Saturday, 31 December 2011

The most satisfying

Or, the end of the ego trip.

The pictures I have shown over the past five days have been among the ones I have taken this year which have given me the most satisfaction. Those I have posted so far have been in completely random order, but this is the one which has given me the most satisfaction.

My inspiration was a man who is perhaps Brighton's favourite local artist, Philip Dunn. Back in the summer I had an appointment at the hospital. I took advantage of the need to go into town to take a few photographs and I wandered down onto the seafront. There I happened to spot these deckchairs with their contrasting vibrant colours almost exactly framing the remains of the seaward end of the West Pier. It is the sort of shot I had been looking for for years.

Given that at this time of the year there is a better than usual chance of somebody playing silly buggers with my credit card, I thought to check the account online. For some reason, I was unable to access my account. According to the message on the screen, I had made more than the permitted number of attempts to log in and failed each time. It was suggested I should telephone. I rang the number and a very pleasant automated female voice asked me to explain in a few words what it was I wanted. I said I was unable to access my account on-line and, after a short pause, the automated lady replied, 'You are having difficulty logging in. Is that correct?' I assured her she had me bang to rights, whereupon she asked for my card number. After I had given it there was another short pause before she repeated it and I confirmed she had it right. She then told me that there was an unusually high volume of calls and the current wait time was eight minutes. However, she kindly pointed out that i could access my account on-line at www... It was tempting to do so, but I did refrain from shouting at her. And why is it that every time I have to telephone they are experiencing an unusually high volume of calls? I decided to suggest to the "specialist" who eventually (after 11 minutes) sorted the problem that the message be changed so that people ringing becuase of logging-in problems should not be advised to go on-line. But I forgot. Again. Maybe next time it happens.

So here we are once again at the end of a year. Despite the evidence of the previous paragraph, I'm not really a grumpy old man - at least, not yet grumpy though I may be old - but spending the night drinking and generally carousing is no longer my style so I fully expect to be in bed and asleep before the New Year is ushered in to the noise of fireworks and the hooters of the ships in the harbour (which we can hear if the wind is in the south-west as it mostly is). So I will wish each of my readers a very happy New Year and retire gracefully.

Friday, 30 December 2011

The end . . .

. . . of the Christmas turkey - in a turkey, ham and egg pie.

Up on the Downs

To continue with the six pictures taken this year that have given me the most satisfaction.

When attempting landscape pictures on the Downs I usually go for two-thirds sky to one-third earth (as with the picture of the signpost earlier this week) in an attempt to stress the openness and distances. So why this one should give me so much satisfaction was at first something of a puzzle. Then it dawned on me that it has many features of the South Downs in it, more than I realised at first glance. There is the old flint wall right in the foreground with hedges and copses further in the distance. And although the Downs run from east to west, there are valleys and ridges running north-south and this picture shows four ridges. The Chattri memorial is hardly a common feature of Downland views, but somehow it adds something to this picture. And if you enlarge the picture sufficiently, you will see sheep in the field above the Chattri and a seagull in the air!

I did say I might tell the story of Minty the Lamb but I have realised that I did that 18 months ago. For those who missed it (or have forgotten all about it) you can find it right here.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

To continue the ego trip . . .

. . . we return to Brighton. I go down into the town as infrequently as I can get away with - too many crowds and too much hustle and bustle for me - but on one Sunday in the summer Brighton Lions have a fund-raising fair in the gardens of the Royal Pavilion and I feel I have to attend. This year I sneaked off for a while to take some pictures, including this one of a corner of the Royal Pavilion. This really is a fantastic building in the true sense of the word but the usual pictures of it (showing the back of the building) are terribly clichéed. I wanted something that captured the essence of the building while being fresh. I think I succeeded pretty well, even to the extent of having a seagull in the picture! That, of course, was pure serendipity.

Still amazingly mild out. There are plenty of green shoots showing in the garden - crocuses and grape hyacinths in the main - but that is not particularly unusual for this time of the year. I was surprised by the number of birds singing in the park, though. Robins aplenty, but they sing all winter, but there were great tits and wood pigeons as well (although neither of them can really be described as singing. Calling is more accurate.) and even one lone blackbird.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Still in Pouancé.

I have driven along this road dozens, even scores and possibly hundreds of time, without noticing this almost tumbledown cottage tucked away in a corner. While over there earlier this month I did spot it out of the corner of my eye so turned back to take a picture. I love the colour the doors and window have been painted and the way it blends with the stone and the roof tiles. I like the way plaster is falling off the wall to display the stone beneath, and somehow it all seems to gel beautifully. And to think I hadn't noticed it for all those years!

So that's the Christmas holiday over - for some people, anyway. With Christmas Day falling on a Sunday this year, many people have had a four-day break and by taking just three days' holiday many will have stretched the break to ten days. I have always felt sorry for folks in other countries who have a holiday of just one day at Christmas compared to our normal two days. But I was always happy to go back to work the day after Boxing Day! This was partly to get away from the noise of the children and partly because the end of the year was always my businest time at work, both in the bank and with the newspaper, so I needed as much time in the office as I could get away with between Christmas and New Year.

And that's something I have never understood. Why do Americans call New Year, New Years? And is that New Years (plural) or New Year's (possessive)? Neither seems to me to make any sense. But I suppose I really shouldn't expect . . . No, I won't go there in case I spoil the "special relationship"!

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Over in France

This is the medieval gateway affording entrance to the old town of Pouancé, just a few miles up the road from our holiday cottage. I took this picture on a whim - no tripod, just leaning against a wall or post - and was astonished how well it came out. I think it looks warm and romantic - but that is despite knowing that the lighted window just through the arch is a grotty kebab shop!

Monday, 26 December 2011


Or ego trip.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was looking through all the photographs I had taken this year with a view to picking out the best. What I have actually done so far is to short-list the six photographs that have given me the most satisfaction, which does not mean they are the best I have taken. They may or may not be technically spot-on, the composition or the lighting could perhaps be improved upon, but there are sound reasons - which I shall try to explain - why these pictures are so satisfying to me. First up is this picture of a signpost on the South Downs behind Brighton.

Many of the pictures I have taken this year have been on the Downs while walking the dog. In them I have tried to capture the feeling of space, the wide, open skies and the way the Downs roll away as far as one can see. I rarely succeeded as well as I would have liked but somehow this signpost, pointing slightly up and into nothing, suggests that space to me.

Yesterday passed fairly quietly. The Old Bat and I joined our elder son, his partner and her parents, sister and daughter for a late lunch. Today both sons and all three grandchildren will be joining us for a late lunch so it will be somewhat noisier today than yesterday. Fern will love having the children around and will probably want to help unwrap the presents. (For those who have yet to meet her, Fern is our springer spaniel, pictured today on my other blog.)

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Happy Christmas

When I was a child, a few days before Christmas every year the BBC broadcast Handel's Messiah sung by the Huddersfield Choral Society. It was a family tradition that we listened each year, and here is the chorus "For Unto Us a Child is Born". Enjoy.

What a glorious walk Fern and I had yesterday afternoon. It was a fine day, crisp might describe it well. Not too cold - about 8 or 9 Celsius - but a fairly stiff breeze from the south-west. I drove out beyond Falmer and we walked up across the Downs until we reached the spot where there is a distant view of Seaford Head and the English Channel. Then we described a loop over Balmer Down before heading back down to Falmer. There were typical Downland views of sheep and more sheep and the wind blowing past my ears almost blocked the faint hum of the traffic on the main road. An hour of that certainly blew the cobwebs away!

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Prince Philip

It is good to learn that the Duke of Edinburgh is recovering well after the scare of him being admitted to hospital last night. He's not everybody's cup of tea but I like him, although I have only met him the once. He speaks his mind and his occasional gaffes when he cracks a joke without thinking about it are most amusing as he never intends to hurt. I would love to have him as a dinner guest.

Banking memories

I must, I regret, disappoint Skip. He posted a comment after I told the (probably) apocryphal story of the bank officer who bought a calf at market and kept it in the bank strongroom until he went home that night saying that he (Skip) wanted to hear more about the calf. Maybe one day I'll tell you about the lamb we kept in our garden shed, but meanwhile, a few memories from my days in banking - which were long before bankers were looked upon with opprobrium. And I promise that we will end up with a seasonal tale!

