Monday, 20 April 2020

Rob’s CV diaries 8: Tadpoles, the lock-down and China

I’ve mentioned in a previous blog a foray into a local pond to collect weed for my own. It’s an interesting side hobby from the vegetable gardening and something else to watch now that I am permanently at Stow. However, when Margaret mentioned walking to Upper Slaughter, one of the very pretty local villages, as a child and seeing tadpoles in a pond there, I realised that my pond lacks something - life. So, off I went to the Slaughters on my bicycle with jam jars at the ready in my backpack.

The day was lovely and the springtime Cotswold scenery both beautiful and dramatic. What is more the roads were almost devoid of traffic. I found the pond, it was large, edged with bulrushes and overlooked by a magnificent Cotswold stone mansion – but there were no tadpoles there. I then followed the delightful River Eye down to Lower Slaughter and turned towards home on the Fosse Way.

I think it was the sparse, but furious, traffic on that main road that made me turn off at the base of the steep hill leading up to Stow for another dose of Cotswold splendour and a last search for tadpoles in the Dickler at Hyde Mill. There were none, but I did grab some interesting weed before pushing my bike up the hilly footpath towards Stow. It was then that I received a phone call from a lady associated with Cotswold Friends. I had volunteered to help with telephone befriending during the isolation and she wanted some details from me. At the end of call she said that she was sorry to bother me and I said not at all, I’m only out looking for tadpoles.

“Tadpoles,” she cried, “we’ve got load of them in our pond”.

And so, the very next day, I went to her home in the nearby town of Moreton in Marsh and returned with two jars of tadpoles – and a frog. That was great, though social distancing at her pond-side was difficult. It turns out that she runs three of the local Men in Sheds initiatives. Good job she didn’t see my shed – still a work in progress.

We have been isolated, locked-down, in Stow for four weeks tomorrow and the time has glided by. I’ve been busy in the field, in the garden, and in my ‘shed’ most of the day time. In the evenings I put the chickens to bed, write this blog, read a little (Roger Scruton and Adam Smith mostly at present, plus a novel) watch a bit of TV and so on. Hence the news of a three week extension to the lock-down had little impact on me. However, I do try to imagine what it would be like living in a small flat or bed-sit in a city just now. For someone in that position, especially someone who has limited income which is further curtailed by the virus driven cut backs, life must be very hard to bear, and this extension of the lock-down is yet another blow, but it has to be done. I know of no other solution right now, though I do puzzle over the success of Greece, Taiwan, and South Korea in dealing with the outbreak.

Every week during the crisis, the director of my branch of the Samaritans (Oxford,) sends out an email report – and it leaves me feeling guilty as he congratulates all those who have continued to do their shifts despite the lock-down. And, of course, he is right to congratulate them. The people who do call Samaritans are likely to be more disturbed than most by the threat of the virus and by the warnings regularly broadcast over the media about it, so they need support. Meanwhile, I have self-isolated in Stow and am quite enjoying the isolation. The director does, of course, also emphasise the need for Samaritans to protect themselves from this scourge, but the fact remains that in doing so I am also scrimshanking (to use one of my little known but useful words). In short, I do feel that I am enjoying this isolation and that I shouldn’t. Still I hope to undertake this telephone befriending role locally and salve my conscience that way.

We are still trying to keep Saturdays special and so last weekend we did a prowl into the past via photographs and in the company of some very nice malbec wine. It was a special day since this was my second son’s birthday so we had earlier linked with him and his two kids in Australia for a happy birthday song ‘around’ the chocolate birthday cake his mother made for him. We had candles too, and though for Fergus and his family the cake was virtual – I got to eat it. Very nice. Possibly made with our own eggs (the two greys have now laid seven, the black and the white zero).

Many of the photos featured Christmas’s and other celebrations with the family, but an even larger number of them covered our first teaching visit to China, the source of our current woes. It was a great experience, but one photo in particular starkly reminded me of the real (rather than relative) poverty in which many people lived there some thirteen years ago. It is a picture of communal toilet used by many people. The toilet is made of a rickety framework of rough sticks covered by ragged tarpaulin. There is no sewer connected to it, the sewage oozes out of the base and then slowly down a slope gradually sinking into the ground.

Not a nice note to end a blog on, so back to tadpoles. Since releasing them plus some spawn and the frog, into my pond they seem to have vanished. Compared with their previous home I suppose my field pool seems like an ocean to such a tiny creature. But it is a little disappointing that, though I survey the pond regularly, I have only seen two lonely tadpoles and no sign of the frog at all.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Rob’s CV diaries 7: Screws, rock cakes and fire pits.

