Saturday, 21 December 2013

Christmas Fast and Christmas Present

I have, for many years, held a fast a few days before Christmas. I start at around midnight and take nothing but water (warm water) for thirty-six hours or so until I break my fast with breakfast. I have written about this before, but cannot resist doing so again.

Why do I do it? I'm not entirely sure. I once worked with a man called Aziz Ratansi. An interesting fellow, he told me that he had once suffered from depression and had cured himself by fasting. This intrigued me. Besides, I think we all eat too much; it becomes a habit rather than a necessity or a pleasure. Also, admiring the iron will of great men like Gandhi I wanted to experience starvation, at least the early stages, for myself. And, again, my fast is a counterpoint to the coming overindulgence of Christmas. Strangely, over the years, it has become part of Christmas for me.

I fast alone. I do not mean that I isolate myself in a darkened room or walk off into a dark forest: I just carry on as normal. However, on one occasion my eldest son joined me. He did well until the twenty-fourth hour when he hungrily scoffed everything that he had missed during the day! I am told that I become grumpy during my fasting day - an accusation that I angrily deny. I am taunted sometimes. Years ago, my sons would come to find me after a meal, describe what they had eaten then blow food-laden breath into my face. I almost broke down when they had been eating baked beans.

Breaking the fast has become ritualistic. I carefully prepare my food then lay it out in front of me: cereal bowl to the fore, banana behind, fruit juice to the right, herbal tea beyond. The radio must be turned off and I do not read (I usually do read at breakfast time)). I then sit quietly for a few minutes studying my inner feelings: the slight discomfort in my stomach, the metallic taste in my mouth, the very mild headache. Then, slowly, I raise the glass of juice to my lips. This year I drank cloudy apple juice - glorious. The first sip, so strong in taste, slowly travels over my taste buds gradually invading my entire mouth- wonderful. Then the warm crunchiness of the pecan and maple cereal, so sweet, so textured, so satisfying. Then the  ceremonial stripping of the banana, that wonderful fruit that nature supplies pre-packed, its texture so soft and dense in contrast to the cereal, its flavour unique and delicious. Finally the tea: fennel tea. I drink it every morning and am usually barely aware of it, but on this day my awareness is at a peak, I am instantly conscious of an overwhelming sweetness which almost hides the subtle flavour of fennel, perhaps I should not add the sweetener tablet on fast days.

And then it is all over, I have done it again, back to normal. Fasting is not easy to do, and does not get easier with practice, but I will do it again. It is sort of cleansing, I believe. And it suits my mental outlook. I shall enjoy Christmas all the more for having fasted. Roll out the beer and brandy, the immense roast dinner followed by unneeded Christmas pud, chased down by cheese and port. Mouth-watering.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

My latest book - 3D Futures - got a great review.

I know that most regular readers of this blog are already aware of the launch of my first science fiction novel. However, I can't resist putting the first review up here so that others can read it. Obviously it is a good one (would I put it here if it wasn't?) But I am impressed and delighted by Giulio Prisco's comments. He has clearly read the book fully, not just scanned it to produce a review.

Here it is in full. Alternatively you can access it at his sci-fi website which is called skefi'a - just click. The eBook is still on sale for just under a pound/dollar/euro as an intro price from Amazon and Smashwords. Just click here to see it at my bookshop.

3D Futures: The disembodied, the departed and the dispossessed, by Rob Walters, is a fresh, entertaining and thought-provoking science fiction novel with interleaved stories, including a thriller in a future society of uploads.

The novel is set in the 23th of 24th century, or so I guess from hints in the book: a World Constitution (something that may happen in a few decades) was adopted in 139 Before Separation (BS), and the events in the book seem to take place at least a few decades after the Separation. Read on to find out what the Separation was.

Most of humanity, the Dispossessed, have returned to savagery, with some communities trying to slowly rebuild civilization after the Separation.

En route to the stars to settle a new planet, the spaceship Shi Shen is populated by a few thousands of people, the Departed, mostly of Chinese origins. It was launched by the Chinese Economic Entity, one of the world powers before the Separation.

The Separation: after the development of mind uploading technology, most among the rich and powerful have chosen to upload and become the Disembodied, living as pure software in Cworld, a virtual world running on supercomputers on Earth and in space.

“Research into consciousness had lead to a startling, though perhaps obvious, conclusion: consciousness was simply the total sum of the brain’s activity—its memories and processing capability… It was then a small step to envisage the movement of a conscious persona into a bodiless digital network… [T]he complete physical transfer of a persona into a digital store, and the provision of a sufficiently powerful computer system to support an artificial world in which personas could reside. This world was Cworld, and it promised immortality: an existence without physical danger, disease or ageing.”

Rob Walters is an experienced writer, author of many books of varied genres, but this is his first science fiction novel. In the Introduction, he says:

“In my youth, I read science fiction books avidly, sometimes as much as a book a day. My masters were: Asimov, Clarke, Sheckley, Aldiss, Moorcock, and many others… Later, when I started to fancy myself as an author, I began to realise that the sci-fi genre offered a writer the ultimate freedom in creativity. Nevertheless, I did not feel inspired to tackle a genre which, I suspected, was still dominated by the mentors of my youth.”

For a first science fiction novel, this is a great one. I encourage you to buy the book for 0.99 US$ (yes, 0.99 US$) at Smashwords. You will not regret buying the book: perhaps this is not a Hugo or Nebula winner, but it’s solid, well-thought, and entertaining science fiction for many hours of reading pleasure.

There are four interleaved stories. One sketches the history of the world from our days to the World Constitution, the launch of the spaceship Shi Shen, the development of mind uploading technology, the Separation, and the development of the Disembodied society in Cworld. The other three stories are narrated by Remus, the leader of a small band of Dispossessed, Tali, a young Departed on Shi Shen, and Zimbaud, a Disembodied in Cworld.

I found especially interesting Zimbaud’s story in Cworld. In this thriller, Zimbaud and friends must find and defeat the source of a mysterious influence, a software “corruption” that threatens all Disembodied with madness and eventually dispersal, the disintegration of personal software identity. In the story, which strongly reminds me of Greg Egan’s Diaspora, we see many features of Cworld history, technology, and society, shown in-depth and with attention to detail.

Remus’ adventures, a classical post-apocalyptic “science fiction western,” lead his little band to a settlement where people try to rebuild a functional, civilized community. To ensure the security of their new home, Remus’ band will have to fight the savage Morgants, whose apocalyptic “religion” offers hopes to gain immortality in Cworld… as a prize for slaughtering enough people.

Tali’s thread is the coming-of-age story of a young rebel in the small society of the Shi Shen starship. Planned by the Chinese bureaucracy before the Separation, the starship is governed by a militarized crew with strict authoritarian rules under a benevolent cover, ubiquitous surveillance, and mind-wiping (or worse) for the dissenters. The crew seem to have lost control of the starship, which of course is kept secret from the passengers. Tali and a handful of rebels will take back the control of Shi Shen with the help of a “ghost in the machine,” and perhaps they will steer it back to Earth.

