronounced as the three initials - see are bee.) Now, I'm as happy as the next person to see new words accepted into the language, but I do think they should be more than just three consonants always written in capital letters. But then, I'm just an old curmudgeon. I wonder when that word was invented?

Monday, 20 December 2010

What shall we talk about today?

The weather? I could tell you how I still haven't managed to get the car out although we have had no more snow for a couple of days. The problem is that compressed snow has turned to ice on the road outside although most main roads are now clear. But that's boring.

Madam has said we will decorate the Christmas tree this afternoon - whoopee! No, that's boring as well.

Oh well. Ho hum and all that. Maybe I'll have thought of something by tomorrow morning.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

I've been blogged

Every now and then my friend Skip says that Blogger has played a trick on him, perhaps by not displaying a picture he has uploaded or by not updating something that should have been. Up till now, I have suffered none of those problems but now I've been blogged as well. With a few minutes to spare yesterday, I tried to schedule a posting for next Saturday. Saturday postings have, for the past few months, been devoted to travelling around the counties of England, a trip which we are still less than a third of the way through, and all those blogs have been uploaded in advance with no problems. As next Saturday is Christmas Day I decided to skip the scenic Saturday and schedule a Christmas post. But Blogger kept insisting on posting it straight away. I'll just have to try again later.

- - - - - - -

Later.
Problem solved. It was me typing a . instead of a : Mea culpa again.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

It's happened again


This was our view mid-morning today. When I went to bed last night there was just a smattering of snow and nothing had changed when I got up this morning but by the time I had finished the breakfast washing up we had almost two inches of the white stuff, making both our drive and the road impassable. We were supposed to be going to Chris and Mrs Chris this evening for their annual evening of Christmas but that's off unless a miracle happens during the next few hours. We couldn't get there last year either because of the snow.

The Met Office forecast a mild, wet winter - and this is the second time this month we have been snowed in!

Scenic Saturday - West Midlands

Number 21 in the series.



This is another of those ‘new' counties (like Avon) but this one still exists. It consists in the main of the City of Birmingham and was, in large part, carved out of Warwickshire. This is a largely urban county which was the heart of England's heavy engineering industry but there is open country to the east of Birmingham, between that city and Coventry. The large Sutton Park in the north-east corner of Birmingham and the Lickey Hills in the south-west do provide some breathing space but otherwise there is little of scenic value in the west of the county.

At the eastern extremity is Coventry, a city whose name is a byword in English folklore. People who are ostracised are said to be "sent to Coventry", although the origin of the phrase is uncertain. Some believe that the phrase dates from the English Civil War, when a military prison was located in that city. Others say it dates from the 18th century, when Coventry was the nearest town to London that lay outside the jurisdiction of the Bow Street Runners and so London criminals would flee to Coventry to escape arrest.

Another reason for Coventry's place in folklore is the legend of Lady Godiva, who supposedly rode naked through the city. The phrase "peeping Tom" also originates here.

In more modern times Coventry became a byword for devastation by bombing. During one night in November 1940, 4,000 homes and three-quarters of the city's factories were destroyed, along with the 14th century cathedral. After the war, a new cathedral was built which is, to my mind, possibly the world's best example of 20th century religious architecture. The engraved glass of the (liturgical) west front, the baptistry window, the tapestry behind the altar: all magnificent. The ruins of the old cathedral are still there, with an altar built from the rubble, and that is our picture this week.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Desperate times

There was once a sitcom on the BBC centred on the goings-on at a corner shop in which the proprietor (played by the late Ronnie Barker) always had the last line. As he took in the various items on display outside the shop just before closing he would muse, 'It's been a funny sort of day'. I know just how he feels. On a normal Friday I have the house to myself for about three hours during the morning while the Old Bat goes to the MS treatment centre for a spot of high dosage oxygen in a contraption similar to those used to treat divers suffering from the bends, after which she toddles off to the local supermercado. Today, however, she didn't feel like driving, worried that the flurries of snow we had overnight might turn into a blizzard by the time she returned home. So I just had time for a quick cigarette after getting back with the dog before I drove her, dropped her off and went to do the shopping myself. I got back to the MS centre only a few minutes before Madam resurfaced and only had time to check my email before lunch. Then walk the dog again before the main excitement of the day - buying a Christmas tree.

We always have to have a real tree: artificial ones just don't cut it for She Who Must Be Obeyed. For the last few years we have bought one in France where they seem to be more plentiful and (more importantly) considerably cheaper than here in England, usually less than half the price we would pay here. This year we were unable to go to France in December because we were snowed in. The local Asda did have trees priced at £15 but quickly sold out. I looked around elsewhere somewhat half-heartedly but didn't like the prices I saw: small trees started at £25, in some places £35. No way would I pay that for a small Christmas tree. Today we bit the bullet. We bought an artificial tree for £15. It stands only three feet high - but rather that and bin it after Christmas than spend a ridiculous amount on a real tree.

Christmas trees aren't the only things we are short of. I haven't bought wine in this country for, oh, ages - until this month. There was a real drought in the wine cellar, and we do like a glass with our evening meal. We've even run out of coffee filters!

Desperate times indeed.

As I said, it's been a funny sort of day. But now it's four o'clock, the temperature is still below freezing outside (it hasn't got above zero all day) and I don't have to go out again. With luck, I might even catch up on some of the things I had intended to do during the morning. Those that don't get done will just have to wait: it won't cause the end of the world.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

I'm late

Or, as my old granny used to say, all behind like a donkey's gallop.

It's been a bit of mixed bag today - in more ways than one. I suppose it all started yesterday afternoon when I went to switch off the computer. There was that annoying little shield displayed which means that Bill Gates's cohorts want to bugger around with the innards of my machine. The problem always comes when the computer is switched on again afterwards - like this morning. The lights on the front of the computer flash like Piccadilly Circus or the Blackpool illuminations and the monitor eventually condescends to come to life. But somewhere along the line everything freezes so I give up, pull the plug and start all over again. This time things work - eventually - but by then it's too late for me to do anything but glance very quickly at my email before dashing off to the Lions Housing Society Christmas lunch.

