Saturday, 7 October 2017

Catalunia: a little too close for comfort?

Seventeen years ago we made a big mistake! We bought an old house with fantastic views in the Spanish village of La Fresneda for less than you would pay for a Tesla electric car nowadays.  We loved it and still love it – so what was the mistake? Location of course, isn’t it always location? Our village is not on or near the coast, in fact it’s in the lower part of Aragon which is called Teruel, a province that the Spanish say “Nobody goes to and nobody comes from”. No problem there at all, quite the opposite in fact to, say, Oxford or Barcelona with their dense populations and overbearing popularity with visiting tourists. And there I’ve said it. Barcelona, that’s the problem, that was our mistake. The local area in which our village lies is called the Matarraña and on its eastern border is Catalunia. What’s more, the people of this area look towards Barcelona rather than the Aragonese capital of Zaragoza, and the people of the Matarraña speak Catalan. Yes Catalan, not Spanish.

I’m sure you all know that Catalunia leapt onto the world stage on the first of October 2017 by holding an illegal referendum which asked the question: should Catalunia leave Spain and become an independent state? This was not unexpected, and nor was the violence which followed. It is claimed that nine hundred were injured in the tussles involving what some commentators called police brutality, yet in this massive conflagration there were only four cases of hospitalisation – which is odd.

Our own observations were not first hand, but through the 24hours Spanish TV station. And during a day that the government of the country called a transgression of the constitution, we saw the Catalan police standing back leaving the national Guardia Civil to face the sectarian fervour. Yes, we did see policemen battering through glass doorways, throwing a fat old man to the ground and pulling a woman around by their hair. One shot which was repeated over and over was of a balding man pointing to the top of his head, the camera drew closer and closer, but still we could see no sign of injury. However, there were shots of bleeding faces and of a policeman elbowing someone in the face. What we did not see is what preceded each of these injuries, but there can be little doubt that some injuries resulted from unrestrained police reaction and others from deliberate taunting of the police. Many thought that it would have been better to allow the referendum to go ahead without resistance and then ignore the result since it has no legal force – perhaps they were right.

The outcome was declared as a massive victory for independence from the Catalan government, but the truth is that most voters stayed at home. A poll taken before the referendum showed that only 40% supported independence. In fact less than 40% bothered to vote at all and, not surprisingly these were nearly all secessionists. There is also evidence that in this uncontrolled referendum where voters could choose their polling station many chose to vote at more than one! This was clearly not a legal or an electoral basis for UDI.

Within Spain we have seen massive support for the government’s stance and the world in general has reacted predictably and mostly in ignorance of the true situation here. Travelling through Catalunia one can see posters saying “Welcome to Europe’s newest state”, yet the EU was quick to support the Spanish constitution. After all they hardly want to give the green light to the many communities within their member states that would rather be ruled from Brussels that their own capital cities. In La Fresneda reaction has been muted, though Margaret tells me that she heard a local character Phillipe shout that he was both Spanish and Catalan as he argued with the local carpenter over the matter. Personally I do not know of one person in our area that supports the secessionists though there must be some. When I ask locals what they think about the issue they shake their heads and say either ‘mal’ or ‘loco’ – bad or crazy.

What is little known outside of Spain is that Catalunia, along with others, is an ‘autonomous community’. This means that the local government has a control of most important matters, including health, education and transport, why they even have their own police force, the Mossos. What’s more they are allowed to impose their own language on children – which itself must contribute to their sense of separateness.  My grandsons were born and educated in Catalunia. This meant that not only had they to learn Catalan, they were also taught in it.  Think about that for a moment. Naturally they also have to learn the Spanish national language (here known as Castellano). So what’s the consequence? Not much time for English, the second language of the world. In fact only one of our three Spanish grandsons speaks English at all well.

There are plenty of nice things that can be said of Catalunia and the Catalan culture, but if they succeed in this minority led quest for independence then they will inherit a damning reputation as the people who broke up Spain and ruined the Spanish and Catalan economies. And for what? So that certain politicians can become leaders of a country instead of an autonomous community. And so that the youngsters inspired by them find that their prospects are diminished whilst their ‘own’ politicians turn out to be as divided and untrustable as ‘that lot in Madrid’. Read Orwell’s Animal Farm young ones – the truth is there.

And our mistake in buying a property in a Catalan speaking part of Spain? Well, at least I can use it as an excuse for my poor Spanish. This much bigger mistake, this attempt to divide and destroy a great and historical nation which takes pride in its diversity cannot be shrugged off so lightly. Let us just hope theta there will be no more violence.



Thursday, 28 September 2017

Travelling gardeners



This year we’ve had stunning crops in England, and news of drought in Spain. The garden in the field at Stow has overwhelmed us - and our neighbours have benefited from our surfeit. We’ve been feasting on potatoes, peas, beans, aubergines, radishes, lettuce, cauliflower, calabrese, savoy and sweet corn, oh and Margaret’s startlingly yellow courgettes plus some very nice plums and delicious raspberries. It was really difficult to tear ourselves away, but we did, not even stopping at our home from home in Dover before landing in France and making a toll road dash for Rheims.

Facade, looking northeastWhy Rheims? Nothing to do with gardens at all.  Shortly before leaving Oxford I attended a riveting lecture on the evolution of church architecture across Europe and Rheims cathedral was highly praised.  Always difficult to park a motor home in a city overnight of course, but we managed  to find a place within walking distance of this vast, highly decorated, gothic creation of the 13th century where many monarchs had been crowned and Joan of Arc is vividly remembered. I was entranced by the dual towered entrance facade and really moved by the spacious interior. But enough of that, we had nearly a thousand miles to go before we would get to our Spanish garden.

Late on our second night we drove into a small town called St Pierre La Moutier which seemed quite an interesting place on the map. However, we quickly realised that we had made that same choice earlier in the year and found it quite dull except for the bar which was quite lively. No restaurants were open then so we had to dine on unmemorable take away pizzas. This time even the bar was closed and we dined on...

