Saturday, 30 April 2011

Scenic Saturday - Merseyside

Number 39 in the series.

This is one of the newer counties carved out of Lancashire and Cheshire and centred on the city of Liverpool. It covers part of the Wirral peninsula with the once-great shipyards of Birkenhead (previously Cheshire) and stretches up the (Lancashire) coast to reach beyond Southport. The county is split in two by the River Mersey under which there is a tunnel and on which there are ferries between Liverpool and Birkenhead. Lying between Liverpool and Southport is Formby with its sandy beach backed by dunes and woodland. The beach and dunes feature in this picture by Peter Heyes.

Friday, 29 April 2011

It's a funny old day

Today is neither fish nor fowl: it's a public holiday but not a statutory one. That means that some businesses are working as usual, some are asking some staff to work but for no extra pay although they will get a day off in lieu, some workers will be offered overtime and a day off in lieu and some businesses are closed for the day. Certainly the streets were quieter than usual when I took Fern for her walk this morning so I guess that means most people have the day off to watch the wedding.

What wedding, you ask? The wedding of Prince William and Kate (or Catherine as we should call her now) Middleton. The papers have been desperate to fid something new to say about the occasion over the last couple of days and have been reduced to reporting numbers and betting odds. I have seen figures ranging from 8,500 to 12,000 for the number of media people in London and I forget how many miles of cabling, how many portaloos etc. The estimate is that about a million will be lining the procession route, some having been camped on the pavement since Monday and some having travelled in from the USA, Canada and even a whole family from Australia. The worldwide TV audience is expected to be 2 billion.

I do, of course, wish William and Kate every happiness. But I'm also pleased that we will have a worldwide audience for something we Brits can still do fairly well. Every wedding is theatre, but this one will be theatre on a truly grand scale. I don't think I am verstating the case when I say that there are few countries which can manage that as well as we can. I'm quite looking forward to watching.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

What I should be doing

The grass needs cutting, I still haven't finished writing the minutes of last week's Lions meeting, I should have Jungle Jottings done by now, part of the vegetable patch still needs weeding, the runner bean seeds need to be sown, the car is filthy inside and out... All things I should be doing but I can't seem to summon up the energy or willpower to do any of them right now. It doesn't help that there is a stiff, cold, north-easterly wind blowing. To think that last Thursday I was in a short-sleeved shirt and wishing I had worn shorts. Today when I took the dog out I was wearing a shirt, sweatshirt and fleece and I wasn't over-warm by any means. In fact, by the time we got home my hands were quite cold.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Back home

What a splendid weekend of weather it was with wall-to-wall sunshine pretty well all the daylight hours. I had expected to be working for some of the time as I had been warned that the new fruit trees planted in the Pond Field had to have protection from the cattle. This would have involved constructing a fence around each tree - all 18 of them so far - but the ground is so hard that it would have been almost an impossible task to knock the posts in. So we left it for another time when rain has softened the earth.

On two evenings my cousin-in-law and I went on bat hunts. C-i-l is very interested in ecology and there is a roost of the rare greater horseshoe bat in nearby Brockley Hall. These creatures apparently follow well-defined routes when they leave the roost at dusk and their route takes them down the garden. Armed with a bat detector - a machine that converts the high-pitched "sounds" the bats emit when hunting - a bit like radar - into something that can be heard by the human ear. We weren't too successful on the first occasion as we had left it a little late, but on the second evening we saw and heard a good number.

It was quite an international weekend as well. I was walking a couple of the dogs (at that time there were four springer spaniels in residence) across one of the fields when I met c-i-l's elder brother who lives nearby. He had with him not only his wife, who is Dutch, but their four guests - two Dutch and two American. Then on Monday two other friends of the cousin and her husband arrived - one French and one Spanish. Quite an international gathering for a quiet corner of deepest Somerset.

I took a few pictures which I will post on Fern's blog.

We got home yesterday in the late afternoon to be greeted by our blackbird singing lustily from the sycamore (and he's back again this morning). But perhaps he has been singing all weekend and he wasn't really greeting us. Funny how, no matter how comfortable the beds when one is away, it's always good to get back to one's own bed.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Scenic Saturday - Greater Manchester

Number 38 in the series.

