Monday, 30 November 2015

Faking documentaries

I am not a great TV fan. Much of my viewing is after the 9pm watershed and some of it with the aid of a drink or two. That is not to deny that there is some great TV, just that it mostly is not for me. I mainly watch documentaries or films and am becoming very tetchy about the former. However, one that I particularly enjoyed recently is called: The Railway: Keeping Britain on Track. It’s great. Commentary is light and we never see the commentator, and why indeed should we. What we see is real people doing real things, travelling, selling tickets, driving trains, paying and avoiding paying. Oh and there was a Sisyphean cycle of a drunk repeatedly walking up the escalator the wrong way. It’s fascinating, there are scenes of drama, anger, kindness, selfishness, loyalty and comedy. And it is all real.

The railway documentary has none of those awful fake entries when the presenter, often a ‘personality’ with little connection to the documentary’s topic, knocks on a door and real people open it feigning surprise at this obviously prepared and often much rehearsed scene. Do they think we are idiots? In my recent appearance with the Hairy Bikers I was made to do one of these. No door this time, just a slipway to the punting station on Oxford’s River Cherwell. After chatting for an hour or so whilst the director and general dogsbody set everything up, we had to pretend to meet ‘for the camera’. Our ‘first’ meeting took four takes. On the third one the Hairy Biker slipped on the wet decking and fell over – now that was the entrance that should have been screened (no Hairy Bikers were hurt in the making of this sequence).

The Hunt is currently being screened by the BBC and it is excellent, though I am torn between supporting the hunter and sympathy for the hunted. Commentary is heavier, but we never see the commentator. He is a media personality, chosen I suppose to give authority to the script, but it could have been done by anyone with good diction. It is secondary to the action which could be enjoyed without commentary at all. And to see how it is all made described by the crew who actually filmed it – magic.

Please someone stop these ‘personalities’ walking towards the camera as they talk, and stop screening close ups of their thoughtful faces, presumably to provide drama where this should come from the documentary itself. Please stop inserting irrelevant clips of fires when the word fire is mentioned in the commentary. We all know what fire looks like. Similarly for storms, or crowds, or stars, or the sea. Please stop showing matey scenes between the ‘personalities’ and the complete strangers that they meet. These strangers are the real stars, we know that the personality does not know them, will never see them again, will not even recall their name after the next documentary. These things should not be called documentaries, they are simply chat shows on the road where the presenter is the focus and the subject, the experts and the real people are simply a backcloth for the show.

Ah well, that’s got that off my chest. Now where did I leave that bloody remote? And where’s the ‘off’ button.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Syria Remembered

I visited Syria about ten years ago, alone and with a backpack. I entered the country from Turkey and visited a number of towns and cities that have recently made the headlines. I had no agenda, just a Lonely Planet Guide and a will to explore. I recall the kindness of Kurds, Arabs, Armenians and Alawites.  Also the many pictures of Assad, the desert wastes, the heat, the incredibly low prices, the decrepit trains, the ancient remains and women shrouded in black.

Sadly, I have mislaid my notes of the month or so that I spent there, so these recollections are from a distance. My only experiences of aggression and violence occurred in the first place I visited: Deir ez-Zur, a small city in the east. Endeavouring to get cash in the bank the cashier held me entirely responsible for our involvement in the war in neighbouring Iraq. On the main street two cyclists resorted to fisticuffs following a collision. In a park a group of young men approached me with seeming angry intent. They demanded to know where I came from and I replied, with some trepidation, “England”. They looked at each other as if making a decision, then together shouted, “Bush bad, Blaire good,” and insisted upon my accepting a bottle of orangeade from them. That was a near thing.

Later my wandering took me near to the entrance to a large school. Teenagers were pouring out at the end of their day and I was soon surrounded by a vast crowd of them demanding answers to questions such as “Where you from? Are you married? How old are you? Why are you here? Do you have children? What is your name?” Finally a fully uniformed gateman pushed his way through the crowd and told me to go away: the crowd that I had unwittingly attracted was blocking the road.

Next I went to Palmyra and had the fortune to see the Temple of Bel, since tragically and pointlessly destroyed by ISIS, and then onto the capital, Damascus, one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world where the main danger was crossing the wide central road. Further west I met the Mediterranean coast at Tartus. Such a relief, such a pleasure. Here the women actually exposed their hair! On my first day there, sitting eating my lunch in a park, two uncovered young ladies joined me, talked to me and shared their food with me. It was a relief to leave behind the black-draped uncommunicative ladies of the east.