Next day, we said goodbye to St Pierre for ever and headed towards Toulouse in the hope of seeing its cathedral and visiting our grandson who lives on the other side of the Pyrenees. Neither event happened for various reasons, but on the way we did get to stay the night in Cahors, a city of France that we had always avoided for no particular reason. It was lovely. The river Lot embraces Cahors in a graceful horseshoe; the main streets runs through the centre of the place and is lined with wide pavements fronting busy shops, bars and restaurants; and that street separates the old quarter from the new where even the latter is attractive, especially the stunning bridge that crosses the Lot on that side. The cathedral, a twin domed building, lies in the old quarter of course - an area laced with narrow streets and many bars. We found one near the cathedral which sold the famous Cahors wine (Malbec) and where everyone kissed a lot – except us.

We left Cahors vowing to return one day for a longer visit, roared through Toulouse and then crossed the splendid Pyrenees through a pass which I would not recommend to anyone in a motor home or in fact in any motor: constant tight curves always rising steeply through narrow roads lined by tall menacing trees. But it did lead us to Formiguera, an alpine-like town with crystal clear air and stunning views over a high green valley.

It was in a bar in Formiguera that we met an ex-pat who had lived in France for thirty years and knew it all.  He sorted me out on subjects ranging from real ale to Brexit and told me that he had once earned a fortune selling more than a thousand ice-creams a day on the beach in St Tropez. Fascinating.

More twists and turns as we threaded our way down through Cataluña, our belligerent neighbour which soon intends to foment the breakup of Spain through an illegal referendum. We reached Aragon, our own section of the country, unscathed and were soon looking over the five terraces of garden that is, as they call it here, our huerto.

Desiccated it certainly was, but the drought had at least kept the weeds under some control. My irrigation system, a constant work in progress, had silted up yet again, but had probably got the trees through the worst of it. One tree, growing where a joint in my plastic tubing had split, was doing extremely well; others were looking parched, but may recover. I began emergency treatment – buckets of water and intense drip feeding – hope it works. On the plus side I found some potatoes in our overgrown veg patch, handfuls of delicious grapes on the feral vines and even some small apples on one tree. No almonds, but the olive trees that I had pruned mercilessly the year before had survived and were bearing some fruit.


Margaret’s cacti up on the sun terrace of the house survived of course. Perhaps cactus gardening’s the thing. Prickly pears anyone?

Friday, 1 September 2017

Pub life: to vape or not to vape

I like pubs. I really do. When guiding in Oxford, I often position my group near a historic pub then tell them proudly, “I am an expert on pubs, I do pub tours – though sadly not often. Nevertheless I have to go out every night to check that the pubs are there, test the beer and so on.”

“It’s a hard life,” some wit often commiserates with a smile. And I nod solemnly in agreement. Of course, it’s not true. Well not exactly.

Recently, in order to supplement my knowledge of the local beer scene ready for future pub tours should there be any, I had to visit a new local brewery with a group of elderly gentlemen - of which I felt the youngest, but was possibly the oldest! The brewery was located within a desolate industrial estate, but the beer was good (and free) as were the burgers which helped to keep us warm. Afterwards I called at one of my locals where swearing is not permitted. Surprisingly, during our conversation the landlord accidentally used the ‘f’ word! He put his hand to his mouth then meekly placed a significant coin in his own swear box. Rules are rules. But what happens when there are no rules?

On the following evening I visited another local pub for an injection of the blues. Great group, really strong on the harmonica, but too loud for my failing ears, so, in the break, I headed to another of my watering holes where I have become somewhat acquainted with the owner. We talked for a while and I was about to tell him about the book I am currently reading when I realised that his focus had wandered. No, not wandered – his attention had become fixated on two gentlemen on the next table. The reason for this quickly became apparent: one of them had strongly objected to the man on the next table vaping – had, in fact, firmly asked him to desist. My man had decided that my latest book was of much less interest than this debacle and, being an ardent vaper himself, engaged the objector in a vigorous pub discourse.

At first I could not understand what the problem was so I intervened by asking the objector what he objected to – and the answer was that he feared secondary vaping might injure his health. Fair enough.

“What evidence have you for that?” asked my man leaning forward in his chair.
“I am a researcher in health related topics and it is clear that insufficient time has passed to have an opinion either way. However, since there is a possibility that the vapour might damage my health I do not wish to be exposed to it.”
“But I have seen a TV programme where experts concluded that there is no risk from direct or indirect exposure to vapour,” stated the landlord forcibly.
“That conclusion is based on a very short time period in comparison to the human life span. It took a very long time to clearly link tobacco smoking to lung cancer. Without such long term evidence I would rather not expose myself to a potential risk from vaping.”
 “Are you saying that that we should have a rule banning vaping in this pub?”
“No, only that if people vape here, I would rather go elsewhere.”
“I and my colleague...” At this point it became evident that the vaper who accidentally initiated the confrontation and had since been silent actually worked in the pub.
“I and my colleague are perfectly willing to go outside to vape if that would make you feel more comfortable.”
“That would not make me feel more comfortable since then I would be driving you from your own pub.”

At one point a googly was delivered when a vaper claimed that vaping was better for his health than smoking cigarettes. This was quickly returned by recalling that smoking inside pubs had been banned because of the reputed danger of secondary cancer from cigarette smoke in inhaled by non-smokers. And so the argument went on. I did not join in since I could see both sides of the argument and, recalling the introduction of the smoking ban and the loss of so many pubs that followed, I did not want to further ignite the discussion.  Finally the anti-vaper and his friend (whose only contribution was a blanket assertion that vaping should be banned) left, creating a communal sigh of relief and a great deal of intense vaping.

