Thursday, 28 February 2013

Ey oop, lad

Tha's back in England now, tha knaws.  Theer be none o' them scheduled posts left; it be oop to thee to pen summat fresh.

Yep, we've been enjoying ourselves doing absolutely nothing much in France for the past week.  The temperatures were not exactly tropical - in fact, it was damn cold - but the gas-fired central heating quickly warms the house up and the two-foot thick walls keep the heat in really well.  I think we both managed to read the better part of a book a day and we gorged ourselves with lunches of fresh baguettes, butter, a soft French cheese with not a lot of flavour washed down with a glass of pinot noir.

I even managed to do without the alarm clock waking me in the mornings and much to my surprise was still up soon after eight.

One thing we did notice: the restaurants were a lot busier this week than we have seen for a couple of years or more.  We couldn't quite decide why this should be.  Is the economy picking up?  Is it a sign of spring around the corner?  Or are people so fed up with a winter that seems to have lasted well over six months that they have all decided to splash out and eat out?

Spring is coming.  We saw quite a few primroses on the road sides and plenty of lambs.  But then, French farmers do tend to lamb earlier than English ones.  And speaking of things natural, I was delighted to see no fewer than three barn owls during the week, a bird I have not seen for several years.

And the wine rack looks a lot better now.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Is a puzzlement

I once calculated that, since buying “Les Lavandes”, I have spent a year of my life in France. Not all at once, of course, in fact no more than a week or so at a time. Which is probably why my French has not improved as much as I might have hoped it would. I can get by in a restaurant without too much trouble, but I do have to check the dictionary before starting to get too deep into conversation or before trying to buy something just a little out of the ordinary. In any case, I still find it almost impossible to understand the fast-flowing French that pours from the mouths of most locals. But the language is not the only thing I don’t understand.

Mrs S and I both attended French conversation evening classes while we were buying the house. They were run by a French lady who was living in England, so we were confident that we were learning plenty of colloquialisms rather than the more formal language that forms the basis of schoolday French. So why was it, we wondered, that so many of the phrases which are in everyday use throughout France weren’t taught to us? And it isn’t just us: friends who have attended different courses have said exactly the same thing.

And there is still a lot I don’t understand about the French way of life. For example, when being shown to a table in a restaurant, it is customary to acknowledge the diners at the tables one passes, sometimes a murmured greeting, sometimes just a nod, but at least some form of acknowledgement. But not in every restaurant. How does one know when to greet and when not?

A similar thing happens in shops. Go into a bakery, for instance, and one is expected to utter a polite ‘good morning’ to the other customers queuing ahead of one and to the staff. Even when entering a supermarket or a do-it-yourself store one can expect to be greeted by a checkout operator. But this doesn’t happen in every shop. Why not? And how does one know in which shops one is supposed to say ‘good morning’?

Then there is the problem of when a mademoiselle becomes a madame. Given the extreme courtesy of the French, who address every man as ‘monsieur’ and every lady as either ‘mademoiselle’ or ‘madame’, what does one call a lady of, say, thirty-five or forty who wears no wedding ring? Is she a miss or a madam, a mademoiselle or a madame?

The English language is, in many respects, far simpler than French. We have no genders for inanimate objects. In England a table is plain ‘it’, whereas in France a table is feminine. That’s confusing enough for an Englishman, but more confusing, I find, is the difference between the formal ‘vous’ and the informal ‘tu’. In English they would both be ‘you’, as indeed they are in France, but ‘vous’ is the formal mode of address, both singular and plural, and also the informal plural. We have it drummed into us that French people are very reluctant to address anybody informally, even people they have known for years, (except for children, who are always addressed informally). But Jacques has started calling me ‘tu’, although his wife, Brigitte, still favours 'vous'. So when does ‘vous’ become ‘tu’? And how do people agree that they will start using the informal version? Is it done by some form of osmosis or extra-sensory perception?

I have said how, when we go to our favourite restaurant, Mrs S is greeted with kisses. There is a protocol about this as well. The first kiss is always left cheek to left cheek (or is it right to right?). From Michel and Max, Mrs S always receives three kisses: from Jean-Paul and Marietta it’s two. Sometimes a greeting consists of two kisses, sometimes three. On rare occasions there will be four, and I have even seen five. This doesn’t appear to be a regional thing: one is just as likely to receive three kisses in Normandy as in Provence. But why the different numbers? And how does one know how many kisses will be welcomed? It’s quite embarrassing to go back for a third when the bestower has stepped back! 


Mentioned above, this was how our favourite restaurant used to look.  I loved those colourful tablecloths!  And meat is always cooked on the charcoal grill.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Now it is

When we bought the house, this room had no skirting board at the foot of the walls, so when I decorated, I had bought some cheap skirting board. Naturally, I had fixed this so it ran along the top of the floor. As the old floor had been uneven, we had been forced to remove the skirting board to lay the new flothe skirting. If we hadn’t done so, some of it would have been below the level of the new floor, and some about four inches above. It seemed a shame to put back the old, cheap skirting given that the floor was now so smart. That really would have been spoiling the ship for a halfpennyworth of tar.

Most do-it-yourself stores in France have an abundance of skirting board already painted in a wide variety of colours or wood-type finishes. Mr Bricolage, however, had nothing that I thought quite right. There was no way I was going back to the store where we bought the laminate flooring, and we ended up doing a tour of all the towns and do-it-yourself shops within a radius of about twenty miles. We had left the next nearest to last, intending to call in there on our way home. It really was a last hope as it was by far the smallest of all the shops and was therefore the least likely to have anything to suit.

I suppose I should have known better. That was the shop which had exactly the right wood-finish board – and, what’s more, in sufficient quantities for us to buy what we thought we needed and be confident that there was more if we had miscalculated.

The one fly in the ointment was that where we cut a board at an angle of forty-five degrees, the board showed a horrible white end. The shape of the room meant that one of these ends was prominent and anyone looking around the room would immediately have their eyes drawn to it. I had no wood stain or paint that would be right, but Chris assured me he knew just what to do. He took a saucer of water and a tea bag and, after a few experiments, produced a liquid that was nearly the colour of the skirting. We painted this on the visible ends, and the job was done.

This is what the window bay looks like now the new floor is down:

 And this shows how uneven the floor was before we started:

Monday, 25 February 2013

Job done. Well, nearly done

Once we had bought the underlay it took no time at all to put it down and we were very soon ready to start on the laminate. We quickly got the hang of clicking the pieces together and even managed to cut the last pieces in each row to the right size and shape, so by the time we finished work that day, half the floor was in place. I was able to put a bed back together and sleep off the floor that night.

When we went back to work, Chris was looking worried. When I asked him what was bothering him, he said that he didn’t think we had enough laminate. When I calculated how many packs we had used and how many we had left to cover the rest of the floor, I saw his point. And the shop had no more of this pattern, which was even more worrying. I decided to adopt a confident attitude, even though I was far from confident, and reassured him.

At the end of the next row Chris expressed his concern once again. I recalculated and, feeling a little less worried now, reassured him once again. By the time we had laid four rows and I had reassured Chris four times, I didn’t know whether I was worried or not. Whichever, I was becoming a little tetchy and snapped at him.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘there really is no point worrying about it until we reach the end. Let’s just press on and hope for the best.’

When we reached the end we had one third of a piece left, together with a few oddly shaped off-cuts. But our nerves were a little frayed, so we packed up early and watched a film on Chris’s laptop.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

In which Chris and I visit the madhouse

(If you are new to this story, you will need to know that my friend Chris and I were in France where we were replacing the upstairs floor in the cottage the Old Bat and I had bought on my retirement.)

