Saturday, 31 August 2013

Should I or shouldn't I?

I am in an absolute welter of indecision.  Actually, that has always been something of a problem with me; there are times when I just cannot make up my mind.  That said, there are times when I make decisions almost too quickly having allowed myself very little time to consider the pros and cons of my action.  In the main this happens when I am shopping for clothes, an activity that bores me silly, hence my need to buy almost the first item of clothing I see that vaguely resembeles what I set out to buy and doesn't offend my Scrooge-like tendencies.  And as for trying on the clothing while I am in the shop, well, forget it.  I don't have the patience for that.  Many is the time I have bought something and regretted it fairly quickly.  But my current indecision concerns technical things rather than clothing.

I do tend to boast or brag or just comment that one of the beauties of time spent at our French retreat is that we buy no newspapers, we have no television, and therefore we have no internet access.  My mobile phone is a good many years old and does nothing but allow telephone calls to be made and text messages to be sent and received.  That, basically, is what I want.  The gizmo is there in case of emergency.  I have no wish to be constantly referring to a small implement in my hand in case an email has arrived or to see what is happening to somebody on the dreaded Facebook.  But there are times, times when it would be good just to check on what is happening out in the wide world of the blogosphere, times when I would like to check on how things are going with friends who are not too well, and...

Do I have Luddite tendencies?  Am I a complete technophobe?  I like to think that the answer to both those questions is negative, and yet...  While my daughter was staying with us a few weeks ago, I noticed her apparently using her phone to surf the web.  I took the opportunity to ask a few questions.  Questions that to many people will seem so basic as to require an idiot's guide to answer them.  Like, how can you connect to the web?  Do you use the same account as the one you use with your computer?  Are you linking in to my wifi connection?  Daughter responded by trying to explain about 3G and 4G and I was immediately befogged.

It should be simple enough for me to go to a mobile phone shop and have them explain to me just how to go about these things.  But then there are other questions.  How can I tell how much I am downloading?  What if one month I want to download more than my plan allows?

No, it's all far too complicated.  I really do not need a phone to make my coffee and tell me how to get from here to there.  I think I'll just stick with my trusty old Nokia and do without all the bells and whistles.  What surprises me is that "my" phone is still available to be bought - for £15 in the UK but for $90 in the US!  Perhaps I'll try selling it on Ebay.

Friday, 30 August 2013


I never did manage to dig over the vegetable plot or sow any seeds this year so we have missed out on peas and runner beans and there will be no home-grwon onions or parsnips either.  We had a good crop of black currants this year but hardly any gooseberries.  The blackberry crop is going to be the best for many years - lots of big, fat, juicy, tasty berries which are ideal for freezing.  The plums - both trees - are again suffering.  There is plenty of fruit but it acquires a white bloom and rots before ripening.  Quite what the problem is I don't know.  However, the crop of pears should be good - provided I can keep jackdaws and squirrels at bay - and after last year's disaster (just two apples), it is good to see the boughs bending with the weight of this year's crop.

Ou French hideaway is a few miles north of the river Loire, just too far north for vineyards.  All the same, it takes only half an hour to be right in the middle of them.  We took a drive one afternoon and this was the view from just south of the river.

That view is looking to the north. To the south, there were heavy rain clouds. And boy, did it rain!

Thursday, 29 August 2013


TW3 is an abbreviation of an almost forgotten satirical television programme, That Was The Week That Was.  Not that I have any intention of discussing broadcasting in any form in today's rambling.  No, by writing "TW3" I am referring to the week I have recently spent in la belle France.  (I have to put "la belle France" just in case any real francophile reads this and takes offence if I don't.  If you get my drift.)

On the whole, the weather was great.  Almost too great, in fact.  Daytime temperatures frequently hit 30 or 31 degrees, which I think equates to about 88 or 90 in old money.  That is actually a bit too hot for the OB and me; our blood is used to cooler climes.  Quite how you folk living where temperatures regularly top 100 is beyond me.  We did sit in the courtyard in the sun, but only for short periods before retreating to the cool of the cottage.  Having been built back in about 1840, this has walls some two feet thick which keep the place cool in the heat of summer but which also means that the place is very cosy and warm in the winter.

We did very little except read, eat and drink - although I spent almost three days pruning the wisteria.  This had almost strangled the lilac tree and had to be cut back most severely.  I did venture just once into the wicked city of Chateaubriant to buy something or other.  It was then that I drove along a road in the town which I travel rarely and came across a new roundabout in the Place des Allies.  At one side of the road was a sort of memorial, complete with tricolor, the European flag (of course) as well as the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men gang aft agley

But if they haven't done so in this case, I should have returned from France yesterday evening.  It seems quite possible that you have failed completely to notice my absence as I did leave a few posts scheduled for attention by Blogger.  Anyway, I have no time to post pearls of wisdom today and will instead simply leave you with a panoramic picture of the view from my (English) bedroom the day before we left for France.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Life changing books

Given my itchy feet (see yesterday's blog), I'm not at all sure that reading travel books is a particularly good idea.  But I enjoy the genre.  At least, I enjoy part of the genre.  Or maybe it's just that I enjoy the writing of some of the authors who have specialised in the genre.

There are three authors especially who spring to mind.  I don't remember which of them was the first I read but I suspect it was Peter Mayle with A Year in Provence.  Just how much of the book is fact and how much fiction is, I suspect, something we - or, at any rate, I shall never know.  In the days after it was published (good heavens it was in 1989) I was probably naive enough to think it truly autobiographical with every word telling the truth, the whole truth (well, maybe the whole truth) but definitely nothing but the truth.  I enjoyed the book, and the television mini-series that came from it starring the late John Thaw and Lindsay Duncan (I still look out for programmes she is in but without much success).  The book didn't particularly excite my interest in visiting Provence or the Luberon in particular - that was already on my bucket list along with about 999 other places - but I did get there eventually.

The second of those three authors is Bill Bryson.  I distinctly remember people saying that one should not read his Notes From a Small Island on a train for fear of other passengers thinking one off one's rocker because of the raucous laughter engendered by Mr Bryson's descriptions of England.  We English seem to take a masochistic pleasure in reading slightly rude or uncivil things about us and our homeland, or perhaps that is more a matter of laughing at some poor foreigner who doesn't understand how we do things here.  Bill Bryson, of course, went on to become almost an honorary Englishman, has been President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England and Chancellor of Durham University.  He has been awarded the OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire - otherwise known as Other Buggers' Efforts).

The third writer seemed to me to be an unlikely author.  Chris Stewart was the drummer with Genesis, the rock band featuring Phil Collins et al.  He retired from the music scene at the grand old age of 17, took up sheep shearing and subsequently became a peasant farmer in Spain.  Driving Over Lemons was his first book describing his life as an ex-pat.

OK, so I enjoyed reading each of those three books.  But were they life changing?  Not for me.  And I have listed only three titles; Suldog gave us fifteen, and he claimed that those fifteen books were life-changing.  No, I lie; he didn't claim that.  He just said that he would list fifteen books "that had a dramatic impact on [his] life, or that make [him] happy in [his] pants, or that [he] took out of the library and never returned, or something like that."  And there, tucked away at the end of the post, was an addendum.  [Where else would one expect to find an addendum, you ask?  Just get over it!]  In that addendum he mentioned Notes From a Small Island, which reminded me.  So if you are looking for somebody to blame for all this mind-blowing information, look no further than here.

One thing those three authors share, apart from living in and writing about a country other than the land of their births, is that although they have all had more books published, these were (I believe) their first and none of the subsequent books quite lived up to the early promise.  In my opinion.