The three story threads, initially unrelated, come loosely together at the end. But there are still many questions to answer and much to be seen in Walters’ 3D Futures universe, and I definitely look forward to reading the promised sequels.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Mandela Gone

I read about his death on the big screen of a pub last night. I was out celebrating my return to Oxford with a friend whose wife is from South Africa: that seemed sort of appropriate. We talked about Nelson and the way that he had impacted our lives of course, but I was unemotional; no man can go on forever. This morning lying in bed listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 review Mandela's life, character and achievements, I shed a few tears. In common with so many people I feel that the man, and the fight to defeat apartheid, are part of my life.

Not that my role was at all significant, but every little did help in a battle where good and bad seemed so clearly demarked. I was a member of the Anti Apartheid movement. I read its regular newspaper and travelled to London for demonstrations where I was appalled and frightened by the hunger for violence shown by a minority of the demonstrators and police. I dramatically announced my determination to close my account at the local branch of Barclay's bank because of the company's links with South Africa - only to be told that I was overdrawn! We boycotted South African fruit and cheered at the grand attempts to isolate the regime from sporting activities.

Like so many I watched TV for hours as we waited for Mandela's release from prison. I can still picture the entranceway to that prison where time seemed to stand still until, finally, the great man was allowed out. I failed to go to Wembley when Mandela came to England at last, but was proud that one member of the family, my youngest daughter, was there amongst the crowds to greet him. And what a greeting. I cannot remember how many times Nelson walked to that microphone to speak, only to retreat again and again as the crowd continued to pour out warm waves of adulation. And he handled it so well.

Of course, everyone knows that one person rarely changes history, but Nelson Mandela is, and always will be, the symbol of a new South Africa and the gradual death of racial intolerance.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Historical distortions in virgins' thighs

Warning: this article could be very upsetting to those who believe the virginal state to be perfect or those who believe that they will be presented with a large number of virgins when they meet their maker. In fact, it this blog has little to do with virgins at all and a lot to do with roofing techniques in Spain. The title was chosen to bump up my reader statistics and in particular is an attempt to beat my most popular blog yet which is entitled Prostitutes, oranges and burning babies. A further warning: this article contain disturbing photographs. And a disclaimer: no virgins were deflowered in the preparation of this article.

My late father-in-law, a true gentleman if ever I met one, was a plasterer and roofer. He taught me all that I know about these arcane subjects, though solely based on English practice. How he would have coped with Spanish plaster I do not know – probably dismissed it as “foreign tack”. There are two types: rapido and controlado. The Spanish, with the exception of Speedy Gonzales and their behaviour behind the wheel of a car, are not generally associated with rapidity, yet  their rapid plaster sets like greased lightning. Even the controlled stuff sets in five minutes or less. And their roofs! They are really something else.

Many years ago I bought some farmland together with a ramshackle house built of flint. The house needed complete renovation and Henry, my father-in-law, travelled all the way to Suffolk to help me re-roof the place. It was quite a big job and I learned a lot from doing it. Sadly, a few years later, during one of the big storms, a large tree fell on the house and the roof that we had painstakingly restored had to be ripped off and redone – this time by professionals.

That roof was covered in Suffolk pantiles which were more or less regular in size; they sat on wooden battens, then on roofing felt then on the rafters. In Spain the rafters were traditionally covered in a woven matrix of cane, then a layer of plaster and finally the tiles. Nowadays the plaster and cane is replaced with a layer of concrete, but it is the tiles that I want to talk about and it’s here that we meet the virgins. These tiles are used all over the Mediterranean area, they are roughly half-circular in cross section and about half a metre long, narrowing along their length. A suitable mould for making these clay tiles could therefore be the human thigh.
A well-laid roof looks great and characterises the villages of Spain. They are made from alternate lines of tiles, one line forming the caps, the other the gutters. The gutters are laid open side up and narrow end down, the caps are the opposite. Sounds simple enough, but there are two problems: firstly, how to end the rising edges of the roof and secondly, those virgins had very varied and odd thighs.

I won’t go into the bodge that is used at the ends of the roof, if you are interested have a close look at the photo of my roof, it’s the virgins that I am interested in here. Clearly their thighs varied in width, length, girth and taper. What’s worse some of them were clearly distorted, either by the uncomfortable process of being the mould, an accident of birth or some dramatic accident in the fields (see examples). Or perhaps they wriggled when the cold clay was applied or when the tile maker removed it. Or, more simply, the tileman dropped the moulded clay on its journey to the furnace since the virgins were not baked with the tile (that certainly would have caused a shortage of virgins). Maybe the tilemakers became overexcited when removing the slippery moulded clay. Who  knows?. Just look at the photos if you can bear it.

But were virgins really used in making clay tiles or is the whole thing a fabrication by the overactive brains of the tile layers? I have conducted a simple experiment using myself as a subject. Now, I am not a virgin and that admission may invalidate the whole thing. Nevertheless, I have  endeavoured to fit traditional tiles to my own thighs (see photo). The results are quite shocking. If virgins were used then they certainly possessed very long thighs. Since Spanish ladies of the past were generally short, the long thigh could only be achieved by a shortened calf. Gosh, those ladies must have had a strange gait.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Spanish, the language. Buying and selling. Owing or lending.

My Spanish is not good, but I comfort myself with the fact that I can say much more than I understand – which I think is unusual. This does have a downside: sometimes I do not understand what I am saying myself, or what I have said.

One of my biggest gaffs was at the Chinese Bazaar in Alcaniz, our nearest city (of sorts). A few years ago these bazaars were unknown in this part of Spain, it was only possible to buy cheap Chinese stuff from street markets (one of which is run by our friends here in Spain). Now there are bazaars everywhere, selling everything from artificial flowers to tools usable for one job only (like one screw). Anyway, I entered the biggest one in Alcaniz and asked the Chinese gentleman at the till if he sold electrical cable. He turned away without replying. Puzzled, I spelled out my request very carefully, “Compras cable electricidad?” Still he ignored me. So I left, vowing never to go there again no matter how cheap the tools are.
Next day it dawned on me that I had used the wrong verb. I had actually asked him if he bought electrical cable. He probably thought that I was a cable thief and had half a reel of lighting flex hidden somewhere about my body.

Today I did it again. Our huerto has a number of small terraces. We have cleared two and planted fruit and nut trees on them. Above the olive grove is a third terrace, bigger than the others, which is rapidly being invaded by two of the most voracious weeds around here: bramble and bamboo. A villager told me that Bernado, the large man with a big black beard and a big black motorbike, had a machine that could clear the terrace. I asked if it was a JCB (in Spanish), but my informant said definitely not.

It was a JCB. Like a yellow beast from a transformer movie, it roared around my terrace razing everything including small trees, irrigation pipes and the walls of the water course. But cleared the terrace was, so I paid Bernado sixty Euros and stared gloomily at the bonfire he had created in the middle of my scourged and compacted terrace. I did ask him about the roots that clearly remained beneath the surface and he promised that, for more money, he would come back again with a tractor to tear them out once I had burned the bonfire.