So, I’m still keeping busy. Like many people in isolation I am doing some things that I have ably managed to put off for years. The main one for me is clearing up and clearing out the garage. Actually it’s really my workshop, only one car has been inside during its whole life and that was when I changed the discs on the Mini some time ago. This clear out’s a big job, stuff accumulates somehow. If you are at all practical you amass a collection of screws, of nails, of nuts and bolts and so on. I certainly have done. Both my father and father-in-law were practical men and sort of left me their screw collections in their wills.  I have many screws. Things were getting out of hand; searching for a screw had become a twisted nightmare. But it’s sorted now, sort of. I have established separated collections of very long screws, long screws, mediums, shorts and very shorts. You cannot imagine the satisfaction that this has given me ;-)

But the big event of the last few days is more apposite to our long term survival: yes, one of our chickens has laid an egg! Greyone (the other grey is called Greytwo) started behaving oddly just a few days ago. She repeatedly popped in and out of the shed in a distracted manner, clucking all the time. Finally she settled into a nest box and started scratching earnestly at its wooden floor, then there was silence. After a while she emerged from the hut and the other three entered, presumably to take a look at what she’d been up to. I too had a look. Right in the corner of the nest box, lying on the bare boards her scratching had uncovered, was an egg: a nice, light-brown egg, quite large. On closer inspection it was slightly damaged at one end – but not bad for a first attempt.

Today we had another, this from Greytwo. It was much smaller (turns out that first one was a double-yoker) and a deeper brown, and perfect. Margaret made rock cakes with them and, before I knew that they were made with our own eggs, I opined that they were her best ever. Really.

We have tried to make Saturdays special during the isolation. Well, you have to break up the week in some way. We’ve already had a musical evening and were planning a Greek evening (Zorba) which had to be cancelled through a serious shortage of aubergines. So we had a Dakota Fire Pit night instead. It came about through our new neighbours. They were relaxing in their back garden on the Friday evening as I walked across the field near them. I did the decent thing and turned my eyes in the other direction to give them privacy (the trees that separated us were removed at their request and the new hedge shows little sign of budding up).

“It’s beer o’clock Rob,” Jason shouted as I passed.

I had to look then, and there he was holding up a glass of golden something, lager perhaps, and between him and Jackie were flames. I looked at these in amazement, it wasn’t a barbecue – flames are no good for cooking.

“What’s that?” I asked trying to see where the flames were coming from.

“Fire pit,” he replied in a dismissive way.

Back in the house I looked up fire pit on the web and found that everyone seemed to be selling them from Argos to Amazon. I am not, as usual, keeping up. Then, I clicked past the adverts and found some information on the Dakota Fire Pit which was invented by American native indians way before the cowboys came. This pit is free and anyone can make one, and that decided our next Saturday event. No Greek evening for us, we would barbeque Dakota style which is very efficient and makes no smoke (they say). Also the flames cannot be seen by your enemies – or neighbours. I dug the required two holes alongside our pond and joined them with an air tunnel. I then built a wood fire in the bigger hole and lit it from the top (burns more efficiently it’s claimed).

It worked. I cheated a bit by using the grill from an old barbecue to rest the meat on. But, the food was hot, the view of the setting sun across the pond was stunning, and the bottled beer was, well, bottled beer. Oh for a pint of real ale. My field for a pint of real ale.

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Rob’s CV diaries 6: Watching seeds grow

Out running the other day I nipped over a wall and collected a few pond plants for my own algae-ridden plash. Please don’t get the wrong impression, I wasn’t risking social interaction there, the pond is part of an extensive collection of pools and, though I was trespassing, there was no clear ownership of the pond I plundered (three small plants only).

On the way back I bumped into a pub friend from Stow. No, let’s be clear, we have to so careful of what we write just now, I did not physically bump into him. We crossed paths in a lane (happens to be his name actually, surname that is) and we were at least three meters apart while we chatted. Even with the pubs closed, he is still a happy man and, as expected, found something good to say about our current times.

“The air’s so clear Rob, and it’s so quiet. Walking around Stow it’s like it must have been 70 years ago.”

