Monday, 28 February 2011

I found treasure

I was searching the web over the weekend in an effort to double-check some of the facts in my family tree and decided to see if I could find out anything more about the Old Bat's great great grandfather who was a fairly prominent Brighton citizen in the second half of the 19th century. What I came up with was a number of photographs taken by his son, the OB's great grandfather in the 1860s. The one above is of St Nicholas church, the old parish church of Brighton. This stands on a hill above the old town and before all the high-rise construction was prominent enough to be used as a landmark by fishermen. Great grandfather must have been one of the earliest photographers - Brighton was in the forefront of the development of photography - and he even experimented with stereoscopic pictures. The pair below were taken in the engine sheds at the Brighton engine works where 7000 children were treated to tea to celebrate the marriage of Edward, Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra of Denmark. Stereoscopic views of the decorated railway shed could be purchased singly for one shilling (10 pence) or the customer could buy a complete set for 6 shillings.

All the pictures are owned by the Regency Society and are held at Brighton Museum. These and thousands of others can be seen on the Society's web site here.

Real treasure for a family historian.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Been here, done that, got the t-shirt

It just so happens that the Old Bat and I have lunched at the Swan three times this month. It's not that we are prone to lunching out frequently, and certainly not at the same pub every time. It's just that first my cousin wanted to go for a pub lunch, then my brother and his wife (and the Swan is the nearest and most convenient "country" pub), and then the usual monthly get-together we attend was held there as well. On the first occasion all three of us opted for gammon, egg and chips and discovered the gammon to be excellent. The second time I chose scampi, which was fine, but this week, on the third visit, I went for the sausage, bacon, egg and chips. I reckon I hit the jackpot. The bacon was done exactly how I like it and the sausages contained real meat and herbs - made by a local butcher and not the mass-produced breadcrumbs that can be bought at any supermarket.

You must forgive my rambling: today's blog is not meant to be about food but about homework. You see, six of us at this week's lunch got to talking about helping children with their homework. By coincidence, the subject had cropped up only a few days earlier when No 1 Son mentioned the difficulty he was having helping his son (No 1 Grandson) with his maths homework. No because 1S couldn't do the arithmetic but because the methodology taught to 1GS was different to that taught to 1S all those years ago. I couldn't help but smile as I recalled having exactly the same difficulty myself. When, at a parents' evening, I had told the maths teacher, he had replied patronisingly, 'We teach new maths nowadays'. 'New maths?' I queried. How can there be new maths? Surely 2 + 2 still makes 4?' My wife had to drag me away before things got overheated.

Anyway, it wasn't maths that was causing a problem for Mrs Chris but her grandson's English homework. She had been asked to help and decided she had better see what was involved before her grandson arrived. He (her grandson) is aged, I think, seven or maybe eight and his homework was to rewrite a number of sentences changing the tense to the future. Luckily, Mrs Chris looked at the top of the page in the text book where she saw the explanation of when to use the word "will" and when "shall". It seems that children these days are being taught that "shall" is used for the first person singular and plural while "will" is used for the second and third persons. For example: I shall go to the park. You will come with me. We shall play football.

Now I had never before heard of this rule - nor had Mrs Chris. She rang somebody she knows who owns a copy of Fowler's Modern Usage (or whatever it's called) and he confirmed that Fowler's says this is one of the different ways - and there are several - of differentiating between "shall" and "will".

I shall remember that - or maybe I will.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Scenic Saturday - Staffordshire

Number 30 in the series.

Staffordshire is known principally for the area around Stoke-on-Trent known as the Potteries, home to such names as Wedgwood and Spode. The main reason for tourists coming to the county is rather more modern. Alton Towers is arguable the best-known theme park in England - it certainly claims to be the largest.

The small city of Lichfield delighted me one the one occasion I visited. The centre consists of many half-timbered buildings which house more independently-owned shops than I have seen elsewhere for many years but it is rather a pity that so many of these beautiful old buildings have been pulled apart so that plate-glass shop fronts could be installed. Lichfield cathedral is the only one in England with three spires, these being known as the Ladies of the Vale. Not far from Lichfield is Cannock Chase, designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

To the east, the county just encroaches on the Peak District with the rocky ridge known as the Roaches being in Staffordshire. Mermaid's Pool, our photograph this week, is in the Roaches and is the subject of a legend according to which it has a mysterious link with the Atlantic ocean and is poisonous to animals and fish. Legend has it, too, that the mermaid appears but once a year on Easter Eve at midnight and anyone who sees her is either given the gift of immortality or drawn into the depths of the pool to face their doom.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Looking for a job?

If you are, here's one that might suit. The Queen is advertising for a washer-upper. The pay is £14,000 a year and accommodation is available. The successful applicant must be prepared to travel.

My first thought when I heard about this vacancy was that fourteen grand would buy quite a few dishwashers. Then I wondered if anybody makes a dishwasher large enough to cope with all the crockery, cutlery and glassware used at a state banquet for a hundred or so people. Probably not. In any case, that crockery would be fine porcelain, the cutlery probably silver and the glassware crystal, none of it suitable to be put in a dishwasher, hence the need for human intervention. But then I discovered that the washer-upper is wanted for the staff restaurant. Staff restaurant! How the other half live.

There is the perk of travel, presumably at Her Majesty's expense. But is the Queen likely to take her own personal washer-upper on state visits to exotic locations? I hardly think so. Anyway, this vacancy is in the staff restaurant. So the travel is likely to be between London, Windsor, Sandringham and Balmoral. Not a lot of fun there then.

What I have not been able to discover is how much would be deducted from the £14k for the accommodation - or just where the accommodation is. Probably a dingy bedsit close to Victoria station. But what if it's in Buck House? Can you imagine placing a phone order with a mail order company. 'And what is your address, sir (or madam)?' 'Buckingham Palace.' 'Post code?' 'I haven't the foggiest idea but I'm sure the postman can find it.'

