Thursday, 31 March 2011

Icons of England

I first came across Bill Bryson's work with his Notes from a Small Island, his impressions of England, warts and all, when he first visited us. I found his humorous style to my liking and read his following books with increasing disappointment. By the time I reached A Walk in the Woods I had just about had enough. He was, I felt, trying too hard and his humour was falling flat.

He is, of course, an American but has now made his home in our country. Indeed, he is almost an honorary Englishman and is President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England. It is in that capacity that he has edited a volume of essays entitled Icons of England. Numerous celebrities have contributed short (sometimes very short) essays on what they see as an icon of England. The subjects range "from pub signs to seaside piers, from cattle grids to canal boats" (I copied that from the blurb). Having read the book, I was a little surprised, but gratified, that there had been no mention of those old clichés such as the white cliffs of Dover, policemen's helmets, London buses or Big Ben. But what, I wondered, would I have written about had I been asked to contribute?

My first thought was village war memorials. Most of the war memorials in this country are English in that they are understated, unlike to flamboyant memorials seen in so many French villages. That understatement makes them, to my mind, particularly English. What is more, they record both the great and the small without differentiation. Arthur Brown or John White might have been factory hands, farm workers, shop assistants or sons of the local squire with no need to earn a living: they are all recorded for posterity in exactly the same way.

But then I thought again. One of the icons in the book was the dawn chorus. Can an icon be aural, I wondered? Well, if it can, that makes my decision easy. My icon of England is Nimrod, from Elgar's Enigma Variations. This is quite possibly the most moving piece of music I have ever heard and, to me, is just so expressive of the rolling English countryside, especially the South Downs. I have listened to several versions on YouTube and selected what I consider to be a very good one with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Do they really know what they are doing?

The politicians, I mean. OK, so nationally we have a bit of a financial problem and I fully agree that this needs to be sorted sooner rather than later. It is certainly not something I think we should be leaving for future generations to deal with. But I also think we should be wary of cutting too deeply in our expenditure, in particular, our expenditure on the defence of the realm. Britain's last aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, is now out of commission and the Harrier jets that flew from her are in the process of being scrapped. It has also been announced that the RAF will be faced with a reduction in manpower of (I think) in the region of 12.5%. Already some pilots in the course of training have been told they are being made redundant. This at a time when we are heavily embroiled in Afghanistan and look like being so for years to come. On top of this, our Government has pushed for, and taken a leading role in enforcing, a no-fly zone over Libya. In connection with all that, it was instructive to read a report in yesterday's newspaper that we have in this country just 69 trained pilots for its Typhoon planes that are currently the mainstay of the RAF. Those 69 include trainers but they have now been drafted to front-line positions and no further training on this aircraft can be undertaken. Of those 69 pilots, 18 are currently at a base in Italy enforcing the flying ban over Libya but the squadron is due to be rotated in a few weeks' time. Of the rest, 24 are committed to the Quick Reaction Alert protecting Britain’s air space and 12 are in the Falklands in a similar role. That leaves only 15 to replace those currently based in Italy.

When the Strategic Defence Review was completed we were assured that our armed forces - even in their slimmer state - would be sufficient to safeguard Britain's world-wide interests. Yet here we are, just months later, and already we are facing problems.

I ask myself again: do our politicians - of any party - really know what they are doing?

All of this leads me to ponder another point. It seems it is now the done thing for us (and other countries) to go by force of arms to the assistance of oppressed peoples in other countries, such as Iraq and Libya. But the people of Zimbabwe have been suffering for many years under that despot Mugabe and nobody has done anything. Am I being overly cynical when I make the point that Zimbabwe has no oil reserves?

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Mass Observation

Way back in the 1930s volunteers were recruited to write diaries of their day-to-day experiences, their thoughts and observations of other people's comments. These diaries were then sent to an organisation known as the Mass Observation Unit. Some time ago I read a book which was an edited version of the diaries kept by several of the correspondents during the Second World War. I recently came across another book covering the diaries of five "observers" during the period immediately after the war and I have now nearly finished reading it. Fascinating it is, too. Some of the comments by the writers are really outrageous, some frankly puerile. Their thoughts on what the future then held are interesting but more interesting still are their comments about their everyday lives - the food and fuel shortages, the strikes, their dealings with German prisoners of war still awaiting repatriation.

What a pity there is nothing similar for earlier periods such as the late 19th century or the years after the First World War.

Now I must dash off to meet the auditors for the Lions Housing Society who have finished their work and produced the annual accounts. I have had a copy emailed to me and I must say they do look good. We don't set out to make a profit but somehow we seem unable to do otherwise. The figure for the year ended 31 December last is no less than £175,000. All the reserves which are building up (currently some £455k in bank balances) will eventually be ploughed back into the provision of affordable housing for those who need it, such as the elderly and key workers.

Then this evening I will be at the zone meeting. Who says retirement is boring?

