Friday, 31 October 2008

A whole week away from the world - wonderful! A little gentle work in the courtyard, training the wisteria up the wall and so on, and one bedroom redecorated. But this gave plenty of time for reading: one book about the history of the olive tree, another which was the diary of a civil servant during WW2, started Dorothy Wordsworth's journal, plus a couple of light novels.

Drove home yesterday through snow between Laval and Le Mans - in October! There was enough for the snow ploughs to be out. Barry had obviously been working hard on the bathroom while we were away, but last night was just a quick wash at the kitchen sink. With luck he will have the shower fitted today so we will be able to try it tomorrow, but there will still be the hand basin to install.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Busy days

Yesterday was mostly a Lions day. My club operates a rota to provide transport to there social/therapy meetings for people who have suffered a stroke. Yesterday was my turn. Then a zone meeting in the evening. As this year's zone chairman is a good friend, I agreed (albeit with some reluctance) to be zone secretary, so now I have the minutes to write.

I did manage to cut the grass yesterday as well. It was really too wet, but if I had left it much longer I would have needed a combine harvester instead of a lawn mower.

We are off to France tomorrow, so the dog will have to be taken to kennels this afternoon and I will have to pack the car with tool boxes and decorating materials - I want to repaint one of the bedrooms. While we are away we have a builder coming in to work in the bathroom. The bath is to be taken out and a walk-in shower installed. This means all the tiles coming off the walls, so at least we will be away for the messiest part of the job. It also means I have to remove the bathroom cabinet, towel rail etc. As they have been there for, oh, twenty years or so the screws are bound to have rusted in. So I had better get on with things instead of sitting here blathering.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

We will remember them

Talking of war cemeteries, the Old Bat and I visited a couple on our way back from our holiday in Alsace earlier this year. We had time in hand before our ferry and were able to fit in a visit to the Lens Memorial, which is in Dud Corner cemetery, to find the name of one of the OB's distant cousins who is commemorated on the memorial. He has no known grave, so it might have been one of those we was marked simply "Known unto God". Of course, it might be that his body has never been found and never will be, although I believe that it is not uncommon for the remains of soldiers killed during World War I to be discovered. I seem to remember reading that the remains are then given a military funeral at the nearest war cemetery.

We also visited Trois Arbres cemetery and found the grave of one of my distant cousins.

Although of course we never knew these men, somehow it pleases me to be able to pay my respects to them. As far as I am concerned, they were all heroes.

Trois Arbres cemetery

I find the rows of white headstones (they are all made from Portland stone) in their unfussy shape, all in sight of the cross of sacrifice, intensely moving. And it is strange: I have visited quite a few of these cemeteries over the years and rarely have I been in one without somebody else stopping, perhaps just for a few minutes.

They are not forgotten.

Monday, 20 October 2008

I'm glad that's over

From the back of our house we have a magnificent view across a valley of houses to the hills and fields of the South Downs, with a distant view of the Chattri. This is a memorial garden which has been created at the spot where Indian soldiers who died in Brighton during the first World War after service on the Western Front passed through the fire.

During the last week it has been one of the sites used in the World Festival of Sacred Music which is held in Brighton each year. To quote from their web site:

Environmental arts group Red Earth is creating Nada/Mantra, a unique installation of sacred sound, spirit and space at the Chattri Memorial on the South Downs, which commemorates the Hindu and Sikh Commonwealth soldiers cremated there during World War I.

This is a week-long, free-access collaboration between international artists, involving public participation and live sound - with performances each day at 5pm.

Drop by any time to watch – and take part in – the creation of gateways and avenues that will extend the sacred Chattri space into a living temple. Or come at 5pm to experience live sound improvisations between musicians and artists of different faiths and traditions, which culminate in a final celebration of sound, spectacle and performance on Sunday 19 October.

Somehow it doesn't seem quite ‘the thing' to me - using what is effectively a war cemetery in this way. I would most certainly not like to think that any of the war cemeteries in France and Belgium where my ancestors are buried would be treated in this way. However, this morning I'm glad to see that the flag poles and banners which had been erected on the site have been removed and that the Chattri is being returned to what I think it should be - a place of peace and tranquillity in the middle of the fields.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Metric martyrs

For a little more than half my life I have been using the decimal system of currency in which 100 pennies make a pound. This now seems to be the norm anywhere in the world, but I do sometimes think our quirky pre-decimal system was more adaptable. In that system we had pounds, shillings and pence. Twelve pence made one shilling and there were twenty shillings in a pound. That might at first glance seem cumbersome, but having 240 pence in a pound was actually very convenient: after all, 240 is divisible by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12 etc whereas 100 is divisible only by 2, 4, 5, and 10. Anyway, back in the early 1970s, Britain lost its ancient system of currency.