The rain had stopped by the time I got home from lunch. I changed into dog-walking clothes only to find that the rain had started again, but it eased off pretty quickly. So now here I am at last, itching to get on with writing the minutes of last night's Lions meeting (That's sarcasm, in case you didn't recognise it) which was of average enjoyability. We had a prospective new member attending her first meeting, and when a volunteer was needed to fill a place on the team for our New Year's Day book fair, her hand was the first to go up. The Lions in our multiple district (covering the British Isles and Ireland) have promised to raise £50,000 to pay for a day room in the new treatment centre being built by St Dunstans. The very first donation made by our club was to St Dunstans - £100 was presented to them at our first charter night back in 1951. I proposed that we mark our diamond jubilee by promising to raise £100 for each year of our existence and donate £6,000 at our charter night in June. (We've already got the money in the bank, but don't tell anyone!) As I had already primed several members there was no difficulty in getting that agreed without discussion. The whole meeting was finished by 9.15 - the president having cracked on as we expected yesterday's rain to freeze later in the evening but it didn't.

Enough of this nonsense: there's work to be done.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Lies, damned lies and...

Statistics. There are plenty of times when it is important for statistics to be collected: to gauge the efficacy of an advertising campaign perhaps, or to claim commission of the number of didgeridoos sold. But there are plenty of times when, I am sure, statistics are collected simply for their own sake.

I suppose collecting things fulfills some atavistic need within us as we do, after all, tend to start collecting at a very early age: toy cars, Mr Men books, Barbie dolls or whatever. We often progress to collecting stamps or train numbers or other such trivia. Some of us never seem to grow out of the need to collect something. The Old Bat, for example, is slowly building a collection of figurines of Beatrix Potter characters. They sit is a glass-fronted cabinet and are, from time to time, taken out, dusted and put back in a different arrangement but the OB never, as far as I am aware, stops and actually looks at them. Just collecting them is sufficient to fulfill her need.

But she is not alone in having this need. Just cast your eyes to the right and you will see one of my little collections - flags of countries whose residents have visited this blog. I take a certain juvenile delight in seeing new flags when they appear. I do wonder, though, just how many of the visitors from, say, Georgia (the country, not the US state) or Libya (yes - there have been one from each) understand what I have written let alone take any interest in the ramblings of my mind.

It doesn't surprise me to see that the majority of visitors by far is from the US but, given the difference in the size of the populations, it does strike me as a little surprising that the number of US visitors is only about four times the number of British. Talking - well, writing - about US visitors, I can see a breakdown of the states from which those visitors come. I expect anyone who has the interest can click on the flags and then explore further to find this breakdown, but I'll save you the bother. Here it is:
California 314
Washington 68
Ohio 53
Texas 35
Oregon 30
Michigan 22
New York 17
Florida 15
Illinois 14
Pennsylvania 10
North Carolina 8
Indiana 8
Massachusetts 8
New Jersey 7
Georgia 7
Iowa 5
Minnesota 5
Colorado 5
Louisiana 5
Arizona 4
Wisconsin 4
Kentucky 4
Nebraska 3
Missouri 3
Arkansas 3
Tennessee 2
New Hampshire 2
Maryland 2
South Carolina 2
Mississippi 2
Alabama 2
Montana 2
Kansas 1
Oklahoma 1
Nevada 1
Wyoming 1
South Dakota 1
Virginia 1
Hawaii 1
Delaware 1
New Mexico 1
Alaska 1
Utah 1
Idaho 1
West Virginia 1

Now I realise that California is a large state and is far more populous than, say, New Mexico or Arizona. But what is it, I wonder, that makes Californians so much more likely than people from Michigan or New Jersey to surf blogs?

I suppose that is just another example of life's unsolvable mysteries - like why I bother to collect the stats in the first place.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Family lines

I think I have mentioned before that I have carried out fairly extensive research into my family history. Having collected more than 5,000 names of my extended family, I decided I had done enough and there has been no further research done for several years. Just recently, however, I have started printing out some of what I had collected and I was surprised to find that I have traced back along one line to my 12 x great grandfather. That is just the one line, though, and generally I can go back only as far as my 3 x great grandparents. Simple arithmetic proves that there should be 32 of them and I have managed to put names to 31, although in five cases (all women) I have only their Christian names.

The Old Bat's line, however, is much more difficult and I have managed to trace only four of her 3 x great grandparents. It is my grandsons who put us both in the shade. On their mother's side I have gone back 33 generations along one line, which includes no fewer than three Plantagenet Kings of England. That really is not as grand as it sounds. Just imagine how many thousands of English people can do the same when we are looking at people born in the 12th century.

Monday, 13 December 2010

A first for me

At least, I think it is. I can't recall ever before taking more than two weeks to read a single book. I started it exactly two weeks ago today and as yet I am barely two-thirds of the way through. No, it's not War and Peace or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It's a 400-page novel of the crime/thriller genre - A Quiet Belief in Angels.

So why is it taking so long? Partly because the book is not a fast-moving, action-packed thriller. It is quite a slow-paced book, which always makes me read more slowly. The writing also needs concentration if I am to get the best out of it. Ellory takes his time over descriptions of scenes, people, thoughts - everything, and his unusual metaphors and adjectives need thinking about.

Am I enjoying it? I think so.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Sussex pond pudding


Skip mentioned a traditional Californian dish, the tri-tip sandwich, and this reminded me of the traditional, regional foods we enjoy in England: Lancashire hotpot, Bakewell tart, Yorkshire pudding and so on. There are two I can think of originating from Sussex - the Sussex pond pudding and Sussex smokies.

