Saturday, 3 December 2016

Paris is not France: travelling perspectives

Think of France and the French for a moment. What images, thoughts and ideas fill your mind? For me it used to be Brigitte Bardot, chic, fashion, cheeses, onions, snails, frogs, crepes, champagne, Burgundy, Beaujolais, Bordeaux. Yes: sex food and wine. And that accent. Is there anything sexier than a beautiful woman speaking French whilst eating snails?

Margaret and I have probably seen more of France than most people, including the French. We take our time travelling through the country four times a year on average. We usually make three or four overnight stops and on our last trip down to Spain we spent nearly two weeks in Brittany. And we do try to take a somewhat different route each time, rarely parking our motor caravan in the same town or village.

We have grown to love the country, though not through sex, food, and wine, rather through its rivers, its architecture – the churches and chateaux – and the varied country scenery. In fact we find the food generally expensive and poor and the wine poor if not expensive. I make no comment on sex except to say that we find the villages and towns that we grace with our overnight presence rather dull (with some exceptions of course: see this blog). So dull that we look forward to a night out in Dover (we have a local there called Blakes) or our first night in Spain.

Usually we begin to search for somewhere to park up for the night as the light fades. And generally, though not always, we end up in run down places with many vacant shops and restaurants. Worse still the eateries that are open close early. On our most recent trip we stopped at Prades in the Pyrenees.  We left with memories of difficult parking and narrow streets; of almost becoming accidental extras in a film about Pablo Casals - a famous Spanish cellist who lived in the town; of the many dreadlocked dog owners; and of at least three restaurants, all open, all deserted. We were excited to find that one of the restaurants offered traditional French cuisine, but calmed down when we saw that Elvis Burger was on the menu. We ate alone in a pizzeria.

The second stop was at a place called Riom just to the north of Clermont Ferrand in mid France. We parked near the railway station which was somewhat noisy and walked into the historic town, which was mostly dead and had very few eateries. We ended up in a hotel restaurant which offered a reasonable menu and there we consumed well-done (as requested), tough, steak accompanied by exceptionally well-done chips. Unusually, in our experience, there were other people eating there, all sitting alone.

The third stop was at Senlis, not far north of Paris. This was completely different. There were many shops and restaurants, all open. There were dogs but their owners were not dreadlocked and their animals well-groomed. Golly, there was even a charity shop in Senlis, plus a complex and commanding cathedral, together with charming streets boasting warm, busy bars. We ate in a Michelin Starred restaurant and were asked if we had a reservation!! The food, surprisingly, was not too expensive, but it was not too good.

The point of this blog is this: France is a fraud. Just as London is not England, Paris (and its surroundings) is not France. Yet our images of these two countries are often formed by the capitals. And, given our own experience, it is no surprise that the voting pattern varies so much between the big cities and the remote countryside, just as it does across the north/south divide in England.

Over the years we believe that the contrast in France has increased. In the early days we did find traditional restaurants with good food, chequered table clothes and waiters who knew themselves to be our superiors. Now we are more likely to find pizza and kebab take-aways. Still, we are thankful that the rivers, the chateaux, the churches and that delicious accent all survive.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Leonard Cohen and the death of our Spanish village.

Leaonard Cohen’s death was announced via Facebook on the 11th of November 2016 so we played his Greatest Hits CD a number of times, saddened, yet comforted by the fact that there are many more Cohen songs out there that we have still to hear: songs like ‘Goodbye Marianne’ and ‘Everybody Knows’ will gradually imprint themselves on our receptive brains as he touches our imperfect bodies with his mind.

Darkness had fallen in our Spanish village of La Fresneda as we listened to the songs we loved and, as  Allelujah, the last track on the album, played we heard monastic chanting in the background. Margaret threw open the window despite the chilly evening and the sad and moving strains of the monks blended with the rising crescendo of Cohen’s most famous song.

“I want to see if we know who’s died,” she said leaning out into night.

This, of course, was nothing to do with Leonard – the whole world knew that his free spirit had slipped away. No, this was to be a local announcement from the town hall of our village. La Fresneda, like almost all Spanish villages, is laced with loudspeakers all linked to a microphone at the village’s control centre: the system is called the pregon and the chanting monks preface news of a death dolefully delivered announcement as their voices fade away. But Margaret, I noted without surprise, did not recognise the name of the dead person.  Interestingly, this is the fourth death since we arrived six weeks ago. So what’s going on? It’s quite simple, the villagers are dying of old age. I can only guess at the average age here, but sufficient to say that it must be in excess of fifty and the replacement rate, given Spain’s low fertility and continuing drift to the cities, is well below that needed to sustain the population.
Our Street

La Fresneda has a street called Calle Fantasma, Ghost Street, and it is gradually becoming a village of ghosts. This morning I completed a little survey of our own street, Santa Agueda. It has thirty-one houses in total arraigned in two terraces on each side of the road. The houses are tall and thin and the street is short and narrow. Of those thirty-five, five are wrecks supported mainly by their neighbours. One of the wrecks is occupied by a fierce dog. Two of the houses I know to be rented, though the one next to us, we are glad to say, is currently empty. One house is currently being renovated, just four are permanently occupied, and the remaining nineteen are occasionally occupied, mostly at fiesta times only and mostly by people from Barcelona who have inherited their houses from family. We currently live in our house for nearly half the year and are therefore more permanent that most.

In a way this is a sorry tale. My neighbours and friends in the street above us are in a sorrier state. They tell me that only two of the houses in their street are occupied  - the other by Vicente, the current proprietor of the old bar in the main square. But everything is relative. Relative to England this is an incredible tale. Relative to rural Spain our village is quite lively. There are children and there is a school. There are two bars, two restaurants, two grocery shops, two butchers, a bread shop and many visitors – it is a beautiful place.

Is La Fresneda dying? In a way it certainly is. Looking back on our years here we realise that most, though by no means all, of the people we know are from the older generation. Many of them were touched either directly or indirectly by the civil war in Spain. They remember well the heavy hand of Franco and the sudden transition to a liberal democratic state. We like them. They talk to us, they are interested in us and we in them. They are country folk, they give us gifts of tomatoes and more. The younger generation are more metropolitan. With a few exceptions they do not see their future as olive growers or olive growers’ wives. They have been exposed to a wider world and want to be part of it.

It is often said that a Spaniard’s thoughts and action are ruled by family and then village. Affairs of state are secondary and relatively unimportant. For many that is changing, for many it has already changed. The old boys in the bar had neither the opportunity, nor the inclination to go to university and to the big city: the village was there world, and their ambitions lay in growing olives, almonds and vegetables for the table. Similarly the girls aspired to marry a good provider rather than following a career. When we first came to the village just sixteen years ago there were a few mules and horses  working  the fields, and men carrying firewood on their backs. Now there are machines that shake the olives from the trees and one of the villagers owns a JCB, a tractor, a number of motorbikes and, I think, a modern vibrating road roller!