My banking career started in 1960 and ended in 1985 so you will gather that these snippets are really matters of ancient history and are never likely to be repeated in the modern world. In those days probably less than half the population had bank accounts. Many people were paid weekly, in cash, and it would be a few years before there was a concerted effort to persuade workers to have their pay paid monthly straight into a bank account. The branch at which I started work was at one end of a busy shopping street and the cashiers were kept busy taking in the shops takings and exchanging notes for small coins. This meant we had to bring in change. A branch across town received more coin than it knew what to do with as the local bus company banked there so it seemed sensible to move coin from that branch to mine. This was done about once a month, using an open-sided, flat-bed lorry. Two of us would ride across town and spend about half an hour humping bags of coin from the other branch's strongroom onto the lorry, then I, as junior, would get to ride back sitting on this stack of coin on the back of the lorry. Then we would spend another half hour transferring it to our strongroom.

We received a surplus of notes. What we didn't need would be parcelled up in stiff paper wrappers sealed with wax. A bundle of these smaller packets would be wrapped together in brown paper to make a larger parcel and, again about once a month, we would call a taxi and take these parcels round to the Post Office for delivery to our head office in London. There could easily be upwards of £25,000 in one delivery, so we did have a police escort for this. Nowadays, of course, security is a bit tighter.

It was a similar story at my second branch. This was a small, country branch but on two mornings each week I ran a sub-branch in an even smaller village down the road. Just me and a retired man as my guard. We caught the bus each way and, if I needed money at the sub-branch or had a surplus to bring back to the main branch, I carried it in a brief case. At least, that was the idea. I decided that if I was robbed I would just let go of the briefcase so, if the £2,000 of notes was lost, well, hard luck. But if I had the notes in my pocket... But I was never robbed so I never did get away with that one.

My guard and I had a very good relationship with the village bobby and he would sometimes appear with a brown paper bag. We let him in behind the screen and thoroughly enjoyed the bottles of beer he had brought with him.

It was at that main branch that we had a customer who was... mentally challenged? She would quite often poke her head round the door, thumb her nose at the cashier, and go away again. One time, though, she didn't go away. She took an inkpot off the counter, placed it on the floor, lifted her skirt and pulled down her knickers and... Well, it was me who ended up wielding the bucket and mop.

I can't remember if it was at this branch or another where a lady customer came in and asked what her balance was. On being told, she took her cheque book and wrote a cheque for the exact amount, payable to cash. The cashier queried this but she was adamant. She took her entire balance in cash across the banking hall to a table and checked it carefully. Then she came and handed it back to the cashier.

"That's right," she said. "You can have it back now. I just wanted to make sure you still had it."

Which reminds me of the customer who complained that the notes he received when he cashed a cheque were not his. He wanted the ones he had paid in the previous week.

As with most businesses, the staff enjoyed going out for a meal at Christmas. To reach my last branch I had to drive 20-odd miles each way, picking up two other staff en route. Our journey took us past a country restaurant and one Christmas we decided to try a meal there. A suitable booking was made. We did think it a little odd that we were checked out through a spyhole before the door was opened for us but it was not until several weeks later that we discovered the restaurant was a front for the main business. I must be one of the very few men who has taken his wife to a brothel.

Friday, 23 December 2011


People who know me know that I find it difficult to sit back and say nothing. I don't mean that I witter on with small talk: small talk I don't do. Land me at a party with a lot of people I don't know, or don't know particularly well, and I find it difficult to maintain a conversation. But if there is a discussion going on and I have an opinion, I'm in there with my big mouth. It lands in all sorts of odd - and sometimes awkward - situations. Like the time I ended up preaching a sermon.

I was then heavily involved in the church, certainly on the parochial church council and either as a sidesman or churchwarden. As in so many churches, there was a monthly church parade for the scouts, guides, cubs and brownies at one of the regular Sunday communion services. The vicar did have a tendency to spend rather longer in the pulpit than was comfortable for the younger ones and, me being me, I plucked up the courage to tell him so. It didn't, I pointed out, encourage the youngsters to attend church if they found it boring. I accepted his challenge to do better and so it was that a month or two later I found myself due to speak on Sunday morning. It wasn't until I arrived at church that I discovered not only was it a church parade, but there was also an infant baptism to take place during the service. Luckily, what I had in mind to say was easily adapted to cover a baptism.

I spoke about promises, reminding the youngsters that they had each made a promise when they were invested in their pack or troop, and saying that God would be making a promise to the baby who was to be baptised, a promise that He would always be there, a promise that He had made to each of them as well.

Then I told them about a ceremony that used to be held by North American Indians in the forests of what is now Canada. When a boy reached the age of 12 he was considered to have reached manhood but to prove it, he had to spend a night alone in the forest. One boy was led away from the village by his father deep into the forest, farther away from the village than he had ever been before. He was told that he had to spend the night in the clearing and make his way back to the village the following day. Knowing that there were wild animals such as bears in the forest, the boy hunted around for twigs to make a fire. He kept it burning all night as he sat there, watching the firelight reflected in the eyes of the wild beasts that had smelled man and came to investigate, but the fire kept them away from the boy. In the morning he made his way back to the village without mishap.

What the boy didn't know was that his father had been on the edge of the clearing all night, watching over him. The boy couldn't see his father, but that didn't mean he wasn't there. We can't see God, our Father, I told them, but that doesn't mean He isn't there watching over us, just as He has promised.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

A December miscellany

Reading Buck's various musings like this one here and two things jumped out at me. One, perhaps, should not have surprised me. Come to that, I suppose neither should have. I'm talking here about differences in attitude and way of life on either side of the Big Pond. Buck mentioned that he was eating dinner at 1715. Dinner at a quarter past five? I thought. No, that's uncivilised. Five o'clock is tea time; dinner is at eight o'clock. (Actually, we eat at about a quarter to seven when we are at home. If we eat out it is at about 7.30 or 8.00) Then I remembered a trip we made to the States some years back. We were due to land at Dulles, Washington, and drive into Maryland to spend a night with Lion friends. They had promised to take us out for a meal at the best restaurant in the area. We duly landed at about 4.00pm, eventually picked up our hire car and set off to follow the directions I had been given by Kent. Unfortunately, there was one place where he had not been very clear and we ended up getting lost. However, it was still quite early so I wasn't too bothered and I thought nothing of it when we arrived at about 7.30. Our hosts, however, were getting frantic and had already rung the restaurant to cancel the reservation - which was probably for about 6.30. We, being accustomed to English habits, had expected to eat at about 8.00 and hadn't appreciated that Americans eat so much earlier than us.

This is something I have come across in other respects. Social activities in England, such as club meetings, usually start at 8.00pm, sometimes 7.30, but that is really considered a bit early. It came as a shock when I discovered that Lions Clubs in America can meet as early as 6.30.

The other thing that struck me when reading Buck's post was the difference in ur attitudes to driving, in particular, the distance one drives. Buck implied that a drive of an hour or two was no big deal. In England, an hour's drive is a long way - and two hours! My word, that's an expedition, not just a short drive.

A couple of weeks ago the paper reported a reservoir near here as being 12% full. They made no mention of what would be considered the normal percentage for this time of the year, but implicit in the report was that 12% is very low. I gathered that (I'm pretty quick on the uptake) as the article was talking about how dry this autumn has been and how water shortages and drought measures are forecast for next spring and summer. Yes, I know there has not been the usual amount of rain as I have seldom come home wet from walking the dog. But why are the paths in the woods so muddy if we have had so little rain? And why is the vegetable patch too wet for me to dig?

The wetness of the soil is but one excuse for not digging. The other is closer to home. There have been remarkably few days these last several months when I have not had twinges of arthritis either threatening to start or causing pain and/or stiffness in one joint or another. Arthritis, or rheumatoid arthritis, is something I have had for many years. When it was first diagnosed I was given a prescription for an anti-inflammatory drug and told to take two capsules a day. I did for a while but gradually left off and in the end only took the medication when I felt it necessary. This way, the usual one month's supply often lasted me a year and, one time, even eighteen months. Instead of drugs, I took - and still do take - cod liver oil capsules and the Old Bat ensured that our diet contained a good mixture, especially with suitably oily fish. Then I developed this allergy and, in the summer, was prescribed a drug I take with an inhaler. Since then the arthritis has been much worse. Coincidence, or can the inhaler be the cause? When I think the allergy is better under control, I will leave off the inhaler and see if the arthritis is easier.