Perhaps the lucky applicant will be a really hard bargainer and persuade Her Majesty to throw in a pair of the Royal Rubber Gloves, perhaps decorated with the royal coat of arms. No, it wouldn't be the coat of arms: perhaps the royal cypher (above)? Anyway, if it were me, I would immediately pop round to the nearest corner shop (assuming there is one somewhere in the vicinity of Buckingham Palace) to buy a common or garden pair so that I could keep the Royal Rubber Gloves in their pristine state. Wouldn't I love to pass those on to a grandchild as a family heirloom!

Thursday, 24 February 2011

What the...?

A versatile blogger? What, me? So it would seem - at least, in the view of my old mate Uncle Skip. Well, he was a mate until he foisted this damned award on me, the Versatile Blogger Award. I have known Skip for several years, even met up face to face on more than one occasion, so I have come to realise that he is possessed of what many would describe as a warped sense of humour (although, being American, he would spell that as humor). He has something of the Humpty Dumpty about him. No, he's not ovoid in shape, nor does he, as far as I am aware, make a habit of sitting on walls. It's more that when he uses a word "it means just what he chooses it to mean — neither more nor less", as H-D said. To quote Antoine de Saint-Exupery, "Language is the source of misunderstandings", so I thought it advisable to check Webster's dictionary (Webster's rather than the Oxford as we are dealing here with an American). According to the book of words, ‘versatile' has a number of similar but different meanings:
1. changing or fluctuating readily : variable
2. embracing a variety of subjects, fields, or skills; also : turning with ease from one thing to another
3. a (1) : capable of turning forward or backward : reversible
(2) : capable of moving laterally and up and down
b of an anther : having the filaments attached at or near the middle so as to swing freely
4. having many uses or applications

Which particular meaning, I asked myself, did Skip have in mind? But then I thought of another factor in the equation: Skip claims to be of Irish descent. Now, any true-blue red-blooded Englishman like what I am knows full well that what an Irishman says does not necessarily mean what an Englishman thinks it means so it is quite possible that in describing me as a versatile blogger my Californian Irish friend was not complimenting me on my ability to waffle on a wide range of themes but was in fact insulting me by implying that I talk a lot of tosh.

No, Skip's not like that: he meant it as a compliment. I think. So, Skip, thank you.

If I am to accept this award (I stress the word ‘if') it seems there are rules I must follow.

1. Thank the person who gave you the award and link back to them in your post.
2. Tell us seven things about yourself.
3. Award 7 recently discovered new bloggers.
4. Contact these bloggers and let them know they've received the award.

(I copied these from Sweet Pea's blog and increased the size of the font especially for Uncle Skip and Suldog, both of whom seem to be blissfully unaware that one can do these things quite simply.)

OK, then, here we go.

1. Thank you, Skip. Oh, I've already done that - and you'll find at least one link higher up.
2. Fact 1 - I'm a Man of Kent, not a Kentish Man. [Explanation here.]
Fact 2 - I have conversed with both the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. [Yes, really! It's told right here.]
Fact 3 - I was at Oxford University. [Read the story here.]
Fact 4 - I haven't the foggiest idea what masochistic tendency lurking inside me forces me to write something on this blog every single day - except, of course, for the days when I don't.
Fact 5 - I'm an anti-social so-and-so as I still smoke. Well, we all die of something and I reckon I may as well die partly happy.
Fact 6 - I enjoy a glass (or two) of wine with my evening meal and an occasional drop of Scotch but I don't drink beer.
Fact 7 - I'm even older than Skip - and that's saying something!

This is where I have a little difficulty, a problem. No, it's not a challenge, it's A Problem. You see, I spend little time surfing through other people's blogs because there's just too much else to be done. I would like to, I really would, but there it is, I don't have the time. (Some people would say that I do have a life.) So, I am in something of a quandary. On to whom do I pass this wretched thing? Most of the blogs I frequent are shown in the side bar and, as you can see, a lot of them are of the daily photo kind. Those are not quite the sorts for whom this Versatile Blogger award is intended. Of the ones I have only recently discovered (like The Broad or Moannie) have either received this award already or are people whom I don't know well enough to pass it on to. (By the way, do drop in on those two - their blogs are full of interest.) The only one I can think of who is both deserving of this prestigious honour and probably of a mind to accept it in the spirit intended is #1Nana.

I suppose that means I have failed miserably and will have to decline the award. Quel dommage, as they say in France.

Oh yes, the award. This is what it looks like:

PS Another blog I like is Project Pine, partly because she's a good-looking young lady.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Bridgeport, California

Skip posted a picture of East Center Street, Anderson, yesterday which reminded me of a one-horse town the Old Bat and I passed through back in 2006 and which we liked very much. This is the main street (it might even have been called Main Street) in Bridgeport, California.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Plans, spontaneity and frustration

It's been a funny sort of a day so far. I had plans which meant I needed to be up early - early for me, that is. My younger son, his wife and daughter (the four-year-old going on 40) were to fly off on holiday and I was to be with them by 7.00am to take them to the airport. That was all cancelled yesterday evening as D-i-L's father has suffered a severe heart attack. It doesn't help that he lives on Majorca (for the geographically challenged that's a Spanish island in the Mediterranean). D-i-L did look into flying to Majorca and then on to join the other two but it proved impracticable so the holiday has been cancelled. Which meant I didn't have to get up early. I suppose it would have been hardly surprising if Murphy's Law had kicked in and I had been awake at 5.30, but it didn't and I wasn't. Instead, I pushed the snooze button when the alarm went off at 7.00 and woke again just after 8.00. So instead of being up early as planned, spontaneity ruled.

Routine showed itself when I took the dog for a walk after breakfast (OK, it was a little later than usual) but afterwards plans took over again. I just about had time to drink a cup of coffee before taking my daughter, who has been staying a few days, to the station to catch her train back home (She would normally have driven but her car is hors de combat at the moment) and then run a couple of errands.