Monday, 28 March 2011

Catching up on the reading

I never seem to have as much time as I would like to devote to reading. Before I retired I read much more than I do now, but then I was commuting to London by train so much of the journey was spent with my head in a book. While I wasn't dozing, that is. Anyway, it is when we are in France that I really get an opportunity to pig out. I always take a great pile of books and frequently find I've not taken enough! One of the books I read last week was on the recommendation of The Broad. By coincidence, I visited our local library just a few days after she posted that on her blog and there on the shelf were all three volumes of the trilogy. Biographies are not normally my cup of tea but I decided to borrow the first volume, partly because I was intrigued by the concept of a "fictional biography". I also enjoy much of Beethoven's music so I had an interest in the subject. I was a little surprised how easy a read the book turned out to be. Despite its length (What is it - 400 or 500 pages?) I finished it in a very short time - and thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope the other two volumes are still on the shelf when I next visit the library.

(I'm too mean to buy books and nearly always borrow them.)

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Back in the swing

So we got back to Brighton yesterday evening, rather later than we had hoped. The journey from La Prévière to Calais went pretty much without a hitch - just a patch of murk and rain between Boulogne and Calais. Pity the journey down hadn't been so good. The Old Bat shares the driving with me and during her stretches at the wheel I generally read. Two reasons for this: 1. I get bored with just looking out of the window at what is, for much of the time, uninteresting scenery, and 2. it saves me from biting my fingernails and complaining about her driving. This, however, can lead to upsets, as we found to our (my) cost. She drove straight past the motorway junction where she should have turned off and didn't realise until a good many miles later. This added 60 miles to our journey, as well as extra toll charges. Just to compound matters, she did it again later, but this time we only added 20 miles to the journey.

But to get back to yesterday. We have in the past eaten at Calais even though it has been a little earlier than we are used to. Back in January, the last time we made the trip, I inadvertently set off from La Prévière an hour earlier than we needed to so we arrived at Calais even earlier than usual. Our practice is to book a journey on the shuttle (through the tunnel) for a latish departure, then change it for the earliest convenient crossing when we reach the check in. Back in January that meant we arrived in Brighton early in the evening. Although we left La Prévière yesterday at our usual time, it was still early when we reached Calais and we decided to continue to Brighton before eating. Not such a wise decision as it turned out. Due to a technical problem, they we running only two trains an hour instead of three. We had to wait nearly two and a half hours. It was ten in the evening before we ate - and that was English time. Our bodies were still on French time so they thought it was eleven at night! Still, we enjoyed cheese omelettes made from eggs which our neighbour in La Prévière had collected from his hens that same morning.

Now all I have to do is catch up with emails and snail mail and accounts!

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Scenic Saturday - Nottinghamshire

Number 34 in the series.

Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood and the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. How many men thrilled to those stories as boys? Well, Sherwood Forest exists - at least, in part - even if the outlaw Robin Hood is probably no more than a legend and a large part of Sherwood Forest is in Nottinghamshire.

Although in my younger days I visited and stayed with family friends in the county, I was not then interested particularly in the local scenery. I was, for example, unaware that the largest sun dial in Europe can be found at Sutton-in-Ashfield. (Actually, it wasn't in those days, having been made only in 1998.) I never did happen to be there at the time of the Goose Fair, an annual event first held in Nottingham more than 700 years ago.

Googling Nottinghamshire for images produces a remarkably poor selection, but I did find that the church of St Peter in the tiny village of Clayworth has a fine set of murals painted right at the very beginning of the 20th century by the Irish-born artist Phoebe Traquair and this week I am posting a picture of the mural on the north wall of the chancel.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Back across the pond

I love the architecture in Ribeauville, a small town in Alsace, north-east France.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Near Burney, CA

Driving into the northern part of the state to meet up with friends at Burney, we detoured slightly to visit the Burney Falls but were delayed when we spotted this gorgeous view of Burney Creek.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011


If Florence had been, well, perhaps not so much a disappointment, more not quite what I had hoped, Yosemite in California was staggering.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The Baptistry door

Standing right in front of the cathedral is the baptistry with its magnificent doors. First a shot of the entire doors, then a couple of the panels in close up.

Aren't they stunning? Click on the pictures to see them in greater detail.

Monday, 21 March 2011

More of Florence

The cathedral is really a bit over the top, too ornate and rich in detail for my taste.

The church of San Lorenzo is much more to my liking.

You will notice that there wasn't a lot of sunshine that day.

Sunday, 20 March 2011


I thought I might try to schedule a few posts for while I'm away. Nothing terribly exciting, I'm afraid, but that's par for the course so you shouldn't be expecting anything different.

A few years ago the Old Bat and I had a holiday in Tuscany. We visited Florence one day - mainly because we felt we should. We could hardly leave the area without being able to say we had been there. Large cities - or even smallish cities - are not generally "my thing" and I certainly don't enjoy spending a lot of time in art galleries or museums. Besides, with the Old Bat's difficulty in walking, a tour of the Florence art galleries was not an option.

I wasn't over-impressed by the famous Ponte Vecchio

and the crowds made crossing the bridge and trying to look into the shops a somewhat uncomfortable experience.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Scenic Saturday - Derbyshire

Number 33 in the series.