As I tackled the difficult task of relaying the old tiles on the new roof of my caseta, I heard a tractor roaring along the agricultural road that runs beside the river. From my rooftop, I could see that it was carrying just the right implement to pull out those roots. I glanced up form my task regularly, noting its progress and hoping that it would be working somewhere nearby and that I could persuade the driver to deal with my terrace. Then it pulled onto my land. I thought that it was going to my neighbour’s terrace since we share an access way, but no – it turned onto mine and set about its work. It was Bernardo, no mistaking him now that he was nearby. The work did not take long and afterwards Bernardo came to talk to me as I continued my task up on the roof. I thanked him and said that now I owed him money (he had owed me some). He looked a little puzzled, but said, I think, that the work was nothing.

Later, up there on the rooftop, I realised that I had used the wrong verb again. This time I had used a verb which means – confusingly – both borrow and lend, whereas I meant to use the verb deber which means to owe. So now I do not know whether I owe big Bernardo money or not. I await with fear the sound of that big black motorbike, or worse still – the JCB.

Well, we all make mistakes. My worry is that these are just some that I know about – there must be others. It is disappointing though, I have tried hard to learn the language. Perhaps reading all those Harry Potter in Spanish was a waste of time, I certainly don’t hear the Spanish mentioning magic wands and spells very much.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Seduction: Ancient and Modern

Decimalisation and the changes that have taken place in weights and measures have shafted English writers. It’s just too difficult to make the necessary conversions. For example, it is quite unacceptable to modernise “the murderer inched towards his victim, his heart pounding” to “the murderer centimetred towards his victim, his heart kilogramming”. And how can you express the old adage “inch by inch it’s a cinch, by the yard it’s very hard”? Here’s my best attempt “millimetre by millimetre it’s much simpler, by the metre it defeats you”. Hardly trips of the tongue, does it?

Reversing the situation, it is almost impossible for the youngsters of today to understand the words of some dated novels, poems or songs. My prime example is one of the songs I sing down on the huerto when creating yet another plaster arch between the beams. There are sixteen new beams, which makes eighteen spaces to fill. Each space takes about a day to complete and I start by installing six formers then laying twelve or so lathes on top of them. I then spend an age cutting short lengths of bamboo to fill the inevitable gaps where the lathes meet the wobbly beams (they are actually trees with the bark and branches removed). I finish the preparation by placing four leaves on the lathes (to leave their imprint) and by making and installing three wire-ties which will become embedded in the plaster.

Have you followed all that or just lost interest? Anyway, I am then ready to pour plaster between the beams: it usually takes ten mixes of the stuff. All of this means that I climb up and down to my wobbly scaffolding at least twenty-five times each day. In short, it’s all a bit boring which is why I sing. My prime example of dated English is Mary of the Mountain Glen. Here’s the first verse in case you’ve forgotten it.

Mary of the mountain glen
Seduced herself with a fountain pen
The pen it bust, the ink went wild
And she gave birth to a blue-black child
They called the bastard Stephen
They called the bastard Stephen
They called the bastard Stephen
Because that was name of the ink
Not Quink

Singing this to any of my grandchildren would produce an increasingly blank face. They might, just possibly, know what a glen is. After that it will be downhill all the way from the fountain pen to Quink. So, whilst placing all that plaster (nearly one hundred bags) my mind has not been idle. Here is my creation: a modern verse for the song:

Mary grew very fond of her son
She thought she would have another one
One day when she was all alone
She seduced herself with a mobile phone
The phone it rang, Mary went wild
And she gave birth to a cellular child
They called the little one Samsung
They called the little one Samsung
They called the little one Samsung
Because that was the name of his Dad
Step Dad.

So what’s next? Assuming a little health problem is dealt with, I shall be back to work on Monday and will finish the plastering later in the week. Then I will spend a day or two laying a concrete slab on top of the plastered beams followed by replacement of the original roof tiles. Tradition claims that these old clay tiles have been shaped on a virgin’s thigh, which is perhaps why they are so rare nowadays post the invention of the fountain pen and mobile phone.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Political order and my Spanish stone hut

I have lots of time to think whilst here in rural Spain. Most of my hours, on most days of the week, are spent all alone working slowly to create a living space within the huerto (garden/orchard/olive grove thingy). I like it there and am making some progress: on this visit I have installed the beams, created a traditional ceiling of arched plaster between them and on Friday poured concrete on top to create a terrace. What do I think about whilst doing all this very practical stuff? The work mostly. It is absorbing and engages most of my conscious thought. Sometimes I sing, so it’s fitting that I’m alone.

In my other life, my home life if you like, I drink plenty of beer and some wine. I eat delicious food, watch some Spanish TV and the occasional English video, greet the villagers at the bar and bid them adios, write notes about what I have done and read. Yes, of course, I read.

Since I have been here, I have read and enjoyed a large biography on Dorothy Hodgkin. I did this with a vague intention of writing about her and Margaret Thatcher. Dorothy was Margaret’s tutor at Oxford and became famous in scientific circles for her work on the structure of molecules (she tied down the nature of penicillin and insulin, for example). She was also an ardent leftist and supporter of the Soviet Union, Communist China and North Vietnam. Margaret Thatcher…well everyone knows about her, though not everyone is aware that she started out as a research chemist. Interestingly, I could only get Dorothy’s biog as a paper book and found it both odd and frustrating to read. I am now a committed eBooker (a reader of eBooks) and miss the facilities that my Kindle provides when forced to read a “real” book.  

My core reading over here is a tome (does that term apply to eBooks?) by Francis Fukuyama. It’s all about the origins of political order which may sound dull, but I find it fascinating. I was equally impressed and enlightened by his previous book entitled The End of History and the Last man. For me he has the ability to clarify things that I half understand about history and particularly the evolution of society, of us that is. To my delight, he does not start his analysis with England and the seventeenth century, though now having read 60% of the book that has become his focus. No, he starts with China of 2,000 plus years ago when Confucius placed the emphasis on learning and when the most able ran the state, i.e. those who had passed the relevant exams rather than the sons of the previous ministers. I learned a little of this when we taught in China and was impressed by the longevity of the Chinese empire and its ability to absorb rather than be usurped by invaders. Of course, what Chinese government lacked was any accountability and it did produce many cruel regimes (the cruelest of which was lead by a woman – Empress Wu), but it was incredibly successful at building vast transport and irrigation systems and stable systems of government capable of holding together an immense empire over millennia.

The thing about a book like Fukuyama’s is that it makes me think. However, this does not apply to my working hours at the huerto. There, if you opened my mind, you might find the words of that old rugby song Mary of the Mountain Glen, or a debate on whether to use a screw or a nail, or the  need to know what a passing farmer is transporting in his tractor trailer, or a curse as a large stone slips from my grasp, or just nothing, nothing at all.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

When is a holiday not a holiday, and what would the bull say?

Yes, I now, everyone thinks that we go to Spain for holidays, as we say our goodbyes many people kindly say “have a good time” or “how lovely, enjoy the sun”. To us, our house in the village of La Fresneda is home, just another one that’s all, and I certainly know more people here than I do in Stow-on-the-Wold! But, occasionally, just occasionally, when we are here, someone rents the house so we carefully hide all the booze and delicacies and take off in our motor caravan.