And having given pride of place to Peter Mayle and the Luberon, it seems only right that I should post a picture of the area.  This is the village of Loumarin with the Luberon mountain in the background - and the picture would not be complete without the olive tree.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Itchy feet

I have mentioned before that i suffer from this particular ailment.  Itchy feet, that is, not itchy fingers.  I have never in my life - well, not knowingly - removed from their keeping something belonging to others without their agreement.  So, itchy feet is what I have.  That does not mean that every time I hear music I feel an urge to get on my feet and start dancing.  Far from it.  Dancing has never been my particular forte.  When I was in the sixth form - at an all-boys school - dancing classes were arranged for us with the young ladies at the nearby all-girls school.  We, being pubescent gentlemen, were always expected to go to the girls' school for the lessons.  There followed sixth form dances to which students (although we were called pupils back in those days) all senior schools in the area were invited.  Students from most schools attended, including the girls from Roedean, the poshest girls' boarding school in the country if not the world.  At least at the dances we didn't have to wear school uniform, which was the case for the lessons.

As those lessons had not exactly done a lot for me, after I had left school my then girl friend, who had been a pupil at the one school in the area which refused to allow its girls to attend the sixth form dances, suggested we took lessons.  We enrolled at the Court School of Dancing where we learned the basics of ballroom dancing and became reasonably proficient in the waltz, the quickstep and the valeta.  We picked up the steps for the Gay Gordons at church socials, where the Virginia reel was also a hot favourite.

My itchy feet were urging me to travel, to see far-flung romantic places such as Scunthorpe.  (The name alone must make this the least attractive town in England.)  The answer would have been to go to sea, preferably with the Royal Navy following in the footsteps of my father and his father.  But that was not to be, so I settled down here in Sussex, working for a bank.  At least that meant that i got to move around the different branches, but that was still not enough to settle the urge to travel.

It so happened that the bank for which I worked had an overseas subsidiary with branches across Africa, from Egypt in the north, to South Africa at the bottom, from the Gold Coast in the west to Kenya in the east.  Here, perhaps, was the answer.  Now, it so happened that at that time I was dating (in those days we called it "going out with") an attractive young lady on whom I was especially keen.  I mentioned to her the idea that I should apply for a posting in Africa but she shuddered and said that was something she could never do.  "Well," said I, "in that case I shall just have to stay here and marry you."

So I did.

For a while, my itch lay dormant.  I did after all have other things on my mind.  But slowly, like the ambitious cornflake, it came to the surface again.  (Have I ever told you the story of the ambitious cornflake?  No?  Well, perhaps another day.)  I had joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, which got me away for two weeks' training each year, sometimes on a proper ship and sometimes actually going abroad.  I also got myself attached to a joint services unit which organised resistance to interrogation training for troops and aircrew.  Their exercises were held at various places around the country and provided a certain amount of travel for me.

As I got older, I could see retirement ahead of me like the light at the end of the tunnel.  Instead of my travel being restricted to weekends and holidays, I would have as much time as I wanted to see the world.  Time was one thing; money was another.  I corralled my dreams yet again and decided that maybe the answer would be a camper van.  I could use this as my mobile home and spend months touring Europe.  But somehow or other, things got in the way yet again.

I have been to most countries in western Europe: Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, France, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, plus Japan, Madeira, Malta, Canada and the USA.  But there are still so many places to see, roads to drive.

Oh well, it says in the Acts of the Apostles, "old men will have dreams".  I must take comfort from that.


I was staggered by the magnificence of Yosemite.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Cooking television

I am not a cook.  If pushed, I can prepare a meal - provided always that what I have to prepare is something simple, like baked beans on toast.  No, really, I can do better than that.  I have been known to produce a full Sunday roast - joint, roast potatoes, two veg - and have also come up with a terrific spaghetti carbonara.  But I don't much like cooking.  I do, however, like eating the results of other people's culinary efforts.  Fortunately, the Old Bat does like cooking - and she's not half bad either.  In fact, she's darned good.

I really have no complaints about the food that is put before me on the table at home.  It is nutritious, varied and delicious.  I do sometimes, rather disloyally perhaps, think that maybe a new dish might be tried; paella or something more adventurous than spaghetti Bolognaise.   Given that the Old Bat simply soaks up the cookery pages of magazines and the weekend supplements as well as those television cookery programmes, I have to wonder sometimes.

Just recently the Beeb has broadcast a series of programmes by that stereotypical French chef, Raymond Blanc.  The Old Bat has a bit of a thing about Monsieur Blanc - she says she finds him amusing - and has positively lapped up his offerings.  She was equally smitten with his last series which involved travelling through the different regions of France trying out the local cuisine.  I have seen something of this latest series and there have been quite a number of recipes which have looked very appetising and which, the OB assures me, are not too difficult to produce in the home.  So I checked and found that all the recipes are available on the BBC web site.  I offered to print off what she wanted, but she has not taken me up on that offer.

I doubt very much that I would ever pay the prices M Blanc charges at his restaurant, Le Manoir au Quatres Saisons, but I have to say that his enthusiasm for food can be infectious. (I've just checked it out - £79 for lunch, plus wine.)

I think that possibly the best meals I have ever eaten have been in France.  I mentioned one, at the Auberge des Pecheurs, on this blog last year (here) but I don't think I have written anything about a meal in the Luberon, down in Provence.  We were down there on holiday and had, as is our wont, hired a cottage with the intention of trying various local restaurants for our evening meals.  Unfortunately, the area seemed rather short on restaurants but we did spot one in Oppede le Vieux, a village perché halfway up a mountain.  It was a reasonably warm evening so we took a table outside in what looked to be the village square. Which was fine to start with, but a stiff breeze picked up and I was soon scurrying back to the car to fetch our jackets.

There was little choice on the menu - just two main courses, I think - and we both opted for fish.  Well, that was what we thought we had ordered.  It was daube, which I thought I had heard before and which I thought was a type of fish.  I was wrong.  What we were served was a plate of braised beef. The meat was divine - tender and full of taste.  Quite what went into the gravy in which it was braised I couldn't say, but everything was delicious. In fact, it was possibly the best beef I have eaten in France (which isn't actually saying very much as their beef tends to be very poor in my opinion).

The restaurant can be seen on the left of this picture of the village square.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Hidden treasure

I lashed out the other day.  It's not all that often that I treat myself to new clothes, but I thought, "What the heck, if I can't buy myself new clothes every now and then, life has come to a pretty poor pass."  So I did.  I bought a belt.

I needed a new belt.  I do have a rather natty, dark brown, leather belt that I wear with my best chinos but I needed a new belt to wear with my dog-walking, gardening, all-purpose, doing-things-in trousers.  They do have a belt - or they did - but it was plasticy and perilously close to giving up the ghost.  The one I wore before that was a leather belt I had bought when on holiday in Malta (or should that be on Malta - after all, it is an island) but that had seen so much wear that it had broken in two.  I did try to mend it with a bit of sticky tape but that didn't work too well and the Old Bat drew the line at going out with me either using an old tie to hold up the strides (as they say is Aussie-land) or a length of baler twine stolen from my cousins farm or the old belt repaired with duct tape.  So I bought a new belt.