So, once again, is our village dying? Well we all are bit by bit, aren’t we? To actually die a village must lose all of its inhabitants, and in Spain that does happen. However, it is not likely to occur in  La Fresneda. Instead of dying, it is changing. More tourist come to absorb the beauty and history of the place, the number of events are on the increase; not just fiestas but fairs on various themes like the antiques fair which gets bigger each year. The number of bars has doubled (now two) and with that the amount of outside seating in the main plaza is much greater. There is now a very successful camp site nearby, a swish hotel and cheaper inn.

So, like Leonard Cohen’s music, La Fresneda will go on and on. But the village will never again be the place we were so delighted to discover just sixteen years ago.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Chatting with squirrels

On my current trip to Spain I happened to meet two red squirrels. The first I came across on the French side of the Pyrenees. I was walking alone in the beautiful countryside around Arro and the day was sunny and hot. Just to my left came a rustling sound from the hedgerow followed by some high pitched chattering. Suddenly a little red squirrel leapt put of the hedge onto the trunk of a tall pine tree just beyond it. It looked me in the eye and chattered crossly. I responded in kind as best I could. It climbed higher our interchange took place once more. This was repeated a number of times until, with a last burst of sound, my squirrel leapt into a neighbouring pine and was gone.

I continued on my way thinking over what we might have said to each other. First of all the little creature was clearly cross and said something along the lines of:

“What the hell are you doing out here disturbing my midday snooze?”
I simply pointed out that I was an Englishman on my way to Spain and had every right to walk through the French countryside.
“English,” he screeched angrily, “it’s you lot that let those grey tree rats in and now we hear that there isn’t a red squirrel to be found in the whole of your land.”
“You mean the grey squirrels?”
“Rats, tree rats. That’s what I mean.”
“But they are squirrels too.”
“Rubbish. Just look at them man. They’re grey not red. Look at their manky tails and the way they move. Why they can’t even speak properly.”
“Have you ever seen one here?”
“Not likely. But there’s some in the north. Coming over here eating our nuts, taking over our nests. The northern reds have tried setting up a no-go area around the coast, completely stripping the trees of nuts and ­­­­­­­­­­­blocking up all the nests. But it’s no good, they always get through. Some softie from your lot takes pity on a starving family of them and, instead of leaving them to die, feeds them up and takes them inland to where there are plenty of nuts and there you go.”
“But why can’t you live together.”
“Ha, that’s what they, with their big flat faces and rounded ears, say: ‘Oh please let me share your tree Mr Red Squirrel; there are plenty of acorns for all so why don’t we share them’. Then they get to work eating our nuts and breeding like rabbits until there are so many of them that they turn to us and cry, ‘This is our tree now. Push off red squirrel, there’s not enough food for you as well’. Yes, we red squirrels are doomed, all doomed.”

And with that he leapt into the next tree and was gone.

The second squirrel I encountered was Spanish. He looked similar to the first one but was a shade browner and a little smaller. I had just walked along the lip of the deep canyon which the Rio Jucar cuts through the generally flat terrain of Castilla La Mancha. I had then climbed down into the gorge to the little village of Tolosa and began walking alongside the river to my motor caravan parked beneath the famous cave town of Alcala.  In a close repeat of the first encounter a Spanish squirrel rushed up the bole of a pine tree to my right. Surprisingly, given this squirrel’s nationality, this little chap was more reticent than the first and it was I that started the chattering. Nonetheless, once started he readily joined in before ultimately vanishing into the upper branches. This is what I imagined we said to each other:

“Hello Seňor Red Squirrel,” I said in a friendly way. “I met one of your cousins from France recently and we talked about the problem of the grey squirrels taking over your lands.”
“I am honoured to meet you Seňor,” he said shyly, his head partly obscured by the trunk of the tree. “However, I know nothing of grey squirrels and French squirrels. All squirrels are brothers and sisters and all are equal.”
“But surely you have heard that grey squirrels from another land have entered mine and taken all the food and nests of our own red squirrels, driving away all of your brothers in England?”
“All squirrels are brothers,” chattered the little brown squirrel after moving a little further up the tree.
“Are there any grey squirrels in Spain?”
He twitched his curved tail nervously and replied, “I do not know Seňor.  We live only in the valley of the Great River. My father’s father claimed that he found a grey brother by the riverside. The grey brother, sadly, was dead.”
“Perhaps it died trying to get into your valley. Life for squirrels is, I should think, pretty good here.”
He did not respond to this so I continued, “What if the grey squirrels did enter your valley?”
“We would welcome them, all squirrels are brothers.”
“Would you feed them, would you house them?”
“Of course.”
“What if they came in great numbers and took all of your nuts and your nests so that there was nothing for the red squirrels to eat and nowhere to live?”

The Spanish squirrel’s tail froze and he sat motionless on his high branch for some minutes before shrieking, “All squirrels are brothers,” then he vanished into the surrounding trees.

I continued walking through that picturesque ravine until I reached the town of Alcala. I then looked up at the morass of white houses clinging to the steep cliff side. We had visited this strangely attractive place the evening before and estimated that only a fraction of the houses were permanently occupied, so, plenty of nests there. We had also spent some time in a bar most of which was cut into the cliff face, so, plenty of room for expansion. The landlord, a confident, expansive fellow, had explained the current political situation to us as we watched Rahoy making his bid to continue as Prime Minister on the TV. He, the landlord, gave us nuts to chew while we drank our beer and I thought, “What if...?”

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Desiccation and drinking in the headless state of Spain

It is so dry here that all is dust and dusty. The snakes are sufficiently emboldened to seek any droplets of moisture that people might spil,and walking on the terraces of our huerto is like walking on potato crisps – sharp, sticky crisps. It has not rained in our lonely corner of Spain for at least six months and the country itself has been ungoverned for at least twice that time. Not that the two are connected necessarily. The drought means that we will have no olives this year, but better governed holdings have irrigated their trees and will have a harvest.

On the brighter side we are still eating our olives from two years ago, have a bumper crop of delicious purple-bloomed grapes, most of the trees in our little orchard have survived, and the Spanish continue to enjoy life in their festive tradition.

Recently we went along to the first night of partying at the fiesta of our second most favourite village in this country. On offer was a fully fledged fairground plus a dance to a live band starting at midnight (yes starting). We chose the more traditional tour of the bodegas (wine cellars) led by a large cohort of local musicians and singers. They play jota, a distinctive local music featuring guitars and mandolins together with solo or duet singers who stand in a special way and give it full belt – not a microphone or amplifier in sight. The stance is important: the singer stand proud and thrusting with hands on hips and elbows extended (or, for the more casual men, thumbs in jean pockets cowboy style). The songs have a fixed pattern. There is quite a lengthy instrumental introduction during which the singer waits patiently for a musical signal. The music slows to a near halt then, as the musicians move into the main body of the song, the singing begins. My Spanish is not good enough to understand the lyrics but most seem to be concern the village or its surroundings. Some are clearly amusing, especially those sung by a short man with a white beard tied like a pony tail with a red elastic band and wearing a strangely tied bandana shockingly exposing one side of his balding head.