In Tartus my visa was due to expire so I had to visit a photographic studio to obtain a snap for the visa application. The photographer was outspoken in English. After the usual interchanges I pointed to the large portrait of Assad and asked, “Why do you put that there?”

“We love him,” he replied with a genuine smile. “He asks us not to put his likeness on our walls, but we want to. He was educated in your country you know.” I knew.

Leaving Tartus and the dirtiest beach I have ever seen behind, I made my way through Latakia to Kasab and was quickly embraced by Armenians who complained bitterly about the government. Not the Syrian, but the Turkish government. The Ottomans had marched their ancestors out of their country to Syria during the First World War and many had died in transit.

There is more, much more, in those mislaid, maybe lost, notes, those memories of a peaceful country with people going about their business, their lives. Okay, maybe I was naive, blinkered, deliberately misled, but I do not think so. Would that we could wind back the clock to the time of my visit and start again, but that is foolish talk. Like everyone I feel so sorry for those killed, maimed, deprived of their homes, their livelihood, their lives by this awful conflict.

Do I have a solution to this crisis? Of course not. There is just one thing I am sure of: things have certainly been worsened by other countries taking sides, arming one side against the other, castigating one side or another – yet that still continues. So what can we do? There is something - help those that are helping the refugees in the area: Save the Children for example.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Nature strikes back.

Most years I would be heading for Spain just now for the autumnal visit, but wife support has changed that. So I am in England and the season has just started in Oxford with a talk arranged by Skeptics in the Pub on the theme of philosophers and science. Though I enjoyed the beer and a chat with a friend I was not impressed by the talk. A youngish self-styled called philosopher tried to convince a packed audience that scientists have no ethics and philosophers (whatever they are) have a monopoly on both ethics and logical thought. Fresh from The Edinburgh Fringe, I think he found Oxford sceptics extremely sceptical and a hard bunch as they repeatedly attacked his Venn diagram. This had a big circle labelled philosophy embracing a smaller one labelled science and everything outside the big circle was labelled stupid! The speaker probably scores quite high on entertainment value (with some) but low on rational content (with many).

The day before that I lost my wallet on the Chipping Norton to Oxford bus. The moment after I stepped off the thing I patted my back pocket – wallet gone. And with it all the usual stuff from credit cards to bus pass and drivers licence plus an irreplaceable poem on Turkey. The bus went on to the railway station and I intercepted it on its way back – wallet gone and a different driver. Sod it.

The day after I received some photos from Dolors, a good friend in our village in Spain. I could see from the thumbnails that the pictures were of my caseta - my stone hut at the huerto - and left the message for later. I opened it at around one o’clock this morning and could not quite believe what I saw – my two roofs, only completed last year, wrecked; my solar panel pocked and undoubtedly ruined! Sod it.

Many pictures of Spain feature the sun, the sea and the beach, and I guess that is the picture that jumps into most people’s heads when the country is mentioned. Our area is not like that. It does get hot in the summer, but it also gets cold in the winter. And though there is much more sunshine than in Britain we are rocked by storms. The Spanish word for storm is tormenta and sounds to me stronger, wilder, more tremendous and the storms around La Fresneda are certainly all of that: ripping lightening, deafening thunder, flash flooding and sometimes, just occasionally billiard ball hail. The latter is rare, usually localised, and bloody frightening. If you are caught in one you run for your life for shelter, the balls of ice usually start small, but rapidly grow in size and intensity. They damage cars, crops and of course, roofs.

The hail storm that damaged my little creation over there broke on Monday. When I heard about it early this morning my reaction was subdued, sad more than angry. When all of my tools were stolen from the caseta a few years ago I was furious and vented my fury in a blog (7th September 2012) in which I poured anger and blame on the thieves. Who or what can I blame for the damage to my roof? Nature I suppose. Global warming perhaps – and thus all of the car drivers and coal consumers of the world – not really, I’m pretty sure that hailing predates the discovery of global warming.

So what’s next? Go over there sometime to reroof the caseta and install a new solar panel, I suppose. Sadly I carefully mortared the latter into the roof so that thieves could not take it! I wasn’t expecting an ice ball attack so soon.