After I had taken the plasticy belt off the trousers and inserted the smart, new, brown, leather, one-and-a-half inch wide belt with a big buckle, I went to put the old belt in a drawer.  It's not that I'm a hoarder - well, not overmuch of a hoarder - but I do dislike throwing away things that might come in handy one day.  Then I changed my mind and decided to throw it away and blow the fact that it might come in handy one day.  Having come to this momentous and almost heart-rending decision, I decided to look in the drawer as I was pretty sure there were other old, possibly plasticy belts in there that might be on the verge of giving up the ghost and, even though they might come in handy one day, I really should clear them out.

There were.  In fact, there were four more and I ended up throwing away all five.

While I was at it, I carried on looking through the drawer.  I found the operating instructions for a watch I threw out in about 1994, a receipt for something I bought the Old Bat for her birthday in 2001 (I refuse to divulge what it was on the grounds I might incriminate myself), my father's wallet - somewhat mildewed, my grandfather's signet ring which snapped into two pieces years ago and which I have been meaning to have repaired, an empty envelope and, hidden beneath said envelope... money!  Real folding money!

The only trouble is, it is an old one pound note - and these were withdrawn from circulation in 1988.  It's not in very good condition either.  If it were I might have tried selling it on Ebay where they fetch anything up to £5 a time.

Now, somewhere or other I know I have a few ten bob notes in mint condition...

I'm not sure, but I thought it was illegal to make copies of currency notes so I might end up in the Tower of London or some dank, dark dungeon.  If you hear no more from me, you will know what has happened.

Friday, 23 August 2013

This scepter'd isle

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
So said one of the greatest intellects the world has ever know - William Shakespeare.  I could never in a million years have come up with words to match those but I am not in the slightest ashamed to say that I am proud to be English.  There are so many reasons why being English makes me so happy that I feel sorry for anyone who is not English.  I don't think that is a sign of xenophobia, nor should it be considered a patronising remark.  It's merely a statement of my feelings.

Anyway, here are 25 of the reasons why I am pleased to be English and to live on this wonderful island.

  1. Our constitutional monarchy.  It might be a system of government that would fail in other countries but it works for us.
  2. Our free press - despite all the attempts by politicians to muzzle it.
  3. The pound sterling - lots of 'em!
  4. The white cliffs of Dover.
  5. Fish & chips.
  6. The varied scenery.  A journey of 50 miles can take you through at least five different types of landscape.
  7. The climate.  We might moan about the weather but we don't get extremes of heat or cold, drought or flood.  Well, not usually.
  8. Real ale.  I don't often indulge these days but proper beer brewed using hops and barley is far superior to that lager they make on the continent.
  9. It's easy to get a nice cup of tea.
  10. English justice.  It may not be perfect but there's none better - and we don't have capital punishment.
  11. Pubs.
  12. The Beatles.
  13. Cricket.
  14. Malt whisky.  OK, so that's Scotch and not English but at least we are close to the source.
  15. Ours is an island but it is too large to be claustrophobic while being small enough to get from one end to the other quite easily and quickly.
  16. The Royal family.
  17. Rolls Royce.
  18. The South Downs.
  19. Pantomimes.
  20. Piers.
  21. Strawberries - English ones!
  22. Steak and kidney pudding.
  23. Royal Marine bands.
  24. Morecambe and Wise.  They might be dead now but their comedy still makes me laugh.
  25. The English language, surely the richest tongue in the world, which I learned so easily and not as a foreign language.

I'm sure - indeed, I know I could come up with more without having to try too hard but that's enough for anyone to be going on with.  Meanwhile, back to those white cliffs.  First, as seen from in the Channel, then as seen from across the Channel between Calais and Boulogne sur Mer (just visible under the cloud on the horizon).

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Sign on the dotted line

At some stage in my childhood I was given an autograph album.  I was, oh, about nine years old at the time so the concept of collecting signatures from other people was quite new to me.  It would never have occurred to me to try to collect the autographs of famous people - and even if it had, I wouldn't have had the faintest idea how to go about putting the idea into action.  So I collected the autographs of my family and the neighbours - and, possibly, being very daring, my teachers.

Most of the people who agreed to donate a signature - and that, I suspect, was everybody I approached - wrote a few words or drew a small sketch.  There were the usual things like, "By hook or by crook I'll be last in this book", only for somebody else to write below that, in letters that almost needed a microscope to read them, "Oh no, you won't!"  There are two messages (I'll call them that for want of a better description) that I still remember.  One, from an honorary uncle, was accompanied by a line drawing and read,

"Here's to the bird that sat on a thistle.
He pricked himself and it made him whistle."

The other was a cryptic message:

Y Y 4 me

A bit like a dingbat, I suppose - or text messaging.  I always have difficulty in working out those dratted things.  I find that rather puzzling as for many, many years I regularly attempted (and frequently solved) the cryptic crossword in my fish-wrap of choice, the Daily Telegraph.

My sons had a bit more sense than I.  They each collected about three signatures - of professional footballers, one of whom was an England international, another an Irish international - before their autograph albums were buried in a drawer somewhere.

(I'll post the translation of that cryptic message beneath the picture.)


This is Brighton Town Hall, a Grade I listed building that was built between 1830 and 1832.

YYUR = Too wise you are...  I'm sure you can work out the rest for yourself.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Big Society

Our beloved leader . . .  Belay that.  Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, has been trying for three years to encourage citizens to volunteer for all sorts of things, thereby creating what he calls the Big Society.  According to him, the London Olympics just 12 months ago were a superb example of the Big Society in action with all the volunteer greeters and helpers that there were.  But I think he - and politicians in general - overlook the fact that this country is awash with volunteers.  There are all the leaders of the youth organisations, from Scouts and Guides through youth clubs to football clubs.  There are volunteers working in thousands of charity shops in high streets up and down the country.  There are volunteers in the reserve units of our armed forces - the Territorial Army, the Royal Navy Reserve and the RAF Volunteer Reserve.  (OK, so those guys and gals get paid, but they are not doing it for the money.)  There are unpaid Special Constables, the St John Ambulance Brigade . . .  I could go on and on.  Just here in the relatively small city of Brighton & Hove there are, I understand, more than 300 charities, each of which is dependent on volunteers.

One of those charitable organisations is Brighton Lions Club, of which I am privileged to be a member.  But I do sometimes feel a little anxious about the future of Brighton Lions.  We have been in existence for just over 60 years and the club has, in that time, raised millions of pounds which have been spent on charitable activities.  The members have also given many hours of what I can only describe as "hands-on service", by which I mean actually doing things to help other members of the community.

Back in the days it all started, the early 1950s, the members were youngish men, mainly in their 30s or 40s.  Nowadays, the average age must be well into the 60s.  We have two members who are over 90, five more who are in their 80s, and probably another half dozen in or very nearly in their 70s.  That makes up getting on for half the membership of the club.  Our combined advancing ages mean that we are just not physically capable of many of the activities we thought nothing of 20 or even 10 years ago.  Those advancing years also make it more difficult to recruit younger members who don't want to join an old men's club.  In any case, many of the younger men and women who would make ideal members just don't have the time to commit to something like the Lions Club.  Even now, we have three members we never see and about six or seven whose attendance at meetings or fund raising activities can only be described as spasmodic.

I have said for many years that Lions Clubs in smaller communities actually find it easier to recruit members.  That is partly because a city like Brighton is so diverse, so fragmented, that we don't have the sense of community spirit to be found in a smaller town of say 10,000 inhabitants.  I think as well that not having a specific object or purpose doesn't help.  Somebody interested in, for example, athletics is more likely to act as a coach at an athletics club.  Or they may have support a charity researching a cure for a specific disease because they or a family member suffers from that disease.