The evening started in the beautiful main square of Cretas when a small group of young ladies from the village set off a rocket at nine o’clock precisely (9.30ish Spanish time). Then, nothing. The crowd continued chattering animatedly unril, at long last,  the joteras climbed onto the stage. There were roughly twenty-five of them and so the show began with a few short songs. Following that, the troupe began their musical meander through the narrow maze of streets which make up the old town. First stop was outside the church so no wine there, yet the waiting and  their singing was making me thirsty. After a few songs the players led us on a long walk through the newer part of the village, singing and playing as they went.

“Oh no,” I said half-jokingly to Margaret, “they’re heading straight for our camper van.”
“And we only have one bottle of wine,” she replied dryly.

Fortunately they turned into a nearby restaurant and we piled in after them. It was a large place where one long table had been spread with plates of ham, olives and bread together with bottles of red and white wine. The musicians sat down at the table and began to tuck in so I grabbed a glass and made for a bottle. Margaret restrained me, hissing that the stuff was solely for the musicians. I watched carefully as the rest of the audience descended like locusts on the food and drink, then joined in. Soon the music began again with the owner of the restaurant doing a solo and to my amazemnet she was followed by a young girl. I had noticed this teenager at the church: an attractive girl with thick black hair and a pretty but elongated pale face. She wore that sullen, teen-style expression and displayed the body language of someone who clearly did not want to be there. Yet she sang so clearly, so strongly, so convincingly that the experience went straight to the heart and brought the greatest applause of the whole evening.

After this a melodious walk back into the old city for more food and wine in a large garage. More again in a dead end street where there was cake, sweet wine and, of course, always the jota. We ended a memorable night at about two in the morning in another garage, this one, strangely enough, dedicated to bull fighting. Finally, that seemingly recalcitrant, but actually rather shy, young lady sang a magical last song and we wandered happily back to our van.

Despite the lack of government the main bar in our own village, our favourite bar, has changed hands yet again. At first we thought that our friends Miguel and Anna had left and handed the business over to their cook Vincente. We were told that they had gone to Barcelona or maybe Adalusia, yet one day Margaret met Miguel in the local shop – they still live here, they have merely given up the bar. Vincente is very fat, just as cooks are supposed to be. He says little beyond an initial greeting and final goodbye. His wife is from South America and looks it. Margaret thinks her exoticism may prove a retainer for the old men who are the bar’s main clientele (though not income). We will have to wait and see. Meanwhile we have decided to share our alcoholic largess between Vincente and Ramon. Yes, he of the bar next door. He who almost drove us from the village when he ran the, then only, bar. Earlier blogs relate his rapid demise from enthusiastic greeter to resentful barman, followed by his re-emergence as the owner of a new, bigger, and perhaps better, bar next door.

Think of us then in England as the pound falls to near parity with the euro. Then, think again when I tell you that Vincente’s beer is a little over two euros a pint! Meanwhile we think of our recent escape from a two week traverse of France where six euros a pint was not unusual!

Sunday, 2 October 2016

The Irish and Sovereignty

I like Ireland,­ and the Irish who live there. Ever since I was briefly befriended by the then prime minister’s (Teajoc’s) brother on my first flight to Dublin some years ago the people of the south have gained a special place in my heart and mind. I have so many tales about experiences there, usually based on the warmth and sense of humour of the people.

Our latest visit was occasioned by two events: our youngest son had acquired a son and house. My wife could not wait to get her hands on this latest grandson (I quote) and my acquired skills as a house renovator were needed to kick the other project off. And project it was. The house is not too far from the centre of Dublin where prices are soaring and, from first impressions, I found it to be a basket case in a dubious area. After two weeks hard labour where I provided a new shower and loft tank, rewired the kitchen area and fitted up a new kitchen I changed my mind about the house and the area – and reinforced my opinion of the Irish.

Just one example: the house is part of an old corporation estate and bordered by a scruffy lane which serves the next door launderette, Chinese takeaway, electrical supply shop and so on. We were living in our motor caravan, the house unfurnished and uninhabitable. There was nowhere to park, in fact most people parked on the pavements. So where were we to go? Luckily my son had spotted an unusual location near to his densely populated area: a dead end street overlooking a pleasant park and dribbling stream called the Poddle. At the end was a large space in which cars and lorries could turn. Great – we took up residence, nervously. Surely the permanent residents of this enviable plot of greenery would balk at gypsies moving in?

On the first evening an old man approached with his dog, presumably to complain. “Is it alright to park here?” I asked in an effort to pre-empt the onslaught, adding, “it’s just temporary while we help our son do up a house.”

“Oh, to be sure, you’ll be safe enough there. Nobody will bother you,” he said as my jaw dropped in astonishment. He then went on to tell us the history of the place, of his wife’s death and how his daughters supported him and finally to introduce his new “wife”, the dog, a little scrap of a thing whom he said, “never nags. Oh, and if you want you can park right outside my house”.

We became regulars at the Four Roads pub where we quickly made friends with the previous landlord and major contributor to the karaoke session on a Monday night. It was here that we saw a spitting image of Anne Widdicombe wiggling her bounteous hips whilst belting out Elvis’s ‘Teddy Bear’. And it was not just the Four Roads that welcomed us - we were chatted to by people in almost every pub that we entered.

My son allowed us just one day off work so we escaped to the coast south of Dublin. Finding it camping car unfriendly (not surprising, there are so many of the things nowadays and so big) we turned inland finally drawing to a halt above Parnell Park in the village of Rathdrum. The village was small but lively and we had a great evening of good, basic, Irish food, some quaffable local beer and visits to two pubs with live music. 

Next morning I ran around the park, learning a little more about Parnell who was born nearby and was a great and dogged proposer of home rule for Ireland in the 19th century. Perhaps appropriately the park also had a plaque celebrating the constitution of an independent Ireland which I read with great interest. Two words leapt out at me, particularly because of the recent Brexit referendum in the UK. The words were ‘sovereign state’ and the context , of course, independence. My eyes widened as I read this at a time that the Irish government had just been reprimanded from Brussels for giving favoured tax rates to the likes of Apple and Google and ordered to accept unwelcome refunds! And, hang on, wasn’t sovereignty the major issue in the UK referendum?

Now, I know this is a long shot, but could it be the great change that is Brexit might be the context for a united Ireland with free trade links with mainland Britain and who know what else – sovereignty perhaps? Yes, just as long as they do not lose those palatial pubs of theirs where the greeting is genuine rather than corporate policy and the drinkers are there to talk and sing rather than adulate mobile phones.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Does Brexit mean Brexit?

I do seriously ask myself how I might have felt if the Brexit vote had gone the other way. Would I have been angry? Demanded another referendum? Insisted that the decision was not binding or legal? Complained that immature people had unfairly biased the vote or ‘educated’ people had been swamped by the ‘workers’? I do not think that I would, neither am I crowing over the victory of the leave campaign. But, to me the future does seem bright.