Sussex pond pudding consists of suet pastry formed in a pudding basin although in days gone by the pudding was more often made by gently simmering the pudding in a clout or cloth, and some believe that this method continued longer in Sussex than elsewhere in the country. Inside the pastry case a filling made of equal quantities of brown sugar and butter and a single large lemon scrubbed then pricked all over. The pastry lid seals the goodness inside, and the whole pudding is steamed at length. The lengthy steaming is required to work the magic inside the pastry: the juices of the lemon, mix with the melted butter and the brown sugar, creating a rich but sharp sauce that should gush from the pudding when it is cut into at table. ‘Pond’, appears to refer to the brown liquid that surrounds the pudding on its plate. Older sources indicate another possibility, that ‘pond’ was a corruption of the ‘pound’ of sauce that was produced from the pudding.

Sussex smokies are a simple but glorious starter for a meal. For each person you need a ramekin. In the bottom of each ramekin, place a piece of smoked haddock, raw. Cover with single cream, and grate over it a generous amount of cooking cheese, such as cheddar. Top it off with a some grated parmesan for extra 'bite', and bake in a hot oven for about 20 minutes. Serve each person with it as a starter, still in the ramekin & piping hot.

I had to copy the recipes from elsewhere as I'm no cook.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Scenic Saturday - Worcestershire

Number 20 in the series.



Staying with the pre-1972 counties, this week we are in Worcestershire (pronounced ‘Woostershear'), the eastern part of the new county of Hereford and Worcester. Worcester, cathedral city and county town, has given its name to three things of note: Worcester pottery, Worcester Pearmain apples and Worcester sauce, without which no bloody Mary would be complete.

The Worcester County Cricket Club ground is one of the most attractively sited in England, lying as it does alongside the River Severn with the cathedral on the opposite bank.

In the south of the county are the pleasant towns of Evesham and Pershore but the north verges on the industrial heartland of England and is far less attractive. The most scenic part of the county is in the west where the Malvern Hills are the source of the Queen's favourite Malvern water. Edward Elgar, the famous English composer, was born near Worcester and I always imagine the Malvern Hills when I hear ‘Nimrod' being played. Our picture shows the hills rising behind the church in the village of Colwall.

Friday, 10 December 2010

What should have been wasn't what was

I should have been in France this past week, coming back today. If things had gone to plan, I would at this moment be driving north on the A28 approaching Alençon and thinking about our lunch stop at the next but one services about half an hour away. I would have spent a peaceful week recharging the batteries, reading for much of the time. There were a couple of jobs I had to do - patch a piece of torn wallpaper and clear the courtyard (and gutters) of leaves. They will just have to wait now until we next manage to visit, which will (we hope) be in January.

At least I have managed to use my time this week constructively on the whole with a fair amount of the time having been devoted to matters Lionistic. I was able to get to the book fair last Saturday. Although there is work to be done setting up (I missed that bit) and clearing away, there is always time for socialising and discussing Lions matters. We agreed to suggest to the Club that we invite other Lions Clubs, Rotary, Round Table etc to take stalls at our Pavilion Gardens Fun Day next June in the hope that we can raise more money for our chosen charity, Help for Heroes. It perhaps goes without saying that as it was me who suggested it, I was asked to draft the letter to other organisations and see to its sending out in the New Year. The drafting of the letter didn't take long, but then I decided to put an electronic booking form on our web site. That took a little longer, but I am happy with the final result which I uploaded this morning.

While it was far from earth-shattering, I was pleased to be able to attend the Lions zone meeting on Tuesday evening. Then yesterday evening a couple of other Lions and I took a prospective member out for a drink to chat about Lions. She had seen our web site and was full of praise for it, especially the video, which did wonders for my self-esteem as I am the webmaster. I've also managed to make a start on the January issue of Jungle Jottings.

So the week hasn't been what I was expecting, but the time hasn't been wasted.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Reading groups

My friends Chris and Mrs Chris belong to a reading group. Actually, I'm not certain of the truth of that statement since I think Chris may well have decided it is not really for him. The problem for him is that the leading light in the group is a retired librarian with very distinct and determined ideas about the books that are suitable for the group's consideration. Chris's suggestions have, he says, been met with scorn and derision.

I did think it might be quite fun for a small group to get together and swap ideas about books: I do enjoy reading and am always willing to listen to other people's thoughts on authors I might like to read - or prefer to avoid. But I have just discovered what is involved. The book I am currently reading has at the back some notes for reading groups and suggestions for discussion. These are along the lines of:

X said, so-and-so. Was he right?

What was the significance of the feathers?

What did the author mean when he said this or that?

All this smacks just a little too much of studying English literature at school. I'm not entirely sure that authors have much in the way of thoughts behind the dialogue they write or have unwritten meanings. Even if they do, such things really do not concern me overmuch. I just want to read the story. If there is more to it than appears in the written word, I'm happy to leave it to others to meditate on the hidden bits. I suppose reading is, for me, a form of escapism - and if that makes me a pleb in the eyes of others, well, I can live with that.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

An anniversary missed

That's really nothing unusual in my life. I suppose I am better than some husbands in that I do remember our wedding anniversary. Not that I do anything about it, mind. No gift, no flowers, not even a card. Sometimes I probably even forget to say, ‘Happy anniversary'. But I do remember the date. What I don't remember is the date I first met the girl (as she was then) who would become my wife, nor the date of our first date. All that I can remember is that I first met the future Old Bat in November 1960, so we must have missed out celebrating our first 50 years sometime last month.

I know it was November 1960 because that was when I started work at the bank. Fifty years ago banking was a completely different business. There were no computers, just adding machines and, in some branches, fairly complex, electric adding machines used for posting entries onto customers' statement sheets. The ledgers were all hand-written. Not that I started on either the statement machines or the ledgers. As a junior, my jobs were filling inkwells, filing paid cheques under customers' names (which involved reading their signatures as cheques were not printed with names) sending out statements (complete with paid cheques) and other pretty mundane jobs. The most interesting job was the local clearing, partly because this got me out of the branch every morning for four weeks out of five.

(Unless you happen to be an industrial archeologist, the following explanation might prove boring and perhaps you should skip the next paragraph.)