But we retained our equally quirky system of weights with eight ounces to the pound, fourteen pounds in a stone, eight stone in a hundredweight and twenty hundredweight in a ton. The arithmetic did become a little complicated, but we all learned our tables at school and generally had no problems.

Then the Government decided that our weights should go metric - 1000 grams in a kilogram, and however many kilos to a metric ton. If we had been allowed to acclimatise ourselves to this gradually it might not have been too bad. But no. We had to switch over all of a sudden. And worse, it became a criminal offence to sell food such as apples and bananas by the pound. So the little old lady who was accustomed to buying half a pound of butter, two pounds of apples and four ounces of tea suddenly didn't know what she wanted.

Some traders, particularly market traders, were quite happy to accommodate there customers by selling in the old weights. Then along came The Law in the shape of local authority jobsworths and one market trader was taken to court and fined for selling somebody a pound of bananas. Not surprisingly, many people contributed towards a defence fund to pay for his appeal (which was turned down). Steve Thoburn died this year of a heart attack at the age of 39. There has been speculation that the heart attack was brought on by the stress of the original conviction and subsequent, unsuccessful appeals, even the European Court of Human Rights having turned him down this year.

When all this was brought in, we were told it was being imposed on us by Brussels. Whether or not that was the original position I don't know, but I do know that Brussels, in the form of one of its commissioners, this year stated that there was no reason why Britain should not keep using its pounds and ounces.

All the same, Janet Devers was ordered to pay costs of £5000 this month when she was given a discharge on various charges relating to the sale of goods on her market stall. (See the story here)

Now it seems that somebody in Whitehall has had an attack of common sense The Government is to produce new guidelines to prevent local authorities taking market traders to court for selling goods in imperial weights.

Could this be the dawn of a new age? I somehow doubt it!

Saturday, 18 October 2008

One of the advantages of getting older is that I can re-read books and watch repeats on the television without remembering what comes next. But there is a downside: I am told that I sometimes repeat things myself. The Old Bat complains that hearing a joke for the 23rd time is just a little tiresome.

I wonder now: have I said this before?

Friday, 17 October 2008

Tempus fugit

Amazing how the time can just fly past. I've spent much of the day writing up my sister-in-law's ancestors having promised her I'd get it to her before next weekend when her son will be at home. Apparently he is very interested in all this. I have managed to trace her history back about 200 years and pretty well all of four generations, plus a few of her 3 x great grandparents.

This morning I had my second 'observed drive' for the IAM test. I'm lucky enough(?) to have two observers, although one is just about finishing her qualification as an observer and will be 'taking me on' soon. Both of them have been reasonably complimentary about my driving on both occasions. I was surprised to be told how smooth my gear changes are - I would expect anyone to be able to change gear smoothly if they have been driving as long as I have - but I must improve my anticipation of bends etc and make my use of mirrors more obvious. The problem (if it is a problem) is that I can use the interior mirror and the driver's side exterior mirror without moving my head so it sometimes seems to an observer that I'm not using them.

I had wanted to do more work in the garden, but time has gone by too fast. At least I have had three days this week when I have been able to get out there.

Bad news about my friend John (zone chairman of Lions). He has cancer and must be feeling very rough as he says he might not manage to be at the zone meeting next Tuesday. It's such a shame - he's a great guy, and a very enthusiastic Lion. I feel sorry for his partner Chris as she will also be feeling things badly.

Now I must try to write up a little more on Les Lavandes - and maybe even add a bit to the November issue of JJ!

Thursday, 16 October 2008

"Press 1 now"

I had that American lady on the phone again this morning, the one who tells me I've won a holiday in Cancun. "Just imagine strolling along those beautiful white sands," she says, before inviting me to "press 1 now for more details". Of course I don't press 1 - I know that would connect me to a recording in Azerbaijan or somewhere equally remote and it would take about twenty minutes (at £93 a minute) to learn that although the accommodation is free (provided I sign up for a £35,000 time share), I will be expected to pay through the nose for (a)the flight, (b)meals, and (c)travel insurance.