And he is so right, at least about the silence. I can hear my neighbour, though he is at a very healthy social distance away, steam cleaning his paving slabs for the umpteenth time. I also hear the other neighbours conversing and sometimes think that they must have wandered into our garden. Moreover, I can hear birdsong so much sharper, so beautiful, so intense. We, living between two main roads, have become conditioned to the background hum of people and tradesmen rushing about their business. And now it’s quiet, well relatively. There are some cars, lorries and tractors of course, but there are long periods of silence between their passage and the Easter weekend was particularly tranquil.

I can even hear my seeds growing! No that’s not true or at least only perhaps in my imagination. I can see them growing though. I do not think I have ever been closer to spring than this. I inspect my vegetable garden every morning and every morning there is some change, something popping through, weeds emerging, the beans in my cold frame shooting and so on. I would not say that it was exciting, after all I have witnessed all of this many, many times before, but it is interesting and the thrill of germination never quite dies. And added to that I am planting so many trees, hedgerow plants and pond marginals. Of the latter the star is a bulrush plant whose shoot is well out the water and reaching towards the sun at a rate that makes it seem a little taller each time I pass. Sadly, in a way, most of the planting and seeding is done now, so I’m reduced to watching, weeding and watering. Ah, how I love it – alliteration, that is. The two photos of my main seed tray may help to convey the excitement – they were taken roughly one week apart.

And there is the interest provided by the four girls: the chickens who eat, drink, crap and cluck, but still do not lay eggs for us. On Easter Saturday we gave them a topical task to perform. Both my sprightly neighbour from two houses up and Margaret had made hot cross buns for the previous day and had a few left over. With carefully controlled synchronism they each plonked one of their buns into the chicken run and we all, from a social distance of course, watched their reaction. The birds, rather disloyally I thought, went first for Delia’s bun rather than Margaret’s. No loyalty there then, and no eggs.

Friday, 10 April 2020

Rob’s CV diaries 5: Beer, conscience, germination and viruses

Well, it’s been over three weeks since I left Oxford for isolation in Stow and it doesn’t seem that long. Of course I vaguely miss visits to the city’s many pubs and their wide selection of real ales, I miss the music and the intellectual stimulus of lectures and so on and on, but I’ve been busy and spirits are high. I did have one bad night when I feared that the breweries might have to close because of the lock down. But next morning when out running I paused to talk to an old man (my age possibly) who seemed quite desperate for a chat. He told me that he had done all he could to the garden and that his daughters kept him supplied with the essentials.

“What about booze?” I asked semi-jokingly, but actually a question that was at the top of my mind.

He told me that he was a Mason and could get all he needed from the Lodge in Stow, so I asked him if I could sign up. Not really, I’m sure I would be black balled. But he did tell me of a brewery which provided home deliveries in these strange times. I contacted it, but Stow was too far away - so convenient for Cheltenham, Oxford, Cirencester and so on, the town is in fact distant from them all. But then I remembered Purity, one of my favourite beers. I contacted the brewery and they did deliver beer and it was free (the delivery not the beer) provided you ordered enough, I did, and now have it, so that’s something else I need not worry about.

Meanwhile I have been rejected. I volunteered to help the NHS as a home based support caller and was accepted subject to my identity being confirmed. It wasn’t. No idea why, apparently they (RVS) cannot tell you that but provide a long list of possibilities. So I tried again, but no good. They are no longer accepting volunteers. Such a pity. All my Samaritan training going to waste – and I so wanted to do my bit. I feel a little guilty pottering around my little bit of the Cotswolds when others are doing so much to help.

But I’m busy. I’ve knocked a few things off the to-do list and I finally managed to find someone on the web who could supply hedging. I immediately ordered a bargain bundle of 100 hedge plants of unknown variety for the northern perimeter of our field and ten more specialised shrubs to grow next to the field pond, hopefully the latter will attract birds other than the regular pigeons and crows. The order came much more rapidly than I expected: a huge bundle that I left untouched for the requisite few hours and then set to work, hard work. For each tree I dig a hole in the field (which is not easy because I usually hit stones quite quickly) then I set up a support stick, after which I put a little root growing magic stuff in the hole and then the hedging plant itself. I backfill, water, then replace the turf – upside down. Each planting takes about ¼ of an hour and I have well in excess of 150 to establish – you can do the arithmetic. It’s a big job and a hot one, but the weather is so good that I can mostly work with my shirt off (no photos). And it’s nice to be planting more greenery.