This "county" covers the city of Manchester and towns around such as Stockport, Tameside, Trafford, Bolton, Bury, Oldham, Rochdale and Wigan. Although there is some countryside - park of the Pennine chain - in the east, the county is predominately urban. Indeed, Manchester is the second most populous are in England. This was cotton country, the raw material being shipped in either through the docks at Liverpool or, probably more frequently, direct to Manchester via the 36-mile-long Manchester Ship Canal.

This week's picture is of Shambles Square, Manchester.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Down on the farm

With Easter coming this weekend there is only one place for the Old Bat and me to be. For more than 25 years it has been our custom to visit my cousin and her husband on their farm a few miles outside Bristol. (I wonder why there is no generally accepted term for the spouse of a cousin? I can't keep referring to "my cousin's husband" so without further ado I shall coin the phrase "cousin-in-law".)

Although I am no farmer, being a thoroughbred townie, I have, over the years, turned my hand to numerous jobs around the farm, albeit frequently acting mainly as gofer to my c-i-l. I have helped to dig holes for fence posts. That, on the face of it, sounds an unnecessary task but these fence posts were not the usual chestnut stakes. They were mini telegraph poles almost a foot in diameter and needed to be buried four feet into the ground. I am talking about the corner posts for an 8' high fence of high tensile steel netting to contain deer. At that time, there was no money to hire a contractor to do the job so it had to be done by hand. I have repaired the ordinary sort of barbed wire fence, having herded the cows that had broken it down back from the garden which contained grass so much more luscious than they had in the field. I have rounded up sheep, ducks and geese, though not all at the same time. Using my minimal carpentry skills I have constructed gates, I built a pig pen and dug a trench across the rock-hard ground of the yard. I helped install a milking machine and taught calves to drink from buckets. I have cut down trees (and tended the resulting bonfires) and I have planted hedges.

My job this year, I am told, is to construct cow-proof protectors for the fruit trees c-i-l wants to plant in groups in the Pond Field.

The weather forecast is good - at the moment - so it should be an enjoyable weekend with fresh air, good food, good wine and good company. Oh, and I'm meeting that long-lost cousin again for lunch on the way to the farm.

See you next week.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

I blame the bank

It seems to be the fashion since the world was overtaken by an economic crisis for the banks to be blamed for the crisis and all the other ills of mankind. I have so far managed to resist taking part in the bank bashing because, whilst I agree they made mistakes, those mistakes would not have happened if there had not been greedy people prepared to take advantage of them and, indeed, positively to encourage bankers in their folly. But today it is my turn to join the lynch mob.

While I was at school I probably smoked the very occasional cigarette - when there is a group of six-formers on the beach with one or two smokers among them, it seems natural. But I wasn't really a smoker then although I have been a smoker now for round about 50 years. It is all the fault of the banks. Well, not so much banks (plural) as one bank in particular: the bank that employed me. I left school at the age of 18 without any real idea of how I would earn a living. My intention had been to attend university and, during my time there, think about my options. However, my exam results were not of the high standard required by any university of my choice and I was brought down to earth with a bit of a jolt. It was all very well stacking supermarket shelves to earn pocket money, but that wasn't going to bring me the standard of living I hoped to enjoy. I needed to look elsewhere and banking seemed a reasonable choice.

The bank I selected for the honour of employing me was doubtful. The local staff manager had no doubts about the bank's suitability to be honoured in such a way: his doubt was about me. My health record was not good and he was a little dubious about my ability to withstand the rigours of staying on my feet all day at a till, there being no thought in those days of sitting while serving a customer. Wisdom eventually prevailed and I duly reported to one of the Brighton branches to be inducted into the secrets of the financial world. It goes without saying that my working day was taken up entirely with such exciting activities as applying a rubber stamp to several thousand pieces of paper, filing, sticking stamps on envelopes and other similar activities dangerous to my health.

I had not been employed for a year before I was informed that I had been selected to attend a course, an Outward Bound course at a centre in the Lake District. This course, I was told, involved team-building exercises and would fit me for future leadership. So, in the late autumn of that year, I caught a train to Penrith for a month in the mountain air of Cumbria. During the course there would be no alcohol and no tobacco. And the tea contained bromide. In any case, it was an all-male affair.

Much of the first week was spent in the classroom learning first aid and map-reading with a daily work-out on circuit training - press-ups, pull-ups and all sorts of other torture. We students gazed longingly at the hills, wishing we could be up there with the circuit training nothing but a bad memory. We were allowed one luxury. It was considered too cold for us to take a 6.00am dip in the lake and we took cold showers instead.