I just wish that American lady would call me in person rather than play a recording at me. She sounds a pleasant young lady and I would like to tell her that she sounds very nice and to ask her if she will be my friend, because I don't have any friends. I have tried this before with telephone salespeople (of both sexes) and the results have been most satisfying.

Actually, we get very few cold sales calls now: the telephone preference scheme seems to work pretty well, but it can't deal with sales calls from overseas. In a way I'm sorry we signed up to TPS as it has robbed me of the chance of a little fun. This was another good one:

"Hello there. I'm Berk from XYZ Home Improvements and I would like to offer you the opportunity to have us install a brand spanking new genuine Victorian conservatory."

"Wow, that sounds great! Genuine Victorian, you say?"

"Certainly, sir. And just imagine how envious your neighbours will be when they see you sitting in your genuine Victorian conservatory with underfloor heating, sipping a cool beer while it's snowing outside."

"I can't wait. When could you install it?"

"We could be there next week, sir. All we will need is a 95% deposit on arrival (payable in cash), with the remaining 55% payable over three years starting a week on Tuesday."

"That sounds OK. Are you sure there will be no problems?"

"Absolutely. Our fitters are trained to the very highest standards and will construct your conservatory to such a high standard that people will flock from miles around to see it."

"They certainly will. I live in a third floor flat."

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Diddley dum de dum

I am quite prepared to admit it: I am a creature of routine. My days usually run along pretty similar lines: shower, feed dog, take tea to OB, breakfast, washing up, walk dog, coffee, check email & message board, write blog(s). Things might be a little different from lunch time onwards, depending on whether we are in or out for lunch, whether the woods are likely to be too muddy and slippery for the OB to walk the dog in the afternoon, whether the weather is right for gardening, whether I have a meeting in the evening, and so on. But today my routine has been thrown right out of the window.

For a start, I had to set the alarm for an hour earlier than usual (so it was still dark when I got up. In fact, it was only just getting light when I took the dog out just before 7.30). Back home in time to change out of dog-walking trousers (which are also painting and gardening trousers so are spattered with different shades of paint and liberally coated with mud) and drive the OB to the hospital for a session of physiotherapy.

Having dropped the old dear off, I drove the mile - certainly no more than that - to a well-known DIY store. Because I got caught up behind a dust cart and because the volume of traffic was so great, that one mile journey took me half an hour! The reason for the visit was to buy a new wash basin and taps for the bathroom. We had selected the ones we liked best - correction, the OB had selected the ones she liked best yesterday but deferred buying them until today when I get 10% off (Wednesday is pensioners' day). I loaded the basin onto a flat-bed trolley and went into the next aisle to find the taps. Problem: neither of the selected styles was in stock. Then I realised that the waste kit for the basin came with its own taps, but these taps were most definitely not like the chosen ones!

Back in the basin aisle I notice another style of basin, very similar to the chosen one, has taps that are pretty much like the OB's second choice. But the basin only takes a mixer tap: she wants two taps. I decide to refer to Management after her physio session. Offload basin, dump trolley, and buy the paint I shall want next week in France.

Management agrees that the new style of basin is fine, despite the mixer tap. Relief all round.

Back home, we have time for a coffee and for me to check my email before heading out for our monthly lunch with a crowd of the OB's old scouting connections, including my friend Chris from Les Lavandes and Mrs Chris. Home again, walk the dog, another coffee - and at 4.30 I sit in front of a blank screen with no idea what I'm going to write as today's blog.

Hey ho, that's life.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Have I lost the plot?

I'm worried. In fact I am almost very worried. I think I might be going mad. The Old Bat doesn't think I'm going mad: she thinks I have already gone mad.

Stark raving mad. Barking mad. Crackers - or, as Jonathan Ross would say, quackers.

I have started talking to the dog in duck. I really didn't think she would understand duck, but it would appear that she understands duck better than plain English.

Fern (the dog) is always fed immediately after the OB and I have had our evening meal. While the OB loads the dishwasher, I get the dog's meal ready. Meanwhile, the dog is supposed to sit quietly in the kitchen doorway. It's probably not really surprising that she generally heads for the dishwasher, intent on helping to clean our dinner plates. I have to speak to her quite sternly before she will return to the doorway.

But the other evening, as the OB headed for the dishwasher, I looked at Fern and spoke to her in duck. "Quack, quack, quack," I said. Fern sat in the kitchen doorway good as gold and waited, albeit impatiently, as her meal was prepared.