On the green front my early potatoes are just peeping out of the ground and so are some of the other seeds. I now have 25 lines of vegetable, etc coming on. In normal times I hurriedly dig my plot and prepare it, throw a few lines of seed in then dash back to Oxford for my other life. Now, I have no other life so, day by day, I can watch the seeds grow (hour by hour sometimes). This might sound like watching paint dry, but it is not for me. It is still a thrill to see the seedling appear and gradually form themselves into the adult plant. One of the most interesting to observe is leek. It takes some time to germinate, then pushes up a green loop – a bit like an onion seedling with the point stuck in the soil. Then, after a few days the pointed end springs free of the soil and reaches for the sun. Wonderful, I wonder why it does that.

Like many people just now I have begun to wonder exactly what viruses are and how they work. Fortunately there was an excellent TV programme on this just the other night. It graphically explained how the things get into the body and use no end of tricks to dig right into the nucleus of cell then take it over so that it starts replicating the virus. 

No one seems willing to define these viruses: are they actually alive or not? Whatever the answer to that may be, this Corona virus is virulent: its contamination rate is such that two people with it are likely to pass it to five more, then 12.5 and so on, and this leads to really scary graphs like the one below. This is why we have to isolate ourselves. That is why there is no excuse for getting the thing and passing it on. And after that…

Monday, 6 April 2020

Rob’s CV diaries 4: On the lighter side

In an attempt to inject a little humour into the dire shadow created by the Corona Virus, I copied a few friends in on this modified first line of The Hobbit: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. He planned to stay there indefinitely in order not to make the lives of essential healthcare personnel more perilous.  

I did not invent that modification to Tolkien’s book, but I thought I might have a go at his magnum: The Lord of the Rings. Here’s the modified first line: When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, he received a visit from the Hobbiton constabulary who explicitly apprised him of the recent restrictions on social gatherings.

Parody is one way of keeping the spirits up and a take off of Queen’s famous song certainly made me smile – and it ends with a serious message. See and hear it as Corona Virus Rhapsody.

And then, for me, it was April the 1st. Back when we had our smallholding and children of varying ages I made a great thing of that day. My favourite prank was to create what looked like a hand part submerged in our pond holding a notice. The notice said something silly like ‘Save me!’, and I think I found it funnier in the execution than the kids did when they first looked out of their bedroom windows. Isolated in Stow and with children now mostly far away and with kids of their own, I am spending some time clearing up  my garage (really my shed, no room for a car) and came upon a golden egg. No idea where it came from and why I kept it, it’s made of brass I think and looks like a chicken egg, but golden and heavy. So, when I let the chickens out on April Fools’ Day, I placed it amongst the hay in one of the new nest boxes I made for them. I then waited for a scream from my wife when she discovered it. Sadly, there was no scream, just a bland aside later in the day: “Oh, I saw the egg. Very funny”. Ah well, who was the fool?

 Back at the farm, well not quite – still no sheep and no eggs - I dig and I rake the garden in preparation for the biggest crop I’ve ever grown since we had the smallholding. In those way gone days I did have a little help: in particular my old, but game, grey Ferguson tractor and all the bits to put on the back (including a potato planter and spinner). Nowadays everything I do is by hand and on a smaller scale. Nevertheless I’ve seeded purple sprouting, cabbage, radishes, lettuces, carrots, turnip, swede and, well, quite a lot of stuff really, not to forget a few rows of early and maincrop potatoes. Now we need warm spring weather, but Stow-on-the-Wold (where the wind blows cold) has lived up to its name over the past few days, so the seeds are biding their time.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Rob’s CV diaries 3: Isolation relieved by four young and pretty birds

I suppose we transgressed the social isolation rules by collecting the chickens, but at least the lady at the cash desk wore gloves and wiped my credit card with an antiseptic tissue.

The chickens were subdued as I drove more placidly back to Stow-on-the-Wold, but they did not know that they were now homeless. Fortunately, I knew what I had to do. I left them in their cardboard box and entered our small garden shed. I removed the two bicycles, many buckets of hand tools, the recycling containers and no end of bags of stuff for Margaret’s flower garden. I then cut a small door into the rear wooden wall which faced the back garden and started to make a run for our guests on the garden itself. Luckily I have lots of stuff for this sort of thing. I made the run from beanpoles, surrounded it with some rusty chicken wire I had stored in the field and then covered it with netting from an old fruit cage. After that I used an old gate and other stuff to section off the chicken area of our little shed. I then placed the cardboard box on the hay-strewn floor and opened the lid.