It had come as something of a surprise to me when Mrs S agreed that I should be allowed to select the laminate flooring to be used in the upstairs bedroom of our French getaway cottage. She had indicated the sort of pattern she preferred so I was not given an entirely free rein, but this was nonetheless a heady responsibility. Chris and I toured the various suppliers and I spent an inordinate length of time dithering over the final selection. In the end I chose a pattern that looked vaguely like terra cotta tiles.

There was just one pack of the flooring on the shelf of the warehouse-like store so we took this to the enquiry desk to see if they had more in stock. I never did manage to work out what the woman already at the counter was complaining about, but it involved the assistant disappearing from the desk for up to three minutes at a time on several occasions. Eventually he managed to placate the woman – and promptly disappeared for a tea break.

When he did finally condescend to ask what I wanted, he disappeared again to see if there were any more packs in the stockroom, despite having a stock-control computer sitting on the desk. He returned to announce that they did have more. I told him I wanted another thirteen packs and he disappeared again.

On his return, he was delighted (so he said) to tell me that there were exactly that number of packs in stock.

‘Was I sure,’ he asked, ‘that I didn’t need fourteen or maybe fifteen more packs?’

I wondered for a moment what he would do and for how long he would disappear if I said I wanted fourteen or maybe fifteen more packs, but assured him that thirteen would suit me very nicely, whereupon he disappeared again. I assumed he had gone to get the thirteen packs, but he returned empty-handed to assure me that yes, they did have thirteen more packs in stock, and that if I was absolutely certain that was what I wanted, he would go and get them.

‘Yes!’ shouted Chris and I in unison, whereupon he disappeared yet again, but this time with a rather hurt look.

I was beginning to wonder if I had strayed by some mischance into the local madhouse and was fully expecting him to reappear without the flooring. Ten minutes went past, then eleven, and twelve. Still no sign of either the assistant or the laminate flooring and I was becoming more and more convinced that this was the local madhouse when he suddenly appeared from a completely different direction. He was pulling a trolley on which were exactly thirteen packs of laminate flooring. But I was taking no chances. Chris and I removed every one of those packs to make sure they were all the same pattern and were, as far as we could tell, undamaged.

The assistant cheerfully waved goodbye, saying that he hoped we would have a nice day or something equally inane, as we headed for the checkout.

Although the store was busy, there was only one checkout manned and we joined the lengthy queue. The cashier seemed to know as friends all the customers ahead of us and treated each of them to a lengthy discourse on the state of her cousin’s bunions, the plans for the forthcoming wedding of some other relative, and the problems her sister-in-law’s sister was having in her pregnancy.

When we reached the head of the queue, we discovered that the gangway was too narrow for the trolley. After some kerfuffle, it was agreed that the cashier would count the packs and ring them up on the till, after which I would remain to pay while Chris wheeled the trolley through another checkout with a wider gangway. He would then present the trolley to the cashier and she would count the packs again just to make sure we didn’t slip on an extra one or two. I couldn’t be bothered to tell her that there were no more in stock; it seemed easier just to agree.

Back at the house, we had unloaded half the laminate when it dawned on me that we had forgotten to buy the underlay. We got back in the car, but, not surprisingly, went to a different store this time. 

This is the flooring we chose:

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Progress is made

Our incompetence at getting the timber upstairs left us wondering if we had perhaps bitten off more than we could chew. If we could make a hash of such a simple job, what hope had we of getting the floor flat, let alone at the correct level? Perhaps it was this that prompted us to adopt a less gung-ho attitude to fitting the first of the joists. This was to be fixed against the wall immediately inside the door, so at least we had something solid against which to lean it; other joists had to be fixed in mid-air as it were.

Finally satisfied that it was both level and at the correct height, I held it in place while Chris fixed a couple of the angle brackets. We checked the level and height again before screwing on a couple more brackets. We checked again, and stood back to congratulate ourselves on a job well done.

It would take four pieces of timber to stretch the whole length of the room, and the second piece proved trickier as there was no wall to use as a support. Not only did it have to be level and at the correct height, it also had to continue from the first piece in a straight line, otherwise we would have the wrong gap for fixing the loft panels.

But Chris and I make a pretty good team, even if we do have our moments of madness when we do things like trying to bend a length of two by three round the stairs. Having worked out how to fix the second piece of timber in place, we soon got into our stride and after just two days the floor was covered in parallel rows of timber.

We did seem to have a lot more brackets and screws than we needed. Chris and I puzzled over this superfluity while we ate dinner and came to the conclusion that we had planned to place the brackets in pairs along the new joists whereas in the event we had staggered them on either side, and our original calculations had allowed for ten screws in each bracket – five each into the joist and floor – but we were only using six. It was also distinctly possible that I had added an extra nought to the number when I ordered them. Whatever the reason, I now have enough screws to last not just my lifetime, but the lifetimes of my children and grandchildren as well.

I spent the next morning carrying loft panels up the stairs while Chris had the easier job of screwing them to the joists. That done, we spent an hour or so walking over every square inch of the floor to ensure it was firm and there were no squeaks, and another hour crawling across it with spirit levels to ensure it didn’t slope in any direction. Finally, we were happy with what we had achieved so far.

Making progress

Friday, 22 February 2013


I was telling you about how I set about replacing the floor of the upstairs bedroom of our French cottage.  Tom, my next-door neighbour in England, had spent a week with me clearing the old floor.  Now my friend Chris and I had to construct the replacement. This was the really tricky part. The door from the bedroom opens directly onto the stairs, and the bedroom floor needed to be level with the top of the last riser on the staircase. Somehow Chris and I would have to ensure that the new joists were positioned just far enough above the floorboards for the addition of loft panels, underlay and laminate flooring to bring the level up to the top of the riser, no farther, and no lower. But first we had to buy the timber for the joists.

We didn’t really expect Mr Bricolage to have what we wanted, so we were not disappointed, and we did find a proper timber merchant quite easily. They had exactly the timber we wanted, the metric equivalent of two inches by three inches, but in five metre lengths only. There was no way I could carry five metre lengths of timber either inside the car or on top of it.

In our pidgin French we explained the problem.

‘OK,’ said the timber merchant, and immediately set about cutting them in half, for which he added a small fortune to the original price.

We now had twenty-eight two-and-a-half metre lengths of two by three which had to be transported back to the house – far too much for one load. Chris, fortunately, was not so coy about waiting by the side of the road as Mrs S had been – but then, he wouldn’t be standing beside a double mattress – so we loaded up as much as we thought the car would take. The length of the timber meant that it came through from the boot and over the top of the front passenger seat, but there was enough space for me to peer underneath it to see if the road to the left was clear. I took left-hand bends very slowly, having no wish to be hit on the ear by a ton or so of timber. Chris had to sit behind me on the second trip and he was able to hold the timber in place so I didn’t have the same problem.

The next thing was to get the timber up to the bedroom. We spent several minutes trying to bend a length of two by three to get it up the stairs, contorting ourselves into all sorts of unnatural positions in the process, before the obvious occurred to us. A length of rope and an open window would be much easier.


This picture was taken in the upstairs bedroom before the floor had become seriously bad but you can see how it was even then uneven and had cracked and broken tiles.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Of mice and men wine... and sand

Tom and I were in France, clearing the floor of the upstairs bedroom.  As well as the terra cotta tiles there was a layer of sand anything up to four inches deep.  And the room measures 16 feet by 20!  By early afternoon the stacks of tiles and the rubble bags of sand were taking up so much room that I had to start taking the bags out. The narrow, steep, twisting staircase made this an awkward job, and by the time I had been downstairs a dozen times with a sack in each hand, and climbed back up a dozen times, I knew I had been working.