I recently had the temerity to attend a Fabian Society meeting titled the ‘EU Referendum and the Future’. The society’s strap line is ‘let’s shape the future of the left’ and the chairman told us that it was a long standing think-tank with loose links to the Labour Party. I was pretty sure that I was a gooseberry amongst the coconuts there, and this proved to be correct. The speaker was introduced as a man with many years experience working with and for the EU. As he talked it quickly became apparent that he was committed to the European project and resentful of the referendum outcome. His speech was full of gloom, despair and a litany of the problems to be faced.

Question time produced glowing support plus all of the moans and groans that I listed above. Someone even suggested a new political party aimed solely at remaining in the EU - I recognised him as local liberal democrat, hence doubly disappointed. The speaker glowed in the warmth of so much support but, in answer to the demand for another referendum or simply ignoring the recent one, said, quite reasonably, that MP’s could hardly ignore a vote by the population as a whole, Then, chillingly, he added, “but it is all a matter of timing.  Eighteen months down the line when the economy is going really badly may be the time to reverse this stupid decision”[1].

The second wave of questions proved to be more interesting. One man gave a long speech which could be précised as ‘shouldn’t we search for a progressive Brexit’. Another gave an equally long diatribe on the need to redistribute wealth via punitive death duties – something that he thought would be impossible within the EU. The speaker agreed that the last point was true: it would be impossible. He then dealt perfunctorily with my two-part question. I asked him if, given the outcome of the referendum,­­­ he couldn’t find just one positive thing to say about our new direction, and also whether he might now direct his obvious talents and experience towards making Brexit work. He did not answer the first part, but did say that helping with Brexit would negate everything that he had spent much of his life doing. In other words he will presumably spend the rest of his life trying to prevent what the majority of the UK want. Such a great pity; he undoubtedly has a great deal of knowledge that could aid the transformation of the country and might help to find ways of working with the EU to our mutual advantage.
There was little doubt that this was a meeting of unhappy remainers desperate to find ways of preventing Brexit, and the speaker told them precisely what they wished to hear hence fuelling their denial. I was convinced that I was the only gooseberry present, yet, much to my surprise, when I put my plea for a more positive approach to Brexit it drew hearty applause – from two people of the fifty or so who were there. But then Oxford is certainly not the UK and, as Theresa May has said repeatedly: Brexit means Brexit.

Naturally the divorce will take some time, but a happy separation will not be helped by those who are too rooted in the past. Some compromises are inevitable but Machiavellian attempts to ‘fudge’ the issue so that we ostensibly come out yet actually stay in will fly in the face of a long, well-informed, sometimes bitter, referendum campaign in which the remainers used all of their ammunition (and more) but did not convince the people of the UK to stay, close though the outcome was.

[1] This is very Fabianesque. The following is quoted from early pamphlet published by the group: For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did most patiently, when warring against Hannibal, though many censured his delays; but when the time comes you must strike hard, as Fabius did, or your waiting will be in vain, and fruitless.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Geology rocks: A day on Dartmoor

Dartmoor, for me, presents a chilling childhood image of an impregnable and inescapable grey jail surrounded by inhospitable craggy moors shrouded in mist. A frightening place populated by bloodthirsty and indestructible criminals who did somehow manage to escape from that awful prison. However, my recent visit – a field trip with the ever-popular Oxford Geology Group – has created a rather different picture.

Geology fascinates me, that’s why I joined the group some years ago when it was a moribund interest group, running a monthly talk and occasional field trips for its ageing and unwelcoming membership. It has now been transformed into a buzzing society with a very active website, oodles of lectures, lots of young members, field trips to everywhere, and a nationally important annual colloquium. It was whilst I stood on Blackstone Rock a prominent windswept tor in Dartmoor, that the idea for this piece formed. The man who started and fuels this little revolution shouted, “How come there is nothing on our field trips in Rob’s Blog?” And now there is.

What I really aspired to in joining the group was to look at a mountain, a valley, or a landscape and determine its geological life history; I wanted to look at rocks and say what they were and know more about their composition; in short I wanted to know all there was to know about this little planet of ours. Hubris.

What I have learned is that, though based on science, geology is hardly a science itself. However, I do now know that the grander mechanisms of geological change: plate tectonics, lava flow and cooling, erosion and sedimentation are all visibly true; and the stratification so ably demonstrated by William Smith’s famous map of 1815 makes sense of it all. I have also convinced myself that this is not a subject for the amateur. A solid knowledge of geology crosses many scientific boundaries and can only really be achieved by years of study. Nevertheless, I still enjoy the geology field trips very much. With a good guide they provide eye opening tours through landscapes which you may have seen before, but could not understand. A good guide adds another dimension to a panorama, something that Richard Scrivener certainly achieved on the Dartmoor trip. Of course, I understand that he stands on the shoulders of Smith and the geologist who followed him; nonetheless to transform what is simply a rocky terrain into a fascinating and logical story is a rare talent. It’s like walking down a darkened lane, then walking back in full sunlight.

I now understand that Dartmoor was a vast pool of lava which formed below ground level some 280 million years ago. The lava cooled slowly producing granite containing very large crystals of feldspar which we could see clearly at Blackingstone Rock. I also learned that the formation of tin-producing minerals so important to Dartmoor’s later industry occurred 3 million years after the formation of this great deposit of granite, itself called by geologists a ‘pluton’ after the god of the underworld. This was then followed by millions of years of erosion removing the crust above the lava and then digging into the granite itself leaving the occasional outcropping or ‘tor’ of which the Blackingstone Rock is one.

What will always trouble me is a simple question: what is granite? OK, I know it is an igneous rock formed from slowly cooling lava, but that tells you little of its physical appearance. When I look at a metal I can often determine what it is by colour, hardness, surface appearance, and so on. Granite can seemingly be of almost any colour dependent on the proportion of the various minerals that make it up, it can also be coarse or fine so how can you be sure that a rock is granite? My investigations on the web only served to complicate identification.

That aside, this was a great trip. After a good pub lunch accompanied by excellent Dartmoor beer Richard led us across the moors pointing out the cuttings made by the tin miners of old (we did not visit any underground mines). The ore that contains tin is called cassiterite and it appears as veins in the granite. Richard did show us some, it was dark reddish-brown and not particularly impressive. On the other hand, many of the rocks in the deep cuttings glittered attractively. Unfortunately this had nothing to do with tin: the glittering was produced by specular hematite which is an iron ore! I picked up a small stone with a wealth of this shiny black stuff embedded in it and have now deposited it in the dark confines of my stone collecting tin along with the other neglected pickings from other trips.