In their absence they were somewhat disparaged and accused of being pub spoilers. They were seemingly part of the Thursday effect, this being the worst day for complaints in pubs, or so it was claimed.

I walked home smiling to myself. It had been a good to and fro. However, the outcome could be that the anti-vapers would not come into the pub again since the discussion did stray beyond the argumentative towards the aggressive, though there was no one used the ‘f’ word and no fines.


Still, that’s pubs for you. Better to let it all out than to bottle it all up.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Walking from Shakespeare to Smith and meeting Rosie

A few weeks ago I almost achieved a long term goal. I have for some time wanted to walk from William Shakespeare’s Stratford to William Smith’s Stow. There was no particular reason for this – Shakespeare was a man of words and Smith was a man of rocks, but the slimmest of connections can provide an excuse for a challenging walk.  The distance involved was significant for an amateur walker, but the attraction overwhelming given the countryside traversed and the fact that getting to Stratford-on-Avon is facilitated by a Johnsons Excelbus that leaves Moreton-in-Marsh station every morning arriving at Bridge Street, Stratford on Avon at approximately eleven. In fact I cheated a little by daring the traffic of the Fosse Way and cycling from Stow-on-the-Wold to Moreton.

The day was perfect, if anything a little too sunny and hot, and I quickly found the Avon and strode south past the Royal Shakespeare Theatre towards the rather striking church that boasts the Bard’s grave. Whilst passing that church a gentleman more advanced in age that myself called out, “Tarry a while sir on this beautiful day,” and I responded airily, “Sooth, I cannot tarry – I am walking to Stow”. At least words were exchanged to that effect. I felt fit and looked forward to the long march, though the bus journey had caused some stiffness in my left leg.

Leaving Stratford by following the river to the south was interesting, though uneventful. My objective was to join the Monarch’s Way, a long meandering footpath which is supposed to trace the escape route of the son of Charles I (later to become Charles II) after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. However, as often happens, the map did not coincide with the surroundings at one point, in other words I became lost. I waited for a while at a bridge crossing a tributary of the river in the hope that someone would come by - and they did, and they knew the way.

The someone was a man of about my age and, since we were heading in the same direction, we walked along together for a while. He was on a short walk and his pace was a little slow for me given that my destination was still some eighteen miles away, but we got on well so I matched his pace. He lived in a village nearby and told me that its only pub had closed when the landlord suddenly died, so the villagers were now trying to purchase the place and run it as a community asset. Given that his book club usually met in the pub I was surprised that my walking companion was not involved in this valiant effort. Naturally, I asked him what the club read and he told me that they had recently completed “The Rosie Project”, an amusing novel about a genetics professor with Aspergers. I made a mental note to sample it on my return.

Along the way, my arbitrary companion took a phone call from his wife and I seized the opportunity to resume my normal pace, leaving him to it. At that point I was walking along a very long lane bordered by trees shielding predominantly flat countryside, but the views became more interesting as I approached the outskirts of the Cotswolds and I consumed my packed lunch at the top of steep meadow grazed by cows below and swept by noisy red kites above. The sun shone brightly onto my shading tree and all should have been perfect, but it was not. My left leg seemed to be in a semi-permanent state of cramp so walking and sitting was becoming rather painful. I limped on through the grounds of Hidcote House and then through ripening cornfields to the pretty village of Ebrington. 

Finally I arrived at Paxford where I hoped to cure my leg with the administration of several pints of beer, but the pub was closed! I had just four miles to go to reach Moreton in Marsh and my bicycle, but without alcohol my leg just could not do it. Fortunately a young man was also hoping to enter the pub and he gave me a lift to Moreton in his mother’s Mini Cooper S and, during the journey, we discovered that we were both motorcyclists and so had plenty to talk about. 

I downed a few pints of Wye Valley Bitter in the Redesdale Arms and then cycled back to Stow. Beer did anaesatise the ailing leg, but the uphill journey to Stow via the raging traffic of the Fosse Way – never again.


How I love the arbitrariness of life. I did sample the book recommended by the other walker during our brief encounter and was so taken that I bought it despite the excessive price asked for the Kindle eBook. Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed the “Rosie Project” and you might too. It is a love story set in unlikely circumstances and is both amusing and thoughtful. Don and Rosie are most unlikely lovers sitting at each end of the mental spectrum. My leanings are towards Don, the Aspergers professor, but I guess that most people would probably empathise with Rosie.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Enantiodromia: the EU and the horse trough

For many years now there has been a wonderful skit bouncing around the Internet about the progressive changes to English to formalise it as the standard EU language. It is a real hoot as it gradually and subtly transforms English into German. I was reminded of it as, with widening eyes, I read a Guardian leader on future EU policy for the UK.

Now I must state that I am not a Guardian reader, in fact I do not read any newspaper except on the rare occasions that I pick up an abandoned one on a train or in a dentist’s surgery. I do read the odd article though, usually, as in this case, through links embedded in web pages, or sometimes the odd Telegraph clipping that my wife slips in front of me on her Kindle.

I must also add that I have avoided writing much about Brexit in this blog. Not because I lack a definite and consistent view on the topic, no, more because I have and therefore think that my bookshop blog is not the forum for this sadly divisive topic.

There must be a word for what the Guardian article attempts. The nearest I can find is enantiodromia, but that’s not quite it. Anyway, the manner in which the skit mentioned above turns an intention to standardise on English into the establishment of German as the standard is a good example of what I mean.

The Guardian article generously admits that the people of the UK did vote to leave the EU – then effectively reverses that admission by enantioromia. Take this wonderful paragraph which continues an argument for seeking “as soft a Brexit as is practically possible”:

“The next imperative is to secure the British economy and the prosperity of the public in the long term. That would be best done by remaining within both the single market and the customs union for the duration of the transitional period and, perhaps, beyond. That is not at odds with Brexit. The UK would still cease to be a member of the EU. This would put the UK at a disadvantage, because it will no longer be a single market rule-maker. That, though, is what the public voted for in 2016.”