It wasn’t just sand we were digging out. There were a couple of wine bottles (both empty) and a nest of petrified baby mice. Presumably they had starved to death after their mother had been killed and the dry, sandy environment had preserved them. I did think briefly of seeing if any natural history museum would be interested but decided that I had neither the inclination nor the time – nor sufficient French – to make it worth bothering.

Tom and I weren’t quite so eager to start work the next day, and even less eager the day after that, but by the end of a week we had filled so many sacks with sand that one of the outhouses was completely full. I started carrying the tiles downstairs in my arms, but at Tom’s suggestion we went out and bought a square bucket which we tied on a rope and which Tom lowered from the window after filling it with tiles. The tiles filled another outhouse, with a smaller pile in the so-called garage. At some time I would have to work out just how to dispose of them, but not this week.

We swept up the last of the sand, wondering again how on earth it had been prevented from falling through the gaps between the floorboards. In some places those gaps were more than an inch wide, but at least the boards were sound enough for us to walk on them safely and would provide a good base for the new joists.

Over the coffee after our last evening’s meal, Tom and I tried to calculate how much we had removed from the bedroom during the week. The room measures sixteen feet by twenty, with a corner cut out to take the stairs from the ground floor and those up to the loft. The tiles were about eight inches square and three-quarters of an inch thick. Under them was the sand, which varied in depth from two inches to four inches or more, but we allowed an average of three inches. I can’t recall now how we calculated the weight – perhaps Tom knew the weight of a cubic foot of sand, that being just the sort of thing he would know – but at a rough estimate we reckoned we had shifted three tons. And, of course, we had done it twice – once when lifting the tiles and digging up the sand, and again when we carted everything downstairs. No wonder I was shattered!

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Slave labour

I have been relating various tales of our holiday hideaway in France and the last time I mentioned it I told how the floor upstairs needed to be replaced.  My friend Chris was to help when it came to actually putting in the new floor but before that could be done, the old floor tiles and the sand on which they were laid would have to be cleared.  I was astonished when my neighbour, Tom, expressed interest in coming with me to clear the old material. I did warn him that it would be hard, dirty work, but he was still keen to come – and I wasn’t going to decline the offer of a free slave.

The morning of our departure came round and brought with it a minor panic. Ten minutes before we were due to leave, Tom rushed over to say that he couldn’t find his passport. He was absolutely certain it had been in the top drawer of his desk, but it was not there now. In the nick of time he found it – tucked at the bottom of his sock drawer – and we arrived at Dover as the check-in was about to close. As I settled in my seat for an hour’s rest I wondered what I had let myself in for.

I let Tom have the double bed and threw a mattress on the living room floor for myself.

Up early the next morning, we had a quick breakfast of toast and coffee before cracking on with the work. We moved all the furniture to one side of the room and started lifting tiles. Tom had brought along some masks to prevent us inhaling too much dust, but I found that if I wore one, my glasses steamed up within three minutes and I couldn’t see to do anything. I completely failed to understand Tom’s patient instruction on how to fit the mask to prevent that happening and decided I would have to take my chances on the dust if the job was ever going to be finished.

In no time at all we had two stacks of tiles, one of whole tiles and one of broken ones, and had made a start on digging out the sand. This, unfortunately, could only be done with a trowel so filling a plastic sack with half a hundredweight or more took quite a time. All the same, it didn’t seem long before we had to move the stacks of tiles in order to lift the tiles they were sitting on.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Loos in the news

Our city council has managed it again.  Brighton is in the news over plans to make public conveniences "gender-neutral".  Here is what the Daily Telegraph had to say about it:
A city council has scrapped male and female public lavatories in favour of “gender neutral” facilities so as not to alienate the transgender community.
The move was described as “political correctness gone barmy” by opponents who warned that the vast majority would prefer to use single sex loos.
Brighton and Hove City Council disclosed in emails that it wished to promote the term “gender neutral” and build facilities which are open to all, regardless of sex.
They believe such facilities will be more accessible for those who do not identify with the male-female binary.
The block, will include four new lavatories and a café. Images depicting a man, a woman and a child will be fitted to the doors.
Lynda Hyde, a Tory councillor in the Rottingdean ward, in which the new facility is being built, said: "This does seem to be a case of unnecessary bureaucracy and political correctness.
“Local residents, particularly women with children, would much prefer to use separate facilities as apart from anything else, it is safer.
“If the male/female symbols, rather than any text, are to be used on the toilet then this avoids any confusion so why is the council muddying the waters by insisting they are called gender neutral, which will mean nothing to most people?”
The £140,000 refurbishment of the lavatories on Rottingdean seafront in Brighton is due to begin this week and is being funded jointly by Rottingdean Parish Council and the city council.
Mrs Hyde said she understood the city council planned to gradually phase out all male and female lavatories in order to cater for the minority group.
The move follows the establishment of a working group to examine issues faced by transgender residents in the city.
Last year, the Trans Equality Scrutiny Panel recommended that titles such as Mr, Mrs, Miss and Ms be banned so as not to offend the community and force them to “choose between genders”.
Green Party deputy leader Phelim MacCafferty backed the proposal saying: “Trans people aren't necessarily male or female and sometimes they don't want to be defined by their gender.”
The 37 recommendations made by the panel also included “removing the need to identify as male or female” when arriving at a doctor’s surgery, more training for council staff, police and health workers and appointing a “Trans champion” within the council.
A city council spokeswoman decline to comment on the decision to promote the term gender neutral.
She said: “When producing signs for public toilets in the city we use standard images rather than words.
“This is particularly beneficial to the many tourists from overseas visiting our city.”
The lesbian, gay and transgender population in Brighton is estimated to be around 40,000.
In a 2006 a survey of the community, around five percent of respondents identified themselves as transgender.
Meanwhile, our blessed "Green" council seems to welcome travellers and is looking to find another site for them in addition to the one already in existence in Horsdean, just on the outside of the bypass.   The Horsdean site is nicely secluded and can really be seen only from Tegdown Hill.  I was up there on Sunday when I took this picture.

As my understanding is that the Council already owns the rest of the one-time Horsdean recreation ground extending to the right of the picture, there is ample room for this site to be enlarged to take two or three times as many travellers' caravans and therefore no need to encroach on other land in the city.

And on a lighter note, see here for the background to this witness statement from PC Peach.

Monday, 18 February 2013


That was the subject line of an email I received recently from a cousin (whom I have never met, but that's the case with so many of my cousins).  The email consisted of a string of pictures of things from the past, like fish and chips in newspaper, an early holiday camp, a pound note, Tony Hancock - and a radiogram.  It certainly stirred the old grey matter and brought back some long-forgotten memories.

I have mentioned before that my parents were among the last to move into the television era.  And it wasn't just televisions that we didn't have in our house.  As well as an old radio - which probably needed to be switched on several minutes before the start of a programme one wanted to listen to so that the valves could warm up - my mother possessed a portable radio which was run on a large battery.  The radio must have measured about 15" x 10" x 6" and it certainly weighed a darn sight more than any transistor radio!

One day when I was 15 or 16, my father came home from work carrying a large object which he had bought at an auction sale he attended in his lunch hour.  It was a gramophone, the first we had ever owned.  But even then - and I am talking the late 1950s - it was out of date.  It was a wind-up machine with a horn-type wotchamacallit that the music came from.  And what music!  The gramophone had come complete with a large pile of 78rpm records, the sort that broke if dropped and that scratched as soon as one looked at them.  There was Dame Clara Butt singing Blow the Wind Southerly and other songs one wished never to hear and somebody's orchestra playing In a Monastery Garden and other equally Edwardian or Victorian age music.  But, this was a novelty and we played those records.  My brother and I even went to the expense of visiting the local branch of Woolworth's where we bought cheap cover versions of popular songs on the Embassy label (Woolworth's own).  I seem to remember Carolina Moon being one of the first purchases.