And what happened? Nothing! The girls had either taken to the box or were terrified of entering their new home, perhaps both. I tipped the box up a little, the poor things hung on for dear life. Then I tipped it right up and three fell out, fluttering and squawking. The last one, Blackie (they suggested their own names) would not budge, even with the box upside down. I had to give it a sharp tap and then she too fell out with a resentful squawk.

It took a while before they ventured into the run. Whitey was first. She stepped very cautiously down the drawbridge which also serves as their door to the outside. Taking a quick look around, she presumably decided that she did not like the place and re-entered the shed. The others watched in wonder. However, after some time they all ventured out and did what chickens do: they pecked away at the ground searching for edible morsels. It felt nice to have them.

Then I had a thought. This corona virus thing will not go on for ever, things may never return to what we now regard as normal, but, assuming that we do survive, we will be able to associate again. I will return to Oxford to resume guiding and my other pursuits and we will be able to visit our home in Spain. But what about the chickens if we do all that? This is the moment when I started work on my prototype automatic chicken feeder.

I am still running every other morning. There are not many people about and those that are look worried, as if I might transgress the two meter rule. On the other hand it can be difficult to avoid close encounters, especially on narrow pavements. This morning I ran away from Stow towards the village of Broadwell, then took a footpath back towards the town. As I turned a corner towards home there was woman just in front of me, walking in the same direction. I could smell her perfume! Social distancing had been transgressed!

Perhaps I should run around our field where the only person I might meet is the woman I sleep with! Be a bit dull though, the running that is. That morning I saw the three llamas that live in a field near Broadwell. As usual they looked shocked to see me, like giant rabbits caught in a car’s headlight.

No eggs yet. Yesterday we went to the nearby supermarket to purchase supplies in the hour allotted to over 70s. The place was packed, almost every trolley was taken and the car park full. People were waiting outside in a spaced-out, highly-organised queue. Surely that spoils the whole point? This arrangement created a false peak in shopping. We did not wait. Fortunately Margaret, after much groaning at her phone and general frustration, managed to acquire a slot for deliveries from the Sainsbury supermarket. Phew, my small emergency beer hoard remains intact.

There is some light at the end of this strange tunnel though. I see that scientists from Oxford are recruiting healthy people to sign up as guinea pigs for a potential coronavirus vaccine. And someone else is working on the use of infected blood as short term method of training our immune systems. Worrying news from the USA though where the death rate seems to be running high.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Rob’s CV diaries 2: Isolation

I am, by nature, a little bit of a list maker so, on arrival at Stow at the commencement of our social distancing, I began. I managed to list twelve things to do of varying duration, complexity, cost and creative content. The priority, it seemed to me, was to plan ahead with regard providing food for ourselves on the assumption that things might get worse, an assumption reinforced by the then daily anxious pronouncements of our Prime Minister and the news from Italy, Iran and Spain.

The gardening year starts for me on or about 21st March which is the vernal equinox and potato planting time. However, this year I began more seriously than ever: digging over my vegetable plot and bring more of it into use. I also surveyed my seed tin. In some ways this did seem like moving the deck chairs of the Titanic since the immediate problem was empty shelves in supermarkets created by the irrational but increasingly hysterical hoarding hordes. But there was little that I could do about that - except join in! Hence I was taking the long term view: I ordered more seeds. Of course there are some foods that you cannot grow in the garden particularly meat and eggs, and so I added sheep and chickens to my action list.

Margaret was not keen on the sheep idea, partly because she doesn’t like the meat but, I suspect, more likely that she did not savour the thought of the wooly ones eating her carefully planted wild flowers – sheep are however still on my list. On the other hand she was delighted with the prospect of keeping chickens, she wanted them anyway. This is of course déjà vu for us. In our smallholding days we kept many things including: sheep, pigs, goats, chickens, geese and peacocks: the sheep and the peacocks were the least successful.

So, chickens topped sheep and I set to. First, I thought, better get a chicken coop and a run to go with it. No good getting birds if they have nowhere to live. So I advertised locally, but got no response and began searching the web. The coops advertised were too small, too expensive or already sold. I began to panic, if coops are in short supply, what about the chickens themselves?

I think that as you read this blog during the current crisis you might think us a little uncaring and petty. I was beginning to feel that myself, was I doing my bit? I had offered to work from home for Samaritans, but the rules do not allow that (so far) so I then offered my services as a trained listener to the RVS who are handling the spectacular tsunami of NHS volunteers, but have heard nothing back as yet. I also laid some vegetables on my ageing neighbour’s doorstep and she phoned her thanks – from a distance.