Every day, cheques paid in by our customers for the credit of their accounts had to be sent off so that we could collect the value from the paying banks. Most cheques would be sent to our head office in London where they had a system for exchanging cheques with all the other clearing banks. In the branch, these had to be sorted by bank and then the cheques drawn on each bank had to be listed separately. The grand total then had to be agreed with the summary produced by the machinists who had listed every credit paid in during the day. The totals very rarely agreed first time, which is not really surprising given that there could have been thousands of cheques, all hand–written, and there was always pressure to list them quickly. Mistakes were almost inevitable.

Cheques drawn on so-called ‘local' bank branches were kept separate. The next morning, a junior member of the staff from each of the local banks would meet at a pre-arranged branch to exchange these cheques and settle up money owed from the previous day's exchange. There were five branches in our local clearing - one each of Lloyds, Midland and Westminster and two Barclays. It so happened that the then Young Bat worked at the other branch of Barclays from me and our first meeting was at the local clearing.

I was attracted from the first, but staff at the other branch swapped duties frequently and I didn't get to meet her all that often. However, I eventually plucked up the courage to suggest we met for a coffee after work, although just when that was I now have no idea. At the time I already had a steady girl friend and somehow, after that coffee, we just let matters drift. It was to be another year before our first real date - and that's a whole different story.

When I mentioned to the OB that we had missed an anniversary last month, she gave me a quizzical look and said, ‘November? What anniversary is there in November?' All the same, I'm taking her out for a meal tonight to celebrate. Who says romance is dead?

Fifty years. That's five decades - HALF A CENTURY! Good grief!!

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Why you shouldn't use homing pigeons to deliver fridge magnets

I caught the end of a television programme in which it was explained that birds are able to sense magnetic forces and that they use these forces as a type of satnav to help them find their way home - and presumably on migration as well. The programme went on to tell that a homing pigeon can sense the forces without using its eyes whereas the robin "sees" the forces through its right eye, its left eye being just a normal eye. Magnets around a bird cause disturbance to its navigation system as they upset the magnetic forces on which the bird relies.

True or not? I really couldn't say.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

The full English


When I went shopping the other day while we still had almost a foot of snow, I offered to pick up some bits and pieces for a neighbour who would struggle to get to the shops. She didn't want much and top of the list was bacon and a dozen eggs.

It's probably just coincidence, but we have quite frequently eaten bacon in one form or another during the past couple of weeks or so. Not for breakfast, you understand, although bacon is an essential ingredient in the traditional cooked English breakfast. Just what does go to make up a traditional full English depends on where you eat it. Not whereabouts in the country so much as at which hotel, restaurant or café. A couple of rashers are essential, as is a fried egg or two (although sometimes one is offered the choice of scrambled). There could be a sausage and a tomato (fried or grilled - never raw) and maybe mushrooms. Baked beans are frequently included, although to my mind that is hardly a traditional English vegetable. Nor are hash browns traditionally English, although they are now frequently served as part of the full English. I'm happy enough to eat them but my preference would be for chopped boiled potatoes allowed to go cold and then fried - a bit like bubble and squeak without the greens. Fried bread should be included - even if one is going to follow up with toast and marmalade - but all to often (in my opinion) toast or even bread and butter is considered part of the meal. I think the bread and butter is a northern or Midlands idea; people from those parts seem to eat bread and butter with every meal.

I have no experience of life in a stately home, or even a country house for that matter, but I understand that it was normal for the servants to place chafing dishes on the sideboard in which the various ingredients would keep warm and the house party could serve themselves as and when they came down to breakfast. As well as the standard ingredients of the full English, there would be kedgeree and kippers, possibly even devilled kidneys. I have never eaten kedgeree or kidneys for breakfast and the last time I had a kipper was at a hotel in Scarborough where I was staying on business.

My normal breakfast consists simply of a bowl of cereal and a mug of coffee, except when we are in France when it is toast and marmalade with coffee. I think the last time I had a full English was August last year when the Old Bat and I stayed at the hotel where my nephew's wedding reception was held. It's only when staying at hotels that I get a cooked breakfast.

It wasn't always so. Way, way back - getting on for sixty years ago now - my brother and I were at boarding school for a few months. There we always had a hot breakfast. There was sometimes porridge, something I had disliked intensely up till then but have enjoyed ever since, but the best was baked beans served on fried bread. The cooks managed to make the bread crispy on the outside while the inside remained soft and the tomato-flavoured juice from the beans soaked through into the soft centre of the bread while the outside stayed crisp. Neither I nor anyone else I know has aver managed that trick.

After I joined Lions, there was one day each year when several of gathered for a cooked breakfast. That was the day before our annual carnival when we worked until late in the evening setting everything up. We met at the house of the carnival chairman where he and his wife served breakfast before we started work. For some reason we stopped doing this and met at a breakfast bar where each of us was able to order exactly what we wanted from the very extensive menu.

One of the best breakfasts I can remember was in a hotel, although, perhaps strangely, it was not in England: it was in France. The Old Bat had persuaded me we should spend a few days in Lille, an industrial city in northern France. Quite why she wanted to visit Lille I never did discover, but visit Lille we did. Breakfast was, as in so many hotels these days, a ‘serve yourself' affair. On the side were masses of fluffy scrambled eggs and lashings on small rashers of streaky bacon cooked to perfection. I really couldn't say how many times I filled my plate, but I every time remember that breakfast, my mouth starts drooling.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Quick update

At 10.30 last night, the weather forecaster predicted temperatures of -7 along the coast, -9 in towns and lower in the countryside. We still had 9 inches of snow and impassable roads. This morning the snow had all but disappeared and everything is back to normal.

Weather forecasters: who needs 'em?

Scenic Saturday - Herefordshire

Number 19 in the series.


The old county of Herefordshire no longer exists: it was amalgamated with neighbouring Worcestershire under the awkward name of Hereford and Worcester. Nevertheless, I intend to treat both those counties as if they still exist.

First, the (almost obligatory) note about pronunciation. Both the letters ‘e' in ‘Hereford' are pronounced and both of them are short ‘e's, so it is not ‘Hearford', nor is it ‘Hairyford' but exactly as the first two syllables of ‘heretic'.