After a visit to a quarry we began the long drive home arriving back in Oxford at about nine. I was dropped off at a pub then visited two more that night and, do you know, no one mentioned the hard hat hanging from my backpack. I thought that it would be a great conversation starter, but it was Brexit that took centre stage.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Our new life as peasants

With the storm damage to the roof of our Spanish caseta repaired we were able to begin our life as transhumants or at least sample the peasant life. You see, during late June in inland Spain the fierce sun burns its way through a clear blue sky making outside, unshaded work nearly impossible for us North Europeans and quite unthinkable for the locals. Even typing this blog brought on a sweat. So what to do? Change lifestyle of course. Wallow in the traditional siesta and work in the mornings and evenings.

Yes, well, that was the idea. Our dream was to live in the expanded caseta for a few days at a time, rising with the sun or even before it, sleeping when it was at its worst (when only mad dogs and Englishman are about) then back to work in the cool of the evening before bedding down as darkness fell.

The first night we were in celebratory mood, really pleased to be living in the extended and refurbished caseta with its little shower room under the stairs and the reclaimed bed and table now installed after their long journey from Oxford. Beer was cooling in the irrigation channel below, the solar lights were functioning and I even took a cold, but satisfying shower before lighting the barbeque. All thoughts of labouring on the land flew from our minds as we found ourselves in party, rather than work, mood. We ate we drank. Up on the terrace we listened to a strange animal screaming, a frightening and, at times, troubled cry. It was really rather frightening and so loud in the pine woods above the caseta. No doubt it was a fox though someone suggested it might have been a genet cat. By that time the evening had flowed into night, yet it was not dark. The high bright moon still illuminated the huerto guiding me to the free range toilets - I haven’t quite solved the organic toilet problem yet, but I will. At present it’s a walk in the woods or a wooden seat above a bucket.

I set the alarm for six but missed it and rose at eight to wander down to the third terrace with my scythe over my shoulder and sharpening stone in hand. I was leading the attack against the weeds that, during our year of absence, had overtaken the newly reclaimed area. My enemies were the barbed bramble, the sharp rooted pampas grass and tough-stemmed variety of grasses that had reinvaded our now desiccated vineyard and vegetable garden. I started valiantly, but they had the sun on their side. Even at this time in the morning my exertions with the scythe soon produced an almighty sweat. Droplets were running down my nose and plopping onto the thirsty soil at my feet. Feeling exhausted and somewhat faint I soon gave up and struggled back up the hill to the cool of the caseta where I remained for the rest of the day, working in the shade and taking a long siesta in the afternoon.

That evening I did some more scything in the shade of the big fig trees and the next morning I did get up at six and finished the job before the sun blasted me off the land. I also cleared a few of the olive trees in our overgrown grove below. Then, later that morning, we moved back to the cool of our village house, our first peasant period complete. It was enjoyable, but not a great success work-wise. Becoming peasants may take some time.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

A baby, a perfect pub, friendly French and a ruined roof repaired

Our latest journey to Spain was circuitous. We left the Cotswolds very suddenly to visit Dublin in order to wet the head of a new grandson – Conan. We slept near the ferry port at Liverpool and the only place we could find to park the motor caravan was behind some sand dunes which overlooked the Mersey River.  It was my birthday and the search for a suitable pub became frenetic, yet ended with the perfect place. The Edinburgh had great local ales, three very different bars (local, lounge and quiet room), wonderful pub architecture and friendly staff and customers. Next morning I ran over the dunes and was amazed to see the beach full of people dotted all over the sands. After a while it dawned on me that only one of them, another jogger, was moving! I had inadvertently chanced upon Andrew Gormley’s Another Place. I inspected one of the cast iron Gormley replicas and found a number on his wrist tag – the number was the year that I had celebrated the night before – weird.

Conan is a fine looking baby and my son and I celebrated his birth in the usual fashion and at great expense in the heaving pubs near his flat in Dublin. Next day Margaret and I drove south to catch the overnight ferry to  Cherbourg, and had a merry time mixing with Irish holiday makers in the entertainment bar during the evening. Perhaps we were preparing ourselves for Fran

After a day’s driving we tried to find a village or town where we could spend the night and get a meal and a drink – in France on a Monday night - near impossible. After visiting three places, all quite dead, we found somewhere north of Nantes that at least had a pizza van. We parked there and made our way to a much advertised restaurant – closed of course. But we did find a bar open. It had one customer and he was as pleased to see as the barmaid was. We four became instant friends despite the language barrier (we used our computers to translate) and Marie Laure insisted that I talk to the town’s resident Irishman on her mobile phone. He seemed as bemused as I was. The only other customer, Chico, rushed out of bar when he heard that we had not eaten returning after some time with two large pizzas, no doubt from the van. We drank we laughed, we wore funny hats from the bar’s collection and we photographed ourselves. At one point some poor local tried to join the party, but was quickly told that the bar was closed!

Then came payback time. I put a 50 Euro note on the bar, but they would not take it though I was quite forceful. The beers were on the house and the pizzas on Chico. And there was more. Marie Faure insisted that I move my camper to a beautiful spot beside the lake and then she and Chico piled in to have a drink on us. Aren’t French people nice?

One thousand miles out of Cherbourg we finally arrived at our village – La Fresneda. It is always lovely to return, and to be greeted by folks who wanted to know why we had been away so long. However, most of them had heard that Margaret had had an operation. The village rumour machine works very efficiently. Our huerto was overgrown, of course, and I had to face the debilitating task of retiling the ruined roof. I reckoned that the supersized hailstones had wrecked at least 75% of the traditional upper tiles and bought 300 replacements. It took me a week to remove the wreckage and re-tile but it’s done – the only thing left to deal with is the shattered solar panel. But that can wait, since, though almost destroyed, it is still producing some electricity.

On the Brexit front we have quickly ascertained that our village is quite neutral. There are only two other UK voters in the place and when we had them round for a few drinks we soon confirmed that they had voted to stay and we had voted to leave, so we have cancelled each other out. It still leaves a question for them to answer though. If, as is claimed, the EU is so good for the economy and migration boosts it further, why are so many countries like Spain in such a parlous state? We are told that unemployment is still around 50% for the young here and the economy is flat or worse. And then there is the question of Gibraltar, often seized upon by governments here to deflect attention from more pressing problems. But that’s Another Place where perhaps the cast iron replicas of the artist are replaced by – apes?

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Preparing the soil for Brexit, or whatever

With under a month to go before the UK makes its momentous decision, claim and counter claim are reaching hysterical heights. Still stuck in the UK, but with my postal vote already waiting in Spain I am woken each morning by the Today radio programme and the latest astounding announcements. We are told that wages will fall and prices will rise, or taxation will fall and democracy will rise. Meanwhile yet another large group of experts have simultaneously written a letter saying that we should stay whilst a survey shows that small businesses think we should go. Barrack barracks whilst Borris buffoons, David directs as Nigel neglects his position as a proportionately elected MEP.

Sequestered in Stow, permanently on the verge of departing for Spain, I miss the intellectual stimulation of Oxford and ponder whether anyone, yes anyone, is intellectually capable of making this complex in/out decision. Yet we all have a vote! One of my many casual pub acquaintances told me that no rational person could think of voting to leave, and addressed the migrant question by informing me that he once had a Romanian boyfriend so they are alright.