There you have it! Clear as mud, logical as a fruit cake. No wonder that some complain that the situation is confused: there are people out there determined to confuse us.

While searching for that old skit on the transformation of English into German I came across some funny stories about the EU. One of them is pretty much in line with my own experience of working in Brussels, here it is. A visitor to the commission asked why there was a yellow line along the middle of the corridor and was told: that is to ensure that the workers arriving late do not collide with those leaving early.

Another is rather unkind to the character of my second country: Spain. The EU offers a prize of one million Euros to anyone who can solve the mystery of a fabled black and white striped horse. The German participant spends two weeks in the library researching the subject. The English contender visits a hunting shop and buys all the gear needed to track and kill a specimen in Africa. The French competitor purchases a white horse and paints black stripes on it. The Spanish hopeful goes to an expensive restaurant and orders a top of the bill meal accompanied by expensive wine and champagne. Afterwards he sits in the lounge to enjoy a coffee with Napolean brandy plus a fat Cuban cigar and to think about how he will spend the one million euros.


In fairness though, the EU has been kind to Spain. Above is a photograph I have taken of the ‘much needed’ horse trough beneath our village home there. Note also the sign recognising the EU’s valued contribution - and the lack of horses.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Forget Glastonbury, we had our own festival

I love live music, beer and the open air, so, with that background in mind there was bound to be a moment when I might think, “I want to run a festival”. That thought occurred this year because three things came together: we had recently purchased our own field, it was my 70th birthday and it was our 50th wedding anniversary. So I mentioned the festival to Margaret, my long term wife, and she froze! But, after some discussion, her initial fears faded and she became as enthusiastic as I was, if not more.

And so, after months of planning, IvyFest came about on June 3rd 2017, my birthday. As the great day got closer, I began to think about who we should invite and I froze – there were too few to make it a festival. Then I sat down with Margaret and  the potential list began to rise, peaking at nearly one hundred. We trimmed it down and sent out early invitations, some key people were away on the day, others couldn’t come for other reasons, so we sent out more invites, the numbers went up and began to exceed seventy, our optimum number. Later we had some cancellations: illness, second thoughts, people with better offers – so the numbers went down. Finally we ended up with a list of sixty-nine, which seemed fine.

Then, at last, the marquee arrived and the toilets, I collected the beer and the bread and Margaret got the food together and the guests began to drive into our field - one friend I had not seen for the last fifty years!

The main theme was live music so I had recruited a wonderful double band from Oxford: The Mighty Redox and the Pete Fryer band with their unique combination of original and rocking-cover songs. Good friends and great musicians, they filled the evening spot. In the afternoon we had solos from the honey-voiced Pete Madams singing Leonard Cohen, Willy Nelson and many of his own songs, plus Ken Woodward singing country and western in a shirt that he probably bought in Nashville. The afternoon group, No Horses, played earthy electric blues with spirited harmonica accompaniment. And people danced – yes they danced.

In the midst of all this professional music the scratch male and female voice choirs vied for singers of the festival. Pete, the judge, selected Rob’s Old Boys for the award – based, I think, on entertainment value rather melodic content.

There was a Spanish influence abroad. IvyFest started with a boom from a rocket ignited by Carlos, the Spaniard. Everyone cooked their own food (including a chorizo) on wood fires and many bottles of Spanish wine were consumed along with the barrels of local real ale.

Quite a few people camped on the field and I was the last to leave the dying embers of the fires - or so I thought. I checked around, locked up and went to bed, tired, replete and happy. Next morning, after a visit to the toilet at about seven, I pulled back the curtain and peered onto the field and spotted my granddaughter, Hope, lurking near the marquee. Later I found that I had locked her out and she had “spent the worst night of her life” in the field! Poor girl.

That aside, it was a great day. Some guests were so pleased with IvyFest that they suggested we make it an annual event. Nice thought, but therein lies bankruptcy. IvyFest was definitely a unique one off.


Mind you, a ticket to Glastonbury would set you back nearly £250! Makes you think doesn’t it?

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

When I was eighteen or so.

When I was eighteen or so I was an apprentice, training to become a telephone engineer in what was then the GPO later to become British Telecom. Yes, I worked for a nationalised industry, one of the biggest in the UK at the time employing some quarter of a million people.

On my first day I cycled to a specified depot to begin my first chunk of work experience with an overhead gang, whatever that was. I arrived dead on the dot of 7.30 as instructed, but was surprised to find no one else there. Gradually people began to trickle in and I was allocated to a particular gang. This gang’s main task was to erect telephone poles and string wires between them, but, as five of us set off in the big lorry, we headed instead to a particular cafe where puzzlingly we had breakfast. I had already eaten mine at home; I had a lot to learn.

The gang had a foreman whose main task, it seemed to me, was to ensure that we were always at least three miles away from the depot at lunch time. Why? Because then we could claim subsistence money! Tea breaks and lunch breaks were strictly adhered to. The gang members read their newspapers and I read the New Musical Express and the Melody Maker (I’m not sure why). There was little discussion and politics was rarely mentioned.

I experienced the various activities of the telephone company and, along the way, became a convinced public servant. We had an important role: the dependable working of the telephone system was vital to the country as a whole and we were the people who made it all work – no one else was allowed to do so. The fact that some engineers did ‘moonlighting’ using the skills taught them by the GPO and sometimes using the materials supplied by the GPO puzzled me. Why would they do that?
I progressed, even went to university to obtain a Master of Science degree and there became an ardent socialist, anti-apartheid protestor and so on. What did I know? I knew that apartheid was evil and still believe it to be so – though I did not understand the complexities of the issue at that time. I knew socialism was the answer and refused to let my zeal be dampened by regular news of its cruel imposition in the Soviet Union and China. That, I thought was not really socialism, those countries forced a certain belief system onto its people, my sort of socialism – for some reason that I never did figure out - would not do that.