I followed my usual habit of writing the title first and now I can't remember why I included the word 'December'. Oh well, I don't suppose it really matters. But to get back to December, I'm off shortly to fetch the turkey.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

In response to readers' demands

What is the fascination with food? Well, OK, I can understand being fascinated by food: I am. But being interested in what other people have eaten? When there is no chance - or very little chance - that you will ever eat at that particular restaurant? If that's what floats your boat or, to coin a phrase, if that's how you like it cooked...

Oh, I found the Bovril. I had expected it to be next door to the Marmite, which is just along from the Heinz Sandwich Spread, which is alongside the jam. But it wasn't there. I found it with the Bisto and Oxo cubes.

So, what did I eat. Let me start by explaining something about French restaurants. At least, something about restaurants in France. It's not universal: you are unlikely to find this in creperies, for instance, and only in some pizzerias. As well as a la carte, restaurants in France usually offer one or more fixed price menus where the choice is restricted to three or four dishes for each course. These can offer extremely good value for money, especially the lunchtime menus ouvriers, or workmen's menus. These often offer a three course meal, sometimes with wine included, for about 10 euros, which - with the current exchange rate - is less than £10.

Au Vieux Castel is no different. We always opt for the cheapest menu there, but that offers a choice of about half a dozen starters, half a dozen meat dishes and two fish dishes, and four or so desserts. The dishes offered are changed from time to time but several have remained constant in all the years we have eaten there.

For my starter, I usually opt for either the crab tartare or the goat's cheese salad, while the Old Bat will choose either one of these or the ham tartare or (her favourite) scallop terrine with lobster sauce. (I have chosen the snails but this menu allows for only half a dozen and at a different restaurant I get a full dozen.)

The main course is always something we dither over. Should it be the piece of beef, or the steak with shallots, or maybe the turkey escalope. Beef in France can be very indifferent - they butcher it differently to we Brits - but the meat here is consistently good. Whichever we choose, it will be served with the vegetable of the day (always fresh and in season) along with a portion of chips (French fries) and a baked potato. This is one of the "signature dishes" of Michel, the chef, and neither we nor anybody else we have taken to the restaurant has been able to work out what is done to the potato. It is cooked in its jacket but the inside has been mixed with herbs or some sort and we can't tell what they are! I can tell you that it is extremely tasty and I'm getting hungry just writing about it.

Dessert could be a very pleasant creme caramel or sometimes rum baba is available. Last week there was a delightfully light chocolate sponge cake covered with chocolate which was served with creme anglaise, the French version of custard.

This will, of course, be followed by proper French coffee and was washed down with a pichet of merlot.

I have never tried it, but this is the only restaurant I have found where Chateaubriand steak is offered, which I find rather surprising in its home town! The reason I have not tried it is cost. The menu gourmand on which it appears costs five euros more than my usual menu and offer only two courses.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Christmas trees and cribs

My Californian buddy, Skip, proclaimed that everybody has a Christmas tree story and went on to tell how he did the many thing and went into the forest to cut one down. You can read his story here. Well, there's no way I can top that but I do have just a weeny tale of a weeny tree.

It was when I was working in a bank at a branch in rural Sussex. The Number 2 on the staff lived on a smallholding where he allowed people to park their caravans over winter in a large barn and where he had a small Christmas tree plantation. He was quite a character, was Bill Hemmings. Totally unsuited to banking, really. There was a story how, when working at another branch, he had gone out to the market, bought a calf and put it in the bank strongroom until he was ready to load it into the back of his car and take it home! Possibly apocryphal; indeed, probably apocryphal but just the sort of thing I could see him doing.

But to get back to the real story. The Old Bat and I went out to Bill's one weekend and dug up a tiny tree, roots and all. After Christmas I planted it in the garden where it thrived. I dug it up and brought it indoors for several years after that but it eventually grew too tall and straggly for that and, in the end, it died. So it's back to buying a tree each year. I bought one last Friday and on Sunday afternoon the Old Bat decorated it.

She also put out one of our oldest Christmas decorations - a crib scene I bought in Holland many years ago. I had gone over with a party of Scouts to meet up with Dutch Scouts with whom we had established a sort of twinning arrangement. Looking round the shops in the Hague I saw this and it proved a big hit when I got it home.

I'm not sure that Joseph should really be holding a crook, but there you are.

It is reported in this morning's paper that the Norway fir, long the country's first choice as a Christmas tree, has rivals. The Canaan fir and Jacobs fir are, it seems, preferred by many as they are slimmer. (Our Norway fir stans about four feet tall and three feet wide.) Both the Canaan and the Jacobs are natives of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Some years ago, the Old Bat and I spent a holiday in Virginia (with side trips to Maryland, Washington DC and West Virginia) especially to travel the Skyline Drive. I was disappointed that it wasn't until we had turned back towards the airport and our return flight that I found, printed on a table place mat in a diner, a map showing the Trail of the Lonesome Pine which I would have liked to visit.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Our favourite restaurant

We always enjoy a meal at a Châteaubriant restaurant known as Au Vieux Castel (At the Old Castle - castel really being a small castle or manor).

This restaurant has a distinctly dismal appearance from the outside, a sort of downcast look which is not helped by its situation at possibly the busiest crossroads, next to one of only three sets of traffic lights in town. One opens the door and is immediately pitched headlong down three steep steps into the bar. French bars are completely different from English pubs. There is no warm, welcoming feeling to them; they are plasticy and usually have rectangular, formica-topped tables lined up in neat rows, with hard chairs to sit on. Granted, this bar is not quite as bad as that, but an English country pub it is not.

The restaurant is through a narrow arch and down another step. Once in the restaurant, one could be forgiven for thinking that one had passed through a time warp and was back in the 1970s – or even the 1950s. At first glance, the floor appears to be tiled, but it is actually covered in lino. The bottom half of the walls is covered in wainscotting stained a deep brown, the upper half of the walls having been painted in what is now a rather dirty-looking cream. Or is it magnolia? The window frames and a door into the street are painted dark brown. (That door, by the way, is permanently locked and duct tape has been placed over the edges to prevent draughts coming through.) The windows have net curtains at the bottom half, and I'm not at all sure those curtains have been washed in the six years or so that I have been eating there. The ceiling has beams – also stained a dark brown. Hanging from the walls and some of the beams is a collection of ancient woodworking tools and, somewhat incongruously, a wooden coffee grinder. Also decorating the walls are a number of pictures, including a rather dark landscape, an old photo of somebody's great grandparents, a pin-and-cotton spider's web on black felt and a mock horse's collar complete with plastic flowers. There are pots of artificial flowers on each windowsill and a five-foot tall artificial laburnum in full flower. Goodness knows how they all get dusted – or even if they ever do. Standing against one wall is an ornate upright piano, complete with candles, and just beside the entrance is a large charcoal grill on which the meat and fish is cooked.

The restaurant is owned and run by two very nice gentlemen who would be quite at home in Brighton. One is in charge of the front of house, while the other is in charge of the kitchen and cooks the meat. They both greet us effusively when we arrive, with kisses for Mrs S and handshakes for me. The first time the kisses started I backed up against a handy pillar, but I needn't have worried: I'm obviously not their type. All joking aside, they are always very pleasant and we usually manage to crack a feeble joke somewhere in the conversation. It has to be a feeble joke as neither of them speak as much English as I do French, which is little enough. Mrs S is always helped solicitously down the step from the bar into the restaurant where we have a regular table beside a heater - very pleasant in the winter.