Curmudgeonly, I begrudge these interruptions to my work on the stone hut, yet I usually enjoy them enormously. This one started badly. Friends kindly invited us to a karaoke night at a bar run by some English people in a town down on the coast. Fresh from our most recent visit to the karaoke culture of Taiwan we expected too much from the evening. Here the singers mostly sang to the screen and were pretty much ignored by everyone else, good singers though they mostly were. Doing karaoke in Taiwan we feel part of something different and we always sing, in Spain we did not.

Next day we took the prostitute-lined road south, in search of the ephemeral “nice seaside town”. Most places that we visited were awful: overdeveloped and for sale. Then we found Acossebre which was low rise, pretty, had excellent beaches and was holding a fiesta that very night. We went to see the bulls twice! No not that awful business where the bull is tortured to near death then killed, often badly, with a sword. Not that at all. Here the daring young men who face the bull are the only ones in real danger. They “play” with the thing, enticing it to gore them then escape onto robust tables or behind thick iron bars when necessary (at one exciting moment the bull jumped onto the table too).

Personally, I see nothing wrong with this, though others do not agree. A good friend from our village asked me “what would the bull say?” I don’t know of course, no one does. But, is it just possible that the bull might choose a Saturday night out with flaming torches tied to its horns whilst chasing after crazy men over a quiet night in the bull pen, or a karaoke evening?

We moved on to the towns of the upper Duero river above Madrid. One of these, Medinaceli, was so quiet that deathly would be an understated adjective (I think I heard a dog bark once). Another, El Burgo, had one of the liveliest central squares that I have ever seen: people all around and kids tearing across the place on every conceivable child’s transport. Inevitably there was a crash and some tears until the injured were taken away to the sweet shop.

The Duero is nice, it flows all the way to Portugal, through Oporto and out to sea. W saw some remarkable churches, castles and so on in the towns that it passes through. However, in the architecture stakes I give Tarazona, in our own region of Aragon, top marks. It has fine examples of Gothic, Romanic and Arabic architecture together with a jumble of streets in the old Jewish quarter which boasts hanging houses (no we did not hang out there). We ate tapas in Tarazona, slept in the hospital car park and then went home – to La Fresneda. No bull.

And the weather here? As I passed the butchers today, the display said thirty-one degrees. Everyone else was asleep.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Dying trees and Syria

We have now planted about a dozen fruit and nut trees on the terraces of our “huerto” in Spain. Naturally it is difficult to care for them when we are not here, but I have installed a system of tubes so that they are drip fed with water during the intense Spanish summer. The first sight of our efforts was discouraging. Someone had removed my tube from the water channel cutting of the supply of drips, and the weeds had grown so high (nearly three metres in places) that there was no sign of our little trees!

The rescue attempt has has been a slow, early morning chore before the sun rises to full strength. I first reconnected the drip feed tube then gradually pulled up, or dug up, the malas hierbas (bad plants) to expose the good. At least two trees had perished through lack of water but I can now see the remaining ones and, when there is sufficient rainfall to soften the rock hard ground, I will rotavate the terraces. This will destroy the root systems of remaining, but will extend my sysphean efforts by churning in their seeds into the fertile. There is an end in sight though: one day the tress will be big enough to fend for themselves – I hope.

It may seem trivial to compare my horticultural world to the present situation in Syria, but I feel compelled to do so. Recently we heard that the attempt by the UK’s Conservative led coalition to involve our forces against the current regime was thwarted by a slim majority of thirteen. Hallelujah. I am not an expert on Syria in any way, but I have spent some time back-packing there and feel some sort of affinity. I also suspect that my, very limited, knowledge of that fraught country is just a little greater that that of David Cameron and his foreign secretary – and that’s not saying much. But it is sufficient to say this: don’t interfere. You do not understand the situation and you certainly do not know what demons you support in siding with and opposition which is very likely to be far more oppressive, and certainly more extreme, than the current regime.

Of course, we should provide humanitarian aid for those displaced in the fierce tussle for power in this culturally rich country, but that should be all. It is not our business and one should keep one’s nose, however well meaning, out of other people business. Surely, we can learn some lessons from the very recent past: we and our friends in the USA are not much cop at nation building, are we?

OK, it is all very well to pontificate when you are sitting in a tiny village  in the middle of Spain, but before leaving I did try. I wrote to William Hague over a month ago questioning his outright support for the opposition in Syria and the futility of aiding victory by yet another extremist Muslim regime whose support for democracy is belied by their true beliefs. I received a long, well researched, and polite response written by an aide which told me how wrong I was. Fortunately, our democratic processes did not agree with that aide.

I really do not know what the Spanish attitude towards Syria is, but I can guess. With a collapsed economy and youth unemployment running at 50% they have other concerns: like the repatriation of Gibraltar, a great smokescreen spread to obscure the underlying economic problems. That aside, it is my belief that they would not support military intervention in Syria. They have an underlying understanding of the conflict that nationalism and separation brings. They would leave well enough alone, yet would help the innocents damaged by a conflict which they neither started nor support. We should do the same.

I can easily distinguish between the weeds and the trees over here and hence root out the bad plants. Over there it is far more difficult. My neighbour, a slash and burn style farmer, told me that I should use chemicals to suppress the weeds. My response, that I did not support the use of poisons on ground that grows food, was probably lost in my faltering Spanish. But my utter condemnation of the use of chemicals to kill innocent men, women and children should penetrate any language barrier. It is my sad view that the argument of who did what and to whom in this matter may never be resolved and to attack selected parts of this ailing country on this pretext is so reminiscent of those elusive Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as to be prophetic.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Spain again, but England is loath to let us go.

The journey from Oxford to our home in Spain is about 1,300 miles. We mostly take it slowly and endeavour to enjoy the trip: it’s like a holiday.

This time we travelled in our replacement camper van: it’s bigger than the old one which we had for ten years. We got as far as Dover without mishap. There we visited the castle which is enormous and commands an imposing position high above the famous white cliffs. There I learned that this stronghold was only once invaded – by a group of drunken townsfolk during the English civil war. We ate in an interesting restaurant called the Allotment and had a long conversation with a delightful pair. The mother was some sort of adviser to the EU in Brussels and the son captured pirates in different parts of the world. We were in awe.

Next morning we got up in plenty of time for the ferry to Calais. I went for a run, we ate breakfast, showered, then with an hour or so to go before departure I turned the key of the van. Nothing. It had a completely flat battery! I raced around trying to find someone with jump leads: no good. A kindly local lead me to Halfords, but it did open until 10 a.m. on Sundays! I ran back to the van removed one of the bicycles we were carrying and pedalled quickly to the ferry terminal arriving just before our boat was due to depart. There a friendly P&O Ferries employee rang a few people then informed me that it was OK: I could take a later ferry at no extra charge.

I cycled back to the van then walked once more to Halfords which was about a kilometre away and just opening. I explained my problem and asked if they could bring a new battery around and possibly fit it. The young man at the counter was willing to bring the thing around in his own car, but had to check with his boss. This man shook his head slowly and mouthed the stultifying words “health and safety”.