Last thing at night we send Fern down the garden and she always rushes off, barking madly to scare off any cats or squirrels or foxes that might be lurking under the shrubs. We always tell her to be quiet, but it never works. That is until I let her out and said, "Quack quack." She didn't utter a sound while she was out.

Then, in the park, she darted into the bushes and came out carrying a dead rat. One "quack" from me and she dropped it and came to heel.

It's really very exciting: I could have made a breakthrough in human-canine communication. The possibilities are endless. A professorship, a chair in Duck at Oxford or Cambridge, a visiting professorship at Harvard or Yale. A worldwide chain of language schools. A Nobel prize for something or other. Perhaps a knighthood, or maybe I'll be made a Lord in the Queen's Birthday Honours.

On the other hand, perhaps all my friends will be wearing white coats.

It's really very worrying.

Monday, 13 October 2008

I'm on my soap box

There is an old maxim which says that when one finds oneself in a hole, one should stop digging. I suppose by extension, it could be said that there is no point worrying about how one fell into a hole until one has successfully extricated oneself from it.

The whole world, it seems, is in a hole - a financial hole. The British Government has indicated that it will pump £400 billion into the banking system to bring about stability to the financial market. Whether those billions are British or American (the American billion has ‘only' nine noughts whereas the British has 12) it is an awful lot of money - equivalent, I understand, to about £13,500 for each tax-payer in the country. But surely even the Government doesn't have that sort of loose change lying around and will have to borrow it. Who from? The banks?

I am fortunate that I am not in a financial hole personally - at least, not yet - but with the benefit of that most exact of all sciences, hindsight, I can see that signs and portents of the current economic difficulties have been building up over many years. When the Old Bat and I bought our house, the most we could borrow was 2½ times my salary plus once the OB's or 90% of the value of the house (not necessarily the purchase price), whichever was the lower. Over the years, building societies and banks increased the amount they would lend to as much as five times salary or 110% of the value of the house. This, of course, led to an increase in house prices. And all the while the price (value) of houses was going up, people felt safe to borrow more on hire purchase or credit cards. They could always increase their mortgage if they needed to: after all, the value of the house just kept on going up.

And even now stores are telling people to buy their furniture now with nothing to pay for 12 months!

I don't pretend to understand the current financial markets: I know what short selling is, but haven't the foggiest idea what hedge funds or derivatives might be. I'm still convinced that all this is nothing less than gambling - and gambling with other people's money.

I'm probably being naive, but I think it's high time we returned to old fashioned banking principles: if you want something, save up for it.

OK - it's time to get off the soap box.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Let's look on the bright side

So all week the newspapers have been full of doom and gloom, what with banks going bust, stock market indexes plunging and even countries close to bankruptcy.

But hey, the sun has been shining all week, I'm still picking raspberries and tomatoes, even if the tomatoes do have to sit on the kitchen windowsill to ripen. It's not all bad news.

I sometimes think it must be pretty good to be a dog. No worries about paying the heating bills or council tax, fed twice a day (well, mine is), taken for walks to play with a tennis ball and/or other dogs, and a comfortable blanket to sleep on. Then I think how bored I would be. And not all dogs are treated as well as mine anyway.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Can you see the join?

I really can't remember just when I started writing what has turned into my other blog - Les Lavandes. It was something I did merely for my own amusement but there came a time when I hit a brick wall: something was stopping me typing another word, let alone a complete sentence. Was this that thing I had heard of called 'writer's block'?

The file sat there on my computer's hard drive slowly gathering dust, and there were times when I thought I should just delete it and free up some memory. I didn't do so - not because I'm vain enough to think that a publisher might ever be interested in it (I doubt that I could keep it going long enough to make it into the length of a book anyway) but because every no and then I found it amusing just to re-read it.

Then - heaven knows why - I started posting it on a blog. My system was to drip feed what I had written, thinking that by the time I reached what had been the end, I would have been able to write another chapter or two. But alas and alack, that has not happened.

Earlier this week, I reached the end of my prepared magnum opus. Since then I have been winging it and have disciplined myself to write a couple of paragraphs each day. There is one snag with this system - the lack of time to amend what has been written, to alter sentences and generally polish up the presentation. I wonder if anyone can see the join?

Friday, 10 October 2008

Me superstitious? Never!

Well, just maybe - a little bit.