When we arrived earlier this year we were surprised to find that the restaurant had been given a make-over. The brown wainscotting had been painted white with crimson trim and the tablecloths were white with crimson check. Although it is now very smart, I think I preferred the old look which I found much more characterful. This is how it used to be:

Sunday, 18 December 2011

The best laid plans etc

Well, Dear Reader, I have to say that this past week has not been at all what I had expected. It started off more or less as planned but went downhill quite rapidly. It has become the practice of the Old Bat and I to spend a few days at our house in the Loire (for the geographically challenged - like my daughter - that's in France) just before Christmas. This gives us a chance of a few days away from the mayhem, the hustle and bustle, and the awful television adverts. It also gives us the opportunity to stock up on all those goodies which are either cheaper in France or not even obtainable in England. We're talking wine (obviously) and even the Christmas tree, as we have found these to be generally about two-thirds of the price of the trees in England and sometimes even less.

So last weekend we set off early - well, earlyish - on Saturday morning and arrived at our house at about 9.30 or so in the evening. The journey is 435 miles door to door if we don't miss a turning and takes just over 8 hours driving time. We generally stop every couple of hours or so for a coffee and to change driver. This time, however, the Old Bat was still feeling a little under the weather - she hadn't really been 100% for about three weeks - and I did all the driving.

Sunday was fine and I spent much of the day outside, clearing up leaves and pruning the jasmine. We ate that evening at our favourite restaurant (more tomorrow). On Monday morning, the Old Bat felt lousy and she spent most of the day in bed. I bought the ingredients and cooked myself a meal that evening. The Old Bat felt really rotten and said she would prefer to come back to Brighton on Tuesday instead of spending the rest of the week there. So on Tuesday I drove the 435 miles back again.

On Wednesday the Old Bat rang the doctor's surgery and was told that the blood tests they had done had shown nothing wrong. We saw the GP in the afternoon and she seems puzzled and quite at a loss as to just what the matter can be. She did prescribe a drug which I personally think will have little or no effect and said to go back if that is indeed the case. I think we shall be back in the New Year.

It had been our intention to leave the French house very early yesterday so that we could be back in time for the annual Evening of Christmas organised by our friends Chris and Mrs Chris. Mrs Chris plays the piano and two friends join her, one to play the double bass and the other to alternate between the flute and the guitar. They play and we sing Christmas carols and songs, ranging from Silent Night to Frosty the Snowman. In between, we keep our energy levels up with mince pies and mulled wine. For me, it's the true start of the Christmas season even if it is a week before Christmas.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Back to the gates

Having at last managed to remove the hinges from the old gates, I carefully measured where they should be attached to the new, five-bar gates. "Measure twice, cut once," I told myself, although in this case it would be drill once. I had even thought to buy new nuts and bolts to avoid having to re-use the old, rusty ones. I offered up the right-hand gate. Perfect! I offered up the left-hand gate. Oh, oh, a snag. I had fixed the lower hinge an inch too high and it was taking no weight on the bracket fixed to the gatepost. So much for measuring twice. The gate was too heavy for the top hinge to take all the weight, so something had to be done. I was reluctant to drill more holes - in fact, there would have been no point as I had already fixed the hinge about as low as it would go. So it was back to Mr Bricolage, where the staff had almost come to accept me as a permanent resident. I spent half an hour searching the shelves and found nothing that would help, but a nearby agricultural merchant had just the thing - a metal cylinder about an inch long with a screw thread at one end – not that I needed the screw thread. It was probably a part for a tractor, although goodness knows what part.

It had taken me a day and a half to hang those gates, a job which I had expected to take me no more than a couple of hours. There was no time on this trip to complete the next major job, which was constructing a pergola to provide a shady nook for meals alfresco, so I pottered around for a couple of days. One thing I did was measure the rooms (with extreme care) so that I could buy the wallpaper, although hanging it would have to wait until Emmanuel had finished the rewiring.

Friday, 16 December 2011

That green paint

I digressed somewhat in the last post, so back to the subject in hand - that green paint.

I had carried the closed tin of paint across the bedroom and placed it on a thick pile of newspaper before opening it. It stayed on the newspaper until it had been tightly closed once again after I had finished the painting. The used brush had been removed from the room wrapped in newspaper. There was no way paint could have got anywhere other than where it was intended to go - on the shutters. So how was it that I later found a blob of that green paint on the floor on the opposite side of the room? That's what I meant by the paint having a malignant quality. No matter how careful I or anyone else was, green paint always ended up where it should not have been. We have found it on a rug in the downstairs bedroom, a rug in the living room, the kitchen door - even in the middle of my friend Chris's back! The gates are a case in point. I had painted them in the garage in England and they had been left three weeks before I took them to France. Most people would think that three weeks is long enough for paint to dry, but when I removed the gates from the car I noticed there were green smears on the carpet in the boot. They were still there when I sold the car two years later.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Being a contortionist would help

I had discovered, on my previous trip, that the paint we had chosen for the external woodwork had a peculiar quality that was almost malignant. I had taken advantage of some reasonable weather to paint the shutters on the bedroom windows. It was easy enough to reach the shutters on the downstairs window, but the upstairs bedroom was a bit trickier. It didn't help that the ladder left by the previous owners was too short for the job - not that I like climbing ladders anyway as I have no head for heights. The only way for me to do the job was from inside the bedroom. This involved placing a step-stool on the floor beneath the window, a spot which just happened to be the most uneven in the whole room. Hard as I tried, I could not get all four feet of the stool to touch the ground at the same time. So I balanced precariously on the stool, pulled the right-hand shutter towards me and held it closed with my left hand while wielding a paintbrush in my right. Every time I climbed off the stool to recharge the paintbrush, the wretched shutter swung open and I had to lean out of the window to pull it back again.

There is no way that I can use a paintbrush in my left hand, so when it came to painting the other, left-hand shutter, I had to hold it in place with my left hand and reach across myself underneath my left arm to bring the brush into contact with the shutter. As before, the shutter swung open every time I recharged the brush.

Painting the other side of those shutters proved even more precarious. Another hand would have been a blessing as I had to stand with one foot on the wobbling stool and one on the window ledge with most of my body outside. I needed one hand to hold the shutter, one for the paintbrush - and another one to hang on for grim death!

I have now purchased a longer ladder.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

That's better

We decided to paint the window shutters, the gates and the outbuilding doors a deep, rich green and the new gates were duly painted before being transported to France. Naturally, all this took some time as it had to be fitted in between my weekly perambulations, but eventually the gates were taken out to France.

Removing the old gates was no problem - it was simply a case of lifting them off the brackets: removing the hinges for re-use on the new gates was a different matter. The nuts had rusted onto the bolts and gave every indication that they had been attached with something stronger than the strongest superglue I have ever come across. I made a trip to Mr Bricolage to buy what I hoped was penetrating oil, I visited the supermarket and bought some best butter, I even thought of asking the old lady next door to boil some olive oil for me. But the penetrating oil must have worked more slowly than I expected. As the sun sank through a glorious sky, the first nut started to move. Later, sipping a glass of wine as I waited for my escargots to be served, I couldn't help but feel a rather smug self-satisfaction - even if I was half a day behind schedule.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011


I have always envied those people who have the ability to use their hands to play a musical instrument or to carve whistles and toys from odd pieces of wood. When I hold a tool I know what I want it to do and I am certain that I send the correct instructions down to my fingers. But somehow the instructions always seem to change subtly along the way. It's a bit like that old Chinese whisper game where the first child is told to repeat the message "Send reinforcements, we're going to advance", only to find that by the time the message has reached the end of the line it has changed to "Send three and fourpence, we're going to a dance". I've just realised that anyone aged under about forty-five will be quite unfamiliar with the old pounds, shillings and pence so perhaps in these days of decimal currency the message should be "Send thirty-four pence…".

But enough of this hilarity. I blame it on the fact that I did metalwork at school, woodwork not being an option. Woodwork would have been much more useful – I might even have learned how to use a saw to make a straight cut, something I can never manage. How often does one want to make a toast rack or a garden hoe, which is all I learned to make? Come to that, how many people have the equipment needed to heat metal sufficiently to make it workable?

I needed to replace the prison gates at Les Lavandes and all my attempts to buy ready-made five-bar gates had come to naught. The French don't make them. They do make a wide variety of plastic gates that would fit, but none of the designs suited Mrs S, and none of the prices suited me. It didn't take me long to discover that, in England, five-bar gates come in standard sizes, all of them in imperial measurements. Our gateway was a standard size - for France. It was a metric size. No gate that could be bought off the shelf in England would fit: I would have to design and make my own.