Back came spontaneity as when I arrived back home I found another visitor - a friend of the Old Bat's with photos from his recent holiday in Sri Lanka. Having admired them for several minutes, I retired to the office (Hah! Junk hole is a more appropriate description) and fired up the computer. (Here comes the frustration.) Zilch. I unplugged and tried again. It decided to do a disc check as there appeared to be a problem. This took until lunch time - so here I am in the middle of the afternoon trying to do what I would normally do at about ten in the morning!

(Yes, Skip, I am well aware that you dislike the word "normally" but you'll just have to put up with it.)

Which reminds me. It is at this point that I must heap metaphorical coals of fire upon the head of my erstwhile Californian friend. Skip (bless his little cotton socks) has deigned to pass on to me the Versatile Blogger Award. I mention this only in passing as I shall need a day or two (or three) to compose a suitable acceptance speech and to consider my response. You see, there are strings attached to this award. I won't enumerate them myself but anyone who might have sufficient curiosity can read them here. Perhaps it would only be fair for me to warn anyone who might consider following that link that they will need to read right through the post to find said rules.

Well, that's about it for now. I'll retire to a darkened room and lie down for a while as I cogitate - or maybe just vegetate.

Monday, 21 February 2011

More memories

My father's sister cut herself off from her family somewhere about 1952. Just why she did so is completely unknown to anyone left alive - and none of us thought to ask or didn't ask because we were afraid of raking up unpleasant memories. From time to time somebody, usually my brother who was in the best position to do so, found out where she was living. We knew she had a daughter and that my mother had visited my aunt shortly after the birth but all later attempts at reconciliation had been rebuffed.

It was only last year, after all but one of the previous generation had died, that my cousin made contact. She had been going through her late mother's papers and discovered the whereabouts of the last member of the earlier generation who put her in touch with me. We corresponded, spoke on the phone, and finally met up for the first time ever. My cousin told me that she knew nothing of her maternal grandparents - had never had any contact with them in any way - and that every time she asked her mother about them, her mother changed the subject. I told her what I could, which, heaven knows, was little enough. It was this that brought home to me how much those little snippets of memory can paint a picture. Like this miniature portrait of my maternal grandfather.

Pop, as all his grandchildren called him, always seemed to me to be a tall man although he was probably of little more than average height for his generation, about 5' 9" or 10". It was probably because his wife, Nan, was only 4' 11¾" (and woe betide anyone who forgot the three-quarters of an inch!) that he appeared so tall. He kept a full head of hair all his life and in his older years this was almost a silver colour. As well as being a pipe smoker, Pop was a talker. He would often pause while lighting his pipe and hold up the match while he passed some comment or other, the match gradually burning away until it all but burnt Pop's fingers. He would blow it out, drop it in the ashtray and light another. Nan, watching him quietly as she knitted in her chair the other side of the fireplace, would hold up one finger. This was her little joke, reminding Pop that he was trying to do two incompatible things at the same time.

Now, I'm not saying that is anything like a complete portrait of my grandfather, but it would give my children and my children's children some idea of what he was like. If only earlier generations had considered themselves of sufficient interest to make notes like that! Unfortunately, it was not the working classes who kept diaries or journals and we are hard pressed now to know anything about what has really made us what we are.

Early photos of Nan and Pop

Sunday, 20 February 2011

What did you do in the war, Daddy?

I suppose many of my generation asked that question in our younger days and I suspect that the majority were fobbed off with glib answers. Which is a pity. One of the growth pastimes during the later years of the 20th century and the beginning of this one has been researching one's family history. The television programmes "Who do you think you are?" have contributed to this growth as well as being a result of it and, like me, more and more people are seeking answers. Not just to questions such as 'Who were my ancestors?' and 'Where did they come from?' but 'What were their lives like?'.

My genealogical research has reached the stage where I have thousands of names of people and dates of birth, marriage and death, but although I know the occupations of many of those people my knowledge of them and their day-to-day lives is almost non-existent. This was brought home to me even more over the last couple of weeks as a result of visits from a cousin and then my brother. I had known for many years that one of my uncles had spent time in east Africa, my assumption (or had I been told?) being that he had been in Kenya. But I had no idea what he had been doing out there or why he had returned to England. My brother confirmed that the said uncle had indeed been in Kenya but had formed the impression from something he had been told by our mother (sister to the uncle) that he had been thrown out of the country and there were hints that he may have been involved in gun running. Said uncle is still living so I have to be a little circumspect in my comments, but I learned a little more after my cousin, who is another nephew of the uncle, paid him a visit. Uncle left Kenya and spent time in Somalia where he was engaged in construction work, diving, turtle hunting and explosives. He overstayed his permit and was forced to leave, whereupon he managed to scrounge passage on an Italian cargo ship which landed him at Naples. The British consul there lent him £15 to get back to England.

I have also learned something more about my grandfather, the uncle's father. At sometime between the wars, probably in the 1920s, he served in the merchant navy. On one ship conditions were so bad that there was a mutiny, of which my grandfather was one of the ring-leaders. He and others were put ashore in India (probably Calcutta) where they were given shelter in the Seamen's Mission until they were able to sign on another ship.

Little stories like these bring to life a family history and are fascinating glimpses of past times. In the future, our descendants will find such snippets about our lives just as fascinating. How delighted my grandson will be to find I have written a potted biography full of stories of daily life - not just the dates and places that anyone can find with a minimum of effort, but things that are so easily forgotten in the hurly-burly of living. Will he (or she) be interested to know that my monthly take-home pay when I started work was about £28? Or that it had gone up to £42 by the time I married and that was enough to last us three weeks? We had to use my wife's pay to get us through the last week of the month or for any extras like holidays. I really must jot down some of these things before they are completely forgotten.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Scenic Saturday - Leicestershire

Number 29 in the series.