A few days ago I told my Californian friend that I would keep my fingers crossed for him. People might infer from this that I am superstitious. I would always have denied being so, but it's just possible that I am being slightly economical with the truth. You see, I swear that I will never again go back to Torquay. I have been to the famous Devon riviera town three times in my life, and each time I have suffered bad luck either in the town or soon after leaving it.

My first visit was back in 1954 (yes, I know I'm ancient). I had been seriously ill with pneumonia and the doctor recommended a month's recuperation in the south of France. That was out of the question - the family finances just weren't up to it - so Torquay was suggested as an alternative. We had a very good time, except that one day I fell in the lake in the park.

The second time I visited Torquay was on my honeymoon. We were actually staying in a small village in the middle of Exmoor, which is in the north of Devon. One day the weather on the north coast was not up to much, so the Young Bat and I decided to drive to the south. We called in at Torquay, then drove west to Dartmouth from where we intended heading back north across Dartmoor and finally to Exmoor. Having sold my own car to buy a three piece suite, we were in a hire car, a Mini Minor.

All went well until we were in a narrow country lane on the approach to Dartmoor. I rounded a bend to see a lorry coming towards me. Naturally, I pulled in to the side of the road, and so did the lorry driver. Unfortunately, the back of the lorry touched the high bank at the side of the road and swung back across the road, which was slippery after rain, hitting the front of the Mini. We left it there and had to thumb a lift back to our hotel. Several lifts, in fact, as there was no direct route.

My third visit to Torquay was with the Old Bat (the Young Bat had aged a bit by then) and the three children. We were staying on a farm further along the coast and I can't remember why we decided to go to Torquay on that occasion. Driving back to the farm, the gear box seized on the Exeter bypass. The car - which had only 3500 miles on the clock - had to be towed into a garage. But at least I was lucky enough to find somebody to drive us the 20 miles or so back to farm - completely free of charge - thanks to my connection with the Scouts.

Nowadays I refuse to go to Torquay: maybe I am superstitious after all.

Thursday, 9 October 2008


Until yesterday I had never heard of the Italian village of Marino and I have no idea whether or not it is an attractive place. There is, however, certainly one attraction: during the village's annual Sagra dell Uva festival, the marble fountain in the village square flows with chilled sparkling white wine.

Until this year.

The mayor and other dignitaries waited by the fountain, plastic cups at the ready. But when the switch was thrown, what flowed from the fountain was plain water.

Meanwhile, a housewife appeared on her balcony announcing a miracle. Wine was flowing from her kitchen tap.

Plumbers had connected pipes from the local vineyard to the domestic water supply instead of the fountain.

Canterbury cathedral is the scene of another, more permanent mistake.

Behind the high altar are two rows of columns, four to a row. The columns are square in cross section and the first pair are ornately carved, the second pair plain, the third pair carved, and one of the fourth pair is plain. The other has been carved on one complete side and part of another.

Imagine the stonemason's reaction when, after carefully chipping away at the column for a week or two, he realised it was meant to be uncarved!

Credit crunch

I'm not sure that I really want to post this received in an email, but here goes.

Following the problems in the US sub-prime lending market in America and the run on Northern Rock in the UK, uncertainty has hit the Japanese banking market. In the last seven days Origami bank has folded, the Sumo bank has gone belly up, and Bonsai bank announced plans to cut some of its branches. Yesterday it was announced that the Karaoke bank is up for sale and is expected to go for a song. Shares in the Kamikaze bank were suspended after they nose dived. The Samurai bank is soldiering on after making sharp cut backs, the Ninja bank has taken a hit, but remains in the black, while 500 staff at the Karate bank got the chop. Finally analysts think that there's something fishy going on at the Sushi bank, where it is feared that staff may get a raw deal.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Big cats

See - I think you'll find it's worth a look.

A bouquet for Viking

Despite my moans of yesterday, not everything in England is bad.

On Friday, I placed a small stationery order online with Viking Direct. They promise free next-business-day delivery for orders over £30. I only wanted three items, but they came to more than £30 so I qualified not only for free delivery but also a free box of chocolates.

One of the items (and the chocolates) arrived Monday morning. The deliveryman apologised for the fact that 2 parcels were missing but promised to deliver them on Tuesday. Sure enough, they arrived on Tuesday.

I was amazed to receive a phone call Tuesday lunch time from Viking, apologising for putting two items on the wrong van and checking to see that they had been delivered.