But there came the day when my father must have felt rich.  He bought a radiogram.  Now we could play those 45s and even LPs.  If I remember correctly, the first 45 I ever bought was the theme music from the film Bridge on the River Kwai.  The film was released in October 1957, so perhaps that radiogram came into our lives the following year.  There was a blue label on the record; Parlaphone or perhaps Polydor?

We still had no television but I do remember that we always enjoyed Sunday evenings in particular.  Homework had been done, we had enjoyed a traditional roast lunch, then it would have been a standard bread-and-butter tea before evensong.  After church, the radio was tuned to Radio Luxemburg for Winifred Atwell's programme (she was a honky-tonk pianist), the salted peanuts would be brought out, and we would sit down to play cards, either Newmarket or Sevens at a ha'penny a knock.  Simple pleasures, but great ones.


Is it just me, or are they marching out of time to the music?

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Romeo, oh Romeo

I can remember none of the names of my infant school teachers and only two of the junior schoolmasters and I sometimes get the impression that I'm the only person who is unable to do that.  Even very few of my senior school teachers left an impression on me.  Is this, I sometimes ask myself, because I have a poor memory or were those forgotten teachers so devoid of charisma or odd quirks of behavior that they have just melted away like the early morning frost?  I do remember 'Dinger' Bell, the PE master, about whom I wrote here; 'Hoppy' Hargreaves (French), 'Ozzie' Ford (maths), Messrs Wilson (music) and Parsons, most of whom featured in this post.  Then there were my 6th Form A level teachers, 'Emma' Lucas (English), 'Ned' Land (geography) and Ken Garland (history).  None of those three was especially odd or charismatic and I can only remember them because they were my last school teachers.

The one teacher I do remember well, and the one who had the most influence on my later life, is Mr Rimes, or Romeo, as he was known to the boys at my school.  Romeo was a life-long bachelor who taught English, Latin and rugby.  He rode a sit-up-and-beg bicycle (complete with trouser clips) and had lodgings not far from the school.  Outside the school his interests were birds and rugby.  Somehow his ornithological interests rubbed off onto several of his pupils and every weekend, summer and winter, a number of us would accompany him on bird-watching excursions.  In the winter months we would hike across the north Kent marshes and along the Thames and Medway estuaries while in the summer we might take a bus to Canterbury and then another to the village of Stodmarsh.

Thinking back, I suppose we were really twitchers, interested more in ticking off the greatest variety of birds possible than really watching them.  We kept detailed records of where we had been and the birds we had seen each day.  During the week, 15 varieties was a reasonable number to aim for while on day-long excursions at weekends we would hope for 50 or more.

Romeo was a very generous man.  Every winter he would buy tickets for one or more rugby international matches at Twickenham and would take along three or four boys, stopping first at Staines reservoirs for the birds before going on to the game.  On those days, all expenses were down to him.

In those days, many of us collected the miniature inn signs produced by Whitbread's brewery. (I have mentioned these on more than one occasion but this post gives the best explanation.)  Officially, these miniatures were to be given only to persons buying drinks at the appropriate pubs.  Unofficially, many publicans were happy to put one in a stamped, addressed envelope sent by the collector.  I said "many publicans".  One who refused was the licensee of the Red Lion at Stodmarsh, so on those days when we went there, Romeo had to drop in for a swift half pint just to collect another miniature.  Another refusenik was the licensee of the Ypres Castle at Rye.  Now, Rye was a difficult town to get to but Romeo came up with the goods and, at his expense, he took me and my cousin to Rye for the day just so that we could get that last miniature in the set.

I have lost any enthusiasm I might have had for watching rugby but I still like to watch the birds, although nowadays I find it more interesting to watch their habits than just tot up the number of varieties.  I have to smile when I see a herring gull marking time on the grass in an attempt to fool the earthworms into thinking it's raining.  And the blue tits are much more fastidious eaters than, say, the house sparrows at my neighbours bird feeder.  Most breeds sit there and stuff their faces, but not the tits.  They will take one seed and fly with it to a nearby branch.  There, the bird holds down the seed with a claw while taking nibbles at the food.  Once finished, s/he flies back for another seed.


I have yet to be called upon to fulfill any lookerer's duties but watching over these sheep would not be my responsibility I'm pleased to say.  It would be a good half-hour walk just to get to the field - and just imagine trying to count the animals!

I've been playing a CD of chart hits from 1961 - Bobby Vee, Helen Shapiro, Fats Domino etc. And this one is guaranteed to keep you awake!

Saturday, 16 February 2013

The view from the window

Regular readers of this blog, of whom there are a few, will know that I delight in the ever-changing view from my bedroom window.  This is the panorama that was waiting for me when I drew back the curtains yesterday morning - and you will really need to enlarge the picture to get the full benefit.

There are times when a certain smell in the air, nearly always an autumnal smell, or just looking at this view reminds me of the time I spent a month in the Lake District.  It's not that the view is anything like those in the Lakes, but there is a sensation - an emotion almost - that links the two.

The bank for which I was working some 50 years ago was a big supporter of the Outward Bound Trust and regularly sent employees on the courses organised by the Trust at one of its three "schools".  I don't know how employees were selected but I was one of the chosen.  Accordingly, in mid-October I detrained at Penrith where there was transport to take me to the Outward Bound School on the banks of Ullswater.  This was to be my home for four weeks and here I would be taught the principals of first aid, map reading, knotting and the skills needed to participate in the canoeing, rock climbing and hiking activities that were (and probably still are) the basis of the Trust's aim "to help young people realise their potential through learning in the wild. We create a supportive and challenging environment in which young people can learn about themselves and see clearly, perhaps for the first time, what they might truly be capable of achieving in life."

The regime was spartan: up at 6.00 for a dip in the lake, only the water was deemed either too cold or not cold enough so we had cold showers, then classroom lessons were interposed with circuit training on the course laid out in the extensive grounds.  Cigarettes and whiskey and any sort of women were strictly verboten - we could even taste the bromide in the tea.  My map-reading was considered good enough for me to act as a second tutor to my group but a later experience showed that I had not succeeded in training them very well.  As we hauled ourselves round the circuit doing press up and pull ups and sundry other torturing exercises we looked across the lake at the purple hills, wishing we could be up and away, away from this punishing and seemingly perpetual training.  And the day did come.

First, each patrol (we were split into patrols of six, rather like the Scouts) was taken for a day's hike accompanied by one of the trainers.  Then, when we were considered good enough, each team was allowed onto the fells to put into practice what we had been taught in the classrooms.  My patrol caught a bus outside the school to the village of Glenridding.  From here we would hike to the top of Helvellyn before descending to Patterdale, another village about a mile further along the road from our start point, to catch a bus back to the school.  Another patrol did the hike in the opposite direction.

It wasn't too stiff a climb but by the time we reached the summit we were in cloud and it had started to snow.  On the broad, flat summit we met the other patrol and all settled down out of the wind as best we could to eat our picnic lunches (Kendal mint cake and a slab of dates).  As we parted company, the other patrol assured us that it would be easy for us; all we had to do was to keep on the path.  We set off in high spirits but after we had descended quite a distance I called a halt.  We had come out of the cloud and could see the lake below, shining where the sun managed to break through the cloud.  But it wasn't Ullswater!  I pointed this out to the others but they didn't believe me.  Had we not done as the other patrol said and kept to the path?  My argument that the path must have forked without us noticing cut no ice.

"Ah," said the others, "look at the map.  There are woods around the head of the lake according to the map - and there they are."