We have tried a variety of ways of recruiting, ranging from newspaper adverts to inviting people to an open evening.  None have been very effective.  Indeed, I would go further and say that none have been effective in any way.  The best way of bringing in new blood is still encouraging somebody one knows to come along and take part.  The challenge is to find somebody who has some time and who is young enough to do things!


And on the subject of Brighton, this is a view across the city from the top of Race Hill and out across the English Channel towards the south-west.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The Night Singer

Something I read on another blog recently (can't remember exactly what it was I read or whose blog it was) reminded me of a holiday the Old Bat and I took when we visited Alsace in north-east France.  Over the centuries, Alsace has sometimes been French and sometimes German (or whatever that part of Germany was before Bismark unified the various states).  This was very evident as there were many Germanic influences, many German visitors and very few other English people.  For some reason, Alsace is not a part of France that is visited by the English despite being extremely attractive with the Vosges mountains and old towns and cities such as Strasburg and Colmar.  Turckheim is but one of the many delightful small towns and villages and it was in Turckheim that I had booked a self-catering apartment.  It transpired that this apartment was actually in a small, gated courtyard with the (German) owners' house opposite and two small cottages alongside.  The apartment was over rooms used for storage and had a balcony overlooking both the street and the courtyard.

The town walls still stand around old Turckheim, although the town has long spread itself beyond the three gates.  From the beginning of May until the end of October, an old tradition is put into practice and at ten o'clock each night, the Night Singer starts his round.  There are just the two main streets in old Turkheim and the Night Singer, accompanied by a crowd of tourists, and wearing the traditional cloak and tricorn hat, carrying a halberd, a lantern and a horn, makes his way along them, stopping at certain places to sing his song, which starts, "Han sori zu Fir und Liacht" (take care of the fireplace and the candle).  Our balcony overlooked one of his "song points" and he would look up at us and wave as he went on his way.

This is the area where storks nest and it was most amusing to sit outside a restaurant and hear them clacking their bills.  We just hoped they didn't add something to the meal we were enjoying!

Monday, 19 August 2013

The South Country*

It is particularly true in England that almost none of our countryside is natural, how it always has been. Most of it, beautiful as it may be, bears the imprint of man.  At one time, much of the south-east corner of England was covered in trees, especially oak trees, but these were felled to provide the material for building England's battleships, our wooden walls as they are affectionately remembered.  Sussex was also, at one time, the heart of the English iron industry.  Indeed, there are still reminders aplenty with hammer ponds and place names that evoke the old industrial times.  But today it is the South Downs of which I am thinking particularly.

Anybody who has read more than one or two of the postings on this blog will be well aware that I am especially fond of that part of England known as the South Downs.  These - the Downs - are a range of low hills running approximately parallel to the south coast of England for a distance of nearly 90 miles, chiefly in the counties of West and East Sussex.  They have been immortalised in poetry by Rudyard Kipling and Hilaire Belloc:
The great hills of the South Country
They stand along the sea,
And it's there, walking in the high woods,
That I would wish to be
And along the sky the line of the Downs
So noble and so bare.
As recently as the 1930s, the Downs were largely grassland, grazed by great flocks of sheep, each with its attendant shepherd.  Come World War II, English farmers were pressed to grow more wheat and much of the South Downs were put to the plough for the first time.  Now there is an almost equal mix of arable and pasture.  At least, this is the case in the vicinity of Brighton, as shown in this picture.

Further east, by Eastbourne and Beachy Head, the countryside looks completely different, much more like moorland.  I always think this must be what the whole of the Downs was like before the coming of the plough.

*The complete Belloc poem can be found here.  Or Kipling's Sussex here.

See?  You even get a bit of culture here!

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Still lost

It was at one time axiomatic that postmen, milkmen and delivery people of all sorts whistled as they walked the streets.  No longer is that so.  So much is that now not so that it is rare to hear anyone whistling.  Even the wolf whistles from building sites are notable by their absence.  I have a dim recollection that at one time there was a variety entertainer known as the Whistling Postman who would come on stage and entertain the audience with his tuneful whistling.  He even made a recording.  There was also Anna in The King and I who would, "whistle a happy tune so no-one will suspect I'm afraid".

I lost my whistle sometime before Christmas in 2011.  There I was, walking the dog in the park or Stanmer Woods or somewhere, I pursed my lips to call Fern (the dog) to heel, and what came out?  Nothing.  Well, almost nothing.  It sounded a bit like a miniature steam engine, a very miniature steam engine, in fact, a mouse-size steam engine letting off steam.  A piccolo compared to my previous trombone blasts.  Since then my whistle has remained lost - until a few weeks ago.  Once again I was walking Fern - this time across the fields - when I decided to try a tune.  I think I opted for that one of Anna's, I Whistle a Happy Tune.  And it worked!  My whistle was back!  For three bars.  After that, zilch.  No more happy tune.  Indeed, no more tune full stop.

I do still call Fern by whistling, but I now use a different technique.  There are, basically, three different techniques one can employ to produce the type of sound known as a whistle.  Most people purse their lips as if they are readying themselves to plonk a kiss on their nearest and dearest and then proceed to blow air through the lips, minute alterations in the shape of the lips and the position of the tongue being employed to vary the notes produced.  This is, generally, the most tuneful form of whistling.  Strangely, it is something that very few girls or women seem able to do.

Then there is the blast produced by putting one finger of each hand - usually the index finger - in the mouth to pull back the lips.  I am most envious of people who can whistle in this way as it is a trick I have never mastered.

My method of whistling involves placing the top teeth forward above the bottom lip, pressing my tongue up to the roof of my mouth, and blowing.  As with the standard form of whistling, the note can be varied by changing the positioning of the lips and/or tongue, but tuneful whistling is extremely difficult.  It does, however, suffice for calling Fern to heel.  And that's all I want, really.


Yesterday I showed a picture of Beachy Head and its lighthouse.  That lighthouse was built to replace one, the Belle Tout light, on the top of the cliffs on the next headland to the west.  built in 1832 and the location of the lighthouse was carefully planned so that the light was visible for 20 miles out to sea and that the light would be obscured by the edge of the cliff if sailors were too close to the shore.  Over the years, erosion of the cliff reduced the effectiveness of the lighthouse and in 1902 Belle Tout was decommissioned when the new lighthouse built at the base of the cliffs came into service.  In 1999, due to continuing erosion threatening the future of the building, the lighthouse was moved 17 metres (56 feet) back from the edge of the cliff.  The current owners provide bed and breakfast accommodation.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Lost in Eastbourne

Eastbourne is an odd sort of town.  Just about 20 miles along the coast from Brighton, the people there claim that they have much more sun than we do here, and that may well be true.  However, Eastbourne is a much more sedate town than Brighton has ever been.  It always had the reputation of being God's waiting room with bath chairs on the esplanade.  Until only the last few years, the whole place seemed dead after about nine o'clock at night, although I think it might have become a bit more lively nowadays.  It certainly seemed that way on Thursday.

My visit was because somebody had phoned to offer the Lions a large quantity of books.  Our bookman was unable to do anything due to a visit from his family, so I volunteered.  I downloaded a map showing the new road into the town and set off.  Had I taken my old, out of date street plan all would have been well.  As it was, the map I had downloaded did show the way to the address I needed, but I was unable to pull over to study the map as I needed and, as a result, got well and truly lost.  Eventually, I followed my nose in ever-decreasing circles and found the address by my own unaided efforts.