But, back to the chickens. On the morning of Sunday 22nd March I began searching the web for chickens - coop or no coop. I called a number of local dealers and began to panic. People had already begun to hoard point-of-lay pullets it seemed. One lady from Gloucester sounded very tired, but kind. “I’m expecting some Golden Comets on Tuesday afternoon, but it’s first come first served and I’ve no idea of price”. Most of those I called had sold out and had no idea when or if more would be delivered. Then, at lunch time, I struck lucky. I called Cotswold Chickens and a very distracted lady shouted down the phone.”We’ve just had a delivery of 200 and there are ten cars waiting already.” The line then went dead.

I’m not sure that Iverley House has ever seen such a rush. We were falling over each other searching for a cardboard box, money, keys, and coats and were out of the door and into the mini in no time: lunch entirely forgotten.  As I sped north up the Foss Way we both giggled, this was rather fun. When we arrived the car park was full, no room for a mini amongst the Range Rovers and such, but an ample lady walked over and gave us a torn off piece of paper with the number 34 on it and said that someone would be leaving soon and we could park and wait in the car. Thirty-four! There were only ten waiting when I called a half-hour before! Would we get our birds? Panic had abated a little now that we were at least in the queue, though any concern about price or breed had flown out of the car window. We were desperate for chickens.

The ample lady occasionally wandered over to a car whose number was up and they were led to a hut around the corner. Ten minutes later they walked proudly back with their chickens: one person had three boxes of them: a real chicken hoarder! If she had peered through our windscreen our look of disgust would have persuaded her to give one box to us – or not, probably not.

After nearly two hours our number 34 was reached and we were so grateful. There were still about twenty hybrids left and we chose a black, a white and two pretty greys, paid £20 each (a lot) and bought up what little was left of the food plus a chicken drinker. We had made it. We had chickens, but where were they to live? In the kitchen?

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Rob’s CV diaries 1: Eruption

I’m sure that lots of people are, or will be, writing about the corona virus epidemic: not surprisingly since the news is chock-a-block with articles, reports, opinions and so forth. I am no expert of course (there seem to be more than enough of those around) but thought it would be worth recording my own experiences and feeling whilst the crisis unwinds. If you’ve had enough of this whole topic then ignore the CV diaries: normal service will be resumed … as soon as possible.

News of the outbreak of the infection came in December 2019, its origin being in Wuhan, China, a city that my wife and I visited during one of out teaching stints in that country. Known as the oven of China it was certainly a hot place, but I have no strong memories of it and cannot find my notes on that visit. When we heard the news I was already arranging our travel details for a trip to Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia and Australia. Should we have abandoned that trip in the light of the news? That really never occurred to us. The Wuhan virus seemed to be something local to China and, though we had a very brief stopover in Beijing en route to Taiwan, no precautions were even suggested as we took off on the sixth of January 2020.

As our trip progressed, awareness of the virus could be tracked by the proportion of people wearing face masks. These are not uncommon in Asia anyway, but during January and February their use grew and grew so that even I tried to purchase some in Ho Chi Min City. This was not easy, many convenience stores had sold out by that time. Nonetheless I was derided for wearing one in a hotel in Phnom Penh by a fellow visitor and one Cambodian told me that his country was too hot for the virus! In Australia we heard that only one person had tested positive for the infection and the only people wearing masks there were Chinese.

How things can change is such a short time. We returned to the UK at the beginning of March and found the country pretty much unfazed, but fear was growing - albeit quietly.  The first death from the disease was reported a few days after our return and another soon followed: both had what soon became a common term ‘underlying health conditions’ and were in their late seventies and early eighties. Two things followed that. On a personal front I decided that the sooner I contacted the disease and got the whole thing over with, one way or the other, the better. Then the government and its advisers became more engaged and seem to agree with me: the sooner sufficient people became immune the better - even though some would die in the process.

That initiative did not last long, it was followed by serious warnings to those most at risk to isolate themselves and for those likely to be a load on the NHS (particularly the over 70s) to take similar precautions – that included myself and Margaret.  Meanwhile my main activities in Oxford were being wiped out by the virus and through government warnings. Tours were being cancelled at an exponential rate, I only took out two groups in Oxford after our return from Australia, and the last, on the 15th of March, was for just three people rather than the usual 15-19! It was also clear that my Samaritan shifts would have to go; I did my last on the same day as that final tour. That was also my final weekend in Oxford – and it was great. We attended a wonderful concert featuring the music of Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Borodin on the Saturday evening and a great open-mike night at the Harcourt Arms on the Sunday. Next day we moved down to our house in Stow-on-the-Wold for no one knows how long.