Derbyshire: home of Blue Derby cheese (excellent for making parsnip roulade) and, perhaps better known, Bakewell tart, named after the spa town. But, to get away from food (if we must), this is also the heart of the Peak District, the southern end of the Pennines, the chain of hills that is said to form the backbone of England, where Dovedale is particularly well-known for its beautiful scenery.

Chesterfield is synonymous with the crooked spire on top of the church of Our Lady and All Saints. It gives Chesterfield its identity. Built, along with much of the rest of the church in the 14th century, it was straight for several centuries before it began to twist, probably as a result of unseasoned timber being used for its construction. It now leans nearly 9ft to the south and is still moving. One of the streets in Chesterfield bears the magnificent name of Knifesmithsgate.

In the city of Derby, the cathedral's tower dominates the skyline and offers breathtaking views from the top. A family of peregrine falcons have nested there since 2006 and their progress can be monitored on

The blessing of the water supply, in the form of the well, is an ancient custom which is unique to the Peak District and the surrounding areas such as South Yorkshire and East Staffordshire. The custom had almost died out in the 1950s, but since then it has been revived with great vigour, primarily for the tourist industry. Some say this practice dates from the period of the Black Death in 1348-9, when probably a third of the population of England died of the disease, but some villages such as Tissington were untouched. The local people attributed this to their clean water supply and gave thanks by 'dressing' the village wells. However, it seems very likely that the practice goes back much further than this - probably to pagan times.

I had originally intended to post a picture from Dovedale but have changed my mind and have chosen instead a picture of the Stretton Handley Primary C of E School, Brackenfield, well dressing this year. (Photo © Stretton Handley Primary C of E School)

Friday, 18 March 2011

An unusual honour

I have mentioned before that we here in England (OK - the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland if you must) have a somewhat quirky system of honours with a New Year's honours list, the Queen's birthday honours list and even an honours list when the government changes. But there is one extremely unusual honour which features in none of those lists. It was announced this week that in September, when the RAF base at Lyneham closes, the nearby town of Wootton Bassett will be gratned the appellation "Royal" and will thenceforth be known as Royal Wootton Bassett. This honour is in recognition of the fact that the town has practically closed down every time a serviceman's body has been repatriated through RAF Lyneham and the cortege has passed through the town. The people of Wootton Bassett have emptied the shops and lined the streets in tribute. There are dozens of video clips on YouTube but this is perhaps the most viewed:

I can think of only two other English towns with the regal appellation, Royal Leamington Spa and Royal Tunbridge Wells, but what those towns did to deserve the recognition I really couldn't say. I don't suppose there are many people who could. Is it, I wonder, a coincidence that both are (or were) spa towns? Did some long-dead king or queen visit the towns to take the waters? Whatever the answer, this will be the first time for more than 100 years that this honour has been granted.


I'm pushing off now for a while and, with luck and a fair wind, should arrive at our French house tomorrow evening.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

An extra for St Patrick's Day

It's 2012 and it's the Olympics in London. A Scotsman, an Englishman and an Irishman want to get in but they haven't got tickets.

The Scotsman picks up a manhole cover, tucks it under his arm and walks to the gate.

'McTavish, Scotland,' he says. 'Discus,' and in he walks.

The Englishman picks up a scaffolding pole and slings it over his shoulder.

'Waddington-Smythe, England,' he say. 'Pole vault,' and in he walks.

The Irishman looks around, picks up a roll of barbed wire and tucks it under his arm.

'O'Malley, Ireland,' he says. 'Fencing.'

Simeon begat Heyman begat...

I blame it all on my mother-in-law. Not the begetting business above: even she wasn't that old. But it all started with her.

Way, way back I mentioned a couple of old sketch books (you can read about them here and here and here and see examples from them here. It was the thrill of the chase that got me. I might not have caught anything that time, but, hey!, let's try again.

This time it was my mother who started things. She told me that one of my uncles (or was it one of hers? Not that it matters.) had undertaken some research which showed she, and therefore I, was descended from the captain of one of Nelson's ships at the battle of Trafalgar, albeit on the wrong side of the blanket. That was enough to get me going again. What I found was that there had indeed been a distant relative at the battle of Trafalgar. Very distant. In fact, he was my first cousin six times removed and served as a Lieutenant in the Royal Marines aboard HMS Leviathan.

By then I rather had the bit between my teeth and I started researching my family tree in some earnest. I now have over 5,000 names on my database. The problem was that I didn't know when to stop. If I found a 6 x great uncle, I had to follow down all the strands of his children and his children's children as far as I could reasonably do so. Eventually I managed to call a halt.