It was the second week before all the classroom instruction was to be put into practice, at first in large groups led by an instructor. We hiked the hills, bivouacking overnight, we canoed, we scaled rock faces and abseiled down again. It was a sort of junior commando training. All this was in preparation for the final hike when we would spend three days on the fells in groups of four.

I can't remember the exact make-up of my group for that last exercise but I do recall that one of the group was a police cadet from Rugby. We seemed to team up naturally and he and I spent the nights in a small two-man tent. I can't remember his name. It wasn't Tom, but for the sake of ease I will call him that.

Mid-afternoon on the third day of the hike: darkness falling and the fog so think we could hardly see our feet. We were walking downhill towards a flattish spot beside a tarn that we had identified on the map. We knew we were walking in the right direction as we could hear the stream feeding the tarn bubbling along on our left. (When the fog lifted slightly we saw that if we had taken just one step to the left we would have been in the stream.) Reaching the selected camp site we wasted no time erecting the tents, changing out of our wet clothes and diving into sleeping bags before lighting the primus stove to cook our meal. With the stove and dirty utensils put outside the tent until morning, sleep came easily.

We woke in the early hours to find that the tarn had overflowed and the tent was full of water. Our sleeping bags - and the dry clothes we had put on - we sodden. There was no chance of further sleep. As we lay there, I fantasised. "What wouldn't I give," I declared, "for a rum and coke".

"And a cigarette," replied Tom.

Two days later we left the centre for home. The first thing Tom and I did was to visit a near-by tobacconist's shop and I have smoked ever since.

Monday, 18 April 2011

One of those days

Most days I sit at the keyboard and know just what I intend to write about. That's not to say I actually do end up writing about what I had intended as my subject: my grasshopper mind frequently takes me in a completely different direction and what ends up on the blog bears no resemblance to what I had meant to write. I understand some authors of fiction find this happens with their books. There are those authors, or so I understand, who plan their novels scene by scene and know exactly what is going to happen before they write even the opening sentence. Other authors start off with an idea of the plot but find the characters they have invented take control of the story which then just writes itself. Don't misunderstand me: I'm not putting myself in the same class as many published authors, although there are some whose books are so dire that I consider myself in a class above them. Why their publishers think the books will sell is completely beyond me.

See? It's happened again. I started out with absolutely no intention of slagging off writers or publishers.

Well, our resident blackbird has been perched high in the sycamore singing lustily for most of the weekend. When he takes a break to nip off for a juicy worm steak or snail fritter or whatever the garden seems almost eerily silent. I was in the vegetable garden yesterday afternoon and enjoyed a pleasant serenade as I sowed the parsnip seeds. Fern, our springer spaniel, enjoys gardening and delights in accompanying the Old Bat or me when we are working out there. She especially enjoys weeding, sticking her nose in to see what is being pulled out and generally making a nuisance of herself. Many years ago I constructed a picket fence across the garden to keep dogs off the vegetable plot. When I am down there digging or whatever, Fern lies as close as she can get to the fence, much of the time at the gate with her nose poked underneath as far as it will go.

I built an archway over the gate which we call a pergola although it isn't really large enough to merit the description. Now I always though the word 'pergola' should be pronounced with the stress on the second syllable but I looked it up in the dictionary yesterday and found I have been wrong all these years: the stress is on the first syllable. That pergola is covered by a clematis, another word I was unsure about pronouncing. I have always said 'clem-eight-iss' with the stress on the second syllable (again) but I have heard it said 'clem-at-iss' with the first syllable stressed. I find that both are correct. As somebody remarked on another blog the other day, English is an odd language.

I seem to have meandered through several subjects today so I will finish now before I get myself in too much of a tangle and you, dear reader, hopelessly confused.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Wedding fever

I have so far managed to avoid any mention of the forthcoming Royal Nuptials, not because I am anti-monarchy (or anti-marriage), nor because I am completely without interest in the matter. I think that in our soon-to-be Princess Kate, or Catherine as we must learn to call her, we have a very attractive woman whose picture I am happy to see in the newspaper. She seems always to be wearing a dazzling smile which lights up the gloomiest morning.