So I made a pair of wooden, five-bar gates to fit a three metre gateway. I even allowed for the hinge brackets that reduced the width of the gateway slightly. I was very proud of those gates. Indeed, they were such beautiful gates that I thought of offering them to the Design Centre to be put on exhibition. After all, most of the supposed right angles were pretty much ninety degrees and most of the saw cuts were nearly straight.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Napoleon said...

Now the French always seem to me to be terribly blasé about their electrical wiring. Just look at the way it is strung between poles along the side of the street. Along country lanes I have seen the poles broken and bent with the electrical cable lying in a water-filled ditch. It is not unusual to see a single power point in a room with adaptors plugged into it and each other apparently at random with a maze of leads running round and across the room to power standard and table lights, television, radio, music centre and grandma's foot-warmer. The wiring in our house must have dated from a period even before blasé came into fashion. Cables from the main fuse board (we did at least have one of those, archaic though it was) were stuck to the walls with a substance remarkably similar to hair gel. These led to an occasional dodgy-looking power point and to fizzing light switches. Attention was required.

The owner of the restaurant in the village had given me the name and telephone number of the electrician he uses and I had arranged for Emmanuel to come and quote for the job of rewiring the house. Mrs S and I marked the walls where we wanted power points using a very gay pink-coloured masking tape.

Emmanuel arrived at exactly the time agreed and raced around the house in two and a half minutes flat. I explained that we had marked the walls where we wanted power points, to which Emmanuel replied that he had seen that.

"Would it be possible," I asked in what was probably execrable French, "to bury the wires in the walls?"

"Napoleon," he replied haughtily, "said that nothing is impossible."

"And if I accept your quote, when could you do the work? And how long would it take?"

"It would take four days, and I could possibly fit it in sometime around July."

Bear in mind this was in February. It had been October when we exchanged contracts to buy our French dream house. Even allowing for a three-month delay before completion of the purchase, we decided there would be plenty of time to undertake the fairly minimal restoration work needed – well, minimal compared with what we had seen in other houses – before we could start recouping what we had laid out by letting the house as a holiday home during the summer. We had placed advertisements and our first guests were due to arrive in mid-June. If the rewiring could not be done before then we had a problem on our hands. But Napoleon had said nothing is impossible!

I managed to stop myself quoting Napoleon back to Emmanuel but explained the predicament.

"OK," he said, smiling broadly. "17th April. I'll be here at nine o' clock."

I was so relieved that I agreed the date and time without even thinking. It was only later that I had reservations. So much later, that I was just getting into bed the following day when I realised we had apparently accepted a quotation we had not yet received. I lay awake worrying about the budget. Mrs S never seems to be bothered very much by minor matters like budgets and slept seraphically while I tossed and turned.

Although not exactly unconcerned about Emmanuel's quote, I had become resigned to the situation by the time we were back in England. It was a considerable relief a day or two later to see that his quote was nowhere near as high as I had thought it might be. That meant I could give my full attention to another matter.

Sunday, 11 December 2011


My heart sank as I lifted the second layer of lino. It was clear that the floor underneath was comprised of terra cotta tiles and, as in the bedroom downstairs, these had been screeded over. And this room was almost half as big again as the downstairs bedroom. What's more, this screeding was anything up to an inch and a half thick. In fact it proved much easier to clear than the downstairs screeding. It seemed to be a different composition and it was a matter of digging it off with a shovel in same places and merely prising it off others. All the same, there were a few stubborn spots that needed scraping. Mrs S and I filled thirteen rubbish sacks, all of which had to be carried downstairs and dumped in the so-called garage along with the lino, the carpet and the wallpaper I had already scraped off the living room wall.

By this time the garage was getting quite full and I had not yet managed to locate a tip. While driving around I had deliberately taken a variety of routes, partly to see a bit more of the local area and partly in an effort to track down a décharge publique. Once I had bought a decent dictionary I discovered that I had been looking for the wrong thing all along. What I needed was a déchetterie, and I had seen three of those sign-posted!

This, however, was a minor problem compared to the floor of the upstairs bedroom. This was distinctly uneven with ridges and valleys up to three inches deep running from the front of the house to the back. That was not what concerned us – it added a bit of character, we told ourselves. Far more worrying was the hole right where people getting out of bed would put their feet. I must confess to a little exaggeration there. It was not really a hole, just three or four badly broken tiles, but the sand on which they were laid had mysteriously disappeared leaving the broken pieces considerably below the level of the whole tiles around them. A little thinking time was called for so I sat on the doorstep in the weak sunshine and smoked a cigarette. Two cups of coffee later, I was still without inspiration. I wandered back upstairs and gazed disconsolately at the hole. I think I might have been hoping that it was not really as bad as I had previously thought. I sighed and looked round the room. It was then I realised that the surface area of each tile was not much different from that of two house bricks laid side by side. All I had to do was bring over a sack of sand and a few bricks and my problem would be solved. By now my brain had shifted into overdrive and I quickly dug out some whole tiles from the corner of the room nearest the attic stairs, scooped out some sand with my mouse-removal trowel, and set to work to relay the damaged section of floor. Needless to say, it took me several attempts to get the level of sand right, but eventually I had effected a passable repair.

A few bricks in the corner did the trick nicely on a later trip, and we placed a chest of drawers over of the patch of bricks to obscure them from view.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The story continues

"What story?" you ask. It's the story of Les Lavandes, the house we bought in France. I started the story here when it ran every day for about a week, then again here for another week, and again here. The last episode appeared here. For those who can't be bothered to turn back the pages (and it's not compulsory) or if you just want a quick recap, I had commuted my pension on retirement and we bought an old farmhouse on the edge of a small French village. It was basically sound but needed freshening up.

Two weeks later I was back in France, accompanied this time by Mrs S as our trip had coincided with the half-term holiday. No camping out for me this time; it would be a hotel or nothing for Mrs S until the renovation was much closer to completion and blow the budget, which is exactly what we did. But credit where credit's due, she did buckle down to scraping the floor tiles so that by the time we returned home the downstairs bedroom floor was perhaps ninety per cent cleared.

The floor of the upstairs bedroom was covered in a somewhat unhealthy looking linoleum. Even through a couple of centimetres of dust it looked a bit gruesome. It would have to go, all sixteen feet by twenty feet of it. For someone whose regular hard labour is pushing a pen, rolling up a twenty foot length of lino is not particularly easy. Picking it up is even worse. It took me three attempts to roll it in an almost reasonable fashion, but there was no way I could lift it to heave it out of the window. I went in search of my trusty old Stanley knife to cut it into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Maybe it is just something that happens to me, but no matter what I am looking for in my toolbox, it has worked its way underneath everything else and I have to empty the entire contents of the box before I find the tool I am looking for. This time was no exception, but at least I did manage to find the knife. Unfortunately, I did not find any blades. I could have sworn there were still two left in the packet and that the packet was in the tool box, but there was no sign of it.

I returned the tools to the box, except for the knife, and made the first of many trips to Mr Bricolage, the DIY store in Châteaubriant some twelve miles away. Back ‘home' again I put the Stanley knife back in the tool box and unwrapped the new one. Blades for my trusty old friend were not to be bought in any of the three large DIY stores in Châteaubriant and I had been forced to buy a new knife. But it did a superb job of cutting up the lino. Both layers. Did I mention that the floor was covered with a double layer of lino?

Friday, 9 December 2011

A holy conundrum

It has, somehow, never seemed quite right to me that I should have to pay to go into a cathedral. It grates that I can't gaze in wonder at what has been built to the glory of God and offer my own humble prayer of praise and thanksgiving without having to pay several pounds for the privilege.

I was at one time a member of the Parochial Church Council and even a churchwarden so I do have some idea of where the cathedral powers-that-be are coming from and some considerable sympathy with their dilemma. Just like so many other countries, England is blessed with magnificent cathedrals (and some that are, frankly, less than magnificent). Some of the most glorious cathedrals are in small cities - Canterbury, Salisbury, Lincoln, Durham for example - and, indeed, in some cases they almost are the city. Somehow the city just would not seem right without them. But these buildings are old and require maintenance. The regular users - the congregations - are too small to be able to pay for the work needed. Ensuring a spire or tower stays up and doesn't fall through thr roof is not cheap. Even stopping gargoyles falling on the heads of passers-by costs a lot of money. And that is where the dilemma comes in.