I have now set myself something of a challenge. It's all very well having this magnificent database full of names and dates, even other information like addresses and occupations where I have managed to trace them, but it is a trifle cumbersome and difficult to follow when trying to see how the different strands link up. It also needs rather more meat on the bones. So I have decided to write it out in narrative format together with explanations of how people lived and worked at various points along the time-line. This, of course, means doing a lot of research. I hope the internet will prove up to it - and that I will not get half-way through and decide to junk it all.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Midsomer Madness

Despite all the turmoil and tragedy going on in the world, there has still time for some people in this country to display their own particular brand of petty-mindedness. Midsomer Murders has been a popular television drama for a good many years, having run to, what, nine or ten series. It has also, apparently, been a high-earning export and has been shown on television in countries as diverse as Slovenia and India. For those not familiar with the programme, I should explain that it is set in the fictional English county of Midsomer where there are villages with quaint names like Midsomer Worthy, Midsomer Magna, Badgers Drift and so on. All thatched cottages, roses over the door, village greens and vicars on bicycles: quintessentially English. What is not so English is the high murder rate, but fortunately the local plod are blessed with the presence of DCI Tom Barnaby (or they were - he's retired now and the next series will feature his cousin in the lead role) who manages to bring the perpetrator to justice every time with remarkable aplomb.

The storm in a teacup that has blown up over the last couple of days concerns a comment made by the creator and executive producer of the show. He said he was surprised nobody had objected to the lack of any ethnic minorities in the programmes. That sounds innocent enough to me, although he would perhaps have been wiser not to draw the attention of the thought police to this fact. But he went on to compound his mistake by defending himself against an accusation that had, at that time, not been made. He pointed out that in the real-life villages on which his fictional Midsomer ones are based there are few, if any, members of ethnic minorities and that these places are the last bastions of true Englishness. That did it. He has now been suspended and ITV, the company which broadcasts the show, has instigated an enquiry in case his remarks - and the show - are racist.

What a load of nonsense. Until very recently there were no members of "ethnic minorities" living in our street and I have none amongst my circle of friends. Does that make me racist?

If there is one thing guaranteed to make my blood boil it is the requirement for organisations of any description to demonstrate that they are not racist or whatever by having a token woman or person of Asian extraction or whoever on the committee as on the staff. When I was in a position to employ people I wanted the best person for the job, be that man, woman, gay, heterosexual, black or pink. And I am certain that the majority, the great majority, of people are of like mind. Expecting a person or organisation to demonstrate that they are not racist by including a token member of an ethnic minority insults the ethnic minority just as much as it insults anybody else.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The price of success

I was thinking the other day. Yes, I know that's a dangerous thing to do, but just occasionally it does us all good to pump the adrenaline by taking a small risk.

As I was saying, I was thinking the other day about the number of my photographs that are complete failures and how so few of the pictures I take really do give me pleasure. It wasn't always so: at least, I don't think it was, although I suppose that might be just an effect of the famous rose-tinted spectacles of old age. Before the days of digital photography I used a 35mm single lens reflex camera with a variety of lenses. I manipulated the aperture and exposure time for each shot, calculating what depth of field I wanted and which part of the picture I wanted to be correctly exposed. I took time to make sure that the main subject was properly in focus. Nowadays I am much lazier, expecting the camera to do all that for me and jiggling the result on the computer if, say, the exposure is not quite what I want or if I want to alter the overall colour. I can't, of course, do anything about pictures that are out of focus or where there is evidence of camera shake. All the same, the results are rarely more than mediocre, as witness the pictures on Fern's blog.

I would like to splash out on a more complex camera which would enable me better to control things like aperture and exposure times. Both those I use at the moment are supposed to allow manual control but I find them cumbersome in that mode and the range of options too limited. But the old cliche applies here: a poor workman always blames his tools. It's true that a talented photographer can take a good picture with an old box Brownie camera, so I am reduced to blaming myself and myself alone for my disappointing results. Of course, dedication and application are necessary for success in any field, and that's what I am lacking here. Photographers who produce the best landscape pictures (which is my preferred genre) will usually spend ages working out just which angle of view is best and what time of day will produce the light from the best angle. They may wait several hours before conditions are right, or they may even need to return day after day until they get what they want. I don't have that sort of time and, in any case, I couldn't be bothered to go through all that rigmarole. Just occasionally I get lucky, as in this picture of the River Trout in Vermont:

That one was a lucky shot. We were driving and had just turned off a major road before crossing a bridge. I glanced to my left and saw the cattle approaching the river. By the time I had stopped and gone back to the bridge they were drinking - and the picture was made.

Portraits are not really my cup of tea and I rarely bother to try taking them. I will attempt the odd shot when people aren't expecting their photo to be taken or, with the grandchildren, take so many pictures that they lose interest in the camera and what I am doing, as in this picture of my granddaughter which I like enormously:

Monday, 14 March 2011


Despite my ineptitude over chemistry (in one end of year exam at school I could answer none of the questions. I was given one mark out of 50 for spelling my name correctly!) I have long known that oxygen is vital to human life. It does, after all, form part of the air that we breathe. All the same, it is only quite recently that I have come to appreciate some of the seemingly miraculous qualities of this gas.

I have a cousin who suffers from multiple sclerosis and, several years ago, she regularly attended her nearest MS treatment centre where she would spend an hour in what can only be described as a tank akin to a diving bell. Here she would receive a high dose of oxygen. Although there is no cure for MS, this high dosage oxygen treatment has been found to alleviate some of the problems associated with the condition.