The press have used not just column inches but yards covering just about every aspect of the wedding day from speculation about the designer of the wedding dress to advice on her hair style and make-up. Funny how it has all been directed at Kate with William being completely swept aside as if he has just a walk-on part in the whole thing.

There has been - shall I say, encouragement? - from No 10 for street parties to be held on 29 April (the wedding day) and local councils have been told to cut out the red tape involved in giving permission for these. Despite this, there have been reports of bureaucratic nightmares for some people and, in any case, the number pf these parties being planned is fairly small. I suppose this is partly because the weather in this country is iffy at any time and particularly so in April and partly because we just don't "do" street parties anymore in the way that we did say, 60 or 70 years ago.

Street parties or not, the forecast is for a worldwide television audience of billions. I just hope she knows what she is letting herself in for.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Scenic Saturday - West Yorkshire

Number 37 in the series.

West Yorkshire is wool country. With sheep grazed on the higher moors and plentiful water running through the valleys - the famous Yorkshire dales - towns such as Leeds, Halifax and Huddersfield grew prosperous on the wool industry. There are literary connections as well: this is Brontë country and the village of Haworth attracts many admirers of their work. More recently, a long-running television comedy, Last of the Summer Wine, was filmed in and around Holmfirth.

The Pennines run down the western side of the county and this week's picture shows the dry stone walls that are typical of the area.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Four and twenty blackbirds

Some few days back I commented on the hen blackbird I had been watching as she gathered material for her nest before disappearing into a neighbour's fir tree. I haven't seen her for several days so I don't know if she has finished the nest and is sitting on eggs or if she has abandoned that site and started afresh somewhere else. The cock blackbird, however, is very much in evidence. He spends a lot of time high in the sycamore tree in another neighbour's garden, singing his heart out. I noticed yesterday evening that he had started quite a while before dusk and was still going strong an hour later. I took a camera down the garden in the hope of taking a movie of the apple blossom buds while capturing his song as a sort of background music. He immediately moved to a tree farther away but was still loud enough to record. However, when I came to play back the movie there was no sound. Maybe that camera doesn't record - I'll have to try with a different one, perhaps this evening.

This morning something woke me just after 5.00. What it was I couldn't say and it wasn't long before I dropped off again. But not before I had noticed the blackbird was singing again in the sycamore. When I woke again soon after 7.00 he was still at it. He didn't stop until just after 9.00 but was back on song again by 10.00.

I love listening to the song of the blackbird. It always reminds me of two things: walking to Scouts as a teenager when, at this time of the year, there was always the song of the blackbird to accompany me down the road; and the trilogy by John Masters, Loss of Eden (Now, God be Thanked; Heart of War and By the Green of the Spring). Set in Kent and the western front during the First World War, these books bring home the futility of war and, at the same time, how war can bring out the best in some people. And the connection with blackbirds? One of the principal characters is executed for cowardice (he was suffering from shell shock) and as he is led out to his death he hears a blackbird singing.

The blackbird is one of the "finalists" in the Battle of the Birdsong being run by the National Trust. Five species have been selected by naturalists and the public are asked to vote for their favourite. The five species are blackbird, robin, song thrush, blackcap and swift. (See more and listen to the different songs right here.) I'm not sure that their recording of a blackbird is the best: ours certainly sings better than that. What surprises me is that the skylark is not one of the selected species. As things stand I shall have to vote for the blackbird, but if the skylark were there I would find it difficult to choose between them.

(I've just had another look at that web site and I can vote for the skylark. Oh dear, what a decision.)

The song of the skylark can be downloaded here. This, to me, is the sound of the South Downs.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Secrets of a happy life

Action for Happiness, a mass movement to improve people's wellbeing, claims there are 10 key steps to achieving contentment in life, it was reported in yesterday's Daily Telegraph. These are:

Do things for others - volunteer to work for a charity in your spare time.

Connect with people - get in touch with friends with whom you have lost contact.

Take care of your body - go for a run.

Notice the world around - take time to appreciate wildlife in your area.

Keep learning new things - learn a new language.

Have goals to look forward to - make resolutions and stick to them.

Find ways to bounce back - learn from defeats to do things better in the future.

Take a positive approach - focus on the happy moments of your life rather than the sad.

Be comfortable with who you are - do not dwell on your flaws.

Be part of something bigger - join a society or club.