After loading 13 large boxes full of books, I refused any more on the grounds that I was unsure my car's suspension would stand the weight, and set off for home.  I decided not to use the road I had travelled from Brighton, but to go along the coast road and visit Beachy Head.  I also decided that to do that, I would first hit the sea front.  That was where I made my second mistake.  I followed the signed route to the sea front, only to discover that I had been deposited right at the far side of town from where I wanted to be.  That would not have been so very bad, but the annual airshow was in progress, which meant (a) that there were swarms of people on the sea front and so much traffic that I was able quite comfortably to watch a Spitfire performing aerobatics over the sea, and (b) that part of the coast road was closed to traffic which was diverted along clogged, narrow streets.

Then I got stuck behind one of those gigantic cranes that travels at about 2 miles a fortnight!

Still, I did get a picture of Beachy Head and the lighthouse.  This is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain, rising to 531 feet about sea level.  The lighthouse is 141 feet tall.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Aims and objectives

I very nearly started today's blog by saying writing that there as many different reasons for taking photographs as there are people taking them.  Then I decided that it was just not true.  There must be millions of people taking photographs, and there certainly can't be millions of reasons for them to do so.  Thinking about it, I have decided that there are probably only a handful of reasons: to act as reminders of places, people or events; as a record of something or someone at a particular point, possibly for comparison with the same at a later date; for artistic reasons.

Some photographers are portraitists and mainly take pictures of people.  If they are true portraitists, they will probably try to capture something of the sitter's personality or character in the picture.  Me, I rarely take pictures of people.  When I do, it is likely to be of the grandchildren and what I am doing is trying to capture moments in their lives that the Old Bat and I can relive and enjoy as memories.  Character rarely gets a look in and is never in my mind as I take those pictures.

My pictures are more likely to be landscapes.  These are partly to act as souvenirs of travel and holidays, partly simply as records, but perhaps more often I try to capture something of the essence of a town, region or country, to produce art.  I can't do anything with paint brushes so I am reduced to capturing scenes by mechanical means.  There are times when I think I have captured something, when I have managed to get the composition right and the picture expressive of something.  It doesn't happen often, which is why I sometimes take seemingly dozens of pictures of pretty much the same scene, day after day, in various lighting conditions.

Sometimes I strike lucky straight away with what is little more than a snap shot. like this picture which I know is not perfect but which to me talks of hot, lazy afternoons and lengthy lunches.  It is Domaine Faverot in Provence, France.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Hands off the Rock!

I made a brief excursion into the realm of politics earlier this week, an unusual thing for me, but I'm doing it again today.

Thirty-one years ago, Argentine troops landed on the Falkland Islands and a British task force was dispatched to eject them.  (The leader of the task force, Admiral John "Sandy" Woodward, died earlier this month at the age of 81.)  This week British warships have again sailed to a British dependency under threat from a large neighbour.  The helicopter carrier, HMS Illustrious, left Portsmouth a couple of days ago, followed by the frigate HMS Westminster a day later, and is heading for Gibraltar.  The Government say that the ships are heading for exercises in the Mediterranean which have long been planned, but it is quite a coincidence that Spain has been stirring up emotions, claiming that Gibraltar really is Spanish.  This despite the fact that the Rock was ceded to Britain 300 years ago by the treaty of Utrecht in 1713 and a referendum a few years ago in which 98% of Gibraltarians said they wished to remain British and not even consider joint sovereignty of the Rock.

I just hope it all dies down before anybody gets hurt.


It was only on Monday this week that I watched the straw in this field being baled.  Usually the bales are left in the field for a week or more and I had entertained vague thoughts of going into the field to take some photographs.  However, as I walked the dog yesterday I spotted a farmhand arrive to start collecting the bales.  By the time I was coming back, just over half an hour later, the field was clear.  Methinks the farmer must have been anxious to get everything under cover before the rain arrived.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Test Match Special

Given my complete lack of sporting ability and my pretty much minimal interest in spectating, which in any case is more in the way of just looking at the results in the paper, it might seem passing strange that I'm posting about sport for the second consecutive day.

It must have been back three weeks or more that I mentioned the Ashes, the name given to international cricket matches (test matches) between England and Australia.  I suppose to be completely accurate, the Ashes is not the name given to the matches but is the name of the trophy.

(It wasn't three weeks, it was a month ago that I posted about the Ashes.)

OK, if you followed the link you now know all about it.  If you didn't, you might not.

England won the first two matches in the five-game series very convincingly and seemed well on course for a series win and the retention of the Ashes.  Then came the third test, the weekend before last.  This game looked to be going Australia's way with them staying on top for the first four days.  On the fifth day it rained and the match was declared a draw.  As Australia could no longer win the series, England got to retain the Ashes anhd great was the jubilation across the world.  Well, across the world of English cricket anyway.

There was no disputing the fact that the best Australia could hope for was to draw the series 2-2, an overall result that would satisfy England.  All the same, if Australia did win the 4th and 5th tests to claim a series draw, the fact that they had been on course to win the 3rd test would have left a slightly sour taste in the mouth; two matches won by each side with Australia the better team in the drawn match.  They could, I would suggest, claim quite justifiably that they had been robbed by rain.

The 4th test was played over the last weekend.  On Friday (day one), Australia seemed to be in the ascendancy.  Saturday was the same, but by close of play on Sunday things looked pretty even.  Monday saw Australia chasing a total of 299 in their second innings and looking likely to get there.  Then England achieved a break through and skittled the Aussies out to win the match with a day to spare.

That bad taste has gone from the mouth now and England can truly claim to have won the series.


Frustration can set in during a cricket match, especially one of the 5-day internationals.  It can also - and more frequently - arise as a result of computer malfunction.  For some reason my standard PC keeps crashing on Firefox and refuses to load Explorer.  I just hope that service pack 2, which I am in the throes of installing, solves the problem.


When I was but a whippersnapper, one of my pastimes was completing the "I Spy" books.  (Read about them here.) I don't recall if "I Spy in the Street" included this, but it would have been worth a lot of points as an Edward VIII post box is something of a rarity.

To explain.  Post boxes bear the royal cypher, such as the EIIR for Queen Elizabeth 2nd.  Edward VIII was King for only a few months in 1936 so there was little chance that post boxes would be sited during his reign.

I have to wonder how many were manufactured and not installed.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

We was robbed!

So here we are, not yet in the middle of August, and yet this past weekend was the second in the latest football season.  My memory must be playing tricks because it seems to me that the gap between one season ending and the next beginning is getting shorter and shorter with each succeeding year.  I'm not entirely sue that my recollection is accurate as I have hazy memories of football spectators in summer clothes, which would seem to indicate that August has been the traditional month for the start of the new season.  On the other hand, the cup final was always the last game of the season (or so I thought) and was played on the second Saturday in May.  I think.  Nowadays the cup final is not the last match of the season, which extends further into May.

You might gather from the previous paragraph that my knowledge of professional football (and I'm talking about proper football, not the version of rugby that is called football in America, nor the strange game played under Australian rules) is not top of the form standard.  You would be quite right.  There have been occasions in the past when I have been to professional football matches, mainly in the far-off days when spectators stood on the terraces, shouted obscene remarks at the referee and rushed for a pie and a pint at half time.  I have also been to a couple of matches since stadia became all-seating with no spectator allowed to even stand up to stretch his legs while play is in progress.  How anyone can afford to watch professional football on a regular basis is quite beyond me.  I have just checked and find that tickets for Manchester United cost from £31 to £53 for one game.  Even our local club, which is hardly in the top flight, has ticket prices starting at £25 and rising to £42.