So, I had to carry the heavy battery back to the van – and it was heavy. At least two people actually said, “That ttttlooks heavy,” as I struggled along – such wits the Dover men. But I finally got there and began the difficult job of changing the batteries over: things are such a tight fit in modern vans. By two o’clock or so we had left the old battery at Halfords and were on our way across the channel. Not too bad really. The man at the ferry gate wanted to see the receipt for the battery before letting us through, but then gave us a ten-pound token to spend on board! I had a Cornish pasty, the last for at least three months.

France was as enjoyable as ever, but expensive for food and drink, and run down in places. Highlights of the journey were the Ouche Valley in the Bourgogne where we rode our bikes alongside the canal, and Villefranche in the Pyrenees, a magical walled town full of shops and restaurants.

We reached our village just in time to catch the end of the major fiesta where the firework-spitting bull chased us. We danced, were kissed by people we hardly know, drank far too much and finally went to bed at five in the morning. Nice to be back.

Monday, 12 August 2013

A fairy tale reborn

I started writing a long time ago. In the past much of my stuff was technical - reports, conference papers and such, then latterly books. But I also wrote things for my kids in the early days and did try to get one of my creations published. It was a long poem called the Bogle of Bump and I must confess that quite a lot of it was written during interminable meetings! Through the Campaign for Real Ale I met an illustrator, Liz Worsley, and she prepared some lovely drawings to accompany the poem. I offered the thing to a few publishers, but soon gave up. After all, the Bogle of Bump was really written for my girls, not for the public.

Later, the boys came along and I read the tale to them whilst showing them Liz's colourful pictures. I think they liked it. Time passed, the typewritten verses began to yellow and the pictures to fade then, possibly stimulated by my son's poem , The House of Stink, which is much better than mine and illustrated by himself (Rafe's a clever lad), I thought - why not resurrect my old story?

I dug it out, scanned the written sheets and passed it through some software to change the typescript into text, then scanned the pictures and chopped them up them to match each verse. Next, I used PowerPoint to combine the pictures and text exporting these as image files into the Kindle comic creator. It all took a long time - though not as long as writing the thing in the first place. And, thirty-nine years after reading it to Sheena, my eldest daughter, I uploaded the thing onto the Kindle Store: The Bogle of Bump was published as an eBook!

It's a story about a wicked witch and an ugly bogle called Bungi, together with pretty fairies who have lost their fairy light and their sight: good old-fashioned fairy tale stuff with a happy ending. I don't suppose it will ever sell many copies if any, but I offered it for free for a couple of days and there were a few takers in the USA, UK, Germany, Italy and Japan!

Of course, bogles and their like do not age, but since Bungi Bogle was born in my head it will be his fortieth birthday next year. When he was conceived, the Internet was just a whisper amongst academics and a secret tool of the military. There were no mobile phones or personal computers, microwave ovens were for the rich and the nearest thing to facebook was a pen pal or two. Nowadays, my Bungi Bogle is dancing around the World Wide Web!

Sunday, 4 August 2013

They're stealing my books!

On Thursday night I went to a strange do in Oxford. Held in a pub, of course, it consisted of a couple of plays without scenery and then an off-the-cuff performance which included members of the audience. It was a little odd, but rather fun. I didn't get involved in the extempore stuff, but did get talking to some of the actors over a pint afterwards. One was a bright young software engineer from Moldova (next to Ukraine, he informed me tiredly). His girlfriend is writing a book (who isn't?) so we got to talking about eBooks.

He was particularly interested, I recall, in protection. How could you ensure that your book wasn't pirated: copied then sold, or given away, by someone else? We talked a little about Digital Rights Management which is supposed to protect eBooks, but neither of us knew much about it. I told him that Smashwords (which sells eBooks in lots of formats) did not use it and claims that it is actually counterproductive: it's better to have your words out there regardless of the odd bit of pilfering, they say.

Recently, I made the exciting discovery that Smashwords had sold a number of copies of my novel, Shaken by China, in New Zealand and Australia. Since then I've been going a little Smashwords crazy. I now have seven books in their eBook shop and I told my Moldovan friend that I was quite happy with the odd person copying a book that they had bought of mine and giving it to someone else. It seemed to me a little like lending a paper book - but it isn't.

Next evening I did a search for "Hedy Rob Walters" I can't remember exactly why, I think I was trying to get to the Hedy Lamarr page of my own website without clicking the visitor count. Anyway, I was amazed at the sheer number of hits that came up and started to wade through them, then I came to this:

Yes, my Hedy Lamarr book available for FREE to anyone! I was stultified. That book took ages of research and months of writing and rewriting. I sell it through Amazon as a paper book and an eBook and though it does not sell in huge quantities, it does sell and I am gladdened by every sale. Meanwhile, I now find that anyone searching for my book can download it for free from this pirate website and I have no idea how long this has been so.

How did they get my book? I don't know. Why do they do it? Money, somewhere along the line, I suppose. How did I feel? Angry, despoiled, gutted, but unsurprised. I immediately bashed out a flame email starting with "How dare you..." and ending with the threat of action if the book was not removed within one week.
Later that night I met Jim in one of my favourite pubs in Oxford (Far from the Madding Crowd) and told him of my shock discovery. He was unperturbed. He told me that he had found one of his own publications offered for free recently and was pleased, but then he's an academic. Moreover, he also told me that he had software that can strip off any protection surrounding an eBook or document. So what can you do? Anyone else experiencing this?

Part way through writing this blog I found another shocker. Someone has put much of my novel, Shaken by China, onto their website for anyone to read. They call themselves Kilibro and claim to offer readers the opportunity to dip into books before purchasing them, yet they offer no means of purchasing the book! I'm afraid that the more I search for this sort of thing the more I will find. It's a rough world out there in the Internet.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

English Heritage and the Death of the English Pub

We have a new second-hand camper van! It has a fixed bed and table and other luxuries which wild campers and one night stayers relish.

We have also taken out a years' membership of English Heritage which gives us free access to hundreds of ancient building across the country.

Recently we combined the two by taking the camper van on its first outing and visiting a number of castles, stately homes and such to the north of us. The sites we visited were great, the state of the pubs we passed was dire.

Let's take Bolsover. We didn't like it at first so went searching for other places to stay. We tried two nearby villages. Both were run down, both had boarded up pubs and clubs. It was depressing and a little scary. Sufficiently so to send us zooming back to Bolsover which then looked quite attractive!

We found a free car park which was quiet and had a space big enough for the van and then set off in search of beer, food, and good company. The pub near the car park was OK...just OK. Beer was cheap and local and decent. The place was a bit corporate, quite large and largely deserted. We had a drink and went out to explore the town, soon coming to a nicer looking pub. It was closed! Not permanently I think, just closed because there was no one about on a Tuesday night. We walked to another place standing next to the castle. It was closed, in fact it had not yet opened. It was a Wetherspoon place due, we later learned, to open in a week or so. It was called the Pillar of Rock. 

We walked further up the hill and found another pub which was open, but should not have been. It smelled inside and the garden was an untamed jungle of rotting picnic benches surrounded by litter. No one spoke to us and the beer was well past its best, as was the pub.