Now that is what I call good service. And the chocolates were very good as well!

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Nowhere for me to go

I was born and bred in England and I love the country. But I frequently wish I could emigrate. We seem to be getting more and more laws and regulations, many of which emanate from Brussels. Part of the problem is that when a directive comes from Brussels, our dear Government always seems to "gold plate" it, making it more onerous than was originally intended. It might not be so bad if the people in Brussels who are dreaming up these scatter-brained schemes were actually elected by us, but they are not!

Some of the things that are irritating me right now are:

1. Before anyone can put a house up for sale they must obtain a Home Information Pack. These HIPs have to contain local searches, a surveyor's report, an energy performance certificate, et al. The idea is that they will speed up the sale of the house by eliminating the time it takes a potential buyer's solicitor to go through the process of obtaining all the relevant information. They cost several hundred pounds - and very few buyers even look at them as they need to obtain a separate survey or valuation for their mortgage lender and the searches are probably out of date anyway!

2. Local authorities are imposing ridiculous rules over rubbish collection. Many councils are now emptying bins only once a fortnight instead of every week. A lot of people find that in hot weather there has been an increase in flies and smells as a result. And with more rubbish to put into the bin, the lid is sometimes not completely shut. But in that case, the dustmen - sorry, refuse collectors - are entitled to refuse (no pun intended) to empty the bin. And many councils insist that the bin be put on the pavement in front of the house - which leads to more problems.
a) The bin must not be put on the pavement before the morning on which it is to be emptied. But some bins are emptied as early as 7.00am, so it is quite easy to miss the collection. Put the bin out the night before and one is liable to be fined. No, not fined - subject to a fixed penalty.
b) Councils say that we must put our bins on the pavement. But the law of the land says we must not obstruct the footpath. Which do we obey? A local man refused to put his rubbish onto the pavement because he considered it would cause a hazard to his blind neighbours. Instead, he left it just inside his garden gate - and the dustmen refused to take it.

3. The Government proposed to introduce identity cards on the grounds that this would counter the threat of terrorism. It was at first proposed that it would be compulsory for every citizen to have an ID card - at a cost of at least £92. Then they changed their mind and said that when applying for a passport (or renewing a passport) the applicant would, at the same time, have to apply for an ID card. I'm not sure what the current state of play is. Now, if terrorists are able to obtain or fake passports, surely they could do the same for ID cards, or am I simply being naive?

4. Supermarkets have been positively encouraged to build their stores on the edges of towns, necessitating a car journey to buy a week's supplies. They have successfully killed off the competition from small local bakers, butchers, grocers, greengrocers, fishmongers and corner convenience stores, and are steadily making inroads into pharmacies and opticians, so high street shopping centres are now little more than clothes outlets, charity shops and Starbucks coffee shops. Now we are told we should not drive to the edges of towns, but should use the high streets!

5. The nanny state in which I now live insists that allergy advice warnings be printed on all food packaging. I picked up an egg box today, only to be confronted with the warning: ALLERGY ADVICE: CONTAINS EGGS. I ask you!

6. An extension of the previous point is that the country has become over-litigious. One result is that local authorities sometimes take health and safety to ridiculous lengths. One removed all hanging flower baskets from its lampposts in case anybody got hurt by them, another cut down all the horse chestnut trees in its parks to avoid being sued by people after conkers fell on their heads.

Enough already! I can't emigrate - I'm too old for any country to accept me, so I'll just have to grow older disgracefully.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Lost and found

The power of the internet is truly astounding.

My sister-in-law always knew she is a child of her father's second marriage and understood that she had a half-sister (from the first marriage) who had possibly emigrated to New Zealand. She knew her father's full name and date of birth, and thought she knew his first wife's name, but that was it. As both her father and mother are dead and she is an only child, she had no way of finding any more details, but she felt she would like to make contact with her half-sister or her half-sister's children (if there were any).

So I logged on to and searched against the father's name. Birth details checked, and a marriage was shown, with the bride's second Christian name matching what sister-in-law thought was her name. As it is an unusual name this seemed a likely match. Search the birth records and I find there was a child born the year after the marriage. Could this be the half-sister?

And so to Search against the first wife's name, and lo and behold! Two people have that person in their family trees. I send a message to each of them, more in hope than expectation, but within 24 hours I have a reply from one, confirming a distant relationship, saying that she knows a much closer relative, and giving that lady's email address (with permission, of course).