I could, I suppose, enlarge on those points but they seem to me to be concise and succinct and well worth taking on board just as they are.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

There you are

And here I am, back before you've had time to miss me. It was a very pleasant break, but too short. Although traffic was heavy on the motorways both ways, we got held up only for a very short while heading north on Sunday afternoon. We had a most enjoyable Sunday lunch which was made all the better when another lady at the pub complimented us on the boys' behaviour.

I am sure there are more sheep around this year than I have seen for many years, both on the Downs round here and as we drove up to Sutton Coldfield. There were also great swathes of cowslips on the motorway verges. Very nice to see this flower making something of a comeback. I was, however, disappointed not to see the red kites as we passed through the Chilterns.

We had to come back yesterday as I had already promised to provide a taxi ride for my younger son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter to Gatwick for them to fly off to Tenerife or somewhere for a holiday in the sun.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Don't believe everything your mother told you

If I could be bothered - which I can't - I could easily find out when I first met Sue. I know it was shortly before she and I, along with several others, accompanied a relief convoy to Bosnia just after the Yugoslavian civil war. Sue is a member of a Lioness Club just along the coast from here so the Old Bat and I have had occasion to meet a good many times since then. The latest occasion was at the beginning of last week and Sue was telling us how she has only recently discovered that she has two half-sisters. A bit like my sister-in-law, who discovered a couple of years ago that she has a half-sister. Of course, all this knowledge only comes to light after the death of everybody who could tell us the stories behind the facts, stories which we would dearly love to know. It just goes to show that not only do we not ask the questions when people who can give the answers are still around to do so, but in fact half the time we don't even know the questions to ask.

When I started researching my family tree there was only one person left alive from earlier generations: my mother. It seemed natural to ask her to tell me all she could and she did so willingly. She told me that somebody on her side of the family had done some research which showed we were descended from a naval captain. That proved to be untrue. She also told me that one of my father's uncles was a fisherman who was thought to have been lost at sea in the early years of the 20th century. I have just found out that Great Uncle Ambrose was indeed a trawlerman, but he died in 1922 (hardly the early years of the century) in a sanatorium of enteric fever.

I wonder how many of the other things she told me will prove to be false?

Monday, 11 April 2011

Kish Celtic Band

It's getting on for seven years now since I was privileged to be invited to join Grandma Skip's family on Independence Day. It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon listening to the Kish Celtic Band. I have been playing a CD of their's recently and was delighted to find some of their songs on the web. Here is one of my favourites.

Find more artists like Kish Celtic at Myspace Music

Sunday, 10 April 2011

I will not be there

Today sees the second Brighton marathon. I won't even be spectating let alone running. I was highly dubious when it was announced that the first marathon would be run in the city last year as it meant that many of the roads in the city centre would be closed for at least part of the day thereby causing enormous complications for residents and visitors alike. I know one lady who is confined to a wheelchair who was unable to use her car at all last year and I assume the same applies today. But it seemed to be a great success last year and I hope it will be again today. This video shows the whole of the route in super-quick time.

I shall be trying to get across town for my grandson's birthday lunch, then back again to collect Fern before leaving for Birmingham (Sutton Coldfield actually) to visit my daughter for a couple of days. Don't worry - I won't leave you completely bereft of fascinating stuff.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Scenic Saturday - South Yorkshire

Number 36 in the series.

South Yorkshire: coal mines and steel works. Dreary (to me) towns such as Barnsley and Rotherham and the city of Sheffield, once the world leader in cutlery manufacture, especially knives, and stainless steel. That doesn't sound much like a scenic place, but South Yorkshire also extends to part of the Peak District and there are certainly some attractive sights in other parts of the country. This picture of Totley Moor was taken by Roger Temple.

Friday, 8 April 2011

I could be world champion

There are not many things I'm good at, including English grammar as that opening phrase should probably read "there are not many things at which I am good". But the "correct" wording - if, indeed, it is correct - sounds clumsy. Perhaps the best way of dealing with it is to reword it completely.