I have visited Leicestershire (pronounced Lestershear) many times but the scenery, although very pleasant in places, has never seemed to me to be particularly worthy of mention. If I were asked to nominate the ten best views in England, I can think of none in this county that would make the list.

Belvoir (pronounced Beaver) Castle overlooks the pleasant Vale of Belvoir, home to one of the most prestigious hunts, and Melton Mowbray is world-famous for its pork pies.

Our picture this week is if the village green in Upper Broughton. The pillar is the remains of a cross said to have been erected as a thanks offering because the Black Death passed the people by.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Baby on Board

No, I am not "with child". Being as I am nearer to 70 years of age than 65 that would be difficult. Being as I am a man it would be, well, damn nigh impossible. So, having got that misunderstanding cleared up, let me explain.

It has just come to my attention that, back in 2005, London Transport (or Transport for London [TfL] as they now like to be known) commissioned a survey which came up with, inter alia, the information that pregnant women travelling on the Underground had to stand for an average of five stops before being offered a seat and that quite a high proportion were never offered a seat. Having some little personal experience of the London Underground I don't find this particularly surprising. It's not simply the case that Londoners are discourteous or unfeeling, although there are, naturally, some who are. It's more a case of being unaware that a mother-to-be is standing and would appreciate the opportunity to sit down. During a good part of each day the trains are so crowded that a seated passenger is unable to see that there is a pregnant woman standing nearby. It is also the case that many seated travellers are in a different world, either stuck in a book or newspaper or contemplating some problem they will be faced with at work.

Anyway, TfL came up with a solution to the problem: the Baby on Board badge.

Mums-to-be can ask for one of these badges and hope they might be offered a seat when wearing it.

I have searched the TfL web site in the hope of finding out how they can be obtained. It seems one has to phone and ask for one. Just how one proves oneself pregnant is not explained. I did think of phoning myself - on behalf of a hypothetical pregnant daughter perhaps - but I am a mere blogger, not an investigative journalist, so I didn't bother. But the mind boggles. Possibly applicants whose bumps are not yet apparent are expected to demonstrate morning sickness by throwing up over a member of the TfL staff.

On the face of it this seems not a bad idea but given, as I said, that travellers are often unaware of other people around them, I can't see that it will make much difference.

And while on the subject of "Baby on Board" badges I'm going to have a little rant about those stickers one sees in cars. I don't understand why anyone thinks it amusing to sport a sticker in the rear window proclaiming "Little Monkey on Board" or "Little Princess on Board" - just too yucky for words. But why does anyone display any such sticker? Is it so that in the event of a crash the emergency services will look for the child? Or is it an attempt to stop other drivers tailgating? Surely, in the first case, the presence of a child seat in the car (and these are compulsory) is sufficient indication of the possibility of a child having been thrown clear of the vehicle? And in the second, no driver inconsiderate or incautious enough to tailgate will take any notice of the sticker? All these things do is block part of the view through the rear screen. Do away with them, I rant.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Childhood memories

Can you remember the name of your first teacher? I can't. I do remember the names of two of the masters at my junior school - Mr Hill and Mr Lamb - but they are the only two and the infants' school staff is a complete no, no as far as my memory is concerned.

A short digression for any reader unfamiliar with the English education set-up way back in the late 1940s. We had three levels of school: infant, for ages 5 to 7, junior for 8 to 11 year olds and secondary for 11 to 15 (or was it 14? I don't recall when the school leaving age was increased from 14 to 15). Infant schools were mixed (boys and girls taught together) and the teachers were mainly women. After that, the sexes were segregated into separate schools. Boys had male teachers, although there was a sprinkling of women, and girls had women. During the school year in which children reached their 11th birthday, they sat an exam, known as the 11 plus. Depending on whether they passed or failed, they went on to grammar schools for the more academically-minded and secondary modern schools for the others.

But that's enough of the digression. As I said, I can't remember the names of any of the teachers at my infants' school but, despite what I said earlier, I can remember the name of my first teacher: Miss Richards. Miss Richards lived in a bungalow a few doors down the road from our house and it was at this bungalow that she ran a small school, a sort of pre-school school. It wasn't so much like the nursery schools or kindergartens we have now. The children were actually taught, although I suppose there was also plenty of time to play as well: four-year-olds don't have too long an attention span when it comes to learning reading and writing. My memory of the school is hazy to say the least. I have a vague recollection of being sent to stand behind the piano at one time, a punishment for some misdemeanour or other, but that is all.

I am envious of those whose childhood memories are as crisp as a Cox's apple and who can recall with absolute clarity some event that occurred when they were three or four. I sometimes claim to remember the beams of searchlights crisscrossing the sky (I was a war baby) but that might be what could be described as a folk memory. In other words, I know it happened and I just think I can remember it. I do remember walking (with my mother) along the Darland Banks just after the war and seeing the concrete cones positioned to cause problems for tanks in case the Germans had invaded. There were also large pits as tank traps which were an optimistic way of halting the advance of any such invading panzers. (The Darland Banks is the name of a stretch of the North Downs on the edge of the Medway towns.)

But all these memories - and there are a few more from my earlier years - are fairly vague until I reached the age of 11. I can recall much more from that age on. I have heard it said that elderly people find it easier to remember events from their youth than what happened yesterday. Perhaps as the years roll by and I become more elderly than I am now I shall be able to remember more. Somehow I think it unlikely. Which is a pity in some ways.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Creatures of habit

The Old Bat and I frequently comment how much dogs are creatures of habit. Or maybe it's just ours. Anyway, Fern does like to stick to a routine. After I have finished the breakfast washing up (very little, since crockery and cutlery go in the dishwasher) she knows that it is time for a walk. There are days when I would prefer to do otherwise, but a walk we have. Then again after lunch, as soon as the washing up is under way, she starts fidgeting for the afternoon walk. All is quiet for the rest of the afternoon but when the Old Bat starts washing up the bits and pieces she has used while preparing the evening meal, Fern will come to find me (as if to tell me I need to pick up a tea towel) and she will also pick up her kong. She associates this washing up session with a game and I am expected to interrupt my work to throw the kong for her to catch from time to time. Last thing at night, as soon as I put down my book, she gets up from beside my feet and trots off to her bed.