The old county of Herefordshire is basically the western part of the amalgamated county, lying alongside the English/Welsh border. It is probably the most rural of English counties with the small city of Hereford being the old county town. The only other towns of note are also small: Ross-on-Wye, Hay-on-Wye (site of a famous annual book fair), Leominster (pronounced ‘Lemster'), Ledbury, Bromyard and Kington. In some ways the county rivals Kent as the Garden of England as apples (principally used to make cider) and hops are grown here. It also gave its name to the red and white beef cattle.

The River Wye forms part of the border between Herefordshire and Wales and the valley provides particularly pleasant scenery.

The ancient market towns have many black and white half-timbered buildings and our picture this week is of one of them, the King's House, Pembridge.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Post early for Christmas


Every year we are exhorted by the Royal Mail to consign our greetings cards and parcels to the tender care of the postal service as early as possible. 'Post early for Christmas', we are told. We will, I am sure, have our cards ready and posted all in good time. But we won't be the first. This year the first card for Christmas was delivered through our door before the end of November. Now that really is taking things to extremes.

It may be that there are more cards waiting for the postmen to empty the post boxes. The snow has prevented most collections taking place and we haven't seen a postman delivering the mail for a couple of days. When our regular man manages to get back to his round he will have an awful lot of catching up to do - and you can bet your life that all we will get will be junk mail.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Snow update

The travel news on our local newspaper's web site at 8.25 this morning:

Buses

Some buses have now fitted snow chains and the following services are now running: Service 1 between Portslade (Battle of Trafalgar) and Old Steine only running every 20 minutes. We are currently checking the state of Eastern Road and hope to be able to run through to Arundel Road shortly. Please check back here for further information about this.

Service 46 between Portslade Station and Old Steine only: departures from Portslade at 04 and 34 minutes past the hour and from Old Steine at 03 and 33 minutes past the hour Service 49 between The Avenue and Old Steine only: this is now running every half an hour with departures from both The Avenue and Old Steine at 15 and 45 minutes past the hour (note the revised timings)

Trains

Southern has suspended its service until at least 10am. First Capital Connect does have trains running, but says the Brighton route is blocked by heavy snowfall, so there's nothing running there. One piece of good news - your ticket will be accepted on Southern routes - if any were running . . .

Roads

Conditions are treacherous, and abandoned cars are adding to the problem. We will post major updates here, but also check our live traffic updates.

East Sussex County Council said there has been about 30cm of snow across the county overnight.

A council spokeswoman said highways teams have been ploughing throughout the night.

She said: "Our priority will be to focus on the main routes and we will continue to plough throughout the day, but the forecast is for continued snow showers."

They are advising people not to travel unless absolutely necessary.

Air

Gatwick Airport is closed until at least tomorrow morning.

The view from here


Almost literally the view from here. Just after three o'clock yesterday, the Old Bat had gone into the front bedroom and glanced out of the window to see what the conditions were just in time to witness this. The driver of the silver van had stopped to let the other van come up the hill but got out because the driver of the larger van was having difficulty. The small van then slid down the hill but the driver managed to get back in and re-apply the brakes, whereupon the vehicle slid across the road and hit the parked car. The road doesn't look particularly steep in the picture, but it ices up very quickly.

Now it's decision time. I am due to take the dog into kennels this afternoon as we are supposed to be leaving for France first thing tomorrow. Maybe we'll just put everything on hold for 24 hours and see what the forecast is.

- * -

I drafted that late yesterday afternoon. This morning the situation is somewhat different. It has been snowing steadily all night - not large, fluffy snowflakes but small, sticky crystals - and it is now about nine inches deep. Neither our drive nor the road outside are passable. I have cancelled our Eurotunnel booking as there is now no way we will be able to travel before Sunday or, more likely, Monday and we have to be back home next Friday at the latest. That's a shame, but at least we are warm and dry. We have heat, light and food. I'm not losing money by being unable to get to work or because my customers are unable to get to me. I have much to be thankful for.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Snowed in again.

Well, almost. It's as well the OB and I did the shopping yesterday when then was just a light covering of the white stuff. It must have snowed continually through the night - not heavily, indeed quite lightly, but enough for there to be almost two inches lying around this morning. Our drive slopes up to the road with an incline of about 1 in 5, maybe 1 in 4 in places, and although I could get the car up it as the snow has blown off most of it, the road is also a pretty steep hill and I would have great difficulty getting back home again. We were scheduled to have the Lions Christmas meal tonight but that has been cancelled and the same menu will apply for the next dinner meeting on the first Wednesday in January.

I was hoping we would be spared the snow here in Brighton, especially as yesterday afternoon the radio was announcing all sorts of problems in Surrey and the north of Sussex but I understand even the trains from Brighton to London are having trouble today and Gatwick airport (20 minutes drive away in normal conditions) is closed until tomorrow morning at the earliest. Even so, we have been spared the worst of it. The north-east of the country has had feet rather than inches of snow.

I have just been speaking with a fellow Lion from Switzerland who is in Brighton for a short while and was due to attend our meeting tonight. He joked that we had laid on Swiss weather for him when I told him that England closes down when we have a little snow. The problem is that we don't have enough of it to make it worthwhile preparing for it as they do in Switzerland.

My big concern at the moment is whether we will be able to leave for France as planned. I have a nasty feeling that we will be staying put.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Success!

Please meet Peppa Pig and her classmates. This is top of the granddaughter's wish list for Christmas. I have just checked out our local stockists through their web site and find they have two in stock, so I have reserved one for collection later today when I take the Old Bat shopping. She would normally go on her own while I take the dog out this afternoon but we had a light covering of snow overnight and my arm will be welcomed for support.