An email to the new person brings a reply the next day. She is the half-sister's daughter and is delighted to have found more family, so I have given her my sister-in-law's address (again, after getting permission) and leave them to take it from there.

Just two days to track down a missing half-sister. Pretty good, I think. And my sister-in-law is delighted.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Hi! I'm Joe Soap

People I've always envied are those who have the confidence to go up to a complete stranger at a cocktail party or a reception and say something along the lines of, "Hello, I'm Joe Soap." It seems to me to be an American thing: most Englishmen are, like me, too reticent and reserved to start a conversation with somebody to whom they have not been introduced. We stand alone at the side of the room, watching all those people who already know each other swapping jokes and generally enjoying themselves. Meanwhile, we wish we could pluck up the courage to approach one of the other wallflowers - who feels just like us! It's just so silly - but so English.

Mind you, I haven't been to many cocktail parties: I don't move in that kind of circle. I did go to a few many years ago. At the time I was a member of the Royal Naval Reserve and had been seconded to a joint services unit which specialised in the provision of anti-interrogation training. The officers (of which I was not one, being a mere Leading Writer) were all fluent in German, Russian or another language and would be used as interrogators in the event of a conflict breaking out.

Every year, just before Christmas, the JSIU would hold a cocktail party at the hall of one or another of the merchant guilds in London. Only one type of drink was on offer - champagne and brandy cocktails. I have very vague memories of the Old Bat and me falling into a train to go back to the honorary uncle and aunt's house where we were staying the weekend.

Other receptions have provided me with embarrassing moments, but not drunken embarrassing moments.

Through my job I was a member of the council of the Newspaper Society, a sort of lobbying body for regional and local newspapers. As a result, I attended a reception the NS gave at one of the big London hotels at which the guest of honour was Her Majesty the Queen. I can't think how it happened, but I was selected to be one of the people to whom the Queen was introduced. The chosen ones had to stand in groups of about five or six at one side of the reception room and the Queen was brought along to chat briefly to each group. My group were chatting with her about something or other - I can't remember what - when she turned to me and asked me a question. Unfortunately, she is so softly spoken and the noise from the rest of the room was so great that I didn't actually hear the question. I could hardly say, "What?" or "Can you speak up, please" so I just answered the question I thought she might have asked. She must have wondered where on earth they had dragged me in from!

On another occasion I was invited to a reception at Windsor Castle. I was standing in a corner of a room with a few others I knew when the Duke of Edinburgh came through a nearby door and tripped over the carpet. Luckily, he didn't fall. He turned to us and asked, "Do you know how old this carpet is?"

The following day I was rung by a national Sunday newspaper and asked what the Duke had said, to which I answered truthfully. Imagine my embarrassment when I was quoted - name and all - in the following Sunday's edition! I half expected to be hauled off to the Tower of London!

(The carpet was 150 years old and had been handmade in an Indian prison.)

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Small town talk

Brighton is not a small town. In fact, Brighton is not a town at all. A good few years ago the ‘twin towns' of Brighton and Hove merged to become one borough called - tah rah, tah tar - Brighton & Hove!!! Then, to celebrate the Queen's Golden Jubilee (I think), the town was promoted and granted city status, so it is now the City of Brighton & Hove. But that is all by the bye.

The population of Brighton (as it is generally known) is something over 250,000. But the conurbation extends along the coast from beyond Worthing in the west pretty well to Newhaven in the east - a distance of some 25 - 30 miles - and the population of that must be nearer to half a million.

But it pays to be very careful what one says to one person about another. It is surprising how often they are related, either directly or through another member of their family. I've had a good example recently. I needed to employ a plumber, mine having retired. The woman who works part time for the Lions' housing society gave me the number of her uncle (who came and did a good job at a reasonable price). I happened to mention this to another Lion, only to be told they are cousins!

I suppose if we were able to track back far enough, we would find that Gordon Brown and George Bush are distant cousins - something like 23rd cousins 7 times removed. Possibly even Vladimir Putin is related to both of them. Perhaps it's just as well we can't go that far back.

Hey, I've forgotten the positive thought for the day!
"Positive thinking will let you do everything better than negative thinking will."

Zig Ziglar

Friday, 3 October 2008

A medical miracle, that's me!

It is 44 years to the day since I confounded all medical science: I was cured of asthma.

OK, as nobody can be cured of asthma I suppose I should say that it is 44 years since I last suffered an attack of asthma.