What has puzzled me for many years is the way people say things like, "We won" or "We were robbed".  Why do they refer to "we"?  It's not as if they had anything to do with the game - other than watching it or sometimes just seeing the result.  They were not playing and were not involved in any way with the team.  In fact, they are not even members of a club; they are simply paying customers.

I say that spectators are not members of clubs.  That is, perhaps, not how supporters see things.  All football teams are "clubs" - even though they are, in truth, limited companies often owned by a single person.  It's not as though the teams are selected from a closely-knit group, say the workers at a certain factory or the members of a social club.  The players don't even need come from the country where the club is based let alone the town.  They are simply men (usually) who have been employed to undertake work.

It's the same with any professional team sport - football, cricket, rugby, ice hockey - but quite different in individual sports such as golf, tennis or athletics and, on the whole, in amateur sports

I find it all just a little puzzling.  But maybe it's me who is the odd one out and everyone else who is marching in step.


Today, another picture taken from the end of the Upper Lodge Wood.  This time, looking west, almost exactly the opposite direction from yesterday's picture.

Monday, 12 August 2013


I set a new record yesterday.  It cost me just a few coppers over £90 to fill the car, the most I have ever spent at one time on fuel.  Mind you, the on-board computer was telling me there was just enough fuel left for 20 miles so I did put in more than 60 litres (that's 14.18 gallons).  To think I can remember the time when I would pull up at the pump, ask for four gallons (it wasn't self-service) and still get change from a ten shilling note.

However, I do have to confess to being a trifle worried.  I can remember what I had for breakfast - not hard, as it's always a bowl of cereal - and can even remember last night's dinner (roast pork) and dinner the night before (confit de canard - duck's leg preserved in its own fat) but I have just noticed that I posted a picture on Saturday that I had posted only a couple of weeks earlier.  Does that mean I'm losing my marbles?  Possibly, or there again, possibly not.

So, today's picture.  Basically, this is another view I have shown before, from near the Upper Lodge Wood looking along the Stanmer valley to Castle Hill (on the right above the trees) with a distant view of Firle Beacon (the pointed hill in the centre of the horizon).  One of my all-time favourite views.

On the map below, "A" marks the spot where I was when I took the picture, the pink marker is Firle Beacon.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

The summer plague

It happens every summer - and seems to have become worse since we had an elected council with the Green Party in the majority.  I try to keep politics out of this blog on the grounds that (a) my political views are my own affair and I'm not obliged to broadcast them to the world, and (b) politics is one of the three subjects that should not be mentioned around the dinner tables of society, the other two being religion and money.  But I'll make an exception in this case.  Having said that, I will freely - indeed, even happily - admit that the Greens are not entirely to blame.  I expect that some of the blame must rest with some commissar or other in Brussels.  Whoops, here go with politics again!

Every year Brighton is invaded.  During the early autumn there is often a party conference, and if the political parties give the city the cold shoulder there are almost certainly other groups who will be happy to spend a few days by the sea.  The high summer sees an influx of foreign students spending a few weeks here, ostensibly to improve their English but they seem more intent on partying and generally have a good time.  OK, so both political party conferences and large numbers of foreign students can have a disruptive effect on life in the city but, quite frankly, neither impact much on me and both conferences and students contribute to the local economy.  What does cause me disruption and makes me hot under the collar is the swarm of travellers who set up illegal encampments in our parks and other open spaces around the city.

Let's be perfectly reasonable about this.  Well, I think I am, anyway.  I have no problem with people living a nomadic lifestyle per se if that is their choice.  I don't understand quite how they expect to live a modern life-style in a developed country, with satellite television and mobile phones, but that is not my problem.  If they spent a night or two at the side of the road - in small groups - and moved on leaving nothing but their thanks, I'm sure I would have no cause to be upset.

What does annoy me is that they park up on a public park in groups of 20 or 30 caravans, stay for anything up to six weeks before they can be ejected legally, and leave mountains of rubbish when they do go.  Or the council will provide large wheelie bins for their rubbish, which is probably cheaper than employing contractors to clean up the site later.  And all this is, of course, at the expense of the local council tax payer.

I did read something put out by our local council (the Green Party) telling us that travellers deserve our care and compassion because they have shorter life expectancy and poor education.  I really blew my top when I read that; after all, it's not exactly my fault that they choose a life-style that causes those problems.   And why should travellers expect to benefit from free health care, education and rubbish removal when they make no contribution towards the cost?

At some point every summer, and quite often in the winter too, but the summer is particularly prone to the problem, one or more of my usual routes for walking the dog becomes unavailable to me as the travellers have descended with their aggressive dogs and their mess.

But enough already.  Except for a picture I took yesterday showing the illegal encampment on the Waterhall valley playing fields.  This was taken from about a mile away so I don't claim it is a brilliant picture but it does illustrate the problem.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

In a quandary

Yep, that's me.  I'm in something of a quandary.  It's not anything major, it's like making a decision on whether to have cereal or toast and marmalade for breakfast.  Pretty earth-shattering stuff.  No, my quandary is deciding what I should write about today.

There are a number of possible themes running around in my head.  There is the report in this morning's newspaper of a man who has written a daily diary for the past 38 years.  It seems his output now exceeds that of William Shakespeare and is approaching that of Charles Dickens.  Or maybe I misread that bit as the kettle came to boil at that point.  But it gave me pause for thought (as I filled the teapot); some of those diary entries would be quite interesting.

A few years ago the Old Bat and I were in the Lake District with my brother and sister-in-law, staying not far from Grasmere and Wordsworth's Dove Cottage, which we visited.  Until then, I had never appreciated that his sister, Dorothy, wrote a journal which has been published.  Following the example of my s-in-l, I bought a copy, thinking it might prove enlightening.  It didn't.  She kept repeating short sentences like, "Walked round the lake in the late afternoon" but gave (to my mind) very little impression of what life was really like for her or her opinions on things that happened.  I suppose 200 years ago life was very much more parochial, with news taking forever to travel from one end of the country to the other.  But what I wanted was rather more of the intimate details of their lives; what they ate, the cost of things and so on.

That was part of the reason behind my starting this blog - an attempt to put down something of my thoughts and to give generations to come some idea of what it is (or was, as it will be to them) like to live in these early years of the 21st century.  But perhaps I am being over-ambitious and too full of hubris.

That was one thing I thought I might write about.  Another was the dreadful sense of ennui that seems to have overtaken me these last two or three days.  There are so many things I ought to be doing but that I just can't be bothered with, so many things I usually like doing but seem to be just too much bother.  On the other hand, I was contacted during the week by a distant cousin - my 7 x great grandfather is his 8 x ggf which makes him, oh, something like a 7th cousin once removed.  Anyway, that prodded me to follow another branch of the family tree that I hadn't even know existed.  Not exactly fascinating, but something I find almost irresistible once I get started. Only those who have a similar interest will come anywhere close to understanding that urge!

I also thought I might jot down a few thought on why I like living in this "sceptered isle set in a silver sea".  Those of my readers who know their Shakespeare will know that that is a mangled quotation - and perhaps I will leave the subject right now.  We can always come back to it later.  Meanwhile, I mentioned that I rarely glance at the Royal Pavilion when I pass it on the bus.  Here is a picture I did take - when the sky was almost impossibly blue for England - and which I have recently used as a kind of brand image for Brighton Lions Club.  You will find it on our web site, our Facebook page and our blog.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Deeply philosophical

I went to the tip yesterday morning with a load of garden rubbish.  The road I take crosses the race course - or maybe the race course crosses the road.  Either way, on race days thick mats are laid over the road and straw or grass cuttings are spread over them, which actually makes for an extremely slippery surface.