This was brought to mind, oh, it must be three years ago now. There is an MS treatment centre in a nearby town, the only one is Sussex. Like all the other such centres across the country, this is a charity and receives no state funding: none of the centres are part of the National Health Service. Our local centre had a financial problem which came to the attention of Brighton Lions Club. We quickly offered help, both financial (if it should prove necessary) and practical, in suggesting a way out of the problem they had. The suggestion proved successful so our money was not needed at that time. However, it soon was as the centre had plans for extending and refurbishing. As I was then president of Brighton Lions I had the honour of making the presentation. With the other Lions who attended, I was given a tour of the centre, including the diving bell. The centre manager explained that the bell was used for more than MS sufferers: for example, professional footballers from Brighton & Hove Albion received high dosage oxygen treatment after injury and it was believed that this speeded up their recovery. I emntioned that my wife had recently been diagnosed as suffering from a condition known as corticobasal degeneration. Did the manager think she might benefit? He did. The Old Bat agreed to a series of trial treatments and has been going back once a week ever since.

The range of illnesses and conditions that can be alleviated by this treatment is quite amazing, although many in the medical profession are highly sceptical. MS (of course), Alzheimer's, autism, any form of injury, surgery: the list is quite astonishing.

Now, I'm not averse to taking drugs when I really need them. I don't much like stuffing man-made chemicals into my body and put off doing so as long as I reasonably can in the hope that nature will provide a cure, but I do think we have gone too far in rejecting nature's bounty. Yes, I do mean homeopathic medicine. The example of the oxygen tank, which is pooh-poohed even by MS specialists, is a good example.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

I could write a book

When I wrote Diamond Geezers, the history of the first sixty years of Brighton Lions Club, I was pleased to include a few personal reminiscences which, I hope, brought to life some of the events I described. I am convinced that, given the right circumstances, Lions and their wives could come up with enough stories to fill another book. What I really should do is get round to talking to all those people before it is too late. Some of our members have been in the club for over fifty years and they must have some intriguing stories locked away in their minds. They might need a bit of prodding to release the tales, but I shall have to draft a few questions that might prove to be the key and we could just chat while I record the conversations. A daughter of one of the older members has been closely involved with the activities of the club for many years and she remarked the other day that reading my book had reminded her of so many things she had forgotten. Amusing moments or occasions memorable for other reasons ought to be recorded for posterity. Like the one I recounted in Diamond Geezers. Some 50 or so children from socially disadvantaged families were taken to a town along the coast where they were turned loose in an activity centre. One little boy – only about 4' 6'' tall, but 10 years old – claimed he had been pushed into the pond by a duck. After consoling him, one of the Lions suggested he should sit in the sun for a while to dry off. No fear, he said. He was "going back to kill that b..... duck!"

Then there was the time I brought down the hospital ceiling. Until we became so entangled by red tape the Lions attended the Royal Sussex County Hospital two or three Sundays each month to take to the chapel patients who wanted to attend the service but were unable to get there under their own steam. They might be pushed through the corridors in wheelchairs or, on many occasions, in their beds. On one Sunday a patient I was returning to her bed had a drip attached and I was hanging onto the stand from which this was suspended at the same time as I pushed the wheelchair. We had to go up or down a floor so, naturally, I took the lift. When the doors opened I failed to notice that we were on the wrong floor and just pushed the chair out of the lift, complete with the drip on it's six-foot-plus high stand. What I also failed to notice was that there was a false ceiling in this corridor which was lower than the height of the drip stand. When I saw the damage I had caused I retreated into the lift and pressed another button very swiftly.

There is one story which, to my mind, says it all. It was another of those outings for disadvantaged children and on the coach home my wife was sitting next to a girl - again, about 10 or 11 - who shyly confided in her, ‘That's the first holiday I have ever had'.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Scenic Saturday - Cheshire

Number 32 in the series.

Cheshire is, in some ways, the Surrey of the north. It is in this county that many of the highly paid people working in Manchester choose to live, especially the super-rich footballers.

For tourists, the obvious place to visit is the old Roman town of Chester on the banks of the River Dee. The main attraction for many is the Rows, 13th century covered walkways with shops at first floor level. Chester racecourse is the oldest in the country and it is still possible to walk round the city walls.

Macclesfield is centre of English silk-weaving while there are salt mines near Northwich. Although much of the estuary of the River Dee is now in Merseyside, some of this important area for ducks and wading birds remains in Cheshire.

Perhaps more even than in Shropshire, black and white 'Magpie' houses set in idyllic gardens typify the Cheshire countryside, Little Moreton Hall being one of the most spectacular.

Friday, 11 March 2011

We got squirrels, too

Not two but three! Not one of my better pictures. I snapped it quickly on a long zoom which should have been mounted on a tripod but there wasn't time.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Phone scams

Yesterday, when I went to shut down the computer, there was one of those little thingies superimposed on the "off" logo (somehow the correct word has slipped right out of my mind) which means Bill Gates's boys want to send me a load of guff before switching my computer off. I wouldn't mind, but it always means my computer taking longer than usual to boot up the next time I want it - like this morning - and, believe me, usual is too long! Maybe I should take advantage of the next phone call I get telling me that there is a problem with my computer. These calls come at the rate of about one a week - the last one was on Tuesday - and purport to originate from a company (I've never caught the name) employed by Microsoft's technical department. The caller tells me that they have identified a problem with my computer and suggest I switch it on so they can rectify the matter. I'm getting quite fed up with these calls. They are quite obviously a scam of some kind and I suppose some people must fall for them or the people involved wouldn't keep making them. I have been contemplating having a bit of fun the next time such a call comes through. There are a number of possibilities that come to mind.