I might have succeeded as far as granddaughter is concerned, and the OB has already bought No 1 grandson a series of books (he is a good reader), but No 2 grandson might be a bit more of a problem. His birthday falls towards the end of November and he dearly wanted a candyfloss machine. Unfortunately, the only stockist we could find is a nationwide chain of catalogue shops (the same one that sells Peppa Pig) and none of the branches within 20 miles, nor the home delivery option, had one in stock for his birthday. They still don't, so it's back to the drawing board again for him.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Weather report

It's been very cold the last few days with the temperature rising only just above freezing. We've had frosts, of course, but luckily we have so far escaped the snow which has brought some parts of the country to a standstill with well over a foot lying in places. Today - for a change - we have a blue sky and sun, not that there is much warmth in it. All the same, it was quite pleasant in the park when I managed to get shelter from the north wind and stay in the sun. It's good to have firm footing through the woods and Fern comes home without being covered in mud. That mug of coffee when I get in after half or three-quarters of an hour straight after breakfast is very welcome. My main concern at the moment is that the snow should stay away as we will be off to France at the weekend and I don't want the driving conditions shown here.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

An ill omen?

I hope not.

The 2011 Convention for Lions MD105 is to be held in Belfast. The pin being produced shows, as well as the Lions badge, a representation of the Titanic, the ship having been built in Belfast. I hope the Convention committee is not tempting providence.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Scenic Saturday - Gloucestershire

Number 18 in the series.



We come this week to the first of the counties whose names end in ‘cestershire' so a brief note about pronunciation might be in order. The ‘cester' or ‘chester' in the names of English towns and cities indicates that they were once Roman garrison towns - Colchester, Manchester, Leicester and so on, including Gloucester. If the names includes the ‘h', eg Rochester, it is pronounced as written. However, in other cases such as Gloucester and Worcester, the ‘ce' is silent and the name is pronounced Gloster, Wooster etcetera.

Although Berkshire is normally the county referred to as ‘Royal', Gloucestershire could also lay claim to the appellation as both the Prince of Wales and the Princess Royal have homes in the county.

The county lies astride the River Severn and the low-lying areas along the river, including the historic abbey town of Tewkesbury, were subject to the worst ever flooding in England in 2007. Cheltenham is known for its Georgian architecture, the Cheltenham Ladies College, and its race course which features the Cheltenham Festival and the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The late Queen Mother was a keen visitor to the races here and when she passed through the village/suburb of Prestbury the owner of the village store always presented her with a box of chocolates.

Tewkesbury, Cheltenham and the city of Gloucester are all worth visiting, but the main attraction for tourists is the range of hills known as the Cotswolds. Here you will find villages tucked into valleys, the houses built from the local honey-coloured stone: Naunton, Upper and Lower Slaughter, Broadway, Bourton-on-the-Water all have people claiming them as the prettiest village in England, but our picture this week is of another Cotswold village - Bibury.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Dream worlds

As a young man - probably still in my teens or maybe very early twenties - one of my favourite authors was Dennis Wheatley. Many of his books, if not all of them, (and I was surprised to find they are still in print) involved the supernatural and I recall that one of the central tenets was that a person's spirit, or ka, left the body during sleep and travelled on different levels of astral planes. Dreams, it would seem, are the subconscious result of the mind recognising what is happening to the ka. It all seemed quite possible to me in those days, but I never did really believe it.

I know I do dream although when I wake all I have is a vague recollection of having dreamed. I can very seldom recall the substance of the dream. Indeed, it's not often that I can even recall in the morning having dreamed during the night although I do know I had a dream a few nights ago. When I woke I was surprised that fragments of the dream were still in my memory, although they have gone now.

There are just two dreams that I can still remember. They both occurred on the same night about fifty years ago. Perhaps I am wrong to call them dreams as I am pretty certain they were the result of delirium during the onset of pneumonia. One of them was more nightmare than dream, although I suppose that a nightmare is a dream, albeit a "horror" dream.

The bedroom in which my brother and I slept was at the back of the house and had a view over the neighbouring gardens to the corrugated asbestos roof of a garage. This was not the sort of garage to be found nestling alongside a suburban semi in which the family car is parked: it was an altogether larger building in which cars were repaired. In my dream the garage had grown to even larger proportions. But it was not the size of the building that caused my terror. It was the cowboys and Indians clambering over the garage roof waving their six-shooters and tomahawks in an alarming fashion as they came for me. Just why they should have been coming for me I really couldn't say, but I knew that they were. I assume that I must have screamed fit to bring the house down as my father spent the rest of the night in my bed and my mother moved me into their bed with her in the front bedroom.

The comfort of my mother beside me didn't stop me dreaming, although the next dream was altogether less terrifying. Somehow our house had been relocated to the far end of the road, about as far from the bottom as it was, in reality, from the top. There was a street light outside, shining into the bedroom, and it was by the light of this lamp that I could see rather small men and women in strange garb climbing through the window and mounting two or three steps onto a sort of minstrels' gallery that ran round two sides of the room.

I haven't the faintest idea how the dream ended and I have not been able to remember a dream since then - a fact for which I am actually very grateful.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

A celebration

I've waffled quite a bit over the last few days so today I'm going to give you all a treat: I won't dribble on at all and will simply wish all my American and Canadian friends -



And remember: a stranger is just a friend we have yet to meet.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Look after the pennies



It is fifty years since I left school and things have changed more than a little during that half century. No, slates had been made obsolete even before I started school, which was more than sixty years ago, but there have nevertheless been considerable changes in both what is taught and how it is taught. In my day, students who sat their A level exams were given their results as either a pass or a fail, with the percentage mark also being notified. Nowadays the results are given as grades, the top being A*. What has been noticeable over the past goodness how many years is that the percentage of students being awarded either A* or A has increased every year. The question being asked is have students have become cleverer or have the exams have become easier? We hear (or read) this question every August when the results are announced, but the matter has been aired again this month when it emerged that questions were set in one exam that touched on matters not covered by the national syllabus.