We shared a nasty bag of fish and chips whilst gloomily watching other people popping into the various take-aways. Then we found a smashing looking pub on the main street, but on closer examination it was closed and up for sale. Then another nearby: closed. We returned to the first pub and sat in its yard where we watched  the cavortings of a dog with an enormous head and worried about the pub scene.

I know the stats. I know that many pubs are closing each week.  I know of many pubs that have closed. But I have never seen, or imagined, anything like this. Not on this scale. This is indeed the end of an era. To quote Hillaire Belloc once more (after carefully typing his name), ".... when you have lost your Inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England". Don't worry too much though, Belloc had not heard of Wetherspoon and was not a member of English Heritage!

Friday, 12 July 2013

Shoe shining again: eBook to pBook

Like proverbial London buses: you wait for ages and two come along together. So too with my blogs.

A few years ago I became a shoeshiner, cycling around middle-England shining shoes in the streets, pubs and offices of the old shoe-producing cities. Naturally, I wrote an account of my adventures, publishing it as an eBook in 2011. Someone has asked me to do a presentation on this subject in August and I realised a simple fact – you can’t take eBooks along with you. So I decided, with some trepidation, to turn the eBook into a paper book. The trepidation is a hangover from producing the first edition of my Hedy Lamarr book in this way some eight years ago. It was an awful experience, and costly, and I was never happy with the look or the quality of the book.

I would not say that making Being Down, Looking Up into a paper book was a doddle, but it was so much easier than those tense weeks all those years ago; especially concerning cover design. And the process is now free! I’ve already received the first version and with a few changes (you can never be sure of a book until you hold it in your hand), my first order is winging its way to me from the States.

I did make some changes: I included photographs, did a light edit and produced a new cover. It was really interesting to read my own account through again after all this time and it really brought the experiences back to mind. Some things I had forgotten, yet reading about them revitalises the memories and seems to refresh them. I suppose the brain is remaking connections to recollections that have eroded through lack of use. It does convince me that it’s all up there somewhere, though access may be lost. Maybe keeping a diary is a good thing after all.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Walking and Writing

Blogging sporadically lately. Too busy writing, editing, publishing, guiding, campaigning and just living.

On Tuesday I set off from Stow-on-the-Wold to walk to Oxford. Not a great distance for some I suppose, but my friend and I did not hurry. We completed the thirty plus miles in two days. Our last walk together was just about a year ago. We began that at Yoxford, in Suffolk, and headed for Oxford. My friend did not complete the walk: he lasted just three days before dropping out with badly blistered feet. I trudged on alone and it was during that long walk that the idea for my current book occurred.

3D Futures is, not surprisingly, set in the future! It is my first venture into this genre and I really enjoyed writing it: the future is an unknown and the imagination consequently untrammelled. It has three stories running in parallel: in one the rich and clever have left the earth, living forever below it, their minds existing in digital form in highly secure servers; in another a large number of people have escaped the earth in order to colonise distant planets. The earth itself is therefore left to the dispossessed and it swiftly descends into anarchy and violence, though the green shoots of civilisation are beginning to emerge. The stories are about people’s lives in these extreme situation and, though separate, are linked in surprising ways. The whole thing is held together by ‘historical’ digressions which provide the background to the three worlds.

I uploaded 3D Futures to the Amazon’s Kindle store on the day after completing my Costwold walk whilst sitting with my feet in a bowl of hot salty water – they really hurt. I do not think that I could have walked for a third day! I have launched the book at less than a pound (or dollar or euro) and now am waiting anxiously for any sales.

I did enjoy the walk across the Cotswolds despite my hurting feet. Along the way we stopped to look in wonder at stunning views of rolling green, yellow and red fields, at the soft hills and the forests and woods. We saw a number of gracefully prancing deer; clear, swift moving streams and rivers; and delightful limestone villages. In the Wychwood forest we met a young lady crouching amongst the ferns having a fag: she was hiding from her even younger charges who were there to learn bushcraft. We camped secretly on the fringe of Charlbury and enjoyed a night of beer, food and merriment in two of its four pubs. In the Three Horseshoes we ate fish and chips watched by two King Charles spaniels lounging on the opposite settle and we entered the quiz. We came last, but strongly suspect that the other teams were cheating (smart phones were spotted).
We examined the remains of a splendid Roman villa located in a lovely and isolated spot – that is until a train rushed by just a field away. And we managed the whole walk without the use of technology: in fact, technology seemed out of place in those delightfully remote footpaths.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Bumping and Streaking in Oxford

A long lull in blogging. It’s not that I have nothing to write; it’s just that I’m writing a lot. In fact, I’ve just completed a mammoth editing session and my eyes hurt. I finished writing my sci-fi novel about a month ago and, as some of you will know, the hard work then begins. I think it is just about ready now, but needs a few eBookers to read it through before publishing—any additional volunteers?
Had a good night out in Oxford on Saturday. Walked along the Thames with a friend and bumped into the crowds returning from the bumps race. The colleges of Oxford University row against each other twice a year and these May races are known as the Summer Eights. We watched as the students carried the winning boat back to its college with the Cox riding on its incredibly long hull. Wonderful atmosphere along the usually serene banks of the river —noisy, boisterous and joyful.
We had a few pints at the Prince of Wales in Iffley and were given waitress service by the charming and garrulous landlady who wanted us to stay, but we had to move on. Visited three pubs along the Iffley Road as we shuffled down towards the centre of the city: good beer in all of them.
By the time we reached the High, the light was beginning to fade so at first I thought that my eyes were deceiving me. Walking alongside University College, we heard the sound of heavy boots hitting the pavement on the other side of the street. Looking up, I saw six galloping students, strapping lads all wearing boots, yes just boots! They ran with expressions of serious intent and looked unwaveringly ahead. Shocking, yet surprisingly funny: especially after a few pints. No pictures, I'm afraid.
I am still acclimatising after our sunny adventures in Australia, etc. I have slipped back into guiding, and have led nearly thirty tours this month. Actually, my memories of Australia are mainly of the climate, the animals and the bad beer. Here my experiences are underlined by bad weather, tourists and good beer. My garden in Stow isn’t growing well at all, seeds are not germinating and it’s too wet to work on the soil. But, there is good news. Friends have visited our fruit trees in Spain and they are thriving amongst the weeds (the trees that is, not the friends) and already bearing young fruit. See the photo.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Australia: The Fatal Shore

Three weeks is not a long time to spend in this huge country and it’s true that we only nibbled at it, but then what a satisfying nibble.

High points for me were the mammals, the birds and the coast. I really did not expect to see a koala bear in the wild, but I did. At first I thought I had spotted a swelling in the fork of small tree. I left the track and getting closer saw that it was a furry grey ball. Standing beneath the tree we watched limbs slowly disentangle from the ball and a face appear. The koala looked down at us blearily and we looked back at it smilingly. A lovely encounter. 

Kangaroos we met earlier with wallabies too. And later, in a special reserve in Bunbury the tame ones
nuzzled our hands hoping for food.

I doubt that the wombats could ever be tamed. The ones I met reminded me of a hairy log with short strong legs. One passed within a foot of my foot, just rooting about and minding its own business. Like kangaroos they are marsupials, but their pouch is reversed so that it does not fill  with earth as they dig.