Meanwhile, as my wife waits anxiously, and impatiently, for yet another grandchild to arrive, I’ve not been idle. I’ve been doing my bit for Britain by upping our food production capability ready for our departure from the EU or our continued membership of it. We currently own part of the field behind our house and are engaged in a long legal tussle to get the lot and, regardless of the outcome, I have extended the vegetable plot. This has introduced me to a new skill: post and rail fencing. Hard work, but it looks nice provided that you don’t look too closely. That done I then had a large area full of weeds to deal with and chose the cardboard and muck solution: covering the whole area with flattened cardboard boxes to rob the weeds of light, then spreading five tons of cow manure (muck) onto it to keep the boxes down and provide the goodness to grow potatoes and onions over the dying weeds. Perhaps the answer to the question – to leave, or not to leave – will emerge from the darkness of my manure heap where, beneath the light excluding cardboard, the weeds are screaming “to leaf or not to leaf”.
A local beef farmer brought the muck in two large trailer loads and, on each occasion, turned off the tractor’s engine once he had dumped the stuff in order to chat – he doing most of the chatting.  His diatribe covered everything from the modern tendency for women to tend allotments through the various means of catching rabbits to, of course, Brexit. On that subject he told me that his heart wanted to leave, but his mind wanted to stay – a common dilemma. He explained that he depended on the farming subsidy he received and didn’t trust the UK government to keep doling out the money. Meanwhile he thought that the EU would continue to feed the farmers “cos them Frenchies and Gerries knew how to ‘old ‘em to it”.

There are so many points of view and perhaps the answer does lie in the soil: mud’s thicker than water. Most of the foreign groups that I show around Oxford do think that we should stay, though one Italian I met whilst passing through France suggested that we should leave saying, “You were never really part of Europe anyway.”

You can still try my Brexit calculator if you wish, just click here. Based on the small number who have chosen to share their results with me its showing -0.75. An absolute outer would score -4 and an absolute inner +3. So it’s tending towards out at present – but not by muck, oops, I mean much.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Are modern novels novel?

I trained as a telephone engineer. In my day this required a practical understanding of electricity and electronics and the honing of relevant skills in wiring, soldering, fault finding, etc, etc. Anyone of average intelligence could become telephone engineer, but only those with an interest would commence the lengthy process and only those with an aptitude would stay the course.

In writing I am an amateur. My teachers, after leaving school at the tender age of sixteen, were Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, George Orwell, W Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene – to name but a few, and I have often wondered if those greats of literary fiction were trained? Did they attend creative writing courses or take degrees in writing?

Training to be an engineer, scientist, bricklayer, plumber, doctor, or whatever seems to me entirely different to training to be a writer. When I decided to write my first book (a non-fiction on voice systems) a colleague asked me, “Can you write?”

I was stunned. Everyone, I thought, well almost everyone, can write – just as everyone can speak. I had by then written countless research reports, articles for magazines and learned journals plus many stories for my children. Of course I could write. But that was not what he meant: he meant, could I write well – well enough to warrant the publication of a book? I wasn’t sure, so I recruited the help of my old boss, then retired, the son of an English teacher and a stickler for good grammar. Hugh became my editor for that first book and subsequently the editor of a newsletter that I ran for some years.

Recently I attended a lecture on editing. It was not what I was expecting. Rather than providing tips on improving ones output by removing solecisms, typos, etc, this worked at a higher level. The lecturer was an excellent presenter. He targeted three early chapters of novels currently under creation, making points about mood, the consistency of metaphors, the choice of words, etc. To me this seemed like literary criticism, or the sort of advice provided at creative writing courses. And it worried me.

Though I am a teacher of sorts I could never teach creative writing because I have not created a successful novel. On the other hand, publishing a successful novel does not make you a good teacher. Furthermore I do not really believe that creativity can be taught, the very idea seems to me to be an oxymoron. Encouraged yes, but taught no.
As often, I find myself well out of step. There is now a whole industry built around creative writing plus bringing the resultant masterpieces to the eyes of agents or publishers. And, failing publication via the traditional route, there are heaps of companies to help you publish your own book, design the cover and distribute it. Yes, there are kits, courses, consultants, critics, and lots of other things beginning with ‘c’ – all at a price.

And the output? Why, a new creation which is a page turner, where the characters are well-rounded and leap off the page, which has a subtle back story, gripping first line, a beginning, middle and an end, is  full of fresh metaphors and singular similes and has a riveting and unpredictable plot scattered with innumerable smoking guns. A novel that is unique, original and, well, possibly, just a little formulaic.

Sour grapes? Possibly. I must say that most people I have met who have been on creative writing courses seem to have thoroughly enjoyed themselves – and that cannot be bad. Some complain that they spend too much time critiquing the work of the other budding novelists on the course, but all agree that it was a sociable experience.

Oh, and in all honesty I do not know the answer to that question posed by my colleague over a quarter of a century ago. Perhaps I should take a course?

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

A ton of weightless books

I topped the ton on a motorbike years ago on a stretch of the ruler-straight Roman road that crosses the Cotswolds Hills called the Fosse Way. I passed the ton in a flashy, silver Mazda car rocketing along one of the unbelievably unrestricted sections of a German autobahn. And just today I clocked the ton in the “Books Read” section of my Kindle. If you are not from the UK this might all seem very odd, but, colloquially, a ‘ton’ here simply means one hundred: a. hundred miles per hour or a hundred books or whatever

A hundred books would weigh about a hundredweight, i.e. about one hundred pounds in America, more in the UK and roughly fifty kilograms in Europe. A strong man can carry a hundredweight bag of cement under each arm. I can manage one with difficulty – in other works a ton of books is pretty heavy.

One estimate I’ve found reckons that you can make 20 to 30 books from a 10 inch (25 cms) thick tree so my one hundred books would have required the death of four trees if they were paper, plus all the energy involved in felling the trees and transforming the wood into pulp. In the Kindle my books weigh effectively nothing, and cost virtually nothing to produce. What’s more they only take up a quarter of the Kindle’s available storage – so plenty more reading yet.

Actually my Kindle, just like my offices in the past, is a mess. I do have a section for “Books Abandoned”. There are 37 currently lying, sad and rejected, in there. Then I have the equivalent of my desk top where books lie about in good order, but actual disarray. There are well over a hundred books there patiently awaiting the push of my finger. Some, like The Diary of Samuel Pepys, I’ve been nibbling away at for years. Others are samples that I have yet to look at, others are in some intermediate state where I cannot bring myself to abandon them, but probably should. Still others are simply forgotten or ignored like a volume that has slipped from sight at the back of the sofa.

How can I be so messy? Well all of those books hanging around on my desk top, and those that I’ve abandoned and read are in that quarter of storage that I’ve used so far, so I can afford to be a little lax. Besides no one else sees my mess.