I could try something along the lines of, 'You sound a nice person. Will you be my friend? I need a friend and you sound just the sort of person who would make a very good friend.' That would likely get the phone put down pretty quickly but I could string it out for quite a while given the opportunity. (The Old Bat thinks it would likely get me arrested or something but I doubt it.)

Or I could try this. 'Sorry, what did you say your name was? Deborah? That's a very nice/unusual name. Why did your parents call you that? Was that a film star your mother/father had a crush on?' etc etc. Again, that should result in the phone being replaced in a rush.

Part of the trouble with these phone calls is that nobody makes a note of numbers not to call because of wierdo's like me who answer. It should be relatively easy to programme those numbers into the computer that generates the random calls - but nobody can be bothered. I'm pretty sure Jehovah's Witnesses have a system. We had them call quite frequently - until we acquired a large black dog. He was really very friendly and just wanted to greet callers with a slobbery kiss but when my teenage son answered the door hanging onto the dog's collar and saw JWs standing on the step, he didn't disabuse them. They retreated rapidly and we had no more calling for several years.

Perhaps I should invent some sort of virtual dog to send down the phone line to those scam callers. Or maybe I'll just keep saying, 'I know this is a scam and I'm not falling for it' before replacing my phone.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

But for how long?

Yesterday I described a moment of magic when I was able to enjoy the solitude of the South Downs in utter silence. But how long will it be, I wonder, until most or even all that I could see is swallowed up by concrete and tarmac? England is the most crowded country in Europe and has the third highest population density of all major countries in the world. And the population is expected to continue its inexorable increase. This will, of course, give rise to greater demand for housing, schools, shops, hospitals. work places, roads etc etc.

If we take just the city of Brighton & Hove, we see that there is precious little room for any expansion. Quite obviously there is no room to the south, unless we manage to construct a city under the sea. Already the city has merged east and west into a conurbation that stretches from Seaford in the east to Bognor Regis in the west with just small pockets of green space here and there. Before the Second World War there was virtually no development north of the Old Shoreham Road and people considered that to be a natural block to any further building. Since then, however, Mile Oak, Hangleton and West Blatchington have increased in size exponentially, as have Coldean, Bevendean, Woodingdean and Saltdean. The hope nowadays is that the Brighton bypass will mark the northern extent of building, especially now that the South Downs have been designated a National Park.

There was a time when all major towns in England were surrounded by green belts, stretches of open countryside on which development was to be very strictly controlled. But little by little, developers have nibbled into those green belts. Just when, I ask myself, will the process stop?

I suppose the answer to that question is, When the demand for housing etc is satisfied. Which only leads to another question, How can the demand be satisfied if the population continues to grow? This, of course, leads into very troubled waters. Should our Government put a stop to all immigration? (They can't without pulling out of the EU since all EU citizens have a right to live in any EU country so we have Poles, Romanians et al coming here in the hope of a better life.) What about the Chinese solution, limiting families to one child? I can't see that going down too well.

All in all it's a very tricky problem. I'm just glad that it's not one I have to deal with as a politician. Meanwhile, I shall make the most of what countryside we have left while I have the chance.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

England, my England

Yesterday was a gorgeous day weatherwise with wall to wall sunshine and just a faint breeze. Admittedly, that was coming from the wrong quarter - north-east - but it was fairly gentle, even on the top of the Downs. That was where I took Fern for a walk in the afternoon. I drove out through Falmer and past the university sports ground in the direction of St Mary's farm before parking in a layby and heading uphill across the Downs towards Plumpton. I spent a couple of minutes watching a pilot practising aerobatics - including loop the loop and victory rolls - before he headed off away to the west. With young lambs playing - the first I have seen this year - it felt almost as though spring had arrived at last.

This is a there-and-back walk for me. It would be possible to make a circular walk of it but that would take much more time than I usually have. Coming back down the hill I caught a few tentative notes of a skylark's song and then there was complete silence: no sheep or lambs bleating, no cattle lowing, no birds singing, no aircraft, no traffic. That's not something that happens very often in this crowded corner of our island. There was not even a wind rustling the branches of the few stunted hawthorn trees. The Downs were spread out behind me and to both sides as far as I could see while in front of me were a few of the taller buildings in Brighton silhouetted against a brightly sparkling sea which looked for all the world just like silver. Even the new football stadium was hidden from my view. It was a magical moment when I could enjoy the beauty of the England I love.

Monday, 7 March 2011

I feel a list coming on.