Parenthetical point: Brighton race course is unusual in thatit is horseshoe (or U) shaped, one of only three in England that do not prescribe a complete loop.

As I was saying, I had to drive across the race course.  Luckily, I went in the morning.  I had not been aware that yesterday was a race day.  Had I tried to go to the tip in the afternoon, I would likely have been held up, possibly for as long as 20 minutes.

There always used to be a sign on the approach to the race course warning drivers of a temporary road surface, this sign being uncovered on race days.  That sign seems to have disappeared, to be replaced by this deeply philosophical thought:

Seems to me to be a thought worthy of Uncle Skip.

Thursday, 8 August 2013


Well, I hope the day never comes when I become so blasé that I don't notice the beauty of the view when I open the bedroom curtains or walk the dog across the fields from the Upper Lodges of Stanmer Park.

There was a time when I commuted daily to an office in London.  My journey on the train took me past London Bridge and along the south bank of the Thames almost through the churchyard of Southwark Cathedral before turning over Blackfriars Bridge - with the reconstructed Globe Theatre just a bit further along and visible from the train.  Crossing the Thames, one could see Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, the Monument [to the Great Fire of London in 1666] and the dome of St Paul's Cathedral as well as the river traffic.  Sadly, I saw this sight so often that I became immune to the beauty of it and kept my head buried in my newspaper.

That happens even now on the fairly rare occasions that I journey into town.  My route on the bus, both into town and back home again, takes me past the Royal Pavilion - and I seldom give it so much as a glance.

However, I am determined that my eyes will not become blind to the beauty of the views over the Downs, whether they be from my bedroom window or the fields along from the Upper Lodges.  Like this one:

By the way, we haven't seen our robins around for the last two or three days.  Presumably the young have left the nest, but whether it was under their own steam or courtesy of one of the local cats . . .

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Reunited we fall

For some reason I have failed to grasp, the Old Bat seems to be keen on a forthcoming reunion.  A school at which she worked as an assistant librarian for several years will be celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2015.  By my calculation, that is at least 18 months away and I rather suspect that the actual date is in September so we are, in reality, looking two years into the future.  So, the folks at the school are trying to make contact with as many past students and staff as possible to learn what the alumni have achieved.  To this end, a cream tea is to be held in September this year.  It is word of that get-together that the Old Bat has been spreading assiduously.

All three of my children were students at the school.  I'm not sure if the Old Bat has mentioned this matter to my daughter (who lives way up north from us in Sutton Coldfield) but the reaction of my two sons was rather, "So what?"  They are obviously chips off the old block, by which I mean the Old Bloke, ie me.

There is, I believe, an understanding - or perhaps I should call it a misunderstanding - prevalent among foreigners (sorry, that sounds almost rude and a touch xenophobic but I mean people who are not English) that Englishmen have a fondness for their old schools; the old school tie and all that.  A form of nepotism whereby any applicant for a position who attended the same school as the person responsible for making the appointment, automatically stands a much better chance than other applicants.  That really is something of an urban myth, certainly among the lower classes.  Perhaps there is a smidgeon of truth in it if we are referring to the middle or upper classes who can afford to send their sons and daughters to posh public schools like Eton or Harrow, Oundle or Shrewsbury.  Frankly, most of the people I know couldn't care less about their old schools - or their one-time fellow pupils in general.  Many are, I suspect, rather like me and have pretty well lost touch with all ex-fellow pupils by the time they are 30 or so.

I don't do reunions, can't stand them.  I have only ever been to two.  The first was a reunion of my old Scout troop.  I can't remember why the reunion was held, but I decided to drag myself the 65 miles it took to attend only to find there was nobody else there who had been a member of the troop at the same time as me.  I knew nobody and nobody knew me.

The second such gathering was a little better, mainly because I had left that group not so very long before and still knew quite a lot of people who were there.  Not that I found it very rivetting all the same.

I think perhaps if the other four men who were part of the "gang of five" - not really a gang but just five of us who were at school together and did things together - were to get back in touch I might find that we would relive some of the more hilarious escapades of our youth and have a thoroughly good time.  But otherwise, count me out.  Reunions and me don't mix.


I took a walk along the Waterhall valley yesterday, hoping that the lilies I had seen last week in the dewpond would be in bloom and worth photographing.  They weren't - worth photographing, that is.   All the same, I did take a picture.  The two lads were having a great time with their dog.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Road rage

What I call the French disease has spread and is now seen quite frequently on this side of the English Channel.  Despite all the signs on French motorways urging drivers to leave two markers between cars, nearly every driver comes up close behind me, almost close enough to see what I have in the boot, before swinging out to overtake.  And while all this is going on I am driving along at 70 miles an hour, the overtaking driver travelling at 80 or 90.  Tailgating is becoming increasingly common here in England and is one of the faults in other people's driving that annoys me most.  Possibly the one that is the most annoying.  I don't have one of those bumper stickers that declares, "The closer you come, the slower I'll drive" but that is often what I resort to doing.

Yesterday, I regret to report, I lost it almost completely.  OK, so we were in a 30mph zone rather than doing 70 on a motorway, but I swear the guy behind was only 4 feet off my rear bumper.  If I stopped suddenly there was no way he could have avoided hitting me.  So I slowed to a halt, got out and asked him if he wanted to get into my boot.

"Why?" he asked.

"Because you're driving too bloody close to me!"

Perhaps I was lucky that he didn't smash his door into me and follow that up with a good kicking.  And I didn't really feel any better for my outburst.

Nor did he drive any further away from me.

I really do try to keep my cool, but sometimes it just has to come out.


On the way down west we drive past the town called Arundel.  I have long wanted to take a p[icture from across the river but have never yet taken the time to stop.  On Saturday, I happened to be in a long line of traffic and was held up just long enough to snatch this shot.  On the lft of the picture is the Roman Catholic cathedral.  There must be others in England but I can think of only two - Westminster and Liverpool.  On the right is Arundel Castle, the seat of the Duke of Norfolk, Earl Marshal of England.

Monday, 5 August 2013

High Society

I've had a song running through my mind - the way one does at times.  Actually, with me there is rarely a time when a tune of some sort is not running in my brain.  It can become aggravating in the extreme when the same tune runs time after time after time.  As Macbeth said, "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow until the last syllable of recorded time".  (That is about the only Shakespeare quote I can really remember from the days when I studied English Literature for my GCE 'O' and 'A' levels.)

As I was saying, I've had this tune running through my mind, a tune from the musical High Society.  There's a film to conjure up the memories: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and the divine Grace Kelly, with whom I was deeply in love.  Sadly, my love was totally unrequited.

Anyway, that song.  "What a swell party this is".  It is particularly apt as the OB and I drove down into deepest Somerset on Saturday for a party on my cousin's farm which was held to celebrate a number of significant anniversaries in the family such as 70th and 40th birthdays.  And it really was a swell party.  Two adjoining barns had been cleared of all the clutter that is normally stored in them (I wonder where it went?) and the walls had been given a quick coat of white paint.  Outside those barns a large marquee had been erected and tables and chairs laid out out.  Various salads were provided, along with several barbecues for people to cook the meat they had brought with them.  Sundry desserts were also supplied, along with seemingly never ending bottles of wine and barrels of beer.

A couple of smaller gazebos had been erected in the paddock off the yard, as well as a bouncy castle for the children's amusement.