What bothers me is just how much I, too, am a creature of habit. This has been brought home to me particularly this morning. Yesterday evening I collected my brother and sister-in-law from Gatwick after they returned from a holiday in Tromso. (Seeing the Northern Lights was a fantastic experience for them.) They stayed the night with us before setting off this morning for their home in far Cornwall. Naturally, I waited until after they had gone before even thinking of walking the dog. But by then, Fern's routine was so much out of kilter that she didn't even think of a walk. And I was surprised to find how much I missed it and how much it threw me out because my routine had been broken.

I'm not at all sure that I want to be a creature of habit and routine, but I suspect that I will continue to put the teapot and tea strainer in exactly the same spot on the work top as I always do, I will continue to follow my regular habits - and stay in my comfortable rut. I suppose having a routine for doing things does at least mean that bits and pieces are less likely to be forgotten. One must try to see these foibles in a positive light.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

February fill-dyke

This month is certainly living up to its name. We seem to have about five days of cloud and frequent rain and then one day clear and partly sunny. Oddly enough, the two days this month that have seen visitors arrive have both been good days. It is becoming distinctly tedious to open the bedroom curtains in the morning and see this:

or even this:

when what I should be seeing is this:

Monday, 14 February 2011


I was told this morning that owning a dog reduces one's stress levels and makes one a happier person. I shudder to think how stressed and miserable I would be if we didn't own a dog.

Sorry, cousin

I have a cousin who lives mainly in Rome although he spends at least a part of the year in London. He is currently in England and came down to Brighton the week before last. I did mention this in passing but what I failed to say was that he brought me a copy of his latest book. Into the Heart of the Mafia has received some good reviews, notably from the Sunday Telegraph and the Sunday Times.

It so happened that I finished my previous book the day David was with us so I immediately started on his. A week later I had reached page 70. You will gather that I was not finding this a quick read. Being unfamiliar with Italian names, I was bewildered by the multitude of them and uncertain at times if the person mentioned had appeared earlier - or even if this was a person and not a town or region. The Sunday Times reviewer summed up my feelings accurately when he described the book as:
structurally, strange and, as victims and murderers and prosecutors and place names are piled high, more than a bit confusing.

I gave up at that point and picked up a Michael Connolly - much more my cup of tea. Sorry, David.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Is it the 13th already?

Here we are, nearly halfway through the month and already I'm falling behind. One of the small service activities undertaken by Brighton Lions Club is to send a letter or postcard to a lad discovered by our twin club in Maryland. Joe has cerebral palsy and we drop him a line every month in the hope that we might bring a little cheer into his life. I say "we" but it is actually "me". I have been doing this job for a couple of years now and nobody else is willing to take it on so I suppose I will have to keep on doing it. I usually try to write during the first week of the month but this month I seem to have been busy with other projects. I haven't even made a start on the next issue of Jungle Jottings, the monthly newsletter of the aforesaid Lions Club. There again, I usually manage to get started fairly early in the month and by the time our business meeting comes around on the third Wednesday (which is in only three days' time) it is pretty much finished.

What has been taking time is the production of large-print bingo cards. Once again I'm talking Lions matters and anyone reading this could be forgiven for thinking that my life is Lions, Lions and more Lions. Far from it, I assure you. There is much more to my life than Brighton Lions Club. It's just that the last couple of weeks seem to have been filled rather more than usual with matters Lionistic.

These bingo cards are for a blind people's social club for which Brighton Lions regularly provide transport. Like an idiot, I suggested to the organiser that a bingo session might go down well. What transpired was that she fixed a session during a fund-raising evening next month and I have the job of producing some 200-250 large-print bingo cards. I discovered that these can be bought, but the largest I have found are A5 size and I want to produce something in A4, ie twice as big. So I purloined some of the standard bingo cards the Lions use and have started copying them in large format. This involves setting a table to fill the sheet of A4 paper and typing in the appropriate numbers - 250 times! (They must each be different for some technical reason I can't explain.) This is all taking rather longer than I expected. But, hey ho, once it's done I will have those cards on computer to print off again at any time.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Scenic Saturday - Lincolnshire

Number 28 in the series.

Between Norfolk and Lincolnshire lies a large, square-shaped bay known as the Wash. This, according to the BBC, is one of the most outstanding coastal wetlands in Europe with its bleak, yet beautiful landscape of saltmarshes, mudflats and open water. The most famous incident associated with the Wash occurred in 1216 when King John lost the Crown Jewels. He was apparently travelling from Spalding in Lincolnshire to Bishop's Lynn (now King's Lynn), in Norfolk, when he was taken ill and decided to return. While he took the longer route by way of Wisbech, he sent his baggage train, including his crown jewels, along the causeway and ford across the mouth of the Wellstream, a route usable only on the lower part of the tide. The horse-drawn waggons moved too slowly for the incoming tide, and many were lost.

Not far from the edge of the Wash is the town of Boston. It was presumably emigrants from this Lincolnshire town who founded the large American city. Boston, Lincs, is surrounded by low-lying land and the tower of St Botolph's church, 271 feet high and known affectionately as the Boston Stump, is visible from miles around.

Spalding, situated appropriately enough in the district of Holland, is the centre of the English tulip-growing industry and holds an annual tulip parade.