Yes, I'm one of those people who like to list things, especially jobs that I have to do. I find that every now and then there are so many things I either want to do, have simply got to do or ought to do that the only way of clearing my mind is to make a list. If I don't, I flutter around like a butterfly, starting a new job before finishing another and never really getting anything done. With a list I can sort out the urgent from the important, the must-dos from the when-I-get-the-times, and decide what really is both urgent and important. There is great satisfaction to be had by crossing out the jobs that have been done, gradually working down the list until all that is left are the things I would like to do if only I had the time. Ha! Fat chance of that ever happening! One of the problems associated with list-making, in particular lists of jobs to be done, is that the list grows faster than it shrinks. I always found this when I was working. Just before I left the office each afternoon I would make a list of the things I had to do the following day. Doing this achieved two things: it meant that I didn't spend half the evening trying to work out what I had to do when I arrived at the office in the morning, and it meant that when I did arrive I could get straight into things. I knew what was both urgent and important. Of course, there were always little surprises, the things that cropped up during the day that simply had to be dealt with there and then, and by the end of the day there were always new tasks to be added to my list. But doing that gave me some little peace of mind.

At the moment I have so many jobs jostling for attention that I am not really sure quite where to start. Just making a list will help me sort them into order of priority - but the list must be hand-written. It doesn't work if I type it into the computer even if I print it out afterwards.

Now there must be a piece of paper around here somewhere.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Ton up!

I wonder, is the word "ton" used as slang for a hundred in other (so-called) English-speaking parts of the world? No matter, it is here in Britain. But, speaking of other parts of the world, that is where my "ton" comes in. I have managed to collect 100 flags from different countries on that widget in the sidebar. The ton actually came up on Friday, I think. Knowing what my reaction is when I click on the "next blog" link at the top and land on a blog in a foreign language, I have to wonder how many of visitors from those countries stay tuned for more than a second or two. Mind you, according to the statistics produced by said widget (and I always treat such statistics with a healthy dose of scepticism) there are several people who return to this blog. Maybe not every day - I couldn't expect anyone to think my drivelling nonsense worth checking on a daily basis - and maybe it's just a matter of the "next blog" link throwing up this blog several times for the same poor unfortunate.

Not only have I collected 100 different countries' flags, but I see that I have also had visitors from every state in the USA. Wonders will never cease.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Scenic Saturday - Shropshire

No 31 in the series.

Shropshire claims to be the birthplace of the industrial revolution, specifically the Ironbridge Gorge. It was here that the world's first cast iron bridge was built over the River Severn at Coalbrookdale in 1779. The bridge still attracts many visitors. But despite its industrial past, Shropshire is no longer an industrial county. There are towns with delightful names like Cleobury Mortimer, medieval towns bursting with black and white buildings. There are hills such as Wenlock edge and the Wrekin. And part of the beauty of Shropshire is that it attracts comparatively few tourists.

The county town is Shrewsbury. Nobody seems quite sure how to pronounce that. The first syllable is sometimes rhymed with ‘shows' and sometimes with ‘cruise', but however it is pronounced, the town is certainly worth a visit. I have borrowed the picture of Shrewsbury from the town's tourist information office.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Play time!

I don't know what games children play nowadays during their breaks from lessons but I do remember what we played 60 years ago when I was a pupil at junior school.

My school was a Victorian building on (I think) three floors. We had no grassy playing fields and our playground was surfaced in asphalt with iron railings to prevent us children escaping. Education in those days was a single-sex affair, except for the very youngest, so there were on girls at my school: the girls' school was a separate part of the same building and had a separate playground. What games they played I have no idea, but our boys' games depended in part on the season of the year. In the autumn we would gather conkers and would try all sorts of tricks like baking them or soaking in vinegar to harden them before playing with them. Any reader unfamiliar with the game of conkers can find a description here.

Other games were less dependent on the season of the year. There was one we played with cigarette cards. Many cigarette manufacturers distributed small cards inside their packs. These depicted all sorts of things: footballers, cricketers, army regimental badges, steam locomotives - the list was virtually endless - usually in a series of fifty cards. Some boys collected them in the same was as they collected stamps but others used them to play a game. The cards were smaller than playing cards and slightly thinner, but one could be held between the index and fore fingers and then flicked through the air. The game we played involved propping one card against the school wall as a target and then taking it in turns to flick other cards at the target. Whoever managed to knock the target card down won all the other cards lying around that had been unsuccessfully flicked.

Another popular game involved marbles. This was usually played between just two boys although on occasion there would be more involved. The first to play would flick his marble away. The other then had to flick his marble in an attempt to hit the first one. The players took turns until one had succeeded in hitting the other's marble, which he had then won. The only other rule (as far as I can remember) was about how the marble had to be flicked. The index finger had to be curled over the thumb and the marble balanced on the thumb.

Fivestones was popular for a while. The game is sometimes called jacks, but we knew it as fivestones. There is a description in Wikipedia but the picture they show is not of the five stones we used. Our five stones were small cubes of wood, each painted a different colour.

Then there was car racing. Our cars were Dinky toys, the first mass-produced model cars (I think) made from metal and with wheels that worked. The playground had a slight slope and we would push our Dinky toys down the slope to see whose car would run the furthest. We got up to all sorts of tricks to improve our cars' performance like greasing the axles with Vaseline.