I remember it well. I had been a sickly child and suffered my first asthma attack at the age of three months (or so my mother told me - I don't remember that one). During my school years I spent almost as much time at home sick as I did at school, but never had I suffered such an asthma attack as that last one. It lasted for six weeks - that's right, six weeks!

The final day was a Saturday and I was wheezing like a good ‘un when I went into church. By the time I came out a married man, the wheezing had stopped and it has never started again. Marriage had cured my asthma!

So that means that today is my 44th wedding anniversary. I had better go and buy a card or something for the Old Bat.

There was an item in yesterday's newspaper about a recipe for a happy marriage. It seems some company with nothing better to do undertook a survey and found that, for a happy marriage, four hugs a day are required, plus at least two evenings out together each month without family or friends, and seven evenings in together each month. On top of that, each partner should spend one evening a month out without the other. No mention is made of the importance of shared interests - nor of the other 10 or 11 evenings each month. Make of it what you will.

Thursday, 2 October 2008


The forecast last Sunday evening was that we would have rain pretty much all this week - and today is the third successive sunny day! Which reminds me that I never did note the result of my little experiment to check the accuracy of the forecast for Monday last week. All of the different forecasts were about right - sunny spells, although it might have been more accurate to say sunny with some cloud. The wind was certainly light and from the north-north-east, so they were right about that. But the temperature was not as high as the BBC and the Met Office had predicted, although Accuweather was not far out. So Accuweather gets the prize.

I'm flabbergasted

To the Lions' dinner meeting last night, where the President presented us with a quiz sheet for our amusement. Amusement be blowed! The quiz consisted of a list of 20 phobias and we had to answer "Of what are these phobias?" I think maybe my Californian friend has fallen prey to pogonophobia (I'd never heard of it until last night), although I haven't. Some were not too difficult to guess (hypnophobia - frear of sleep; pyrophobia - fear of fire) but vestiophobia? Spheksophobia?

Then we discovered that there were another 20 questions on the other side of the paper! "To what creatures do these collective nouns refer?" A clowder of...? A bale of... (not hay, but turtles).

I amazed myself by getting the highest score - 13 out of 40.

Which is considerably better than the mark I gained in a chemistry exam when I was 14. I got 2%, or one out of 50 - and that was for getting my name right at the top of the paper! I dropped chemistry after that, much to the relief of the staff of the science department.

Vestiophobia - fear of clothing; spheksophobia - fear of wasps. A clowder of cats. And I didn't guess any of those three!

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

A pinch and a punch...

...for the first of the month, and no returns of any kind!

As kids we always had to add the last bit or the person we were pinching would reply, "A punch and a kick for being so quick."

As today is the first of the month I'm allowed to turn over the page on the calendar. We keep one hanging in the kitchen and this is used to note all appointments etc. It shows one month at a view and I'm not allowed to turn the next month to the front even on the last day of the month. It's supposed to be unlucky or something. Which is a bit strange - not the being unlucky, but me not being allowed to turn the page before the new month starts. The OB claims not to be superstitious. I don't think she is really - not like my old granny.

My paternal grandmother would never wear green because she thought it an unlucky colour (just as well she wasn't Irish!), and would never bring lilac blooms into the house. Again, that would bring bad luck. I've never heard of anybody else who claimed that wearing green or bringing lilac into the house was unlucky. Maybe it was just my grandmother. Another thing that would guarantee bad luck was seeing the new moon for the first time through glass. Even when she was almost blind she would have to be taken out into the garden on the first clear night of a new moon - without her spectacles - to peer into the sky. Whether or not she could actually see the moon was open to question.

My mother was not superstitious, but could never bear to see knives crossed! Actually, if I see knives on the table which are crossed, I always straighten them - not because I'm worried about bad luck but simply because it's a 'thing' of mine and they look tidier uncrossed. Which is odd, because I'm not naturally a tidy person.

++++ (natural break) ++++

I usually get round to reading the morning paper just before going to bed and yesterday was no exception. I was astonished (alarmed? horrified?) to read that police had confiscated the walking stick of a 79-year-old man as they deemed it an offensive weapon. Apparently he was walking to a seminar and his route took him past a demonstration against something or other. He was nothing to do with the demo, merely walking along the street, but the fuzz got worried. They gave him a receipt for the stick and told him he could claim it back later. (If it was an offensive weapon then, would it not still be an offensive weapon later?) Trouble is, they've lost it.