And we should not forget the city of Lincoln itself, whose cathedral is reckoned by many to be one of the finest in England and where one of only four copies of the original 1215 Magna Carta is on display. This week's picture shows the west front of the cathedral as seen from the castle.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Awards and rewards

There is a move currently afoot to persuade the powers that be to issue a medal to everybody who has served, in whatever capacity, in the armed forces. This would be a new medal as those currently available are for acts of bravery of particularly distinguished service (except, of course, for long service and good conduct medals). It does seem odd to me that people think a person who has done his job, for which he has been paid, should receive a medal even though he has performed his duties no better than satisfactorily. There are medals for those who have displayed extreme courage either in the face of the enemy (the Victoria Cross) or in other circumstances (the George Cross). I use the Victoria and George Crosses as examples. They are the highest bravery awards and there are others for courageous acts where the top awards are not appropriate. There are also awards for particularly distinguished service. But a medal for working at Catterick Garrison or the naval barracks at Portsmouth? I don't think so. At least, I hope not.

It's not just the medals that are awarded here in the UK. We have quite a complex system of honours involving, amongst others, various Orders of Chivalry. These are much too complicated for me to attempt any sort of explanation here - besides, I don't understand them myself - but anyone interested in learning more could do worse than visit the Debrett's web site. This would be a reasonable starting point. (This looks to be a great web site with a superb amount of detailed content about many things British.)

These honours are awarded twice annually, at the New Year and on the occasion of the sovereign's birthday. The broadsheet newspapers carry a couple of pages of close print listing everybody who has received an honour on these occasions. The most common of these honours is the MBE (member of the Order of the British Empire). This is, as you might have inferred, the lowest of the chivalric honours. It might be awarded to a pop singer who has become very popular in the USA and thus earned valuable overseas currency. It might be a successful sportsman or woman, perhaps an Olympic gold medallist. Or it might be a school crossing patrol who has stood out in all weathers for a good many years. It does sometimes seem that this honour, the MBE, is handed out a little too easily. My late father was asked if he would accept it (all propective recipients of honours are asked if they will accept them) but he declined. He thought that the Navy had been asked to find X number of potential recipients and that he had done nothing more than his job so he considered himself undeserving of the award. But a refusal is, I believe, rare.

Wine, women and . . . water

Scrub the wine, we're going to concentrate on women and water.

I have noticed that over the last two or three years - it may well have been longer but, if so, either my memory is shot or I was too unobservant to notice - but over the last few years, women have developed an obsession with water. Wherever I go I see women carrying a bottle of water. Shopping, taking the children to school, going to work or walking the dog, it doesn't matter. Not all of them, but a good percentage will have a bottle of water in their handbags, pockets or hands. Why is this? Do they have an absurd fear of dieing of thirst if they can't have a sip of water for the hour it takes to do the shopping or the half hour it takes to travel on the bus to work? I know we are encouraged to drink more water for the sake of our health, but this obsession, almost a neurosis, must surely be a sign of mental instability at the very least. They need help - and not from a bottle!

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The stiff upper lip is starting to tremble

There were two articles in yesterday's newspaper, completely unrelated, where I saw a tenuous link. Very tenuous.

The first was a short paragraph, a filler, which reported the result of a survey that had been carried out into the display of emotion by British men. For many years the British have considered a stiff upper lip to be a sign of manhood. A true man doesn't display emotion in public, was the view of most people. Apparently, that is changing and British men are now quite content to display emotion and are even unembarrassed to be seen crying. That would certainly not have been the case only a few years ago. Indeed, most men I know would still prefer to keep their upper lips stiff.

The second article reported the forthcoming closure of the RAF base at Lyneham in Wiltshire. As I said, the connection between these items is very tenuous - but bear with me and I will explain my rather tortuous thought processes.

RAF Lyneham is the base through which British servicemen killed in Afghanistan are repatriated. They are then driven to Oxford, where post mortems are carried out and inquests are held. On the way they pass through the small town of Wootton Bassett and it is here where a small, unofficial ceremony has become a new tradition. As the cortege reaches the town, the church bell is tolled and people leave the shops to line the street. The cortege halts for a moment by the war memorial and flag bearers of the British Legion dip their banners as a mark of respect. This little ceremony started in a very small way but has gradually grown with people travelling many miles to attend whenever another body is brought back to England. The crowd stands mainly in silence, although there may be quiet applause, but a few people throw flowers onto the hearses.

These spontaneous acts, moving as they are, seem to me to be rather un-British. Granted, the stiff upper lip is much in evidence, but this is not quite the sort of thing that has been seen before in this country. I suppose this is partly because, in the past - even as recently as the Falklands war, British servicemen have been buried close to where they fell. But I think it also demonstrates a grain of truth in that other newspaper report about the survey.

Perhaps this all started with the late Diana, Princess of Wales. Despite her faults (or maybe because of some of them), she was highly popular. Granted, she was good looking, glamorous even, and elegant, but what endeared her to people both in Britain and abroad was the fact that she so obviously cared for people. She was unafraid to pick up and cuddle a child with AIDS or shake the hand of a leper. A gentle touch on the arm of an elderly person was almost a healing touch. She showed she cared. After her death, the British people reacted in a most uncharacteristic way. I was travelling to work in London in those days and I have never before or since seen to many Union flags flying, all at half mast. There were acres of bouquets laid in front of her London residence. Even the Queen was forced, by barely spoken but nonetheless palpable public demand, to cut short her holiday and return to London.

Such public displays were unheard of in England before then and it was this, I think, that started that upper lip trembling. But I don't think the lip will really give way. There is still too much respect paid to people like the widow of Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, a bomb disposal expert who was killed in Afghanistan. Christina Schmid has shown nothing in public but pride in her husband's achievements and has done her grieving in private. And that, after all, is the way most Englishmen think it should be done.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011


Trivia about England, Great Britain and/or the United Kingdom: facts you might not know and, if you don't already know them, you probably don't want to anyway.

Trivial fact 1.

Ours is, I believe, the only country in the world that doesn't print its name on its postage stamps. Not even the words "Royal Mail" or "Postage". The only identifier is the monarch's head which is always there, even on commemorative issues. But whereabouts in the United Kingdom the stamp originated can be identified. Shown below are stamps from England (no mark at all), Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man also mark their stamps appropriately.