Where do all these books come from? Almost all are from Amazon of course, but the problem there is finding books that you like at prices that you like.  Here’s where Book Bub comes in. Every day it send me an email with news of eBooks on special offer that I might like and so I have a queue of books that I have sampled or bought by this route adding to the mess on my desk top. And I love it. My greatest fear is to be without a book to read - no fear of that nowadays, the problem is to find the time to read them.

My one hundredth book was The Fictional Man by Al Ewing. It was interesting. The gimmick here is the production (not explained in any detail) of fictional characters in the flesh who then play their namesakes in TV series etc. Yeah, it’s an odd idea, but it allows the author to debunk racism and question our own versions of reality. Not surprisingly it introduces the touchy subject of sex between ‘fictionals’ and ‘real people’ and ends with the odd concept of ‘real people’ who want to be ‘fictionals’. Perhaps not so odd in fact.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

An amusing launch of a very small book about a very large one

At an unusual book launch this week Peter Ashby, a local entrepreneur, read the definition of the word ‘Abbreviator’ from the first volume of a rather special book. It was an early copy of the Oxford English Dictionary which Peter had been given whilst transforming the dictionary into a compact version via microfiche. He had in turn generously given the many volume Dictionary to the nearby Frewen Club and had borrowed back the first volume for the evening.

The definition that he read from the Abbreviator entry was ‘An officer of the court of Rome, draw up the Pope’s briefs’ possibly proving that the ardent compilers of the great Dictionary had a sense of humour – or a blind eye!

Rob Walters, local guide and author, in launching his new book on the history of the Dictionary explained that the great book took nearly seventy years to complete. It was issued in parts by the Oxford University Press which took over publication in 1879 and ‘Abbreviator’ appeared in the very first section to be issued covering A-Ant. This miniscule fraction of the Dictionary was released in 1884 when already five years into a ten year contract. With half the A’s and all of the rest of the letters to do the task seemed ‘mission impossible’.

It was James Murray, a self-educated Scotsman, who nursed, guided and cajoled the Dictionary through its many years of near extinction finally arriving at Volume 3 which took the struggle up to the end of the E’s. It was at this point that the tide turned and the whole country, the University and the Oxford University Press  put their backs behind this grand and entirely uneconomic project. Rob explained that Murray died working on the letter T in 1915 in the full knowledge that his great work would be completed. Robert Bullard, local author of the popular Business Writing Tips read from a job application letter written by Murray which demonstrated the man’s phenomenal knowledge of the languages of the world.

Rob explained that the Dictionary had its true beginnings in 1857, but was not completed until 1928 with the publication of the first edition. However, this was not the end. The voluntary readers who scanned the thousands of books for quotations on which the dictionary was based continued their work through the near seventy years of compilation and so there was a backlog of new words leading to a supplement issued in 1933. And this is the story of the Dictionary’s life – the work never ends as new words are added and old definitions updated. Fortunately updating is much easier nowadays and the third edition of the Dictionary exists entirely on the Internet.

The evening finished with a rousing rendition of the ‘The Dictionary Song” by local musician and composer, Peter Madams, lead singer of the much missed Oxford group Veda Park.

The book is entitled A Concise History of the Oxford English Dictionary and is available from the Visitor Information Centre, the Book House, and Amazon. The launch was held on 21st March at the St Aldates’ Tavern, Oxford.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The story of the Oxford English Dictionary

I have a new book coming out. It is the shortest book that I have written so far and its subject is one of the largest books ever published. It’s all about the birth and development of a dictionary and the title is: A Concise History of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The actual launch is on March 21st in Oxford, but the book is already available on Amazon as a paper and an eBook. Here’s the link via my bookshop where you can find more details and a sample.

The idea for the book emerged from a tour. Last year I began planning a new Oxford guided walk based on the history of the Dictionary and became so fascinated by the story that I decided to write about it. Of course there are already plenty of books on the subject so why write another? Simple – they are all four course dinners and mine is just a snack. So, just as the concise version of the Dictionary reduces twenty hefty volumes of the second edition to one handy book, my book compresses the story of its development into a slim volume that you can read in an hour or two.

To some the topic might seem rather dry. It is not. What enlivens it is the characters involved and the doggedness shown in continuing with the work over so many years when all seemed doomed. Many of those characters were unpaid volunteers who valiantly sought sources for the many thousands of words that are defined in the Dictionary, making its creation comparable to Wikipedia by post.

I hope that my book will satisfy most people, but if you prefer the four course dinner then there is a comprehensive history coming out later in the year from Oxford University Press. It will cost £40 whereas my little snack costs just £3.99 in paper and £2.99 as an eBook: tasty and cheap, complete with pictures of the main characters involved.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

End of the road for doctors and lawyers?

Why are the ‘professions’ paid so much? Because they are worth it, of course. They have the knowledge that allows us to function in our complex modern world. Doctor’s maintain our health, lawyers settle our disputes and arrange contracts, teachers teach and so on. However, most of the professions are knowledge based and a recent book asserts that their days are numbered, as are their high salaries.

I listened to a panel of speakers discussing the book, The Future of the Professions, this week in Oxford. Both authors were present and both had the surname Susskind - at first I thought that they were brothers though they looked very different. Both handsome men, one of them reminded me of Frankie Vaughan and the other Freddy of the Dreamers, in other words very, very different. It was only when the thin, bearded one called the broad-featured one Dad that I got it.

Illustration by Norwegian cartoonist and illustrator, Kristian Hammerstad, from “Rise of the Robots,” a New York Times Sunday Book Review article, May 11, 2015.
Illustration by Norwegian cartoonist and illustrator, Kristian Hammerstad, from “Rise of the Robots,” a New York Times Sunday Book Review article, May 11, 2015. 
Their book was praised, criticised and analysed by three academics: one from the Internet world, another from the religious dimension and the third a sociologist. The latter was the most critical; she quoted the use of MOOCs, the free on-line courses where only 5% of those who started actually completed the courses. The authors’ response was that enrolment for one of Harvard’s MOOCs attracted more applicants than the total number of students of Harvard – ever. So 5% completion of a free course was pretty good.

The authors were both cogent and convincing, arguing that it is wrong to look only at jobs in the professions – the jobs should be broken down into tasks. They cited the example of the tasks that nurses now do that doctors previously did. But their main point is that technology is creating solutions that are superior to those offered by the professions and that this trend will continue. Expert systems could soon be better at diagnosis than the GP and could also be programmed to be empathetic. Similarly, lawyers cannot access and process the vast databases of trials and case law at the speeds and scope that a clever computer can. They cited a simple and existing example: millions of disputes about transaction on eBay are now settled via its resolution system with no lawyers involved.

I think that they are right, particularly where the tasks are simply knowledge based – as many professional tasks are. Progress in this direction will be spotty, but could be rapid. The NHS already has an online symptom checker. I’ve tried it. It is very basic and does not even link to the patient’s records, but when it does so, and when it incorporates AI and access to the massive amount of data on treatments, it is likely to exceed the competence of the average GP with his or her salary of £100,000 per annum.