How did I feel? Mixed emotions really. Though I prefer to spend much of my time in Oxford, we do have a very nice house in Stow and, with the vegetable garden and our very own field I would have plenty to do. And, though I realise that for many social isolation is a frightening and depressing prospect, for me it seemed a little bit of an adventure.

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Rob's best reads of 2019

As I’ve written here before, I get most of my reading material via Bookbub and so it is quite arbitrary stuff. Also, I almost always read on my Kindle and that can influence what I read because of the ridiculously high prices imposed on eBooks by the big five publishers. That said here’s the best of my best from books read last year.

I rarely read a book twice, but last year I did just that. I had forgotten entirely that I had read Tony Parson’s Man and Boy some years before as a paper book and hence bought it cheaply as an eBook. Some pages in I realised my mistake, but was so entranced by the sad story and the recollection of how much I had enjoyed it that I ploughed on. It is a fictional account of a marriage break up involving a very young son and the tussles between his mum and dad for custody. In the end the father steps back for the sake of his son and finds a solution that works even though his lawyer assures him that he could have won custody. An interesting and moving tale – very well written.

In the biography department, I read Frank Gardner’s Blood and Sand. His life, first as a banker then as BBC reporter, nearly ended as he was repeatedly and cruelly shot at close range in the city of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  Almost miraculously he survived and, though disabled, returned to journalism. It is a harrowing story, but leavened by his early successes in life and his courageous recovery.  Altogether a riveting read.

That’s a couple of mainstreamers, now for some odd balls.  Metropole by Ferenc Krinthy is a strange novel where this middle-aged linguist takes a plane to a conference somewhere in Scandinavia. But he lands in a strange city where the people speak a language that has no relationship to any that he knows. He is rushed to a hotel and given some money and a room. He cannot read any of the signs or communicate with anyone – and so the tale gets stranger and stranger. There seems to be no escape from this packed citadel where everyone is in a rush and all transport is overloaded. It is a weird scene, yet portrayed believably through the eyes of the confused yet rational Budai, the main character.

Then there’s another glimpse into a strange world, this one real. In To the Moon and Back, I gained some idea of what it might be like to be a Moonie. Lisa Kohn spent her childhood as a member of the Unification Church, that strange movement founded by South Korean Sun Myung Moon. In describing her life, including the long period when her mother left her to serve the church, I began to understand the silken chains that tie people to such communities, how they can be so happy within it and how difficult it is to leave.

Back to fiction, glorious fiction, with The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I love magic and this book is magical, really magical. The night circus is exactly what its name suggests and more. Many of the acts and displays are beyond physics, beyond trickery, and even the transport of the vast tented circus is magical: it appears overnight very suddenly, without sound or fuss. Within this strangely entertaining book there is an even stranger love story and a plethora of odd, but interesting characters.

As an Oxford guide I often mention the Rhodes Scholarship and its founder, Cecil. So, I thought I ought to delve into his life a little more by reading Rhodes: The Race for Africa by Antony Thomas. It’s an interesting and sometimes shocking biography of a driven man who seemed to exert power over so many during his short, but influential, life. It certainly adds fuel to the campaign by students who demand the removal of the man’s statue from the fascia of his Oxford College – Oriel – though I still do not think that is the correct course of action. One disappointment in life for Rhodes (and for me) is that he concluded that there was no-one whom he could not buy. I think that’s a double negative, but you know what I mean.

Finishing this much curtailed list with another fictional book, I did enjoy A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne. This is an intriguing tale of an amoral young man who has two ambitions: to be a famous writer and a father. In pursuing the former he has a major weakness, though he writes well he is unable to create a great story line – so he steals them from the people who love him. He is a very attractive man, sexually ambivalent, and entirely without conscience; so it is shocking, but perhaps inevitable, that his thefts lead to the deaths of many who become trapped in his web. I think I’ve written enough already about this book since anything more would spoil a gripping tale which is very well written and capable of making the unthinkable tenable. John Boyne certainly does not have his main character’s weakness.

Oh, but just a mention of the rather zany What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges. How could I forget Gilbert’s gargantuan mother?