(I had a Dinky toy racing car just like this one.)

It will probably not have escaped your notice that most of our games were fairly sedentary: at least, we didn't have to move about much while playing them, except, perhaps, for marbles, which could go a fair distance across the playground albeit not at a very fast rate. "It" was different. "It", as we called the game, was what most people would know as tag. One person started as "it" and it was his job to chase after the other players in an effort to make contact with one. That person then became "it" and so the game went on. Players could rest and catch their breath by jumping onto the low wall into which the railings were mounted and hang on to the railings, thereby claiming sanctuary. But woe betide the player who clung on too long!

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Daphne odora

For many years now the Old Bat and I - together with the children when they were children - have spent Easter on my cousin's farm a few miles from Bristol. One year we commented on the delightful perfume coming from a plant near the front door and were told the plant was daphne odora. With the moving around of the Easter holiday we did not get to enjoy this scent every year but, after we had done so on several occasions, I determined to track down a plant for our own garden. I discovered that daphne is not always tolerant of a chalky soil - which we certainly have - but reckoned that a large tub filled with ericaceous compost would probably suit - if I could find the plant to out in it. I scoured every garden centre and nursery for miles around and ordered all the catalogues I saw advertised but to no avail. Nobody seemed to have even heard of the wonderfully perfumed plant. Then I heard of a small nursery in Scotland (they decided to place an ad in the newspaper I worked for) which actually had them. I ordered a plant, which failed to arrive. When I advised the grower of the non-delivery, he sent two. One of these has since given up the ghost, but the other is still going strong. Every year, at about this time, I cut two or three sprigs which sit in a small jug on the kitchen table. Opening the kitchen door first thing in the morning releases not only the dog but also the heady scent of the the daphne whose pale pink flowers have come out in the warmth.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Old Poodle

A wealthy old lady decides to go on a safari in Africa, taking her faithful aged poodle named Cuddles along for company.

One day the poodle starts chasing butterflies and before long, Cuddles discovers that he's lost. Wandering about, he notices a leopard heading rapidly in his direction with the intention of having lunch.

The old poodle thinks, "Oh, oh! I'm in deep doo-doo now!" Noticing some bones on the ground close by, he immediately settles down to chew on the bones with his back to the approaching cat. Just as the leopard is about to leap the old poodle exclaims loudly, "Boy, that was one delicious leopard! I wonder if there are any more around here?"'

Hearing this, the young leopard halts his attack in mid-strike, a look of terror comes over him and he slinks away into the trees. "Whew!", says the leopard, "That was close! That old poodle nearly had me!"

Meanwhile, a monkey who had been watching the whole scene from a nearby tree, figures he can put this knowledge to good use and trade it for protection from the leopard. So off he goes, but the old poodle sees him heading after the leopard with great speed, and figures that something must be up. The monkey soon catches up with the leopard, spills the beans and strikes a deal for himself with the leopard.

The young leopard is furious at being made a fool of and says, "Here, monkey, hop on my back and see what's going to happen to that conniving canine!"

Now, the old poodle sees the leopard coming with the monkey on his back and thinks, "What am I going to do now?", but instead of running, the dog sits down with his back to his attackers, pretending he hasn't seen them yet, and just when they get close enough to hear, the old poodle says: "Where's that damn monkey? I sent him off an hour ago to bring me another leopard!"

Moral of this story...

Don't mess with old farts...age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill! Bullshit and brilliance only come with age and experience!

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Marching on

It seems like only last week that everyone was blogging about New Year resolutions and all that and here we are, into March already. 2011 is certainly on the march!

So, has the month come in like a lion or a lamb? According to folk lore, if March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb. And vice versa, of course. Well, we still have 10/10 cloud cover this morning but there has been no more rain overnight and the wind is less fierce than it has often been during the last few weeks, although what breeze there is feels very cold. Certainly not lamb-like weather, but hardly lion-like either. I'm not sure that country lore covers a situation like this so we shall just have to wait to see what the next few weeks bring us in terms of weather.

Today, 1st March, is the first anniversary of the most popular post on this blog. But perhaps 'popular' is not quite the best word. My post about St David's Day last year is certainly the most read post on this blog. Since Blogger started providing statistics that post has been seen (maybe 'read' was not the best word either) more than 2,600 times. The next most seen is Stories from Childhood with some 300+ viewings. So what makes St David's Day so popular? Looking at the traffic sources section of the stats I see that in the search keywords 'daffodil' crops up more than any other, especially 'daffodil picture' and variants. I did include a picture of a vase of daffodils last year - you can still see it in the sidebar on the right further down the page where that post features at the top of the popular posts widget thingy.

Talking of daffodils, we have none in bloom in the garden as yet although the first few are struggling into flower in Withdean Park and there are other early varieties in bloom elsewhere. In a couple of weeks, providing we get some sun and it gets a bit warmer, there will be masses of these flowers everywhere. I think just about every house in England has them in the garden.

Just to make things seem a little more cheerful, I'll post that picture again. That should confuse the stats!