In vain did I point out that the head of the lake should have been on our right whereas it was on our left.  I could not persuade the rest of the patrol so had no choice but to go along with them and to resist saying, "I told you so" when we reached the road and the bus stop which clearly said "Thirlmere", the name of the lake.  It was by hen too late to consider retracing our steps as we would have been caught on the mountain in the dark.  We decided our best choice was to make our way to the town of Ambleside, about 10 miles away, from where we thought we should be able to catch a bus back over the Kirkstone Pass to Patterdale, Glenridding and the school.  Whether we had missed the last bus from Thirlmere to Ambleside or whether there wasn't another for an hour or more I don't remember.  What I do remember is that we managed to hitch a ride in a lorry.  But when we reached Ambleside it was only to find that there were no buses that ran from there  - or anywhere else for that matter - over the Kirkstone Pass.  Now some 20 miles or so away from the school, there was nothing for it but to start hiking again.  We eventually met a mountain rescue team which had set off from the school to search for us and were given a ride back to the school.

I don't recall that we were ever taken to task over the episode, but the patrol never again doubted my map-reading!

And I couldn't say why we didn't think to use a public phone box in Ambleside to let the school know what was going on.  Maybe the only one we found was out of order.


I always link Grieg's piano concerto with the Lake District, so here is Martha Argerich with the Norrkopping Symphony Orchestra in a performance from 45 years ago.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Tulips from Amsterdam

Yes, folks, we are still blethering on about my love affair with the Netherlands.  Today I thought I might regale you with one or two stories of visits made to that beautiful country.

When I first started visiting it was possible to take a ferry from Sheerness to Flushing (Vlissigen in Dutch-speak) and this meant that the only country one saw, apart from England, was the Netherlands.  Later, however, that service was withdrawn and it was necessary to sail from Dover the Ostend, which is in Belgium.  Now Belgium has its admirers, but - although there are parts of that country I do like very much - I am not one of them.  It always amazed me that when one drove across the border from Belgium into Holland everything seemed much cleaner, much tidier.  The scenery had not changed, but it seemed lighter and brighter in Holland.  I don't know why that should have been, but I wasn't the only person to remark on the fact.  But that's really neither here nor there as far as this post is concerned.

On one visit to Amsterdam the Old Bat wanted to go to a certain art gallery which, she assured me, had a good collection of impressionist paintings.  Now, as far as I am concerned, art stopped being art pretty much when the last impressionist put down his paint brush and palette.  Picasso and the cubists or whatever they call themselves leave me cold, but Titian, Canaletto, Turner, Constable, Manet, Monet etc are fine by me.  So off we went.  But the Old Bat had got it wrong.  There was a temporary exhibition on.  The first painting was a large, black square with three vertical yellow stripes near the top left-hand corner.   This painting rejoiced in the title, "Cell".  The next painting was identical except that a small black square had been added to the top of the large black square.  This was called, "Cell with chimney".  I'm sorry to say that it was all downhill from there and I embarrassed to Old Bat by exclaiming loudly that this wasn't art, it was a load of rubbish.  And what was worse, I had actually paid to see it!  I needed a stiff drink.

Holland is, of course, famous for growing bulbs, especially tulips, and many other types of flower.  There is a big flower auction close by Amsterdam's Schipol airport at Aalsmeer and it is well worth rising early to see the action.  It does mean an early start as things are all over by about 7.00am.  This is where the famous Dutch auctions take place.  The buyers sit at banks of desks facing a large clock-like dial on which prices are marked.  The auctioneer starts the clock which runs downward until one of the buyers presses a button to buy the lo.  A much quicker process than starting from the bottom and working upwards.

An Aalsmeer auction room back in 1979
On one visit in the late autumn, the Old Bat decided to buy some red tulip bulbs.  I did try to point out that, as was the case in those days, the import of bulbs into England was very strictly controlled.

"Ah," responded the Old Bat, "but these are certified for export via Schipol to John F Kennedy airport, New York."

In vain did I point out that she planned to expert them via Ostend, Belgium, into Dover, England, and that the certification was therefore null and void.

As was my wont, when we arrived at Dover I joined the queue for the red "goods to declare" channel.  I always made sure I had a few cigarettes more than the duty-free allowance so I could legitimately join the red queue which was always much shorter and quicker than the green "nothing to declare" queue and I was always waved straight through.  But not this time.

"Have you anything to declare, sir?"

"Yes, thirty cigarettes over the limit and a dozen red tulip bulbs."

"I'm not bothered about the cigarettes, sir, but may I see the bulbs, please?"  (Always very polite and correct in those days.)

This was where the Old Bat butted in, pointing out the certificate.

"Yes, madam, for import into the USA.  But this is not the USA."

We were eventually allowed to bring those bulbs into England on the strict understanding that they were not to be planted until we had received clearance from the Ministry of Agriculture.  In vain did the Old Bat point out that by the time she received clearance the ground would probably be frozen and she would need to pour boiling water on the garden to soften the earth enough to plant those bulbs.  The Customs officer was adamant.

Those bulbs came up red the first year but never did bloom again after that.  But I used the whole thing as the basis of a short story which one a competition so there was some benefit.


Remember this?

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Romantic get-aways

I expect that if anyone could be bothered to organise a poll asking people which city is the most romantic get-away, Paris and Venice would be very high on the list if not actually taking the top two places.  (For our trans-Atlantic friends, I am talking about the cities in France and Italy, not Illinois, California or Florida.)  Younger people might, I suppose, vote for Barcelona or Prague, but people of a certain age would, I am sure, choose Paris or Venice.  I have been to both cities and enjoyed my time there, but neither would be my first choice for a weekend break.

You might notice that I wrote "weekend break" rather than "romantic get-away".  I don't do romantic but, even so, I reckon Amsterdam is as romantic a destination as either of the aforementioned places.  So what, you ask, is so romantic about Amsterdam?  Why would I prefer a weekend in that city to time in Paris or Venice?  Somehow or other - and please don't ask me why I say this - Amsterdam has a much cosier feel than the other two.  It's certainly smaller and less grandiose than Paris and the canals are less of a maze than those in Venice.  Indeed, I found it easy to get lost in Venice, but Amsterdam - at least in the city centre - is easy to get around.  For a start, all the main canals form arcs of concentric circles although the centre is an island filled less than romantically with the city's railway station.  Moving outwards from the centre, the canals are (and I'm doing this from memory so don't take it as gospel) the King's, the Prince's, the Barons' and the Merchants'.  But strolling along any of them after dark is, I suggest, far more romantic than strolling along the banks of the Seine in Paris or wandering the back streets of Venice.  But there's more to Amsterdam than the canals.

Firstly, there is the famous red light district - a must for any tourist - and I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that the working girls, wearing very little,  are to be seen sitting in lighted windows.  During the day, the city is always lively and bustling, with trams and cycles going in all sorts of directions.  But it feels a friendly sort of bustle, possible helped by the fact that nearly everybody speaks English as well as I do.  There is a great café culture and plenty of good, reasonably priced eating places.  Other tourist-type attractions include diamond cutters' workshops and the Anne Franck museum.  Top of the list, though, must be the Rijksmuseum, the Dutch national museum, with its superb collection of art from the Dutch Golden Age, including Rembrandt's Night Watch, which I think far more impressive than the Mona Lisa..

Perhaps the Chubby Chatterbox could talk us into this picture?

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Het geeft me veel plezier

It must be about 40 years ago that my love affair began.  Rest assured, my wife knew all about it; I made no secret of the fact that visiting the Netherlands gave me great pleasure.  When it all began I was the local Big Cheese in the Scouts.  One of the leaders in our district had formed a friendship with a scout leader in the Hague (or den Haag as the Dutch would have it) and when the Dutch scouts decided to stage a Gang Show we organised a party to visit the Hague and to see the show, borrowing a scout headquarters to sleep in.  Since then I have visited the Low Country on many occasions, although, sadly, it is now a good many years since my last visit.