I did not dream that I would ever see a wild echidna; they are a little like a hedgehog with a long snout for rooting out insects. They are not marsupials: in fact they lay eggs! Such wonders. One night I met a possum, a creature hated in New Zealand as a destructive colonist. In the day along a little path leading to the famous limestone cliffs and islands near the Great Ocean Road we made the acquaintance of a bandicoot.

And the birds! They are so wonderful, so different. From the ibis that strolls around the streets of Sydney to the noisy and colourful parrots and lorakeets. Then there are the white and pink and black cockatoos who argue constantly. Everywhere there are Australian magpies which look like white and black crows and have a lovely, tuneful song, and we also spotted the splendid fairy wren, the male of which is an iridescent blue. Of course, we also saw the famous kookaburra often sitting on a telegraph pole. Margaret sang her song (learned as a brownie) to one of them, but it did not laugh. Oh, and not to forget the pelicans, and emus, and on and on.

I paddled in the sea with sting rays measuring at least a metre in width. They were flapping around taking food from the hands of children. On the same beach we watched the biggest catch of salmon that I will ever see in my life. And the waves, such mountainous waves that attracted the brave or foolish surfers bobbing about waiting for a big one on which to practice their admirable skills.

Whilst travelling I read the book The Fatal Shore, recommended by Fergus our son (he was the reason that we traveled to this great continent). It is an excellent account of the conditions in Britain that gave rise to transportation and the whole history of the use of the aborigines’ continent as a dumping ground for our felons. What a story, and what a country.

We did not meet any aborigines (it seems from the stats that many of them are in prison) but we did meet plenty of resident Australians: helpful, straightforward, friendly, and unpretentious people on the whole. Many own large 4by4 trucks and they live hard and play hard. Yet surprisingly, we found that there were many petty restrictions, but these were leavened for the locals by the freedom to surf in the lunchtime and generally take advantage of the wonderful country life.

Pubs, the best ones, were enormous: they often have a large public and lounge bar, a games bar for pool and darts, a bistro, and a pokey room for gambling. The beer is cold and fizzy on the whole. One place actually advertised “tooth crackingly cold beer”! In one remote place I met a man who had visited Manchester and complained to me of the flat, warm beer he had to drink there. “Lies heavy on the stomach,” he said, “no fizz to lighten it up.” There is no accounting for taste or for the willingness to buy expensive keg beer at more than £10 a pint in some places.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Drifting in New Zealand.

New Zealand was the last country to be colonised by man. It now has a population of nearly 50 million – most of which are sheep. It is famous for the invention of bungee jumping, jet boating and highway drifting – all semi-dangerous activities. Meanwhile it has no snakes and by far the most dangerous animal there is man.

We drifted from Auckland to Christchurch over a period of nearly three weeks, mostly in a motor caravan. I saw bubbling mud and smelt it (very bad eggs). I saw geothermal sawmills and an active volcano spewing smoke into the sky above Lake Taupo and burned my feet in the hot sands surrounding that cold lake. I discovered that the Maoris are mostly physically integrated, by interbreeding, with the second wave of colonials from Europe (and that they are big people). I actually hunted down a kiwi bird. In fact, I think I saw two of them in the artificial gloom of a special enclosure, but I’m not sure – it was pretty dark and they’re shyly nocturnal. I did see and befriended a couple of fantails – my favourite bird in NZ - one of them nearly perched on my shoulder. I also admired the tui with its smart silver ruff and so-white bow tie. I did not enjoy the beer from the brewers who have stolen the tui’s name – but let’s not get on to NZ beer.  But, let’s not forget the silver eye bird or the blue swamp hen. I shall miss them.

I was encouraged to hate the possums. They destroy the environment for other creatures and steal birds’ eggs. Enjoined to squish them if I spotted one on the highway, I neither spotted nor squished. They are sweet looking creatures and NZ is the only country where you can legally hunt them.

I love trees and New Zealand has plenty. I became familiar with lancewood, whiteywood, the different beeches and the enormous totara. Also the strange cabbage and fern trees and the two species of tea trees.
I visited my first glacier and sailed through my first fjord – you can do so much in this little country. I paddled my feet in the Pacific and the Tasman, drank rum and coke, coughed a lot and itched unmercifully because of my attractiveness (to sandflies).

I was both hot and cold, wet and dry, and I got nicely brown on the exposed bits. I drove nearly three thousand kilometres, but it seems like much more: roads in NZ are narrow, mostly twisty and steep, and dual carriageways are solely for the cities. Along the way the patterning on many roads intrigued me. At first I thought that there had been many accidents, but no, those tyre marks were deliberate. Some zigzagged up the road, others showed that the driver had performed a full 360 turn whilst burning rubber. Our only hitchhiker, Raj, told me that drifting is a national pursuit for young drivers. It’s easy: you build up a lot of speed, pull on the handbrake and … drift. It’s also cheaper than bungee jumping and drier than jet boating.

I can now speak like a Kiwi (not the bird). How’s this for ‘ten hard men’: “Tin haad min.” Sadly, I think that the famed winky-wanky bird of a certain rugby song becomes the winky-winky bird, which sort of spoils the point. And ‘ten tin sheds’ becomes tin tin shids. What can I say?

Of the Kiwi people? Lovely: friendly, helpful, smiley, talkative, polite – one man volunteered the parking lot in the front of his paint spray business as a night stop for our motor caravan. How kind.

Our trip ended in Christchurch. It was a shock to be there. You can watch disaster clips on TV and get some appreciation of a major earthquake, but to see the destruction with you own eyes is quite, quite different. At first we thought that there were a massive amounts of rough surfaced car parks until we learned that these are the plots where crippled buildings have been razed and removed. Then we thought it amusing to see an antique shop operating from a container until we came to  astrange part of the city where all manner of shops and restaurants operate from garishly painted containers whilst the owners await new premises. Then we wandered unawares into the vicinity of the crippled cathedral where street after street is fenced off, the fences enclosing tottering buildings and propped up facades. We became trapped in this awful wilderness and, tired and hungry, came across a park where some worthies were distributing hot dogs to the homeless – we had one.

There are two hundred empty white seats near that park, itself near the TV centre which collapsed causing the greatest number of casualties. Each of those white seats are empty, they represent those that died in the Christchurch earthquake of 2011. They overlook a strange and massive wigwam affair made of steel and cardboard which is a temporary replacement for the cathedral. Life goes on; rebuilding has started.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

A sad tale of travel and beer.

After a really enjoyable week in Taiwan drinking beer with the friendliest people in the world, I felt the need for a pint of something more tasty, less fizzy, than Taiwanese Gold Label as we set off for New Zealand.
Unusually, I had chosen a hotel in advance in Aukland: the Shakespeare which was also a brewpub so I felt in good hands. We arrived in poor condition after another eleven hour flight plus the hop from Taiwan to Hong Kong and I needed rest rather than beer. We slept a little in our crummy and noisy room in the Shakespeare, then went out to do a little exploring. Aukland’s an interesting watery city and immensely cosmopolitan. We made plans for the following day then fell into a pub which had a  happy hour in the Britmark area of town.