And so, on to 2020 which has a nice ring to it: provided each of the four ‘t’s are clearly enunciated. This coming year will undoubtedly provide me with another feast of fiction, and it looks like I’m going to need it whilst sequestered in my country retreat for who knows how long.

Friday, 6 March 2020

Contrasting Australia and Asia

Well, not contrasting the whole of Asia of course, that’s just too much, and actually just the Adelaide area in Australia. Starting point was Taiwan as in the previous blog, definitely part of Asia but well-advanced along the path to … to what? Let’s leave that to later. Next came Vietnam, then Cambodia, then briefly Thailand and finally Adelaide.

First thing that hit me in Adelaide was the traffic. Not literally of course, that was much more likely in Asia. Crossing the road in Hanoi, Ho Chi Min City, Phnom Pen and so on takes bravura, confidence and luck. Pedestrian crossings do exist, but are ignored. The traffic forms an almost constant rapid stream and consists mainly of motor scooters, some carrying entire families. The pavements are littered with the remains of people who gave up on crossing or were slaughtered in the attempt. That last is an exaggeration of course, but the rest is not. No one is going to stop to let you go, so you just have to go. And somehow, miraculously, the traffic forms a bubble around you as you pass. It is actually very efficient. In Adelaide  I was castigated for daring to cross the road where there was no crossing, and was amazed to see groups of people waiting for a crossing light to turn green when there was no traffic on the road at all. Fresh from Asia I had to constantly restrain myself.

In Adelaide the roads are generally excellent, in Cambodia and to a lesser extent Vietnam; they are likely to have stretches that are not metalled, possibly never have been. The dust kicked up by cars speeding over these stretches is spectacular, and for cyclists such as myself suffocating and blinding. In Cambodia people are packed tightly, standing room only, into open trucks. I saw this soon after crossing the border from Vietnam and was both amazed and appalled. Yet as we, seated comfortably in a bus, passed by them they waved and smiled at us.

As an ex-telephone engineer I take a passing interest in wiring. In Adelaide there is not much to see, in Vietnam and Cambodia you cannot miss it. Multiple cables hang like tangled liquorice from poles, buildings and anything that is stationery. A puzzling mesh which would seem impossible to maintain and is possibly dangerous, thus similar to the public transport networks of those two countries.

May I mention toilets? Yes I can. Oddly enough I prefer the miniature hand operated shower heads attached to each of them in Asia over the wasteful use of tissue paper. That said the general standard of toilet repair and cleanliness is far superior in Adelaide.

Now a rapid switch of subject to wildlife. I saw little in Asia (apart from the Kratie rats and dolphins); though I must confess I did not visit many national parks. However, the fauna of Australia is in your face: in the gardens, parks and roadsides in fact almost everywhere. I especially enjoyed the Australian birds: from the tuneful magpie to the friendly willy wagtail and the colourful eastern rosella and more. Then there are the koalas, kangaroos, echidnas and so on – wonderful.

With regards to people, well its all so mixed up nowadays, but I found the Cambodians the friendliest, possibly the most relaxed and probably the most attractive.

The currency in both Vietnam and Cambodia is quite ridiculous. I regularly drew two million dong from the cash machines in Vietnam, those that worked for me that is, so I now know how it feels to be a millionaire.  Cambodians have a similarly inflated riel but most business is done in American dollars there. I carried one 10$ note with me during all my time in that country and, though I regularly offered it up as payment, it was always refused because it had a minute tear along one edge. Yet in Australia it was changed without a glance.

Then there is food, a sensitive topic for a man with a sensitive stomach. Vietnam leans towards China for many things, yet it also embraces bread as well as rice. Cambodia leans more towards India but has its own recipes, I particularly liked ‘amok’ - curried fish in coconut milk eaten with boiled rice. And Australia leads on snitzel which the sensitive stomach appreciates. But in truth there is little contrast here since Adelaide offers food from all over Asia in addition to British and American staples.

In terms of development Adelaide is a nice clean city with beautiful parks, and everything works. Taiwan could be regarded similarly in relation to the rest of Asia and Thailand is not far behind it. Vietnam comes next displaying a remarkable recovery from that dreadful war with America and, though there is some way to go, the improvements wrought by a capitalist based economy are visible everywhere. Cambodia must be regarded as a work in progress on many fronts, yet blessed with a pleasant capital and lots of temples – oh so many temples. Please, no more temples.

Finally, I haven’t mentioned pubs. All I can say is how nice it was to return to England and drink a few pints of real ale in my local.