The great cathedrals have become not the destinations of pilgrimages but tourist attractions. People visit Canterbury and Salisbury to see the cathedrals. Many, if not most of the visitors to these buildings see them as works of art, like Old Master paintings but on a larger scale. Those people don't see the cathedrals as offerings to the glory of a deity in which they don't believe anyway. So, why should they not contribute towards the upkeep of the buildings? The last cathedral I entered made no charge - Lichfield. There were boxes for donations and I did make a donation. However, that system has been tried and found wanting in other cities so turnstiles and tickets have become the order of the day.

Unfortunately, so great is the cost of maintaining these buildings that the entrance fees alone are insufficient. Go into many cathedrals now and the building almost resembles a covered market. There is a large book and souvenir shop offering not just devotional books but tea towels and mugs, postcards and pens. Even, in some cases, plastic Virgin Marys. There might be a tea shop in another corner. And if the visitor would like to climb the tower or descent into the crypt, that will be another pound please. Cathedrals have become big business.

But does the Church, be it Anglican or Roman Catholic or one of the Orthodox Churches, really need these buildings? Cannot God be worshipped in humbler surroundings? Granted, these buildings were erected to the glory of God, but I suspect they were also erected to the glory of some bishop or other long since dead and buried. Should the Church be looking to dispose of these religious stately homes, thereby saving themselves the cost of maintenance and allowing them to use funds to the benefit of people?

I suppose the big problem that would arise if there were any thought of selling such a building would be finding a buyer. The chances of any businessman being able to use the building for anything that would cover its costs and provide a profit are so slim as to be non-existent. So we fall back on the state or a cultural body such as the National Trust. But would the state want to take on the responsibility of caring for these medieval heirlooms, and could any body such as the National Trust afford to do so?

It will take a better brain than mine to sort out this problem.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Changing times

Language is an ever evolving thing with words coming and going or just changing their meaning. Sometimes things happen overnight, or so it seems, and sometimes there is a gradual change. There are now many words in the dictionary that are described as being archaic and in my blog yesterday I used one that is on the way to being archaic. It is a word that many young English people would fail to understand so how foreigners non-English people Would cope is a matter of conjecture. The word concerned is half-crown.

Up until about 40 years ago the word was in common parlance, in everyday speech. As were tanner, bob and (to a lesser extent) florin. Then "they" went and changed our currency. Overnight those old, well-known friends became no more. Finished. On the scrap heap.

Well, not quite overnight. We had two days to effect the change from pounds, shillings and pence to pounds and pence. Even then the old coins must have remained in circulation for a while and the names remained in use. But now those words are going the way of the groat - and who nowadays knows what that was, apart from it being an ancient English coin. Of course, even before the switch to decimal we had lost the farthing.

Back in the old days, there were twelve pence in a shilling and twenty shillings in a pound. The penny had been divided into four farthings but, as I said, the farthing had been done in, put to death, some years before we went decimal. The halfpenny still existed, although it was never called a half penny: it was a hape knee - and was sometimes written ha'penny. The next coin was the penny, then there was the threepenny bit (or joey). Of course, this being England we are talking about, threepenny was never pronounced as it is written. It might have been thrupny or threpny or, more commonly, throopny ("oo" short as in foot not long as in loot). The next coin was a silver one, the tanner or sixpence piece. Then came the shilling, or bob. The two shilling coin was a florin. There was no coin for the crown (five shillings) except for special occasions such as the 1951 Festival of Britain or the coronation in 1953, but there was the half-crown, worth two shillings and sixpence (note that sixpence is/was one word, not two as six pence). The pound came as folding, paper money, as did the ten shilling note and the five pound note. There was also something called a guinea. This was a completely unofficial denomination worth twenty-one shillings (one pound one shilling) and it could be divided into two with half a guinea being ten shillings and sixpence (10/6).

And that - 10/6 - is how sums of money consisting of only shillings and pence would often be written in numeral form. There was also a semi-numeral form - 10s 6d. Throw pounds into the mix and and the numeral form changed and the stroke became a full stop - £6.18.3 or, in the semi-numeral form - £6 18s 3d.

I suppose it is simpler now in so many ways, but back then the pound could be divided in so many ways. Of course, inflation over the years has meant that we don't need to split the pound quite so much now. But I wonder just how much longer people will understand just how precious was that half-crown Pop used to slip into my hand.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Happy days

Shopping for Christmas presents for grandchildren made me consider not only my relationship with them but also my relationship with my grandparents. And - quite obviously - by relationship I don't mean kinship: I'm talking about how we reacted with each other.

When I was but a weeny-bopper we lived next door to my maternal grandparents. Someone, probably my grandfather as my father had no DIY abilities and - like me - couldn't even knock a nail in straight, had made a gate between the two back gardens close up to the back-to-back coal sheds. That grandfather died when I was 9 and my memories of him are very limited. So limited indeed that I really have but one or two memories. Back in those days there was a paddle steamer called the Medway Queen (a Dunkirk veteran, I believe) which plied from the Sun Pier, Chatham, down the Medway and across the Thames estuary to Southend and back. One day, my grandfather (I don't even remember what we (my brother and I) called him: Grandad, Grandpa or whatever) took me on that trip. We must have caught a bus to Chatham High Street to reach the pier but I have no recollection of that. I do remember that my brother was not included on that trip, possibly considered too young.

[I have just been looking at a Google map pf Chatham. Grief, how it's changed! Mind you, it's probably 30 years or more since I even drive through the town and definitely over 50 years since I was actually in the town so it's not surprising that the roads I remember are not there any longer.]

The road I was looking for was where the old livestock market used to be held: The Brook. Our grandfather did take my brother and me there on several occasions and I can still remember the squealing of the pigs as their ears were nicked or pierced, presumably for identification purposes.

Having written that I'm having second thoughts about the location of the market. Was it in Chatham or Rochester? Not that it matters for the sake of this post.

And that, sadly, is all I remember about my paternal grandfather. His wife, Gran, is far easier to recall. She was a small lady (though not as short as my other grandmother) and wore a pinafore over her dress. She seemed always to be baking - rock cakes or buns - and many a warm delicacy was consumed in her kitchen. Every day she would wash the glass in the front door and polish the letter box, knocker and door step. She would spend hours playing board games with my brother and me - usually ludo but sometimes snakes and ladders. One corner of the living room contained a built-in cabinet. This has a cupboard at the bottom with two drawers side by side above. The cupboard above that was set back a bit to provide a narrow shelf. It was one drawer in particular that I found fascinating and would spend, it seemed to me, hours happily turning it out and rummaging through the contents. This was Gran's "bits" drawer where she kept bits of string, paper clips, the adhesive paper from the sides of stamps - anything which might come in useful one day and was small enough to be stowed away in this mini Aladdin's cave.

My maternal grandparents lived not far from the school my brother and I attended until we were 11. I have no doubt that in those years my grandfather, who was a shipwright, was still working in what was then His Majesty's Dockyard - this was a naval town. I know Pop was there at least sometimes when we visited because as we went out of the back gate (we never used the front door), he would surreptitiously slip a half-crown into my hand and another to my brother. My brother and I thought this was a secret on a par with state secrets, although we always told Mum later, but, of course, both Mum and Nan both knew very well what was going on.

Well, they were happy enough, those days, but I don't think I would really want to go back in time and live through them again. Life in the upper 60s isn't too bad.

It's six months today.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Lucky me

Wowee! What an exciting day! Breakfast, wash up, walk the dog, coffee, check email, take the Old Bat to the butcher, the supermarket and two other shops for Christmas shopping (that involved fighting through the roadworks which seem to be paralysing Brighton at the moment), lunch, take the Old Bat to the surgery for the nurse to do the vampire act and take blood, walk the dog, coffee and - at last - I get a few minutes to read other blogs (and maybe write a few words on mine) before my meeting with the Housing Society general manager, after which I'd better iron those shirts that went through the wash this morning... Who says a woman's work is never done?

And there was no Bovril in the supermarket, but the whole world and his wife was!