When the Dutch scouts put on their second Gang Show, we made another trip.  This time, however, somebody decided that we should take a cake decorated with the scout emblem and the British and Dutch flags.  The idea was that I, still being the Big Cheese, would inveigle myself onto the stage as the cast took a curtain call.  I would then present the cake as a token of the friendship between the scouts of the Hague and those of Hove & Portslade.  It seemed to me that although virtually everybody in the Netherlands speaks English, it would be a matter of courtesy for me to speak in Dutch.  It just so happened that my then boss had married a Dutch girl so I wrote down what I wanted to say, she translated it and he recorded it for me to learn parrot-fashion.  Hence the "Het geeft me veel plezier" in the title - the opening words of my speech.  This went down such a storm that I never did utter more than the first sentence!

On one of our visits, with my family and also my friend Chris and his family, we made our way to the railway station just for the thrill of watching the guard/conductor on a train watching the clock at the end of the platform.  As soon as the second hand hit the 12, he blew his whistle and the train departed on time to the second.  (This might seem a little odd but it was something we had never seen before as British trains were never on time.  Plus ca change etc.)  Wandering back through a shopping mall - all the shops were closed as it was a Sunday - we heard the strains of traditional jazz and as we rounded a corner, there in front of us, holding an impromptu session, was Chris Barber and his band!  That is the one and only time I have seen him live, but the CD playing at the moment has a track of his coming up shortly.


Supper menus seem to be just the thing recently.  Saturday - toad in the hole.  Sunday - roast gammon.  Monday - smoked mackerel.  Yesterday - steak and kidney pudding.  Today - wait and see!


I've been trawling through stacks of 35mm slides trying to find the pictures I took in Holland all those years ago.  One I did find was this pic of Stonehenge.  It must come from the time when I was experimenting with copying and merging slides as I have no recollection of visiting Stonehenge when the sun was as low as that.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Royaume-Uni, nulle points

It's not all that often that one can claim to be in at the birth of a legend in the way that I was back in 1974.  Although, truth to tell, that wasn't the real moment of birth - nor was I actually there.  But before I explain further you will need a bit of the back story, as I believe is the technical term.

It was in the mid 1950s that the member countries of the European Broadcasting Union were invited to participate in a competition.  Each country could enter a song not previously published and the other countries would allocate points to decide who won.  There were just seven countries participating in 1956, with a further three taking part the following year.  The whole thing has become a bit of a joke and there are now far too many countries taking part.  It doesn't help that voting tends to be partisan: Latvia awards maximum points to Lithuania and so on, with the UK frequently getting no points at all ("Royaume-Uni, nulle points") although we have actually won a few times back in the early days.  The winning country earns the privilege of staging the following year's competition.  Luxemburg won in both 1972 and 1973 but decided the cost of hosting the event was excessive and declined to host the 1974 contest.  The BBC stepped in and selected Brighton as the town where the competition would take place.

In 1974, Eurovision had not descended into the farce it is now and the Old Bat and I sat and watched the show televised live as it took place in the Dome, Brighton's concert hall originally built as stables for the Prince Regent (although that fact is not at all germane).  So I was nearly there when the Swedish group Abba won with their song, Waterloo.  Abba were catapulted to international fame, which is why I said I was in at the birth of a legend.  Well, it felt like it at the time.

So you can probably guess what CD is playing at the moment.


Stanmer church and village seen from the edge of the Great Wood one afternoon last week.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Weather update

So there was a little sun last week hereabouts - enough, as I have already mentioned, to bring the first crocuses into bloo.  That was on Friday.  Sadly, since then the weather has been dreary.  Indeed, it was so wet yesterday that I decided one walk was enough as I could see absolutley no point in both the dog and me getting soaking wet.  This morning when I drew back the curtains it was more of the same - except is wasn't raining at that particular moment.  On my return from the shower room I glanced out of the window again to see white stuff coming down.  Just over an hour later, as I took the dog out, it was still snowing and the snow was beginning to settle.  I know what we have here on the south coast of England is but a flea bite compared to the elephant's kick they are getting on the east coast of America, but we could still do without it, thank you very much.  Thankfully, it has now turned more to sleet.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, our own particular scandals have provided a fair amount of material for the weekend papers.  There is the ongoing trial of the ex-wife of an ex-Cabinet minister and ex-MP who persuaded said wife to say she was driving his car when he was caught by a speed camera.  The NHS is also hit by scandals in a number of hospitals where patient care has been, frankly, callous.  And there are still many questions about the 100% beef meals which have been 100% horse.


I was thinking I could do with some cheerful music when I chanced on Buck's post.  Peggy Lee is now telling me I'm Mr Wonderful.  Good job somebody thinks that.


On one of last week's sunney afternoons I took the dog for a walk in Stanmer Great Wood where the bluebells are pushing through the dying beech leaves.  It's nice to think spring might be coming.  This winter seems much longer than it should be.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

The White Cliffs of Dover

To my parents' generation, and to many of about my age,mention of the white cliffs of Dover immediately calls to mind the World War II song sung by the then forces' sweetheart, Vera Lynn.  Or, as I should have written, the now Dame Vera Lynn.

Digression for those unfamiliar with the British system of honours.  When a man is knighted, he can put the word Sir in front of his name so he becomes Sir John Black KCB instead of plain Mr John Black.  The dubbing ceremony (a man is dubbed a knight) involves him kneeling before the Queen as she touches his shoulders with a sword, reputedly then saying, "Arise, Sir X".  Dame is the feminine title but I don't know what the ceremony is called or what it entails.  On an etymological note, the word sir (or sire) comes from the French monsieur (my sire) and dame comes from the French madame (and English madam) (my dame).

Dame Vera lives just over the Downs from here but I have never had the honour of meeting her - and it would indeed be an honour.  I have watched her performing live on television and even at the age of 80 she had the most terrific stage presence and charisma.  They even managed to come across the air!  And her voice, perhaps not quite as strong as in the 1940s, was still as magical.

There are, of course, plenty of videos on YouTube but this is a good one.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

1066 and All That

My mind wandered in the way it so often does and after posting yesterday about the Hundred Years War and the battle of Poitiers, I drifted to other battles.  In particular, the Battle of Hastings, the battle which, more than any other, changed the course of England's history.   I suppose that if there is just one date set into the minds of Englishmen it is 1066.  That was the year of the Battle of Hastings, the last occasion on which any foreigner successfully invaded England.  (Since then there have been incursions by the Scots and a couple of abortive French attempts to land soldiers.)  The ultimate aim, almost the Holy Grail, of genealogists is to trace their family tree back to Hastings.  So 1066 is the pivotal point in the history of this country.

Many years after the Battle of Hastings, an abbey was built on the site of the battle and a small town, known as Battle, grew up around it.  However, there is now some dissension about the site of the battle with at least two other hills (it is known that the battle site was a hillside) being suggested as more likely. But I have no opinion about that.

Years ago I owned a history book entitled 1066 and All That.  I say it was a history book, but it was really a brief summary of the history of England over a period of 900 years, and historic events, such as the signing of Magna Carta, were described as either "a good thing" or "a bad thing".  In much the same vein, Stanley Holloway (best known for his part in the film My Fair Lady in which he played Eliza Doolittle's father) recited this piece of verse.  (You will need to read it in a Lancashire accent.)

Oh heck, I'm not at all sure that I can be bothered to type it all out - and you most probably wouldn't be bothered to read it, so I won't.  Instead, I'll drop in a picture of what many people have claimed has prevented other invasions - the white cliffs of Dover.