What did I really know? Not a lot really. The sociology students really knew about politics and their answer was of course: socialism. Now, looking back, I wonder what any of us did know at that early age. At least I had experienced work and workers at work, though for all of that I still became an idealist. I knew that the council estates of Britain were not ripe for revolution, though many on the left at my university believed they were. The Angry Brigade was active there and they were all for taking up arms and leading the workers against the establishment. But, even then, I knew that people just wanted to get on with their lives, I just would not admit it. My idealistic fuel began to peter out in my early thirties as I too learned to get on with my life rather than attempting to alter that of others.
I hated Thatcher of course. Hated her for denationalising us and then taking away our monopoly. We public servants were doing our best, it was not our fault that it could take up to a year to supply a new telephone line, that’s just how it was. And what would happen to our beloved telephone system once the Johnny-cum-latelys started undercutting us? And what would happen to our jobs?

Actually, in the end, I lost mine. Cut off from the mothership at last by that so feared event –redundancy - I set up on my own and did quite well. This was the last stage in developing my political maturity, I then knew what it was like to be entirely dependent on my own efforts for the income to feed, clothe and bring up a maturing family. It was scary, but also exhilarating and educational. I had no holiday pay, sick leave, union representation, or personnel department – and I was acutely aware of the money being taken off me in personal and corporation tax, and not too keen on Gordon Brown giving my money to babies.

Perhaps young people of today are better educated and more politically aware than we were at their age, though that is not my experience. They are as prone as ever to idealism: many want an ideal to follow and are not too fussy about the creed or personalities that lead them. It is often argued that the young should be given a stronger voice in the big decisions that we face today because it is their future. That is a facile argument. Maturity does bring wisdom to most people, and experiencing the hard knocks of life does not make older people selfish: they are as concerned about the world that their off-spring will inhabit as they are about their own declining years. 

In my own constituency of Oxford there are something like 45,000 students, such a body of young people can materially and unreasonably affect the political leaning and character of our representatives in parliament, yet they themselves will not be in Oxford to experience that. They will be getting on with their lives elsewhere, and hopefully gaining the experience to understand that money does not grow on trees, that it has to come from somewhere. And perhaps also to appreciate the crude reality of the alternative lyrics to the socialist anthem, the Red Flag.

The working class can kiss my arse,

I’ve got the foreman’s job at last.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Good reasons to be a naked mole rat

If I were a bird, I think that I would like to be a great-crested grebe. Smart looking fellow and spends a good deal of time underwater as well as above it – which must be interesting. Recently, Margaret and I went on holiday from our base in Spain. I know what you are thinking, you’re thinking that we are on holiday whilst we are in Spain anyway, but that’s not true. There is work to do on the huerto and the house: crops to plant and weed, olive trees to trim and hoe, irrigation to sort out and things to mend about the house. Anyway, our holiday started in Daroka, Aragon a unique town nestling in a narrow valley the ridges of each side being capped with ancient walls interspersed with Mudejar towers and reminding me of the crests on the backs of certain lizards and Margaret of the Great Wall of China.

Next day we moved on to visit Gayocanta Laguna, an interior salt lake, in the hope of seeing water birds, maybe even a crested grebe. But, alas, the extensive salt lake was parched, it was in fact salt – so no water birds at all. We moved on spending the night in Utrillas, an old mining town, where we dined on yet another ‘menu del dia’: these are three course meals with bread wine and coffee for a fixed cost, in this case just sixteen Euros apiece. With beer before and wine during our subject range became extensive, even incorporating the vexed question of consciousness. Margaret argued strongly with me that consciousness could not simply be something that evolved by Darwinian survival, there must be something else - though she did not know what that might be.

For me that debate surfaced my usual question: do other animals have consciousness. I believe they do to some extent and that extent may well evolve with geological time. A dog, on whose face a disc has been painted will, it is claimed, try to remove it when passing a mirror. Cats train their owners to provide them with food in trade for rationed affection. Chimps like a good joke and grebes are very much aware that other grebes may steal their dinner. Naked mole rats meanwhile may have a group consciousness. These little chaps are certainly not smart looking fellows, but you might want to be one. Take longevity for example other animals of their size rarely survive for a year or so whereas the naked mole rat clocks up over thirty! Mole rats are rarely lonely: they live below ground in tribes of as many as two hundred in service to their queen; a bit like ants. It gets a bit crowded down there so the good old mole rat has developed a plant like ability to live without oxygen - for up to five hours! They are pretty much immune to pain and to cancer and have no worries about having their coats stolen to make into trousers or being asked difficult questions in referenda.


So there you have it: either a short life on and below the watery waves as a grebe or a long one in the warm - dark burrows of a naked mole rat nest. You have consciousness, make your choice.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Easter letter from Spain 2017

As I write this my feet are tapping uncontrollably to the beat of some thirty drums: three or four big bass ones, the rest much smaller snare drums : bombos and tambores in Spanish. And during the pauses as the drum leader picks out one amateur drummer or another for helpful instruction my village is alive with the sounds of chattering children, barking dogs and parking cars. Yes, my village of La Fresneda, so quiet for the past two weeks that you could hear the house martin chicks demanding their dinners from the nests below the eaves, so peaceful that arrival of the refuse collection lorry is an event, so deserted that it is a shock to see someone emerge from one of the upper houses - my village has been invaded! It is Semana Santa –the week of the saints – Easter.

Tomorrow, at exactly midday on Good Friday, that drum troupe, swollen to one hundred or more will ‘break the hour’ with a thunderous and ecstatic roll, then continue to drum and parade for a few hours in the village square. Then after a deserved rest they will gather at the main church near my home and lead a procession through the narrow, winding streets to finish at the smaller church on the lower level of the village. There is no let up in the drumming. There are only two practice sessions, but in between these drumming can be heard from a house here, another there. Little boys and girls bang on tiny and tinny drums in the streets. Knots of people will form at street corners and shout joyfully at each other.  And all of this will also be taking place in most of the villages, towns and cities of our area – the major event being held at Calanda where film crews temporarily removed from the border with contested Gibraltar will capture the breaking of the hour by a thousand drums.