I wonder if I will have any deep, philosphical thoughts tomorrow?

Monday, 5 December 2011

Nature notes

Our next-door neighbour has a bird feeder hanging from the plum tree not far from either house and I take great pleasure in watching the various birds that come to visit. There are house sparrows, chaffinches, goldfinches, greenfinches and blue tits regularly on the feeder while robins, wrens, great tits, blackbirds and song thrushes hang around close by. A little farther away are the wood pigeons, magpies, jackdaws, rooks and herring gulls.

Most of the birds that use the feeder sit there on the perch and take what food they want before flying into the plum tree. The house sparrows, in particular, are messy eaters, always dropping crumbs. The blue tits act differently. They never try to get on the feeder while other birds are there, sitting in the tree patiently waiting their turn. When they do get on the feeder, they take a piece of food and carry it onto a branch of the tree. There they hold down the food with a claw while they eat it before going back for more. There's one in the plum tree as seen from my bedroom window.

A couple of days ago I mentioned a series of television programmes, Frozen Planet. I should have realised that there would be clips on Youtube and indeed there are, like this one:

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Shopping list

It seems ages since I last enjoyed Bovril on toast. Heck, it doesn't just seem ages - it is ages! It's probably even longer since I last enjoyed a hot Bovril drink.

Perhaps I'll buy a jar when I do the shopping this week.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Odd man out

There are times when I feel a bit like that black sheep on one of my favourite ties. I'm most certainly not a black sheep in the usual sense of the term, the reprobate member of the family. Nor would I describe myself as a maverick. Not even particularly unconventional. On the other hand, I'm not exactly the spitting image of what many people from other countries would regard as the typical conventional Englishman. Let's just say that there are times when I like to stand out from the crowd.

It really only started when I was about 17. Back in those days it was the accepted thing for a boy to dress reasonably smartly to take a girl out, even if it was just for a coffee followed by the pictures. I had a Harris Tweed sports coat in a palish greenish colour and I would wear this with grey trousers and a white shirt. And a tie, always a tie. I had a range of woollen ties in plain colours - yellow, pale blue, light green, brown. These ties were, in those days, a little avant garde and wearing them was my way of expressing my individuality, of standing out from the crowd.

All through my working life I have tended to wear ties just a little brighter than most. Not gaudy, just different. Like the one in the picture.

That was part of the reasoning behind my growing a beard. I was working in a bank in those days and a bearded bank official (we were encouraged to describe ourselves as bank officials rather than bank clerks) was a distinct novelty, definitely "not quite the done thing". It was several years before I met another banker willing to look different.

I still have the beard but nowadays I rarely wear a tie. There must be 30 or more in the wardrobe and I really should chuck some of them out or send them to a charity shop - although many of them are unlikely to find buyers at a charity shop or even a jumble sale. Those ties are symptomatic of so much of my life. It really needs a good clearing out but somehow I just never seem to have to time. There's always something more important or urgent clamouring for my attention. One of these days...

But this is the first Saturday of the month and I must get myself off to the Lions book fair.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Some recent pleasures

A documentary shown on one of our television channels the other evening proved fascinating. It covered a team of archeologists as they searched the remains of Stalag Luft III for the tunnels dug by POWs. Remember The Great Escape? This was where it took place and tunnels Dick and George were what the archeologists were hoping to find. Dick was the tunnel used in the escape and George was dug later but never completed. The team found George and the remains of some of the escape equipment but, sadly, Harry eluded them.

Good old Auntie Beeb comes in for a fair bit of stick but, to give her her due, she does make superb natural history programmes. David Attenborough's Frozen Plant has been running for several weeks - there is just one more episode next week - and has not disappointed. Magnificent scenic photography and wonderful close-ups, the penguin who turned to crime being especially memorable. The series is likely to be sold around the world so do watch it if you get the chance.

I seem to have taken less pleasure of late in my reading. Somehow the majority of the books I have borrowed from the library have not proved un-put-downable and it has been taking me over a week to read just one. Some have stretched out over a fortnight. However, there have been exceptions. Months ago I bought, with vouchers given as birthday presents, secondhand copies of John Master's trilogy, Loss of Eden. This is an epic work which, in my opinion, deserved much greater recognition than it received. It covers the lives of families of different classes caught up in the madness that was the First World War, the action being in both England and France. I have re-read the first of the volumes with much pleasure and am looking forward to enjoying the second and third, perhaps when we are in France ourselves in a couple of week's time.

More recently I have read books by two authors new to me. Andrea Badenoch's Loving Geordie is set in Newcastle in 1960. It describes the demolition of the slums and brings to vivid life some of the occupants of those slums: the Jew who escaped from Vienna, the war widow who turns to drugs and is an inadequate mother to her two sons, one of whom (Geordie) is autistic and loved and cared for by his elder brother.

I have not yet finished The First Casualty by Ben Elton. I had always thought of Elton as a stand-up comedian and had not realised he has written several books. If this one is typical, I shall be looking for more.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

A word miscellany

I usually enter the title of the post first and then try to keep to the point. OK, I know I sometimes - even frequently - drift off but I do try to get back again. Usually. Oh heck! I'm doing it again!

So I had thought to use the word "wordplay" as the subject of today's ramblings. I was just about to type it in the title space - indeed, I had got as far as "Wor" - when I had second thoughts. Now I'm beginning to wonder if I was right in the first place as what I think I'm going to write is a miscellany of thoughts about words. There are a couple of things that prompted these thoughts. And there's another thought just popped into my head. I typed "there are a couple". That sounds correct, but as "couple" is singular (even though it refers to more than one!) should I have typed "there is a couple"?

I told you this would be a miscellany, so don't expect anything like a smooth transition from one thought (paragraph) to another. The only thing that links any of this is that it is all about words. Or most of it is about words.

One of my pet irritations is people who should know better, such as television news reporters, using the word "less" when they mean "fewer".

Damn! The word I want has gone right out of my head! I'm sure it starts with a "p" - "para"-something or some such. It means a word that is spelt the same backwards as forwards, like "refer" or "tenet". They have long amused me (little things etc) but my favourite has always been the one some wag attributed to Napoleon: able was I ere I saw Elba.

Plurals provide us with some confusing oddities. Given that the general rule is to add an "s" to the singular, except when the singular ends in "y" when the "y" is knocked off and "ies" is added, why is the plural of sheep, sheep? And why does (do) fish sometimes becomes fishes and other times stay as fish? If the plural of house is houses, why are more than one mouse, mice? And the bird grouse stays as grouse when there are several, but when it mean a complaint, it becomes grouses. It's all just too confusing to explain in anything like a logical or reasoned way.

Talking of confusion,

"Palindrome". That's the word!

Back to confusion. I especially like those mnemonics we use to remind us of things. You know - "Richard of York gave battle in vain" for the colours of the rainbow. I tend to make them up myself to remember car numbers, and in that case, the whackier the better. For example, Climbing Mountains, 54 foolish men tumbled equates to CM54 FTM. That's not the number of a car I or anyone I know has ever owned but just something I made up as an example. It may exist - it's in the correct form - or it may not. Another I remember from way back is cows much straw: many cows abstain. This is a reminder of how to deal with magnetic variation when dealing with compass bearings and maps. When transferring a bearing from Compass to Map, Subtract the variation. From Map to Compass, Add the variation.

Now I suppose I had better try to think of a title.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Haggis Day

OK, so I spoke too soon. Or, rather, I wrote too soon. I mentioned the other day that I had not experienced outages in my Internet (Why does that word start with a capital letter?) connection. You've guessed it. To add insult to injury, I have also been having trouble accessing my email contacts and I have an email to send to the members of Brighton Lions Club!

I share a peeve with Buck who was complaining about call centres being located on the Indian sub-continent. I, too, frequently have trouble understanding what I am told because of the accent. Indeed, a friend of mine asked for so many repeats that she was told by the operator that if she was hard of hearing he could increase the volume. Many British companies - well, some - are bringing their call centres back to the UK. I just hope they don't staff them with Glaswegians or Geordies. We'll be no better off if they do! I did hear somewhere that one can ask to be transferred back to an English office is a call to a help line ends up in India but I can't speak from experience.