The weather could have been kinder but wasn't bad.  A couple of showers - one particularly heavy - meant the the slide on the bouncy castle became extremely slippery, much to the enjoyment of the children who were all drenched to the skin.  The adults, meanwhile, ate more than their fill, drank (in a few cases a tad too much) and chatted.  Given that there were about 60 or 70 people there, chatting was easy, even for those like me who have little small talk.

It all seemed to me a little un-English, reminiscent of the way French villages hold feasts with tables spread out under the plum trees and the whole village turning out.  Great.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

It's a dog's life

Why is it that phrase - it's a dog's life - is taken to mean something less than satisfactory?  Rather like 'a dog's breakfast' (or dinner) indicates that something is a mess.   As far as I can see, my dog's life is not at all bad.  Fern gets taken for two walks every day and is fed regularly so she has no problem trying to find food.  She has a blanket in her basket and a kong to chew.  I even throw tennis balls for her sometimes when we are out for a walk, and nearly every day we have a game with the kong.  No, a dog's life is not such a bad thing at all.

We could learn a lot from dogs, to them life is amazing. Balls are amazing. Sticks are amazing. Chasing your tail is amazing.   Dogs don't think, 'This walk is not as good as yesterday's' or, 'I preferred last night's dinner'.  They just live for the moment and think, 'This is a good walk' or, 'Great! Food!'  Or so I am told.  How anybody has managed to discover what dogs actually think is beyond me.

All the same, it is sometimes quite obvious that a dog is, for example, enjoying a walk.  They don't seem to mind if they follow the same route every day, although a new route is interesting as well.  Their menu never varies, but that doesn't matter; what is important is that they are fed.  They don't get bored the way that we humans do.  If, after they have been lying in one spot for a while, they do feel they want a change, they get up and move to the other side of the room.

It seems to me that life would be so much better all round - for everybody - if we thought and behaved more like dogs.

So why not take a walk on the dog side of life?  No more cattiness. No more indecision. No more "meh". Be more dog.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

G'dday, sport

Actually, I have never been to Australia and, to the best of my knowledge, have never met an Australian.  The nearest I can get is having a cousin who emigrated down under and who was visited by my elder son when he went walkabout during his gap year.  And my wife's godson has been to Oz as well.  Oh, I nearly forgot.  Talking of the Old Bat, she has a smidgeon of Aussie blood in her as her grandfather was born out there and emigrated in reverse when his mother died.

Not that the Aussie greeting - nor all that drivel in the previous paragraph - has anything to do with what I propose writing about today.  Except that a greeting features quite strongly.

My introduction to small town America was back in 2002.  The Old Bat and I had previously visited New York, but I was well aware that NY is to the USA what Sydney is to Australia (to continue with the Aussie connection), that is, a world apart.  We were determined to see something of what could be described as the 'real' America.  Not being exactly knowledgable about these matters, we settled on visiting Virginia, specifically the Blue Ridge Mountains.  That trip came as something of a culture shock.

It started on our very first day.  I had made the electronic acquaintance of a Lion living in Maryland and I suggested to him that it might be good to meet up for a coffee when we were so (comparatively) close and he invited us to spend the first night of our trip at his house.  He gave me detailed directions how to reach him from Dulles Airport.  Kent duly booked a table at what he told me was the best restaurant in the area for our evening meal.  Unfortunately, he had failed to allow for the length of time it would take us to pass through immigration - and had missed one vital left turn from his directions.  The result was that we got well and truly lost.  But I managed to retrieve the situation and we arrived with Kent at about 8.00pm - just about the right time for the restaurant, I thought.  But Kent was jumping up and down and had cancelled the reservation - which had been for 6.30.  We had no idea that Americans ate so early in the evening.

For the rest of our trip I had taken the precaution of booking rooms at motels - the cheap ones like Days Inn.  But there was no motel to be found at one of the towns where I planned to stop overnight - Front Royal - so I booked a bed and breakfast.  This came as something of a surprise to us.  Over here, B and B tends to be relatively cheap and cheerful.  Not so in Front Royal.  We had a private sitting room and were invited to help ourselves at the bar when our hosts and their friends ate.  And we needed a stepladder to get into bed, a bed which was almost as wide as our bedroom at home!

Now it may well be that my memory is playing tricks on me, but I have in mind Front Royal being a small town with no hotels or motels and only one or two restaurants, one of which was a German establishment which closed at 9.30.  I have just checked and discovered something like 42 restaurants(!) in a town with a population of a bit over 10,000.  But be that as it may,  back in 2002 we ate at the German place rather earlier than we would have eaten here in England.  We got into conversation with another couple who were, they told us, locals.  But they had driven 35 miles to what they assured us was their nearest restaurant.  35 miles to get to a restaurant!  That made a round trip of 70 miles.  Here in England - in Brighton, anyway - people would think twice about doing a round trip of 20 miles.

Walking back to our B and B we passed a lad on the street - the very, almost eerily, quiet street - a lad of about 15 or 16 years.  And he spoke to us!  Very politely.  "Good evening," he said.  Now that would never have happened in Brighton.  If we had seen a lad of that age walking on a quiet street we would have been a bit wary.

Despite speaking the same language (almost), it was all so different.


From small town USA to small town France.  This is Tourtour in Provence.

Friday, 2 August 2013

What kind of cheese was that?

I'm sure I can't be the only one who thinks of a suitably witty retort minutes, or sometimes hours, too late.  It happened to me again only the other day.

I should explain that my dog, Fern, an English springer spaniel, is white with brown patches.  I say white, but of course when she gets wet, the white looks a bit grey.  She also has long fur.  I was walking with her through the woods the other day, along a narrow path through the denser part of Stanmer Great Wood, when a woman with two dogs came towards us.  Fern, as is her wont when faced with other dogs, went into the undergrowth and lay down.  As the woman came up to me she remarked that she had thought Fern was a sheep, not having seen the brown patches, and wondered what on earth a sheep was doing up in the woods.  I told her she would be quite alright when the men in white coats arrived.

It was only later that I thought of a better response: should have gone to Specsavers.  Of course, all I'm doing is introducing what I consider to be one of the best television adverts for years.  It doesn't hurt, either, that when I do the blind club transport run, there is a couple at the meeting that reminds me of these two.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Robin redbreast

For a week or more, a robin has been using one of the arms of our rotary clothes line as a staging post.  At one time there were two of them side by side.  He (or maybe it's a she) perches there, sometimes for several minutes, with a beak full of something.  If he (or she) thinks there is something or somebody fairly close by, he flies off a short distance to perch in the tamerisk before coming back again to the clothes line.  When finally satisfied that the coast is clear, he (or she) darts off to a spot behind the daphne, only to emerge fairly quickly with an empty beak.  I have come to the conclusion that there is a nest with what is probably a second brood of chicks.  It doesn't seem a very sensible spot in which to build a nest, being only two or three feet above the ground and easily within reach of one of the many cats in our neighbourhood.  Or the foxes, with which we are plagued - although maybe a robin chick is too small for a fox to bother with.

I had been planning to get into that spot to prunes the branches of our next-door neighbour's leylandii trees and to cut back the ivy (also from our neighbour's garden) which cascades over the fence and has grown a bit too thick.  Obviously, I will now have to wait until the robin's have finished their business.  The perfect excuse for doing nothing.

And here is one of the parents.  Not the greatest example of wildlife photography but I'm not unhappy with it.  (For our cousins across the pond, this is a European robin, erithacus rubecula, 5" in length, little more than half the size of the American robin.)