On Saturday our village will be invaded again as the streets fill with stalls for the annual antiques fair and on Sunday for its arts and crafts follow on. There will be nowhere left to park and the staff of the two bars will be driven to near exhaustion serving food and drink to the many visitors. Then the village will slowly empty, the drums will be stored away until next year, the blinds of the houses will be lowered and the families will leave their hereditary homes and head back to their real residences in Barcelona. The stray cats will emerge timidly from their homes in deserted houses, the martins and swallows will continue ridding the sky of insects and the long term residents will stroll along to the two village shops hoping that the shelves will not be entirely swept bare of goods. Then silence will descend on the sinuous streets of sleepy La Fresneda, broken only by the bells signalling the slowly passing hours from the church and town hall and the occasional passage of a tractor on its way to the surrounding olive groves and almond plantations.

Which do I like best? Well, the quiet periods need to be shattered at times, and the shattering should quickly return to peacefulness. This is the Spain I love: its vibrancy and variability, the way it has plucked the fun part out of the old religious festivals leaving the church going to the church goers, the inherent friendliness and inquisitiveness of its rural folk, the love of the city folk for their villages. Long live the difference between this and my home country, though not the difference over Gibraltar where the folks who live there clearly wish to remain British – in or out of the EU.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Off to Spain via a Dover micropub

Here we go again. It’s late March and I’ve just planted 300 little trees to create a hedge at the top of our field, planted seed potatoes, carrots, broad beans, parsnips, lettuces and onions in another part of the field that I’ve fenced off and Margaret calls the allotment, then left them all to their fate.

First stop, as ever, was Dover where we just missed Vera Lynne singing to long dead soldiers, but made a wonderful discovery on the way to our ‘local’, Blakes. I happened to glance down a side road and there spotted a pub called The Lanes: a micropub. I was so excited, I have read a great deal about this recent development in the pub world, but had never visited one. I loved it, Margaret was not impressed. We were welcomed almost immediately by the daughter of the owner who told us proudly that The Lanes was the 100th micropub to start in the UK and there are now more than 250 of them (none of which are in Oxford regrettably). She talked me through the six cask ales on offer, whilst we viewed the casks themselves through a large window letting into a sectioned off part of the room where they lay cooling in their stillage.

The entire pub itself had previously been a gambling arcade and was about the size of our lounge in Stow-on-the-Wold. There was no bar as such, just a few high tables for leaners, plus sofas for loungers. The walls were decorated in wooden green men of the forest and hundreds of colourful beer mats from the brews that they had already sold. There was also a small bookshelf stuffed with beer-oriented books. The clientele was, let’s say, comfortably mature; the atmosphere relaxed and friendly. We chatted to a bearded, grey-haired man who had worked for years on the ferries, one week on, one week off doing twelve hour shifts – what an odd life. Margaret was approached by a woman who admired her coat and shared her name. She turned out to be Irish, but a true convert to real ale and her partner, who was a Dover man, who gave us a history of the pub scene there.

The landlord, an ex-train driver from London, came to join us. He had learned from his daughter that we were from the Cotswolds and told us proudly that he came originally from Witney. He then regaled us with an overview of the micropub scene: telling us what good times they provide with their policy of serving real ale and cider, no music or meals, friendly greetings, traditional pub atmosphere and so on. There were now four of them in Dover, he said proudly, and the owners were a community in themselves, sharing ideas and their private lives.

The micropub is good news for those of us that yearn for this sort of thing. Whilst many of the larger pubs are closing, they, with their low overheads and consequently cheaper drinks are thriving. I am lucky in Oxford, living near to some really good, fairly traditional, pubs that all serve cask ales. Nonetheless I would welcome a pub like The Lanes but realise that it is not at all likely. Property prices are so high and rentals similar so that the concept just does not apply there. As to Stow-on-the-Wold - it really has too many pubs anyway - though a micropub would provide a welcome respite from the same old beers and, perhaps, a welcome.


What a send off The Lanes was to a man leaving England for weeks of deprivation, forced to drink fizzy ice-cold beer and cheap wine in bars where the inmates all speak in a foreign languageJ. And when I return I will be leaving the EU behind me!

Monday, 20 March 2017

Am I an Oxford intellectual?

Just the other day I cycled to the gymnasium as usual for a bout of physical stimulation and later that same day I attended a packed meeting in the nearby Oxford University School of Governance for mental stimulation. This, together with my work as an Oxford guide and slavishly following live music in pubs, etc, etc, forms the pattern of my life whilst residing in this stimulating ‘city of dreaming towers’.

The caricature of an Oxford intellectual has many versions though there is usually a bicycle involved, also a scarf, a gown and a smattering of other-worldliness. At that meeting in the School of Governance there were six academics each presenting their EU funded social science projects. Though professors at the University they were all fairly young, nicely balanced between the sexes, skilled PowerPointers, shockingly articulate and terribly enthusiastic. There were no gowns to be seen, but I did find their projects other-worldly. One presenter stated that the great thing about European Research Council funding was that it allowed you to get on with what you wanted to do: his project was to determine exactly when chickens and pigs and dogs became domesticated. I am not quite sure who needs this data or who in the EU decided to fund this arcane subject or why, but I was equally puzzled by most of the other projects. I am sure that they are of interest to the multinational Oxford teams working on them, I just don’t seem to have the intellect needed to appreciate their importance.