I don't propose to enter into that discussion here but I will state that in my opinion the exams have become easier. As far as the science exams are concerned - especially maths - they must have done. The whole subject of maths is easier now than it was before our currency was converted to decimal and since we have surreptitiously converted our weights and measures to a decimal system. Whereas under the old system of currency people were quite accustomed to doing mental arithmetic to convert a given number of pennies to shillings and a given number of shillings to pounds, no such mental exercise is needed now. But when there were twelve pence in a shilling and twenty shillings in a pound, it was second nature to know, for example, that thirty shillings represented one and a half pounds. Likewise, eighteen pence was one shilling and sixpence. If a shopkeeper told you that the price of something was fifty-five shillings, it was second nature to hand over three one-pound notes and expect two halfcrowns in change.

Even when my children were at primary school, they had to learn their multiplication tables up to twelve. They may still have to: I have no contact these days with schoolchildren of that age (or their parents) so have no way of knowing. Yes, it was tedious, but my elder son commented when in his teens that he was glad he had been made to learn them as it made life much easier to know that twelve sixes are 72 without having to work it out. If we had retained our imperial measures and currency, schoolchildren would still be learning their tables and finding later how useful they are.

It really made much more sense to use the imperial measurements of inches, feet, yards and miles. These were based, after all, on measurements taken from the human body, whereas the metric measurements are based on the metre which is itself based on the circumference of the earth (I think). That sounds eminently sensible - until one discovers that the measurement on which the metre is based is incorrect, thereby throwing out the whole system. Anyway, the base units of 12 and 20 in our old currency, 12, 3, 220 and 8 in distance and 16, 28, 4 and 20 in measurements might look somewhat haphazard, but they are capable of much better division than the base unit of 10.

I wouldn't want to bring back hanging, but I would be quite happy to see shillings and pence reintroduced. Yes, I know - I'm on old fogey, a proper dinosaur. But I'm a likeable chap as well.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

A hard lesson

It has been brought home to me over the last couple of weeks that the application form used when joining the local Lions Club should carry a warning along the lines of "Completing this form may damage your health".

There seem to be three distinct phases of a person's membership of a Lions Club. It is completely impossible to know when one moves from one phase to the next, especially as there is no chronological indication of any kind, but it is relatively easy for a fellow Lion to distinguish which phase one is in. The first phase is when the new (or newish) member is feeling his feet and gradually easing himself (or herself - take it for granted that where I use the masculine it is intended to be fully inclusive) into the day-to-day activities of the club. There usually comes a time when he is fully integrated and has moved into phase two. This is the really useful phase during which the Lion plays a full part in the club and can be relied on to organise a fund-raising event or service activity. Unfortunately, there are a few Lions who never quite manage to make the transition from phase one to phase two but that doesn't mean that they should not be members of the club. They can be excellent foot soldiers, willing to undertake jobs under the leadership and instruction of a Lion who has progressed to phase two. It sometimes helps to have more Indians and fewer chiefs.

Some people avoid phase three completely by simply leaving; others make a gradual transition into it. This is the time when, although still members of the club, Lions feel unable to do as much as they once did - possibly through loss of interest, possibly through ill health or advancing years. But they, too, have a part to play. Their years of experience and knowledge of both the Lions organisation and the world at large is there to be tapped into even if they are no longer capable of spending a day chopping wood.

So where does the potential health damage come in? It's in phase two. The danger is that a Lion can become over-enthusiastic, letting the club and Lions' activities take over his life to the extent that he has no interests outside Lions, his job is just a means of earning money and his home and garden are left to look after themselves. I have come across a very similar situation just recently. A Lion I know very well has had to take sick leave due to stress. His problem is that he hasn't learned to say, ‘No'. If someone has suggested something should be done, he has always been the first to volunteer. If he has had an idea for a service activity or fund-raiser, he has always had to lead it.

I know what it is like: I have been there. Well, almost there: I have fortunately managed to draw back more than once when I realised (either of my own accord or because it has been pointed out to me) that my involvement first in Scouting and later in Lions was in danger of damaging irrevocably my family life. I have learned the lesson of saying, ‘No'.

One of my fellow Lions submitted a piece for publication in the recent issue of Jungle Jottings in which he recalled advice given to him many years ago: one's family comes first, one's job second. If there is time left over, give some of it to the Lions. Some of it, not all. We Lions of several years standing owe it to other members of our clubs to make sure both we and others know when to say, ‘No'.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Riches from Rags

I was burbling the other day (was it really only yesterday?) about the disadvantages of dog ownership and ended by saying that there is a flip side. ‘OK,' you say, ‘convince me.' Well, one big advantage to owning a dog is that you have to walk the animal, thereby giving you the double benefit of fresh air and exercise. Yes, I know one doesn't actually need a dog in order to take exercise by walking in the fresh air. Indeed, there are many people who actually go jogging on an almost daily basis without the benefit of canine companionship but I know full well that I wouldn't do so. Without the dog I would rarely, if ever, take exercise - and certainly not when it's cold or raining. Even the bad weather has its advantage. Rather like enjoying the relief when you stop banging your head against the wall, coming back into a warm, dry house and a mug of hot coffee is a real pleasure I wouldn't be able to feel without having been in the cold rain before. I suppose all I have done so far is convince people that I am either a masochist or a raving lunatic. Let me try to put that right.

During our married life the Old Bat and I have owned four dogs at one time or another. Each has had their own distinct (and discrete) character but I will tell you about Rags.

Rags was our second dog. Our first had to be put down because of old age and illness and all four of us, perhaps especially the two boys who were then aged about four and one, felt the loss acutely. Within a couple of weeks my wife and I had decided that we needed another dog in the house and agreed to look out for a retriever. We chose that type because although we had been lucky with our previous rescue dog (a collie cross) we wanted to be reasonably certain that the new dog would be good with children. It just so happened that I was glancing at the small ads in the local paper one day during a break at work when I spotted it - the ad for a flat coat retriever. I rang home and my wife arranged for her mother to babysit that evening while we drove nearly 50 miles to see the dog. He was the runt of the litter, considered too small to be useful as a gun dog, and the last remaining pup.

We really should have done more homework and learned a bit about the breed first, but we were enchanted, paid over the necessary cash, and brought home the still nameless pup. To start with, we put him in the back of my estate car, but he wasn't having any of that and whined until I stopped and he was allowed on my wife's lap where he dozed quite happily as we drove home. For reasons I don't need to into here, the elder son decided the pup would be called Rags.