Trivial fact 2.

Bank notes used in England and Wales are all issued by the Bank of England. No other bank may issue notes. All Bank of England notes carry the words, "I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of (whatever - five pounds, ten pounds etc)" and are signed by the Chief Cashier of the Bank. Well, his signature is printed on them.

The situation is different in Scotland and Northern Ireland (and Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man) where every major bank is permitted to issue its own notes. Strictly speaking, these Scottish and Irish etc notes are legal tender only in the country of issue but it is normal practice in areas of England bordering on Scotland for Scottish notes to be widely accepted. Banks in England are quite prepared to accept notes from other parts of the UK.

Trivial fact 3.

Coins of the realm bear an imprint of the monarch's head on the obverse (hence the "heads" call when tossing). Of course, this tradition dates back many centuries - even the Romans did it - but there is another, little known tradition in England. The direction in which the monarch is facing alternates between monarchs. Our current coins show the Queen facing to the right, ie showing her right profile. Her father, George VI, showed his left and when Prince Charles succeeds to the throne he too will show his left profile. This tradition apparently started with Charles II back in the 17th century. He regained the throne after a period known as the Commonwealth when the monarchy had been overthrown and Oliver Cromwell was Lord Protector. Charles insisted that he wanted to face the opposite way to Cromwell and, since then, the left and right profiles have alternated with the monarchs. With one exception. George V showed his left profile but his successor, Edward VIII, considered his left profile to be the better and the Royal Mint agreed to abandon the tradition. After Edward's abdication, George VI became king and the coinage showed his left profile as would have been the case if the tradition had been observed.

Not many people know that, and I only learned it a few days ago. I bet you're glad I told you.

Monday, 7 February 2011

The United Kingdom and all that

A few days ago my Californian friend posted a link to a video produced by an American which claimed to explain the difference between the United Kingdom, Great Britain and England (and a whole lot more). Well, on the whole he (the producer) got it right - although there was a bit he missed out. The Commonwealth did get a mention as "the Commonwealth Realm". Now that - "Commonwealth Realm" - is a description which is new to me. If by "Commonwealth Realm" he meant "British Commonwealth" (more correctly known as "the Commonwealth of Nations") then I'm sorry to say he got it slightly wrong. The British monarch is the head of this collection of 54 independent states. All but two of these countries were formerly parts of the British Empire but there are two members that have never been ruled by the British - Mozambique and Rwanda. And not all these countries recognise the Crown as the head of state. There are several republics among them, such as India and South Africa.

I would quibble over one other minor inaccuracy. At least, I think it is. The author claims that people from Northern Ireland (sometimes referred to as Ulster) call themselves Northern Irish. I don't think they do: all those I have met have said that they are simply Irish.

While thinking of nationalities, let us get one thing straight. The nationality of people from Scotland is Scottish, not Scotch. The only time the word Scotch is used is as an adjective describing eggs and, importantly, whisky. In the latter case the word Scotch is also used as a noun (ie without the word whisky). And by the way, Scotch whisky is spelled without an E, Irish whiskey is spelled with one.

I suspect that fewer than one in a hundred Britons (that is the correct word, not Brits) know all that about Crown dependencies and so on. This is not something that is taught in schools and people are expected to absorb this knowledge, along with knowledge about the Union flag and the laws of cricket, by some form of osmosis. Needless to say, it doesn't happen.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Crime maps

We have a new initiative in England which enables anybody with internet access to see how many crimes of various categories have been committed (or reported to the police) in any given area during the previous month. Just visit the web site at and type in the appropriate post code, eg EC1Y 0TL which was the post code of my office before I retired, and up pops a map with the details.

The intention, we are told, is to make the police more accountable. Presumably more accountable to the general population. I'm not quite sure how these maps are going to achieve that. Indeed, I'm uncertain that this information will actually achieve anything at all - other than worry people who are considering buying a house in an area which is shown to have a high occurrence of burglaries. The logical knock-on effect of that would be to drive down the price of houses in those areas and cause worry to people who are either trying to sell for whatever reason and those who are not looking to move but were previously unaware of the level of crime.

I was surprised to find that even in my relatively quiet and, so I thought, respectable part of town there were 180 instances of crime and anti-social behaviour during December, including 17 violent crimes.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Scenic Saturday - Norfolk

Number 27 in the series.

A line from Noel Coward's play Private Lives: "Very flat, Norfolk". It certainly is in the east and north, although inland towards the south-east it gets hillier. It's that flatness that brings a certain charm to the coastal parts of the county: large skies and the extensive stretches of water known as the Broads. These are essentially lakes formed where rivers have expanded and the interlocking waterways provide miles of boating pleasure for both sailing craft and motor boats.

Apart from the slightly raucous Great Yarmouth with its end-of-the-pier shows and holiday camps - a sort of mini-Blackpool - there are several quieter holiday resorts, each with its sandy beach. So long as the wind is not too bracing, places such as Hunstanton and Cromer almost recall the golden age of bucket-and-spade holidays. The Queen spends Christmas each year on her Sandringham estate near King's Lynn. Originally named Bishop's Lynn, the town was part of the manor of the Bishop of Norwich in the 12th century. By the 14th century, the town ranked as the third port of England. It still retains two buildings that were warehouses of the Hanseatic League that were in use between the 15th and 17th centuries. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1538, the town and manor became royal property.

Norfolk is the home county of England's most famous admiral - Horatio Nelson - who was born at Burnham Thorpe.

The county town (or city) is Norwich, with its delightful cathedral. Elm Hill is the city's most famous medieval street, almost the same in appearance now as it was when most of its properties were last rebuilt, after the major fire of 1507.

You will gather that there is an embarrassment of pictorial opportunities this week, but I have selected a picture of Barton Broad, borrowed from the Norfolk Tourist Information web site.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Mirror, mirror, on the wall...