There are problems of course: ownership of data being one and culpability in the event of incorrect diagnosis being another. But these problems exist for the existing doctors too and it is conceivable that future automated solutions may have greater access to data and hence provide superior diagnoses.

Sometimes a little voice in my head says to me, “haven’t we heard all this future gazing stuff before? Long before, perhaps in the 1970s, when the computer was going to take over almost everyone’s jobs and robots the remainder”. That did not happen, or at least not to the extent that some soothsayers then claimed. But in the meantime technology has made great strides: computers are so much more powerful and have the capability to learn; the Internet and Web provide an undreamed of degree of interconnectivity; and the means of sharing and intelligently mining vast databases has become feasible. So maybe we are on the brink of a great change which will revolutionise the professions.  Interesting isn’t it that this revolution will rock the well paid professionals, possibly leaving the artisans, creative artists, bricklayers and so on to carry on as before.

As I finished writing this I had need to approach a solicitor for advice  and was shocked by their charges – almost £300 per hour! Roll on automation and a more equitable world.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Bowled over by boles: Do have a look at my trees

A bole
I have always liked trees: climbing them when I was kid, cutting them down and planting more as an adult, burning their logs for warmth, carving their wood to explore its inner beauty, walking through woods and forests, and more. For a few years now I have been photographing boles (the trunk of the tree if you like) especially distorted and/or unusual ones with a vague idea of publishing this strange collection somehow. And now I have begun...I have attached a selection to my website Rob’s!

Do have a look. I think you’ll find it interactive and fun, oh and please sign the guestbook while you are there. Just go to the bookshop and take it from there. Do pass the bookshop website address ( to any friends who might be interested. More boles will be added soon. I’m concentrating on North Oxford at present.

I have also spent some time renovating my website. They are a bit like trees you know – things fall off. Files go missing from the Web; things that once worked no longer do so; YouTube videos are removed for obscure copyright reasons; and so on and on. This seems to have most effect in the pub section: it’s hard being a landlord. Anyway I’ve done some pruning and replaced some branches so all should be well. Have a drive around – if you spot anything amiss let me know.

Whilst on my tree theme, and noting that ‘poetry’ and ‘tree’ do rhyme as all poems in my lowly estimation should, I have had a search around for poems on trees. Unfortunately, the low lying fruit does not have rhyme or rhythm, but I have found two that meet my childish strictures. Here they are.
Windy Tree

Think of the muscles 
a tall tree grows 
in its leg, in its foot,
in its wide-spread toes -
not to tip over 
and fall on its nose 
when a wild wind hustles 
and tussels and blows.---
Aileen Fisher
Give me a land of boughs in leaf,
A land of trees that stand;
Where trees are fallen there is grief;
I love no leafless land."
- A.E. Housman

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Truth, perception and Hedy Lamarr.

I have a friend who often tells me that “it’s all about perception” - not truth. And another, sadly no more, who once said:“Rob, you know a lot about marketing, why don’t you write books that people want to read rather than the books you want to write?”

I have been interviewed twice in this very young year about my book, Spread Spectrum: Hedy Lamarr and the mobile phone, and both interviews touched obliquely on truth and perception.

The first interview was with a US based radio station called The Kim Komando Show.  Which is “a nationally syndicated radio show in the United States that focuses on technology”. The second was with two schoolboys.
The first was, I think, a disappointment for the interviewers. They are making a programme about Hedy Lamarr’s “contributions to WiFi and Satellite technology”. And the problem is that there isn’t any – not really – but that is not what they want to hear. We started the interview as usual with “I’ve read your book and it’s very good” followed by a series of questions which are all answered in the book. That’s fair enough since they want my voice as the author, or perhaps the authority that implies (something that gives me some difficulties since it is now ten years since I wrote the book).

 As the interview proceeded it became clear that my interviewer had not read the book. That too is fair enough since they are busy people. So I explained that Hedy and George Antheil’s patent (there were two names on it – George was a piano player) describes a particular implementation of frequency hopping in securely steering a torpedo. They did not invent the core technology of frequency hopping, there were earlier patents covering that. The next question was where is ‘Hedy’s technology’ used today. I replied that frequency hopping is used in some cordless phones and in Bluetooth.

This particular interviewer then asked the cruncher, “If Hedy had not taken out the patent in 1942 would Bluetooth exist nowadays?”

And my answer was a disappointment for him, “Yes, it would”. Oh, oh. Wrong answer. Perception destroying.

Now, if he had asked me if the 1942 patent contributed anything to the advance of technology, my answer would also be yes. The idea of jumping between frequencies is likely to occur to many people who are thinking about secret communications or sending signals in a noisy environment, but you still have to figure out how to do it. Hedy and George’s implementation is entirely out of date now; it is electro-mechanical whereas Bluetooth is entirely electronic and mostly digital. But the patent is a neat implementation for its time and solves the difficult challenge of synchronising the ship and torpedo systems in a clever way.

So yes, there’s little doubt that the patent moved things on a little. One man who did actually build a frequency hopping system in later years told me that he took the idea from the then expired patent. And Hedy, and to a much less publicised extent George, certainly did add a touch of glamour to a rather grey area.

Oh, and by the way, I told the interviewer, the detail of the patent was drafted by Samuel Stuart MacKeown, an assistant professor at Cal-Tech: neither Hedy nor George would have had the technical knowledge to do it. And the idea itself was probably stolen from Hedy’s ex-husband, Mandl, the arms dealer. Oh, oh – more perception destroying.
The other interview was over Skype and involved two delightful eleven-year-old boys from Laurel Elementary School in Brea, California who are working on a National History Day project about Hedy Lamarr. That interview was harder and much more enjoyable. They had read a lot of my book and their questions were (probably with some help from their teacher) more searching. However, their starting perspective was that Hedy had invented some serious technology which has had a fundamental on our lives today, so I felt a little cruel in gently telling them the truth. I also told them that Alexander Graham Bell was not the first to invent the telephone and that Harry Potter was not a real person – no, not that last one, that might be going too far. I certainly hope that I did not disappoint the two lads too much and who knows, their project might start them on a career in telecommunications one day.

There are more successful books than my one about Hedy Lamarr and the patent. I have not read them of course, but I am pretty sure that they do not contain the facts that I have briefly outlined here and am also sure that at least one of them is much more successful than mine, and probably perceived as more authoritative.

I’m going to finish this blog with a perception, it’s taken from an review of my book in which the reviewer, to my utmost delight, describes the book that I did intend to write. A book that is more about the truth as far as I could unearth it rather than perception filtered through desire.

“If you're looking for a biography of Hedy Lamarr, there may be better but this is good. If you're looking for a biography of George Antheil, there may be better but this is good. If you're looking for the history of radio with an emphasis on spread spectrum, this is very good. And if you're looking for a book that weaves all three together you've come to exactly the right place.”