When I first arrived in Oxford I presumed that the academics of the University and the city council would be politically conservative. I was so wrong.  The current make-up of Oxford city council is heavily dominated by Labour (35 out of 48) and not a Conservative in sight. Also, during the years spent lurking on the fringes of Oxford academia I could not help but observe its leftward leanings which is seemingly innate and usually assumed. This seems to indicate to me that I am losing my intellectuality, if I ever had any, with the advancing years.

Recently the Adam Smith Institute published a survey showing that this leftward tendency  that I have observed in Oxford seems to exist throughout academia – only 12% of academics tend to conservatism! When the report surfaced the media Rottweilers immediately suggested a link with intelligence. Not so, said the survey. The top 5% in intelligence rating in the country are said to be slightly to the right – in common with the population as a whole. Since the latter includes me, the evidence is mounting that I am clearly not an Oxford intellectual even though I ride a bicycle.

What interests, and worries, me is why this strong and unrepresentative bias amongst academics should exist. There are many theories. One is that it is a conspiracy. The left, unable to achieve power through the ballot box, inveigled themselves into institutions, including academia, and then took care to keep conservatives out.  However, one insightful friend believes that socialism dominates because the academics are idealists (which squares well with unwordliness, I suppose). Meanwhile a Spanish friend just completing his doctorate in Oxford states quite bluntly that it is simply a pretence. My own view is that it is guilt. Let me explain. Academia is a reasonably well paid and respected occupation and well buffered from the vicissitudes of the economy. Unconsciously aware of this they rationalise their guilt into a desire for a fairer society where everyone could enjoy similar status and stability. Meanwhile, they are well aware of the horrifying results of imposed socialism in Russia, China, etc, so they really wish to maintain the status quo: especially the existence of a conservative government that can be safely criticised from the high cliffs of academia with little fear of the outbreak of revolution they pretend to eschew.


In conclusion you can undoubtedly conclude that I am not an Oxford intellectual and I would be grateful if you would ensure that this blog does not reach any academic in-tray. In the past week or so I have attended lectures on: artificial intelligence, global warming, corruption, populism, Brexit, aging and, of course, the point at which dogs were domesticated. I would be devastated if denied my intellectual stimulation in Oxford. What could I do instead: read the Guardian, rejoin the Labour Party, retire to Stow-on-the-Wold, migrate to the New World, regress to teenage and have my mind reshaped by academics, volunteer for the one way trip to Mars, or simply welcome the onset of dementia?

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Exciting news in the colourful world of squirrels

In an earlier blog I disclosed conversations I had with French and Spanish red squirrels, and recently there has been a surprise twist to the vexed question of grey squirrel immigration involving none other than the Great Protector of redness, Prince Charles.

The Great Protector is the founder of the grand Squirrel Accord which states in its website that ‘Grey squirrels need controlling because they are causing major economic, social and environmental damage to the broadleaved woodlands of the United Kingdom. The grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) was introduced to the UK from North America in 1876 and its population has grown rapidly since then. The problem of grey squirrels was first recognised in 1930 when a law was passed making it illegal to release a grey squirrel into the wild.’

The Squirrel Accord points out that the freedom of movement granted to these interlopers has brought with it the pox which is spread by the greys and kills the reds. You may also recall from the earlier blog that French red squirrel accused the greys of ‘breeding like rabbits’: a point which has clearly been taken up by the Great Protector.

Squirrel Times recently reported that the Great Protector ‘is supporting government-backed plans to sterilise grey squirrels to protect native reds and save millions of broadleaf trees. The oral contraceptive, lasting several years, would result in a population crash, reducing numbers by more than 90 per cent from 3.5 million to fewer than 300,000, scientists believe. Prince Charles favours the idea partly because it is a humane alternative to culling. No grey squirrels would be killed under the scheme but the contraceptive, which could be concealed in chocolate spread, would prevent millions of births.’

I contacted French red squirrel about this news, he was aware of it and appalled that chocolate spread would be made available to the greys and not the indigenous reds. On the contraceptive issue he thought that culling was the least that the greys deserved for “coming over here and killing our trees”. Spanish squirrel was more restrained. He welcomed any move that strengthened the brotherhood of squirrels but he also felt that chocolate spread should be available to all squirrels though the contraceptive element must be optional. He praised the efforts of the Great Protector but was critical of his continued ownership of vast swathes of forest which he stated should be transferred to the Squirrel Brotherhood to be operated as a not-for-profit collective.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Oxford: housing, truth, Trump and global warming

There is no doubt that Oxford is a strange place: rare, desirable, bubbly, historic, intellectual, expensive, etc. Regarding the latter, on most of my tours I provide a short introduction stating that “I’m Rob Walters and I live in north-central Oxford where the rich and famous of this city live.” Then I pause for effect, before confessing that I am not rich or famous and live in a small flat. Dependent on reaction I then turn to my latest shocking housing report. When I first started guiding at least a decade ago I could shock my groups by telling them that a house in my area had recently sold for more than two million pounds. That was more than a decade ago and there has been some inflation since then. My latest example is a nine bedroom detached house in Crick Road which has recently sold for £10,400,000! Some inflation.


To re-establish my own credibility as a guide I go on to explain that you could buy my whole block of flats for that money and still have plenty of change. I also sometimes add that I do not know who lives in these obscenely priced mansions, but that is becoming less true. Recently, in one of my local pubs, I fell into conversation with a garrulous builder who told me that he was living in a big place in (highly desirable) Park Town. But his residence was temporary: the house had been rented for a year or so to provide accommodation for a team of workers who were renovating and extending the house next door. That house, he told me, had been bought by...can you guess...a football player! Furthermore, I have been told of someone nearby who downsized by selling their expensive home to a character who made a fortune from running an on-line gambling concern! And this is the area once occupied by the, so called, ‘Dons’ of Oxford in the late 19th century.