My mind went off on another perambulation about the white cliffs of Dover, but perhaps I'll save that for tomorrow.  Meanwhile, I've changed my mind.  Here's that Stanley Holloway monologue - in full.

I'll tell of the Battle of Hastings,
As happened in days long gone by,
When Duke William became King of England
And 'Arold got shot in the eye.

It were this way: one day in October
The Duke, who were always a toff,
Having no battles on at the moment,
Had given his lads a day off.

They'd all taken boats to go fishing,
When some chap in t'Conqueror's ear
Said, "Let's go and put breeze up the Saxons".
Said Bill, "By gum, that's an idea".

Then turning around to his soldiers
He lifted his big Norman voice,
Shouting, "Hands up who's coming to England".
That was swank 'cos they hadn't no choice.

They started away about tea-time
The sea was so calm and so still,
And at quarter to ten the next morning
They arrived at a place called Bexhill.

King 'Arold came up as they landed,
His face full of venom and 'ate,
He said, "If you've come for regatta
You've got here just six weeks too late".

At that William rose, cool but 'aughty,
And said, "Give us none of your cheek.
You'd best have your throne re-upholstered.
I'll be wanting to use it next week."

When 'Arold heard this 'ere defiance
With rage he turned purple and blue
And shouted some rude words in Saxon,
To which William answered, "And you".

'Twere a beautiful day for a battle;
The Normans set off with a will
And when both sides were duly assembled
They tossed for the top of the hill.

King 'Arold he won the advantage,
On t'hill-top he took up his stand,
With his knaves and his cads all around him
On his 'orse with his 'awk in his 'and.

The Normans had nowt in their favour,
Their chance of a victory seemed small
For the slope of the field were against them,
And the wind in their faces and all.

The kick-off were sharp at two-thirty
And as soon as the whistle had went
Both sides started banging each other
Till the swineherds could hear them in Kent.

The Saxons had best line of forwards,
Well armed with both buckler and sword,
But the Normans had best combination
And when half-time came neither had scored.

So the Duke called his cohorts together
And said, "Let's pretend that we're beat.
Once we get Saxons down on the level
We'll cut off their means of retreat."

So they ran - and the Saxons ran after,
Just exactly as William had planned,
Leaving 'Arold alone on the hill-top
On his 'orse with his 'awk in his 'and.

When the Conqueror saw what had happened
A bow and an arrow he drew;
He went right up to 'Arold and shot him.
He were off-side, but what could they do?

The Normans turned round in a fury
And gave back both parry and thrust
Till the fight were all over bar shouting
And you couldn't see Saxons for dust.

And after the battle were over
They found 'Arold so stately and grand,
Sitting there with an eyeful or arrow
On his 'orse with his 'awk in his 'and.

Our first crocuses were in bloom yesterday when the sun came out.

Friday, 8 February 2013


I have recently finished reading Bernard Cornwell's latest book, 1356.  The setting is, once again, France during the Hundred Years War - in particular, the Battle of Poitiers.  It is ten years since the third book in the Grail Quest trilogy was published, the trilogy which was also set in France during the Hundred Years War and which featured Thomas of Hookton.  Thomas rides again in 1356.

Mr Cornwell is something of an expert when it comes to British military history, especially concerning the 14th and 15th centuries and the Napoleonic wars.  Indeed, his research is so thorough that we are given what appear to be accurate descriptions of the battles concerned, in this case Poitiers.  I was never exactly enamoured of history at school but I'm sure if my history teachers could have got their subject across in the manner of Bernard Cornwell I would have been anxious not to miss a minute of a lesson.

Coincidentally, the Beeb are to air a series of programmes about the Hundred Years War starting next Monday.  This will be on a fairly obscure channel - and will clash with the latest series of Lewis - so I shall record the programmes.  I shall be interested to see how they cover such battles as Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt.  The presenter, Janina Raminez, is to visit the battlefields.  I hope she finds more at Crécy than we did - or is able to explain what we did see.

And playing in the background is a James Last CD - Classic Touch - which features a range of classical pieces by Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart and the rest of the boys in the band.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

All the Cs

I don't seem to have found much time for reading during the past few weeks, or even months.  I'm not entirely sure just why that is; probably too many interesting programmes on television (now there's a wonder!) and too many evenings not at home.  It is only in the evenings that I feel able to sit down with a book, except when we are in France.  Daytime reading, like daytime television, seems to me to be indolence.  I know there is no logic in that, especially as I am more than happy to fritter away the hours reading blogs and other interesting bits on the internet.  Perhaps it is something to do with the fact that before I retired reading was actually part of my job.  The newspaper for which I worked published reader offers which were usually books, and I got to choose the books so I considered I should read the possible selections before deciding which to run with.

But yesterday I actually sat and read for an hour or more during the evening.  I have just borrowed Michael Connolly's latest - The Black Box - from the library and am now half way through.  Another "C" author I enjoy is Bernard Cornwell and I have recently read his latest - 1356 - about which more another day - tomorrow, possibly.


And so to the music of the moment.  Coincidentally, right now I am listening to the plangent notes of the second movement of Mozart's clarinet concerto, thereby keeping to the C theme.


Still with the Cs in today's photo.  I have only recently discovered Crowhurst Corner despite this stretch of ancient chalk grassland being council-owned and open access land.  I had always thought it was used by a tenant farmer but no.  The council occasionally graze sheep there.  The views from here across the Downs are hardly idyllic but at least the Hollingbury industrial estate is pretty well hidden in a valley.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Oh, my paws and whiskers

I started out on that post about having seawater in my veins with the idea that every Englishman has that.  We are a seafaring nation, after all, and have been for centuries.  Britannia rules the waves and all that.  And all this started because I somehow got it into my head that there is nowhere in England more than 75 miles from the sea.  Not even right in the heart of England, which some claim is Leamington Spa, is one more than a hop, skip and a jump from salt water.  That was the premise; that was what I recalled reading or being told aeons ago when the world was young and I even younger.  I had intended mentioning this trivia in my seawater post but it somehow managed to get itself left out.  That often happens to me.  Anyway, I thought I really ought to check out the accuracy (or veracity - take your pick) of the statement so I Googled it.  That was when I found myself entering a parallel universe, a different world from the one I usually inhabit.  It was, I tell you, an Alice in Wonderland moment.  I was in an alien world, in more senses than one.  I had managed to enter a world I suppose I knew existed but one of which I had no real knowledge, far less experience.  It was the world inhabited by people wanting to become British citizens.

I imagine that every person born a British citizen who has reached the grand old age of 15 or 16 will have an opinion on this subject.  They will know what they consider to be the attributes needed by anybody wishing to join this select band.  And one doesn't need to have political leanings to the right of Gengis Khan to say that anybody becoming a British citizen should have some knowledge of how we got where we are, where we are now, and where we are heading.  And what better way to assess the applicant's knowledge than setting a test?

When I Googled the thing about nowhere in England being more than 75 miles from the sea, I clicked on a link which took me to a forum where potential test candidates were seeking information.  It seemed that the most common question was asking if it was necessary to read Chapter 1 of the Government-produced (I presume) book as all the questions in the tests are based on Chapters 2 - 6?  Seemingly, it is not necessary to read Chapters 1 and 7.

From there, I found my way to another site which sets sample test papers.  It was here I learned that the test comprises 24 multiple choice questions to be answered in 45 minutes.  It was in the first of those test papers that i found confirmation of the fact that nowhere in Britain (not just England) is more than 75 miles from the sea.  But I confess to some puzzlement, amazement even, at some of the questions asked.  Like the number of members of the Welsh Assembly -  40, 50, 60 or 80?  I hadn't the foggiest idea - and nor, I would suggest, would at least 90% of the population.  So why does an aspiring British citizen need to know?  Unless they intend living in Wales, of course.