There are not many things I do well. Does that sound better? It's a bit like when I try to write a letter in French. I don't have to do it very often and my French is not exactly fluent so when the need arises I tend to draft the letter in English and then translate it. The problem with doing that is that although I usually manage to get the words right, the result is not exactly correct because the French put things in a different order. Anyway, as I was saying, there are not many things I do well but there is one sphere of activity in which I am definitely world class. I suppose the purists might say that my world-beating ability is in a sphere of inactivity rather than activity since my prowess is in procrastination. There are people, I am told although I can't recall ever meeting one of them, who live by the motto, "Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today". Not me. For me, the converse is true and I am for ever trying to find excuses for deferring things. Not that I have to try particularly hard as there is always something else more urgent or important or just more interesting that I want to get on with.

This morning is a case in point. I have a pile of paper sitting beside my keyboard on my desk. This constitutes my pending file. I don't remember when I last looked at the papers at the bottom of the pile but I have a sneaking suspicion that the very bottom one could be a letter from my dentist reminding me that my 6-monthly check up is due. That has been sitting there for 18 months now. I did nothing about it when I received it because the last time I visited my dentist he suggested that I only need see him once a year unless I have trouble. Well, I haven't had trouble so there didn't seem much point in disturbing him but I suppose I really should do so sometime. Not that that particular example demonstrates this morning's procrastination. That refers to a letter I should have written before now to a young lad in Maryland who suffers from cystic fibrosis.

Some years ago my Lions Club twinned with a club from Maryland. After a while we decided that twinning should be more than just exchanging newsletters and we decided to establish a joint service project. After some to-ing and fro-ing, it was agreed that we should each "adopt" a disabled or life-limited youngster in the other club's area and try to brighten their lives by sending letters and postcards. Somehow it has fallen to me to write to Joe each month and I diarise to do so at the beginning of the month. I have spent all week putting off writing my April letter as I am finding it increasingly difficult to write on a different theme every month. I have suggested that somebody else might take over this job - I've been doing it since its inception - but to no avail.

Well, I mustn't put it off any longer. I had better see what I wrote last month and try to carry on from there.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Does there have to be a title?

Another glorious spring day yesterday and the same again today. I see in the paper that this weather is supposed to continue over the weekend as well. It was very pleasant over the Downs yesterday afternoon when I took Fern for a walk and afterwards I spent a little while in the garden. Sowed the first row of peas and planted garlic. I'm not sure if this garlic is the sort that should be planted in autumn or spring, but some of the cloves had started sprouting so I'm hopeful that this year we shall get a crop - unlike last year when it all rotted.

Last night I was out for the fourth time in five evenings, this time a Lions dinner meeting. There was a magnificent sunset but from outside the hotel in Rottingdean where the meeting was held, the sun was behind the cliffs. The jetty just visible is part of Brighton marina.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

What's the alternative?

Four weeks from tomorrow I will have the opportunity to vote - twice. There are to be local elections, ie elections to our local council, and there is also to be a referendum. Although I have yet to receive detailed information about this, my understanding is that, in broad terms, we are being asked if the system of electing our Members of Parliament should be changed from the present, long-established idea that the candidate with the most votes wins (known as "first past the post") to a system whereby votes for losing candidates are redistributed ("alternative voting") and the winning candidate is the one who is first to obtain 50% of the votes cast. There have been complaints that many winning candidates have received less than 50% of the votes and are not the choice of the majority of the electorate. I'm not convinced that alternative voting, as I understand the proposed system, will actually eliminate. Let's just look quickly at the mechanics of both systems, starting with the current "first past the post" method.

This is, of course, the commonest method of voting across the entire world. Voters are presented with a list of candidates and have to mark the one for whom they wish to vote, usually by drawing a cross in a square beside the candidate's name. The candidate for whom the most votes are cast wins the election. Simple and straightforward and the result can be announced in the time it takes to count the votes.

Under alternative voting, voters are again presented with a list of candidates. However, instead of selecting just one, they are asked to rank the candidates in order of preference, from 1 to however many. Should there be one candidate who has collected more than 50% of first preferences, that candidate is declared the winner. But if no candidate has collected 50% of the votes, there is a second round. This time, the candidate with the fewest votes is left out and the second choices of those who voted for that candidate are distributed amongst the others. This is repeated until there is a candidate with more than 50%. Apparently, this is the system in use in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Australia. In Fiji there are demands to change back to "first past the post" and in Australia people are required by law to cast their votes.

Of course, I accept that the fact that this system is not in wide use does not necessarily mean it should not be introduced. But is it any better than the system we have now? I think not. The complaint that winning candidates under the present system may be not wanted by the majority of voters could still be valid and, what seems worse to me, the winner will not be (as at present) the most popular candidate but will be the least unpopular.