First shock was the price. As someone said to me next day when I bought a bottle of Aspirin and almost swooned at the price: “Don’t do the conversion, it only upsets you”. It did. Beer was £4.50 a glass and that was less than a pint and that was in the happy(?) hour.

“What would you like?” asked the helpful but unsmiling barmaid.

Faced with one of these cool, chrome dispensers of cold, carbonated beer I did not know what to say. There were four to choose from – all unknown to me. I explained that I was an Englishman from England and did not know which to choose. She asked me if I liked light beer and that confused me further.

“Would you like to try one?” she asked kindly, but frostily.

“Yes please,” I replied with ridiculous enthusiasm.

She gave me a taste of the first: it was cold, harsh and very gassy. My dislike must have shown in my face because she poured some of the next choice into a second tasting glass: cold, harsh and very, very gassy. Her face tightened as she gave me a taste of the third and hardened further when I grimaced at the fourth.
“Do you have any craft beers,” I asked exasperated. I had read that there were craft beers in NZ. She turned to the fridge and pulled out a bottle of German style wheat beer. I had enjoyed a German beer of that style in Taiwan so I bought the bottle. It was cold, harsh and fizzy. I drank it unhappily.

So we returned to our hotel. They had a brewery there and advertised fish and chips (an NZ staple) at a reasonable price. The fish and chips were…OK. The beer tasted, if you can call it taste, just the same as those four samples: harsh, fizzy, cold. Saddened, we went out to a liquor store and bought a bottle of rum and a big bottle of coke, smuggled it into our room in black bags and mixed a couple of strong ones in the tooth brush glasses. Very good.

Next day we had a nice time doing things in Aukland then took the ferry to Devonport where I explored the lookout hill and gun emplacement and Margaret searched for a restaurant. People here were much friendlier that in the city, naturally, and I was late back having spent a half hour talking to a local I met on Cheltenham Beach (I grew up in Cheltenham Spa). Margaret and I walked to a bar near the ferry and, in trepidation, I ordered a beer. The manager was called! He explained to me that He could not sell that beer to me! Why? Because the cooler had broken and the beer was too warm. I asked to try it. Amazing: I could taste it, it was OK , it was not too fizzy. I delightedly ordered one of those and was allowed to have one.

We decided to take the ferry back to the city after that and then took a taxi to Galbraith’s ale house, a pub purporting to serve cask-conditioned beer in the traditional British fashion. And here’s the good news: it was great. Beer served at 10-12 degrees C as it should be and pulled through a handpump. The food was great too, and everybody friendly. One young barman went off and printed a long list of pubs for me: pubs I might visit on our three week tour. How kind. Then he told me the bad news: Galbraith’s is probably the only pub in NZ that serves beer traditionally. I fear the American influence has turned the Kiwis into cold lager lovers. How sad. But I’ll survive. Beer isn’t everything is it?  And just in case we will be carrying emergency supplies of rum and coke as we tour the islands in our commodious rented campervan.

Friday, 1 March 2013

eAddiction and its side effects.

This is not a rant against technology. Technology, generally, is neither good nor bad. The man who invented the motor car is not responsible for every pile up that has occurred since.
Today I have been to a lecture by Garry Kasparov (Former world chess champion and now politician) on Innovation. Nearly a thousand people pressed into the University’s Examination Schools to see and hear him. Late as usual, I had to sit in a wing of the hall where the acoustics were so bad that the speech may well have been in Russian at times for all I knew. The men on each side of me constantly fiddled with their smartphones and later one took out his iPad and started typing a memo or something. Somewhat annoying.
Went to an open-mike night at the Cape of Good Hope, Oxford last night. It often attracts some talented performers and the beer’s quite good. I soon found a place with a reasonable view of the stage. On the table next to me sat two young men armed with their smartphones. During the hour or so that I was there I estimate that they spent 90% of their time taking or sending messages, 5% of their time talking about the messages that they had received, and the other 5% poised – their eyes darting between the stage and the briefly quiescent phones. I found it distracting.
Last week in the Rose and Crown the landlady beckoned me over and pointed to a couple sitting at a corner table: they were not communicating, both had their laptops in full swing, neither of them had drinks.
Nora Ephron, Nick Hornby and  Zadie Smith all use Freedom, an app that switches off Internet access for fixed period so that they can work on their next masterpiece without wandering out onto the Web and forgetting the next twist in the plot they are developing. This is the inverse of opening hours, sort of, for those pub goers who can remember those wonderfully restricted days.
On a walk last month through wonderfully snow-covered Cotswolds hills, we passed Sezincote Manor. In true guiding spirit, I told the little that I knew of the origins of this fascinating Mogul edifice. A friend of a friend then whipped out his iPhone and just minutes later read out full chapter and verse on the place, right there in the middle of a snow covered field. I learned a lot – not.

The nearest thing to violence that I experienced whilst teaching in China was when I confiscated three mobile phones that students had been using during one of my classes. I survived.

One in four people check their phones every thirty minutes, while one in five check every ten; and 84 percent of people surveyed in a new TIME Mobility Poll said they couldn’t go a single day without their mobile device in hand.
I’m over 25! Other findings from Retrovo include:
*42% check or update Facebook and Twitter first thing in the morning
*48% check or update Facebook and Twitter during the night or as soon as they wake up

Sunday, 24 February 2013

An embarrassing encounter at the bookshop

Soon we are to go abroad to Taiwan, New Zealand and Australia, so I am deciding which travel books to buy. Whilst in Smiths' bookshop in the High Street I heard my name mentioned, not once, but twice, by a small group of women behind me. They were examining a book and as I passed by them I did something very silly.
I should know better. One of my favourite novelists is Douglas Kennedy (one of his books is set in Australia: the rather scary ‘Dead Heart’) and I feel that I know him. I do not, not really. I once went to a talk by him somewhere in Oxford. He described his rise as an author and the thrill experienced when he was told by his agent that ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ was being auctioned to the highest bidding publisher.
Later I asked him a question about getting one of my books published and he answered very kindly – that’s why I feel that I know him. During his talk, he related a cautionary tale. Wandering around Foyle’s in London, he saw an elderly lady waiting in the queue to pay for a book: the book she was holding was one of his novels. He then did something very silly. He marched up to the lady and announced, “I wrote that book.”
She turned to him, looked him coldly in the eye and spat, “Fxxk off!”
Back to Smiths’. As I passed the ladies, I glanced down at the book the three of them were examining: it was my ‘Haunted Oxford’. And then I did a Douglas Kennedy.
“I am Rob Walters,” I announced and waited to be told to fxxk off.
Actually, the ladies were delightfully kind and feigned delight.
“Oooh, I‘ve never met a writer before,” enthused one.
“Have you ever seen a ghost yourself,” asked another.
I told her that I had not, but that my wife had. The other lady told me that she knew a Rob Walters at work, but that he didn’t look at all like me.
“Better or worse?” I asked wittily.
“Just different,” she said diplomatically.
I left them still looking at my book. I don’t know whether they bought it or not. In any event, I hope my publisher (The History Press) reads this. The book has sold out and needs reprinting.