Another view of the city is provided by a meeting of Skeptics in the Pub. It was a Tuesday night and the theme of that evening’s talk was science: particularly controversial science such as climate change and genetically modified crops. Now many pubs are lucky to get any visitors at all that early in the week, yet the St Aldate’s Tavern upstairs room was rammed full of people. Even standing space was in very short supply. And all for a talk on science, though it turned out to be a little more.

The speaker was Mark Lynham, a reformed GM crop destroyer and self labelled ‘environmentalist’. Mark told us that he had studied physics as an undergraduate. Presumably unable to procure a decent job in that world he travelled and on the shores of Lake Titicaca had a supreme awakening that launched his career as an ‘environmentalist’. In this guise he first became a leading opponent of genetic modification of crop plants, then a global warming evangelist. Another awakening followed when Mark realised that all of the facts underscoring his belief in the evils of GM crops were not scientific facts at all! He checked the science and became a proponent of GM, apologising for his earlier, ill-informed actions and determined to make amends. And through this he became a true defender of truth in science: even to the extent of attacking the holy green grails of organic food production and the misguided preference for ‘renewable’ energy production over nuclear. The latter is very dear to my heart as we, in Spain, look with weary resignation over the encroaching forest of windgens uglifying the beauty of our nearby mountains.

As I write this blog, no self-respecting speaker in Oxford is able to conduct a session without having a dig at Trump. And of course Mark did dig. But, in addition to the usual rants against the new President of America he tried to solve the outstanding mystery: just how and why did this millionaire, hotel owning, reality TV host get selected as the ‘most powerful man on earth’. And here he fell back on his original theme to develop an answer. Basically, many people do not believe the ‘experts’ anymore, they do not think that they are capable of speaking the truth. And of course we can all think of examples that substantiate that belief – the opposition to GM crops being one. And then along comes someone who people feel they know (from TV), an apparently self-made man, a man of great confidence who is seemingly a visionary providing simple solutions to complex problems, hope to the hopeless and jobs to redundant coal miners.

I think that Mark has matured with age, though some label him a turncoat who is creating a new career through his support for GM. I do not agree with all of his environmental beliefs, yet it is refreshing to hear realistic answers even when they do not fit the bill of ‘saving the planet’. He has no doubts over the reality of global warming and its causes, yet when asked if the Paris agreement, now under threat from denier Trump’s zeal, would really make a difference to climate change, he said no! What was making change, he argued, were the moves already in place to replace coal with cleaner sources, in which he even included fracking. He said, I think with pride, that there were now coal-less days in the UK: days when no coal was burned to produce electricity. That’s nice, except, of course, for the miners.


On the following evening I attended a talk on space exploration in which it was proposed that Donald Trump pilots the first manned flight to Mars. Not really, actually, surprisingly, he wasn’t mentioned.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Why didn’t I protest against the inauguration of Donald Trump?

The obvious answer to this question is simply that I did not think that any protest of mine would have any effect. But perhaps that is not good enough: after all, I am a protester at heart and can demonstrate that by two stories from the past.

At the peak of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa I boarded a bus bound for London then joined a huge throng converging on South Africa House. Our protest march was supposed to be peaceful but, because our march was halted for many hours, tempers flared, stones were thrown and the police moved in. In my rush to escape the violence I narrowly avoided being struck by an enraged and hatless policeman whirling around within the dense crowd whilst wielding long pole torn, no doubt, from one of our placards,. And, as I finally emerged from the melee, I was almost trampled underfoot by a large police horse, its rider urging it into a gallop towards the centre of the aggression.

A few years later, a small group of us attempted to take Margaret Thatcher to court by accusing her of transgressing the Geneva Conventions through possession of nuclear arms – which inevitably, of course, would kill and maim non-combatants if used.

I certainly cannot claim that my contribution to those protests changed the world, but perhaps every little bit does help. On a more positive note I was also a keen protester for the return of real ale to the pubs of Suffolk. This was a success and much more fun – but hardly as important.

I do not like Trump. And I certainly do not like many of his extreme proclamations. Nonetheless, stimulated by his coming presidency, I did sample one of his television programmes. I was not amused or impressed by the hard talking, the humiliation of contestants and the explicit bullying (keenly supported, by the way, by the awful, toadying, Piers Morgan). I would not have given Trump my vote and surmise that I would have grudgingly voted for Mrs Clinton in order to keep him out.

But I did not have a vote, and that’s the point. The Americans chose this man as their leader using their own democratic system of presidential election. And that, of course, is worlds away from the situation of South Africa in the 1960s where people could not vote solely based on the colour of their skin.  I now await with keen interest to observe what will evolve from the USA’s choice and hope very much that it will be good for those whom he claims to represent and also for the UK and the world at large.

Meanwhile, I do strongly object to the conflation of Trump’s success and the Brexit vote in the UK. The connections are tenuous to say the least and the issues quite, quite different. Of course if you are eager to find links in order to undermine Brexit by association with Trump, you will. I attended an interesting lecture at Oxford University’s fine new Centre of Governance last week. It was presented by an American professor of Indian extraction and attempted to take a more nuanced view of the then President-elect under the titles: Tantrumps, Trumponics and Trump over the Globe.  It was interesting and thought provoking. Afterwards I had the misfortune to exit the building with a lady who was unmoved by the talk and thought that the election of Trump was a step towards the end of the world (though she did not enter the debate itself). In our short interaction she moved on to attack the outcome of the Brexit referendum at which point I announced that I, in common with the majority of the UK, had voted to leave. This brought an uncompromising, alarming and wholly irrational response: “A vote for Brexit was a vote for Trump”. At which point I left.

We cannot see into the future, most predictions turn out to be quite wrong: Trump and Brexit are outstanding proofs of that. However, there is a possible future where Trumponics and ‘America First’ lead to world-wide recession or, even worse, to war. How would I then respond to a question from one of my grandchildren: “What did you do about it Rob?” My response would have to be: “Nothing, because I could not influence it. But I did help to save real ale.”