It may be that my understanding of the possible new system is inaccurate - but I doubt it. That being so, I shall definitely be voting "no".

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

More matters Lionistic

Again, I feel I should start with a short explanation. Lions Clubs across the world are organised into Districts which are subdivided into Zones of about seven clubs each.

The Zone in which Brighton Lions Club, the club to which I belong, finds itself consists of six Lions Clubs spread along the coast of Sussex between the Rivers Adur and Cuckmere, plus one Lioness Club. We are fortunate in having a particularly good inter-club relationship. This is, in part, due to what has now become an established tradition of an annual Zone Olympics. These Olympics involve each club organising a social event based on a vaguely sporting competition. This year, for example, the Clubs have played or will play against each other in events comprising toad in the hole (explanation here), shuffleboard, ten-pin bowling, kurling (the indoor version of curling), darts, pool, shove ha'penny, a quiz and skittles.

Under the leadership of a Zone Chairman, the presidents and secretaries of each club, plus any other Lions sufficiently interested to attend, meet several times during the year. A few years ago the Zone Chairman was a particularly well-liked and respected man, a man whome many were delighted to call a friend. Despite having been diagnosed as suffering from cancer, John always seemed more concerned with the well-being of other people than with his own health problems. He had asked me to act as his Zone Secretary and although I was at that time trying to reduce the number of jobs I undertook with the Lions, there was no way I could dream of refusing John.

John always ended zone meetings with a joke, usually a feeble joke. John was renowned for his feeble jokes. After his death just about at the end of his year as Zone Chairman, the new ZC introduced the John Wilkinson Memorial Joke as the last item on the agenda of every zone meeting. Subsequent ZCs have continued that practice. The joke selected for last week's meeting struck us all as very funny, which is why I am reproducing it here. It is a little risqué so I will apologise in advance if I offend anyone.

A man walked into a pub, sat at the bar and placed a bag on the bar. The barman asked what was in the bag. Without speaking, the man reached into the bag and took out a miniature man, almost exactly a foot tall, whom he placed on the bar. He reached into the bag again and took out a miniature piano which he also placed on the bar. Reaching into the bag a third time, he pulled out a miniature piano stool. The miniature man sat on the stool and started to play the piano.

‘Good heavens,' exclaimed the barman. ‘Where did you get those?'

The man still said nothing but reached yet again into the bag. This time he pulled out a magic lamp. Handing this to the barman he said, ‘Rub it'. The barman did so and a genie appeared.

‘You may have one wish,' the genie said to the barman. ‘Everybody is entitled to one wish.'

‘I wish for a million bucks,' said the barman.

At that, the door opened and ducks started filing into the pub. Soon the place was filled with them - on the bar, the chairs, the tables - and still they kept coming.

‘I think your genie must be a bit deaf,' said the barman. ‘I wished for a million bucks, not a million ducks.'

The man spoke for the first time. ‘Tell me about it,' he said. ‘Do you think I really asked for a 12-inch pianist?'

So yesterday I cut the grass for the first time this year and - more importantly - pulled the first rhubarb. This plant has been covered by a metal wastepaper basket all winter and is miles ahead of the others. One plum tree is a mass of blossom but the other has very little this year.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Matters Lionistic

For those not in the know, perhaps I should explain that "Lionistic" is a word used as an adjective to describe matters relating to the International Association of Lions Clubs and is not intended as a synonym for "leonine" although, for all I know, it might well be. Anyway, to matters Lionistic.

Way back before anybody had coined the phrase "social networking", possibly as long ago as 11 or 12 years, I stumbled across a site that was a forerunner of Facebook and Twitter. It was a message board run by a Californian Lion. I haven't the foggiest idea how I found it, but I quickly became addicted, along with a good number of other Lions around the world. We used it as a discussion forum for serious matters to do with Lions Clubs, as a means of exchanging ideas and as a place to indulge in idle banter.