PS a friend in Spain sent me a newsclip which contains a video showing the ferocity of the hail storm shot at the swimming pool of a nearby village. Reports now say that the hail stones were as large as eggs!

Monday, 10 August 2015

The meaning of life revealed in an Oxford pub!

I hate August in Oxford; it’s the peak of the tourist season in my city and the pits for intellectual stimulation (my Harry Potter tours aside ;-). The students have gone for their long vacation or forever. The city has the feel of a boxing ring at the end of  a sixteen-round lightweight boxing match as the dregs of the language students depart for their own countries, “Oxford English” now embedded in their souls. Lectures are a very rare treat after the surfeit of term time when I often have to make difficult choices. Even the music scene is at low ebb though I did score a double whammy on a recent Saturday evening: a writer’s drinks party followed by an upbeat performance by the Pete Fryer band in a working class pub (yes, they do exist in Oxford) – what a contrast.

Praise be that one thing does survive the desert of the eighth month: Philosophy in Pubs – philosophy is perhaps eternal. The subject for discussion is usually chosen by Ben, our erudite and urbane host, maitre D and convenor. This time Ben was sporting a newly shaped beard (beards are in at the moment, though I fear the word ‘in’ isn’t in) and wearing his distinguishing philosophical hat. He had chosen an Everest of a topic: The Meaning of Life!

At first, I seemed to be the only person at the Thames side Isis Farmhouse pub, but I linked up with another lost person and suggested that tonight’s topic was too daunting for the regulars or perhaps they already knew the answer. He was a young prison officer from the local magistrate’s court which led directly to a discussion of Jeremy Bentham’s ‘panopticon’ a prison design that allowed all prisoners to be viewed from the centre. “Ah, a miscreant masturbating over there,” I quipped to my new acquaintance.

“If that was the worst thing they got up to my job would be easy,” he said sadly, and then explained that he was looking elsewhere, the job was too demanding and unsatisfying. I could see that he needed to find new meaning in his life.
Ben arrived at last and drew us together at tables in the garden. One man in our group sat at another table and shouted a series of complex words to us that I did not comprehend and said so. He responded with another stream of rare and presumably philosophic terms. Too much philosophic knowledge kills open philosophic discussion, so I changed tables.

I think that I am usually the oldest (but not the wisest) attendee at Philosophy in Pubs (PIPS), but the man I then sat next to was near my age and accompanied by two content  King Charles Spaniels: they both knew that the meaning in life is stroking and food. He, the owner, struck me as having interesting views on our topic, but his argument led directly to god or something like god; oh and love, lots of love. Those spaniels can get you that way.  A much younger man took me to task as I banged on about the meaning of life being personal, related to personal happiness and satisfaction and the need for others to be happy and satisfied in order to create a society in which I, and they, can be happy and satisfied. He maintained that since I did not believe in life after death my life did not have meaning. I admitted that he had a point, but later after a few more pints in another pub which had live music I thought of the answer. So, I now know the meaning of life – my life.

That young man was studying for a doctorate of music. His interests lay in the structure and meaning of music, including its relationship to complex mathematics. He maintained that the shared enjoyment of music takes one beyond the personal and gives life meaning – interesting. Later, on another table, someone suggested that searching for meaning is futile: it is the journey though life that provides its meaning. At that point I timidly suggested that the inclusion in the American constitution of the phrase ‘the pursuit of happiness’ may be the answer, then left to do just that in another pub. Hence, I do not know if PIPS agreed on a meaning for life that evening. I rather doubt it. It’s personal you see.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The end of Oxford and me?

I cycled down to Oxford last Saturday to give a tour to some youngsters. I was not looking forward to it particularly. Youngsters know very little and therefore cannot easily relate to what they are seeing or what I am saying. They are generally much more interested in their friends, in eating and the odd passing distraction (a rising bollard, a descending bollard, a trashed student, a shop, etc).

My negativity was reinforced as I approached a renowned tourist focus - the Martyr’s Memorial. I could see a long line of white coaches with colourful streams of youngsters pouring forth and surging towards the city centre. They had damned up at the pedestrian crossing at the mouth of Beaumont Street no doubt in a deliberate attempt to block my path to the cycle stands. Nonetheless, I ploughed my way through and on towards the Playhouse where five of us badged guides were due to meet our hoard of 100 sixteen-year-olds from somewhere or other. The two coaches arrived disgorging their youthful cargo onto opposite sides of the roads. Bringing 100 independent bodies together in one place on what seemed to be Oxford’s busiest day was no mean feat, but we did it somehow and left it to the helpers to divide them into five groups and to distribute food bags (yep, they often bring their own). This took some time, in fact it nibbled almost half-an-hour off a tour duration of just one and half hours!