About this time of the year I like to review the photographs I have taken during the year and select my favourite, a task which is much easier some years than others. This looks like being a difficult year. I have a short list of five (so far) but I still have more to look through.

Now that my American friends have Thanksgiving done and dusted for this year and we in the season of Advent, I feel safe in mentioning the next major holiday, Christmas. I have already made a start on the shopping having bought presents for two of the three grandchildren and one of the three children.

I asked my granddaughter (4 1/2) what she wanted for Christmas, expecting a torrent. I was astonished to hear her reply: "Nothing".

Reverting to the matter of peeves, I'm sure there are many who find it irritating to phone a company and be given a long, automated list of options. What really gets my goat is the fact that when I have pressed the button for my chosen option, the computerised mandroid starts telling me the next list before I have got the phone back to my ear! Eventually, if one is very lucky, one reaches an option which promises to find the only human in the company offices. That human, however, is trying to deal with a hundred or so calls and I, meantime, am being kept in a queue listening to Vivaldi and another irritating computer assuring me at regular intervals that my call is important but that all their agents are busy dealing with other customers. I sometimes wonder if the intention is to drive callers away. I quite often end up replacing the phone but there are days when I feel so liverish that I hang on until somebody is forced to listen to my complaint. It doesn't often do me any good. Indeed, it often just increases my frustration.

We should be eating haggis today. It's St Andrew's Day.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Musings on the BLT

One of the other blogs I frequent is Exile in Portales where, the other day, Buck rhapsodised on the BLT, even going so far as to make that for his dinner. Reading that post - or, rather, looking at the pictures as there was very little text to be read - prompted a number of thoughts. I'm not entirely sure now just which was the first thought to enter what passes for my cerebral grey matter, but that, I suspect, is of little interest to my reader. Heck, it's of no interest to me either! So, random thoughts on the BLT - and possibly on sandwiches in general.

[No, I will not be commenting on the Earl of Sandwich (A pleasant little town in Kent, famous for its golf course - or maybe its golf links. I've never known the difference.) slapping a lump of meat between two slices of bread as he was in a hurry and had no time to sit down to a three-course meal.]

I first stumbled upon the BLT as the result of a train strike. At the time, I was living in Brighton and commuting daily to an office in London, heavily reliant on whatever the successor to British Rail was called. My job was general manager of a small newspaper company, which was run more or less as a partnership by the editor and me although we were answerable to a board of non-executive directors. Coincidentally, the editor lived in Hove, known to many as the posh part of Brighton although that's a downright calumny. The employees of the various rail transport companies decided on strike action just at a time when it was important for both the editor and me to be in the office. We decided to stay the night in London. The following lunch time we both went out to a pub and my colleague ordered a BLT. Now the editor was a real stick-in-the-mud when it came to food, although I don't think this was anything to do with him being a Lancastrian, and to hear him order something by what appeared to be a code name, something of which I had never heard, came as quite a shock. (As an aside, I had introduced him to spaghetti the previous evening, which just shows how conservative were his eating habits.)

But a BLT for dinner? That is another of those myriad little differences between us and the US. There may be fewer families sitting at the table to eat together these days, but very, very few English people would consider any sandwich sufficient for the main meal of the day. A sandwich is a lunch-time snack or would be served in a completely different guise for afternoon tea. Little triangles with the crusts cut orf, cucumber or egg and cress as the filling.

Talking of dinner, the Old Bat had, as I might have mentioned elsewhere, taken to her bed last Sunday. Our daughter was with us overnight and expected to be fed in the middle of the day before travelling back to her home in the Midlands. I managed to rustle up roast gammon, roast potatoes, French beans and broccoli followed by fresh pineapple. I'm not sure who was the more surprised - my daughter or me!

I've drifted and need to get back to the good old BLT. Bacon, yep, great. Preferably cooked crispy and preferably back bacon rather than streaky. Lettuce, mmm, OK. I'm not a great fan of salads, but will eat lettuce reasonably happily. But I much prefer my tomatoes cooked. I will eat them raw - if I have to or if they are served that way in a goat's cheese salad among other dishes - but I much prefer them grilled or even fried. And to eat a tomato with a cheese sandwich! Horrible!

One of the best sandwich fillings I have ever come across is bacon and avocado. Now that in itself is surprising as I don't like avocado, but while I was working for the newspaper company I ended up on the council of the Newspaper Society and sandwiches were served after one council meeting for a reason I don't recall. Among the fillings was this bacon and avocado. It wasn't only me who thought it great. Those sandwiches disappeared quicker than a snowflake in the Sahara.

And to think all that drivel was inspired by a picture of a BLT.

Monday, 28 November 2011

In vino etc

I like a glass of wine with a meal (or, quite often, without a meal) both at home and when I dine in a restaurant. When I eat in a restaurant, I don't look at the wine list and order the second most expensive wine. I am reliably informed that people who know nothing about wine will often do that. They think that you get what you pay for and, therefore, the more expensive the wine, the better it is. So why, in that case, don't they just order the most expensive? But that would be showing off and is something that only the nouveau riche would do in order to impress their friends and acquaintances. So the second most expensive it is as they would hate to be seen as nouveau riche.

On the other hand, I don't plump for the second cheapest either. That, I am told, would show to the sommelier that I'm a cheapskate, but a cheapskate who doesn't want to be seen as one as I would be if I ordered the cheapest wine.

In fact, in a restaurant I very often do order the cheapest wine - the house wine. I reckon that the restaurateur has selected this wine as providing good value for money. He will not have selected a wine that will reflect badly on his taste.

It's much the same when I buy wine in a supermarket. I did at one time use a wine merchant but now buy nearly all my wine at French supermarkets. One thing I have found is that the supermarket wine buyers generally know what they are doing and, as a result, the supermarkets' own label wines are very often as good as if not better than other labels at twice the price.

Some years ago our local Asda held wine-tasting evenings. The price was very modest - a couple of pounds or so - because quite obviously the company hoped to increase the sale of wine, especially their own label wine! We met in the cafeteria where the visiting "expert" started by enthusing about wine in general before getting down to the serious stuff and opening a few bottles. That was when it started, all that talk about being able to smell gooseberries or the garrigue, taste lemon grass or wild cherry. Frankly, those tasting notes on the back of the bottles are just so much... Well, I'm not sure exactly what they are so much of, but they always seem to me to be a little precious or snobby. It might have something to do with my palate being insufficiently fine-tuned to be able to taste red berries or spices. But I don't care. I either like the wine or I don't. What some expert thinks about it is of little interest to me. After all, it's me who will be drinking it.

I suppose all this is just a long way of saying one man's meat is another man's poison, but it was nice to think about wine for a while.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

This is drifty

A child hit by a car travelling at 30mph stands an 80% chance of living. A child hit by a car travelling at 40mph stands an 80% chance of dying.

I sometimes think the world is passing me by. Just lately there have been references to the Russell Group of universities. Now, I have - until these recent references - never heard of such a group. Who? What? When? Having resorted to Mr W Ikipedia I find that this group comprises 20 of the UK's leading universities, but when and why it was established is still a mystery to me.

I'm probably tempting providence by mentioning the improvement I have noticed in my Internet access over the last few days. It was back in July that my ISP undertook "improvements" to its service and since then I have experienced intermittent loss of access, sometimes for just a minute or so, sometimes for several minutes. For a few days now there has been no interruption. I'm not holding my breath.

I said yesterday that I was supposed to have been on bingo duty for the Lions during the week. This is a service activity for Brighton Lions. Four times a month we send Lions into local retirement complexes to run an evening's bingo session. I say an evening but the bingo generally lasts only a little over an hour. We charge the participants 50p for a book of five tickets. For those five games we pay the magnificent sum of £3 for a line and £6 for a full house. Then we give another ticket to each player and for this game we use all the money the players have paid, one third for the line and two thirds for the house. We get up to about 20 players each evening and they very often stay behind for a chat - and maybe a glass of wine - afterwards to make a social evening of it.

As well as eating foods such as stews, casseroles and puddings, now it's getting colder we have switched to more solid, chewy wines. No longer the lighter reds such as Saumur Champigny or Cotes du Ventoux, now it's Fitou, Cahors, Cotes du Rhone.