In the fullness of time, the organiser (the name "Lane" rings a bell but whether this was a surname or forename I can no longer remember) decided to change the format of the message board quite dramatically. The result was far less user-friendly and led to another Lion, Milt from Los Angeles, setting up a new board to which nearly all the regulars migrated. After a while, Milt became somewhat disillusioned with the volume of banter (I think he was probably paying for the amount of use the board received) and decreed that only serious matters should be discussed. So yet again we migrated, this time to a board established by an English Lion, Paul from Birmingham. He, too, eventually decided he was no longer interested and closed "the Coffee Shop". I considered that there were benefits arising from the use of a message board of this type, one of which was the making of new friendships. As an example, this is how I first "met" Uncle Skip whom I am now pleased to call my friend and whom, along with the charming Grandma Skip, I have subsequently met face-to-face on a couple of occasions. After some trial and error, I eventually set up the most recent Lions' message board so that folks could meet Under the Pier, as I called it. However, I think the time is fast approaching for us to abandon ship. The tide is rising Under the Pier and we have been largely submerged by the dreaded F/B. The volume of messages posted Under the Pier has dwindled, as has the number of people who even just drop by. I really think the board has outlived its usefulness and before too much longer I will close it down.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Gerard Hoffnung

I'm feeling lazy today so not a lot of writing.

Gerard Hoffnung died in 1959 at the age of 34. Born in Berlin of Jewish parents, he came to London as a refugee in 1939. He became a professional cartoonist and played the tuba but what he is primarily remembered for is his brilliance as a raconteur. In 1958 he took part in a debate at the Oxford Union and his speech was broadcast by the BBC. Here is the best-known part of it - the bricklayer's story. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do every time I hear it.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Scenic Saturday - Humberside

Number 35 in the series.

Back on the east coast again, we come to Humberside. Another one of the "new" counties, this was created from part of north Lincolnshire and a large chunk of what was the East Riding of Yorkshire. Humberside sits astride the estuary of the River Humber.

Spurn Head (sometimes called Spurn Point) is a sand spit on the northern side of the estuary. Subject to constant erosion, the neck spit is likely to be breached fairly soon. When that happens, the whole spit will be washed away and a new spit will start to form. This happens about every 250 years.

Further north, the town of Bridlington was once a popular seaside resort. It still attracts visitors but in much smaller numbers now that travel to warmer places like Spain is so easy and comparatively cheap.

Possibly the most attractive town in the area is Beverley, where the minster church is sometimes described as the finest Gothic building in Europe. Graham Hermon's picture shows the west front.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Goodbye to spring?

The weather this week has turned cold and, at times, wet with a stiffish breeze. Am I dreaming or was I really basking in the warmth of the sun last week?

I smiled when I read the other day about the American serviceman returning home after having been stationed in England during the War. He was asked what would be his most enduring memory of England and replied, ‘The way spring merges imperceptibly into autumn'. I related this tale to a fellow dog-walker who told me of a comment made by a Japanese student she once had staying with her. ‘In our country,' said the student, ‘we have seasons and we have different clothes for each season. In England you can wear the same clothes all year round'.

Of course, we don't have such a thing as a climate here in England, we have weather. Whether it's raining or whether it's not doing so yet.

Hosting foreign students is a local cottage industry. Brighton has several language schools drawing students from just about every country in the world to learn English. The schools like to have their students staying with English families and are always looking for more host families. It can be quite a profitable business for housewives looking to earn some extra tax-free cash.

#1Nana was saying how she has recently found it difficult to get any words onto paper. Actually, she didn't really say ‘paper', she said ‘written down'. I well remember how, when I was writing the story of Les Lavandes I reached the stage of thinking I had writer's block. I managed to overcome that by setting myself a small target. Each day I aimed to write just a couple of paragraphs. This took my mind off the seemingly unattainable object of finishing what eventually became a slim paperback. (It's all over on my other blog if anybody is interested.) I seem to have to opposite situation arise this week and words have flowed in a torrent - except for where I wanted them to flow most strongly. Somehow I haven't managed to raise much enthusiasm for cracking on with writing my family history. I have, however, written about how I bought a flame-thrower while in France last week. That story will be appearing on Les Lavandes in a day or two. In fact, I managed to write so much that it will probably appear over several days as a sort of serial story.

Maybe spring is still here. For the last couple of days a hen blackbird has been busy gathering nesting materials. When she has a beakful, she flies onto a stubby branch of a heavily pollarded cherry tree in the garden, looks around carefully and then flies onto a fence post. After another careful check, she flies into our neighbour's fir tree where she is planning to nest.