At last we were off with our separate groups all converging on New College where Harry Potter awaited. Threading ourselves through an over laden Broad Street was not easy. Mostly the pavements were blocked by large groups where the leader was often indistinguishable from the led and the street itself was chock-a-block with more conga-like groups, also threading. There was some easing around the Sheldonian, but the exit was blocked by a brilliant young woman who had the brilliant idea of addressing her crowd from the steps – brilliant.

I think it was about then, or maybe when a sub-group of my group announced a growing need for the toilet, that I decided that this was not what I wanted to do with my life; no more than I desired to contribute in any way to attracting yet more youngsters to visit Oxford. Enough was enough. So I smiled vaguely, turned on my heel and walked quickly back to my bicycle and pedalled off to my comfortable little flat high above the Woodstock Road and well away from the maddening crowd.
Not really. I persevered and, with the possible exception of two Spanish lads who probably could not understand a word that I was saying and were distracting two Spanish girls who could, they were a nice enough bunch. I can still remember the smile of delight as a pretty Italian girl first saw the Holm oak tree in New’s cloister (it’s the tree beneath which Harry Potter’s enemy...ah you don’t need to know that). Some of them even asked questions. I gave them the best time that I could – and allowed them a toilet visit as well.

Next day I led a literature tour and this healed the wounds. The invasive tides had ebbed; Sundays are usually quieter in Oxford. My group consisted of adults, all of whom had made a conscious choice to take the tour and had paid for it. Most of them knew of the authors that I talked about. They chipped in, asked questions, corrected me at times, laughed when they were supposed to, and were even mildly interested in where the Potter locations were. Someone bought one of my books, and I enjoyed the tour as much as they did – I think.

Isn’t Oxford a wonderful place? Yes it is, but its capacity to absorb ever increasing numbers of visitors has its limits.

By the way, these are not my photos. They were taken by a Spanish visistor during one of my tours. I thought that they were rather good. 

Monday, 13 July 2015

Permissive Paths: No Dogging

You might guess from the title that I have been walking lately. Yes, just returned from trudging along the first section of the South-West Coastal Path from Minehead to Westward Ho! The exclamation mark belongs to the Ho by the way. Odd name for a place, though there is a town in Canada called Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! with two: show offs. But they can’t beat this: our exclaimed village is named after a novel, a book written in 1855 by Charles Kingsley. It’s true, the book came first!

I walked about ninety miles over five days hefting a backpack containing amongst other essentials:  my one-man tent, my sleeping bag and mattress roll, plus my Kindle. Doesn’t sound far I know, but miles are not a suitable measure when traversing the North Devon coastline where there is a lot of fairly gruelling uphill and scrabbling downhill. Actually, I cheated at the end. Booked into a B&B in Barnstaple on my last walking day, dumped my backpack there and walked the path to Westward Ho! - naked. Not really naked of course, but I did feel almost naked without the hefty backpack and wearing my sandals rather that boots. That aside, I slept out every night, mostly wild camping. The weather was very changeable for the first three days – storms and showers - and too hot on the last two: hikers are rarely happy with the weather.

My worst night was at Lynmouth. The weather was quite nice as I limped slowly through the little town towards the ocean. There I found a narrow strip of grass between the low sea wall and high wooded cliff. I ignored the dog walkers as I pitched my little tent, just as they carefully ignored me. Once camped I stepped out for a clean up (don’t ask), some beer and food. As I left my second pub I met a torrent of rain so heavy that I had to dash into another for shelter and more beer. At last the rain abated and I took a muddy walk past the harbour, where the boats were being thrown around by an angry sea, to my camping site. Then, after a worried look at the large waves rolling towards my flimsy home, I squeezed into my little tent just as the rain started again – lashings of it. Inside I recalled the 1952 deluge that killed over thirty people Lynmouth. I thought of the cliff above me and the waves just below me. I didn’t sleep much.

Things were a little better in the morning. I packed away the wet tent, had a hot chocolate with crumpets in a cafe and, fully recharged, carried on walking.