And how about: "Where do you normally go first if you wish to buy a house in Scotland - solicitor, estate agent, building society, local bank?"  The cynic in me immediately asked, but who would want to buy a house in Scotland?  But more seriously, the vast majority of people in England would have answered "estate agent" - but not me, as I recalled reading somewhere sometime that, in Scotland as in France, solicitors sell houses.

But I didn't know the percentage of the population that lives in Scotland or the percentage of the population that is Jewish.  And this latter question seemed to me to have potential racial problems.  I attempted five different sets of questions and passed each test - just.  The pass mark is 75% and that is exactly what I scored in three of the tests.  Given how obtuse some of the questions were, I thought that satisfactory.  And no test had taken me more than three minutes - nowhere near the 45 minutes allowed.

So I decided to see what I could do with a driving theory test.  Sample test papers are available on a Government site.  I was horrified when I learned that I had scored only 46 out of 50, albeit with more than 46 minutes still left to me.  The pass mark was 43.  But they didn't tell me which of my answers were wrong.

I tried a US citizenship test and scored 80%


I've rather taken to Haydn's Trumpet Concerto, especially the third movement, and that is what is playing as I type this.


I wonder if they have seawater in their veins?  not a very recent picture, needless to say!

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Seawater in the veins

I knew from a very early age that my ancestors for centuries past had connections with the sea.  My father and his father both served their time for pension in the Royal Navy and although earlier generations were not, as far as I was aware, Navy men, I always assumed that they were fishermen.  On my mother's side, her father was a shipwright who worked in the naval dockyard at Chatham but who had also served his time afloat as a ship's carpenter.  His predecessors included Naval officers, dockyard mateys - and the captain of the Isle of Wight ferry.  So it was hardly surprising that,as children, my brother and I considered we had seawater in our veins.

I have always lived within a spit and a jot of salt water.  Not always within sight of the sea, but always pretty close.  I have never measured the distance from our house at Gillingham to the River Medway - not the sea exactly, but tidal and salt - but it must have been less than three miles.  When I was at school in Ventnor on the Isle of Wight I could sit up in bed in the dormitory and look out over the town to the sea.  One of my most vivid memories of the time is seeing a three-masted sailing ship - a tall ship - sailing across the path of the moon.  At Hove we could, if we twisted our necks sufficiently, catch a glimpse of a tiny triangle of sea and here again we were no more than three miles inland.  After I married, the Old Bat and I lived in a flat just a quarter of a mile from the sea.  And now, although once again our house has no sea view, we are no more than three miles distant and can see the sea after walking just a very few minutes.  And so my ambition was to become an officer in the Royal Navy, preferably a navigator.  But it was not to be as my health was not up to it.  Somehow, thought, my brother blagged his way past the selection board and served a short-term (ie five year) commission in the Navy.

Living in Hove, I was not too far away from the headquarters of the Sussex division of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and I eventually joined.  I ended up by being attached to an outfit known as the JSIU - Joint Services Interrogation Unit.  The JSIU had two roles to play: preparing to interrogate prisoners in any future war and training our own forces in anti-interrogation tactics in case they were captured.  Most of the members of the unit - the interrogators - were officers in the RAFVR and were fluent in either German or Russian.  I hasten to add that I was not an interrogator, merely a collator of intelligence gained from the interrogations. The unit was very relaxed as far as formalities were concerned.  No-one wore uniform so there was no saluting and there was no distinction made between the officers and the lower deck (or other ranks, as the Army and RAF would say).

We would undertake about three weekend exercises over the course of a year.  These would involve troops such as the SAS and the Paras being dropped off in a wild area in an escape and evasion exercise while other infantry units were occupied in capturing them.  The prisoners would be brought to a field interrogation centre set up in a disused Army camp and it was here that the members of the JSIU would come into their own.  We would be booked into hotels or guest houses in a convenient town and would be bussed to and fro the eight-hour shifts we worked, starting with the midnight to 8.00am on Saturday and ending at 8.00am on the Sunday.  This way I visited places such as Plymouth, Hereford, Scarborough, Castle Barnard and Catterick.

Many of the techniques used in the interrogation centres have since been banned, although we never did stoop so low as water-boarding.  Prisoners were made to stand on their toes leaning with their fingertips against a wall for considerable periods, hooded the while, and the music room was especially nasty.  This was completely dark and the sound of Big Ben would be played backwards continuously for up to half an hour at a time.

But the highlight of the year was the cocktail party.  This was always held at the hall of one of the London guilds such as Goldsmiths' Hall.  There was only one drink served - a champagne brandy cocktail.  The memory became distinctly hazy after a few of those!

I'm sorry to say that the salt in my blood has become somewhat diluted, but I did try, and I did actually get to sea twice with the real Navy!


Appropriately enough, I am listening to a CD of the Band of HM Royal Marines, Naval Home Command, Portsmouth, playing the marches of Kenneth Alford, including the famous Colonel Bogey.


Back in Stanmer Park, this clump of trees always attracts me, winter and summer alike.

Monday, 4 February 2013

St David's Day

No, I'm not going mad.  I can't comment about you, of course, but I can assure you that I am well aware that today is not St David's Day.  That day is 1st March and we are still (as I type these words) in February.  And that's another thing that gets my goat: people who treat the first R in February as either silent or non-existent and insist on pronouncing the word as Feb-you-arry.  Anyway, we'll get back to the good Saint David a little later.

I know how to give a woman a good time.  Just ask the Old Bat.  Why, only the other day I bought her a bouquet of flowers for absolutely no reason whatsoever - just as a sign of my love and affection.  Granted, it was really only a bunch of daffs which had cost me all of a pound.  But still... when it's February (with two Rs) grey out of the window it's good to have a vase of bright yellow daffodils on the kitchen table.

And that brings us back to good old Dave.  You see, he is the patron saint of Wales and the daffodil is the national flower of Wales.

[Do all countries have national flowers?  I know England has the rose, Scotland the thistle and Ireland the shamrock - which is really a leaf, not a flower.  But what about France, or Spain, or Uruguay?]

Back in 2010, I posted about St David's Day actually on the day, 1st March, and that post has attracted more views than any other of my posts.  Far more.  In fact, more than twice as many as the next most viewed.  This was something that puzzled me every time I thought to have a quick peep at the stats Blogger so thoughtfully provide.  But eventually I discovered the reason behind this apparent blip:  Google.

You see, I ended that post with a picture of a vase of daffodils - this one, which I "borrowed" from somewhere I can't remember.

For some reason, people Googling "daffodil image" or similar phrases were given this blog as one of the sites which might interest them.


Today's mood music is Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 1.  That's the one that starts dah dah dah dum, dah dah dah dum.  Or something like that.  Played by Martha Argerich, and she can be seen and heard playing this piece on YouTube.


I thought we might take another look at the church of St Laurence, Falmer, only this time the picture was taken in the summer and from a distance across the Downs.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

How could I have missed...

...saying what a tremendous afternoon I had yesterday.  I collected the grandsons ( 9 and 6) at noon and after lunch, the three of us donned coats, hats and wellies, rounded up the dog and set off for the park.  There we spent an hour discovering Grandad's secret paths, exploring the woods, finding dens, climbing trees and throwing tennis balls for the dog.  The two boys raced around with Fern dogging their footsteps.  I did take a camera but it proved almost impossible to get even two of the three in the frame at the same time let alone all three - and it was completely impossible to get them to look in the right direction at the same time!  Then it was back home for warm drinks and games of happy families and snap before their mother collected the boys just after 5, leaving two very happy grandparents - and an exhausted dog!