It wasn't long before we discovered the down side of owning a flat coat retriever. The breed is highly intelligent but notoriously difficult to train, and Rags was true to his breed. He quickly learned that he was supposed to come when called, and he would - but in his own time. He learned to climb the chain-link fence down the side of our garden and scramble through the top of the privet hedge the other side so that he could explore the neighbourhood. He grabbed any food that had not been put right at the back of the kitchen working surfaces. Furthermore, a quick twenty-minute walk was hopelessly inadequate. He needed a couple of hours exercise a day and with two young children (three before too much longer) in the house and me working, sometimes long hours, that was a bit difficult.

But exasperating and infuriating though he was, Rags was a fantastic dog with children. They could do anything with him. My daughter learned to walk by clinging to him. He would happily let children dress him in jumpers, dark glasses and funny hats - and then sit for his photograph to be taken. He was pleased to play the part of a doll, being put to bed with a pillow under his head and a blanket covering him. One of my daughter's friends had been mauled by a dog when just a toddler and was, understandably, scared of all dogs thereafter. Rags was big and black, so naturally she was scared of him. That didn't last long. Rags knew she was scared and took his time getting close to her. A neighbour would leave her two daughters at our house to be taken to school. Her marriage was rocky and the girls, especially the younger, were frequently upset and tearful. One day my wife discovered the younger girl in the dog basket with Rags. Just who was cuddling whom was uncertain, but Rags was like a comfort blanket. He would even let a child take away a bone he was chewing. All he did was look at my wife as if to say, ‘Can't you teach that child better manners?'

Before our children were of an age when they could go to and come home from school on their own, Rags' biggest treat was to be taken to meet them at the end of the school day. Other children would crowd around him - Rags was well-known at the school gate - and as far as he was concerned, this was like his birthday and Christmas rolled into one. Later, when the children came home from school on their own, he knew exactly when they should be back and if one was late because of an after-school activity, Rags just could not settle until all his flock was safely home.

I was becoming increasingly unhappy at work for various reasons and on many days I when I came home the children would disappear upstairs and the dog down the garden to get away from me, but at weekends I would walk Rags for hours over the Downs and he would walk right by my side as I told him all my troubles. I have never known a dog be such a wonderful listener.

He was his usual energetic self right up until one Saturday morning he had trouble getting out of his bad. I had to help him down the garden and to stand while he had a pee. Putting him the car to take to the vet, I knew this was the end. The vet confirmed this, saying that Rags had a large tumour. I held him as the vet injected him but I managed to keep the tears back until I got home. I had said goodbye to one of the best friends I have ever had: exasperating, infuriating even, but good-natured, loyal and affectionate to the end. In all his twelve years there had been not the faintest hint of a growl.

And that, perhaps, is the true downside of owning a dog, being unselfish enough to know when it's time to say goodbye.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Dog owner = masochist

There are many people out there who would consider me to have a masochistic streak and others, no doubt, who would suggest that I, my wife and our house are dirty. Far be it from me to suggest that either school of thought is wrong, but the cause of the views of both schools is our choice. We are dog owners. We have been for, oh, forty-five years or more. Not the same dog all the time, of course, but apart from the first year and the gaps between our different dogs we have owned dogs for our entire married lives. On those cold winter mornings when the rain is lashing not down but almost horizontally in a fierce north-east wind, my opinion is not that I am a masochist; rather a raving lunatic. All our dogs seem to have or have had the ability to attract mud and wet leaves to their fur and to have needed to be dried thoroughly before being allowed back into the house, but they have to be walked every day no matter what the weather.

Which brings us to another reason why dog owners are considered either mad or masochistic: not only do dogs have to be walked in all weathers, they have to be walked daily and really cannot be left on their own all day. This means that the sudden urge to, for example, make a trip to London to visit museums and take in a show has to be put down. Days out need to be planned well in advance so that somebody is available to look after the dog. It could even be that the animal has to go into kennels for a couple of nights, adding considerably to the expense of the day out. And when it comes to taking a holiday for a week or, heaven forbid! a fortnight, it's almost a case of taking out a mortgage to pay the extra costs. Kennels don't come cheap.

Nor do vets' bills. We have been using the same veterinary surgery since acquiring our first dog, although the vets have changed over the years. All the vets we have seen have been highly satisfactory and when we talk to other dog owners we find that our vet's fees are not as high as most others' in the town. I suppose that must be a bit of a bonus, but we still hope that nothing major goes wrong as we have consistently refused to take out pet insurance. Even the vet advised against doing that, saying that we would be better off putting the equivalent of the monthly premium into a savings account and drawing on that if need be.

All of which just goes to support the "You're a masochist" school of thought. But there is a flip side and perhaps I will manage to cover that another day.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Scenic Saturday - Oxfordshire

Number 17 in the series.



Oxfordshire has one foot in the Chilterns to the east and the other in the Cotswolds to the west, with the bulk of the county's southern boundary being the River Thames, or Isis as it is called in Oxford.

There are some pretty villages in the west of the county, although the better known attractions of the Cotswolds are in neighbouring Gloucestershire. Henley-on-Thames is the site of the annual Henley Royal Regatta, considered to be the premier rowing regatta in the world and definitely one of the highlights of the traditional English social season - straw boaters, striped blazers, Pimms and cucumber sandwiches.

Of course, the main tourist attraction in the county is the city of Oxford itself, home to one of the oldest universities in the world. The first college was established somewhere between 1249 and 1264 and even New College dates from 1379. When a person says he was ‘at Oxford', that is understood as meaning he studied at the University. However, I can also claim I was ‘at Oxford'. I was at the University for a short period. I applied to Worcester College and actually got as far as spending a few days in room on a staircase in one of the quads while I sat the entrance exam. That, I regret to say, was as far as I got. Worcester being "my" college so to speak, our picture this week is of a corner of one of its quads, quite possibly showing the door to the staircase on which I stayed. It was so long ago that I can't remember which one.