There is something alarming, I find, about seeing a photograph of myself. So much so, that I am not very keen on being in front of the camera, much preferring to be squinting at the LCD screen myself. This camera-shyness is probably a result of misplaced vanity because, for some peculiar reason, the pictures that come out of cameras are never the same as the picture that I see in the bathroom mirror every morning. I know all those cameras are conspiring against me to produce pictures that show me looking much older than I really am. It is the reflection in my bathroom mirror, a reflection of a much younger man, that is the true picture. Or so I thought until yesterday.

Yesterday provided a very pleasant interlude. I had, a couple of weeks back, received an email from a cousin who lives in Rome. He was, he told me, in London for a while and wanted to pass on some books which, during several years in his youth, he had been given as Christmas presents from my parents. He and his wife are selling their large house in Rome and downsizing to a flat so he is having to thin out his possessions. I was happy to accept the books, some of which are now collectors' items, for sale at our Lions book fair. Anyway, D was to visit yesterday and we enjoyed a very pleasant pub lunch catching up on all the news.

I'm drifting off the subject, aren't I? Sorry about that.

I met D at the railway station and scarcely recognised him as he is much older than I had expected. This, perhaps, is not surprising. It is several years since we last met and it was the image of him as he was then that I had in my mind. Doubtless I had aged against the picture he had on me. D is just 18 months younger than I am so we are both nearer to 70 than 60 and really I should expect to be looking more like an old man. But why is it that photographs show me so much older than does my bathroom mirror?

Just a sort of afterthought. My cousin D has a claim to fame. He is a journalist and a published author, one of his books being about a well-known Italian gentleman. Said signor sued D for libel and lost the case but he is appealing to a higher court. Although D was awarded costs, the amount awarded by the court was several thousand euros less than his actual costs. Goodness knows what the appeal will set him back.

Thursday, 3 February 2011


Yes, I am fully aware that Candlemas is 2nd February, that is, yesterday. However, since the point of this post is for me to drone on about the weather and the changing seasons and an important part of that droning concerns the weather on Candlemas Day, I had to wait until the day is over.

If Candlemas Day be clear and bright
Winter shall have another bite.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain
Winter shall not come again.

So says the old folk lore.

Yesterday was very windy with squally rain at times. So there is hope that spring could soon be upon us. Indeed, yesterday I saw a black-headed gull already in its summer plumage. Just the one - all the others are still in winter dress. On the other hand, this morning I saw there is still a flock of redwings and fieldfares in the park, and both those birds are winter visitors. But the woods are loud with birdsong, principally robin and blackbird although I have also heard the great tit's "teacher teacher" which passes for its song.

The snowdrops in our garden are just about to burst open. Those in a neighbour's garden were in full bloom a couple of weeks ago, but they are an early variety. We even have a handful of pale mauve crocuses which are in bud and a day or so of sun will bring them into bloom.

Today it is much milder than of late. Let's hope Mother Nature does know best and the old folk lore proves true.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

That phone call

We reached an agreement. The company will reimburse the court fees plus a little more for the inconvenience to me and make a donation to the Lions charity funds.

Waiting by the phone

As I type this I am sitting waiting for the phone to ring. Yes, I am expecting a call - in about five minutes. With luck, this will bring to an end the saga of our new door. It all started back in August last year when we decided to replace our draughty old wooden front door with a spanking new double-glazed one. We got three local companies to come and provide quotes for the work. One was so high as to be laughable and the rep could only give us a business card, leaving us to write his price on the back ourselves. The other two were within shouting distance of each other but what swung it was that one of them offered a 15 year, insurance-backed guarantee. That was what was written on the contract I signed.

The door was installed in October and within two or three days I received the insurance papers - backing the guarantee for a period of ten years, not the promised fifteen. The insurance company confirmed by phone that they never provide cover for more than ten years so I wrote to the double-glazing company asking for their comments and proposals. Two weeks went by so I wrote again. This time I received a reply - more or less saying, "tough titty".

Being of a somewhat cynical nature, I started to wonder if the offer of a 15 year guarantee was something of a ploy used to gain business so I was determined not to let this go without a fight. I wrote pointing out that we had a contract which they had failed to fulfill, indeed could not fulfill. I suggested a figure that I was prepared to accept in order to release them from their obligation. This was early in November.

By early December I had heard nothing more so sent a final notice before legal action, which I threatened to start if I had heard nothing in fourteen days. Two weeks later I had heard no more so I filed papers at court. That produced a response. The company filed a defence stating that they had written to me in mid November offering to re-register the installation with the insurance company on the 10th anniversary, thereby providing me with the fifteen year insurance-backed guarantee. I, of course, had not received this letter and I wondered why the company had not bothered to query my non-response after I sent them my final letter in December. In any case, I would not have accepted the offer.

So the court suggested we try its telephone mediation service. Its that call I'm waiting for. I'll post an update later.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

My mistake

Well, we're back. We got back yesterday evening - and a lot earlier than we usually do when we return from la belle France. It was, as is only to be expected, all my fault. I made a slight mistake. On Sunday afternoon, we were enjoying a gallette des rois session with our near neighbours Jacques and Brigitte and their family when one of us mentioned having to return to England the next day. When asked what time we proposed leaving, I said (without giving the matter any thought - typical me) 8.15. Now that is the time we leave Brighton on the outward journey; the return trip usually departs at 9.15. So, I duly set the alarm clocks to wake me in time to leave at 8.15 (we actually got away at 8.30) in the crepuscular light. Now you might have thought that Mrs BP would have twigged either when I mentioned the time to J & B (although granted, we were talking in French) or when I asked her what time she would like her tea so that we could leave at the previously (and incorrectly) appointed hour - but she didn't. The result was that we got to Calais and finished shopping by 4.30 - too early to eat - so we caught an earlier train and got home about 7.00 with time to eat at home.