So why do we do these strange things? The countryside was beautiful, a beauty that can barely be glimpsed from a motorcar. I was immersed. The ups and downs of good and bad weather brought sympathetic mood swings, and the upswings were much higher than the down swings. And, even though the rugged grandeur of the coastal route presents challenges to people with vertigo (like me), the rewards are sweet. Edging around a promontory to be suddenly presented with a panoramic view of the coast ahead, of a beach below or the unexpected view of a shimmering white Devon village – these things outweigh the discomfort, the fear and the pain. And then there’s the people that you meet along the way: strangers, yet drawn together by a shared adventure. And all that aside, there is the sheer escapism of an untimetabled trek; the escape from routine, from the Internet, from the clutter of familiar things and places, and the promise of a joyful return to same.

Does any of this explain the title of this blog? Permissive pathways are those routes that the owner allows hikers to use, but are not public rights of way. In fact, I didn’t actually see a “no dogging” sign, just “no dogs”. However, I did see one stating “no naturist activities” and my mind boggled. Was this code for no dogging? In my youth there was a degree of titillation available from pictures of naturists playing games: volleyball was popular I seem to recall. Was this innocent pursuit one of the banned naturist activities, I wondered. Or was it merely being naked that offended? Anyway, I kept my clothes on: the straps of a heavy backpack would certainly have dug well into my naked skin and my tan would be so patchy. Besides, there was the danger of ticks attaching themselves to vulnerable parts of the body.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Softbridge: Architectural Challenges in Oxford

I like change, most of the time, and in Oxford I live in a changing environment. I start each of my many tours of the city by stating where I live then asking my group where they are from. A few years ago I told them that I resided in paradise in Oxford and I did: 18 Paradise Square! Nowadays I tell them that I live in the part of this city where the rich and famous reside: most visitors find this amusing, not all. To make the latter even happier I describe a property they might like to buy, my current example is a house around the corner in Crick Road which has an asking price of over £5m! Ridiculous. You could buy the entire block of flats in which I live for that.

Actually most of the changes that occur here are in the colleges and university buildings surrounding us rather than the residencies. St Hugh’s has recently completed its Chinese centre; St Anthony’s  thankfully blocked the view of its ugly concrete dining hall a year or so ago with a quite passable residential building; St Anne’s is currently digging a deep hole on which it will build, if the artist impression is anything to go by, a bulky building which will fit in quite well with its existing buildings, but will hardly grace the Woodstock Road. Added to this, the university recently completed its new mathematics and humanities building nicely incorporating the old 19th century hospital building. Furthermore, it has nearly finished the new governance centre on the same campus: I love that new building with its diminishing glass circles.

Architects , I believe, divide into two camps: one of which tries very hard to design buildings that fit their surroundings and adjacent buildings; the other endeavours to make a statement. Nearly opposite me, in the grounds of St Anthony’s College, is an example of the latter. It is sometimes called the Softbridge and sometimes the Investcorp Building, by either name it is something of a shocker: it reminds me of the sinking of the Titanic for some reason. Built predominantly of stainless steel it links two innocent and attractive brick building from the 19th century. As the new building grew so too did my horror. An awful thing was evolving on my doorstep. I thought of writing to the Oxford Times about this monstrosity signing the letter ‘Bemused of Butler Close’ but felt that I could not since I no longer buy the paper.

After two years of work the Softbridge is now complete, the gardens are nicely planted and manicured, the trees hide quite a lot of the tapering, shiny tube and…and I must confess that I quite like it! The stainless steel reflects the trees, the lawn and the plants in a rather interesting way. The sun glints on the odd truncated portholes which lie along the backbone of the monster, and it now looks milder, softer.

Am I going soft? Not really. I am still appalled at the University of Oxford for spoiling, and the council for allowing them to spoil, the views across our cherished Port Meadow. The latest compromise for this travesty of planning is that the guilty buildings should be demolished at the end of their thirty-year lifespan. Thirty years! I and many of the protestors will not be there to see the destruction – or protest.

Still, perhaps it’s all about perception. More on that later.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Peak achievement

Our huerto in Spain (garden/orchard thing) is one of many that line the Mataranya River. They are all long and thin. At the river end there is quite a large level area which in our case is planted with young olive trees, above that there are three terraces which we have managed to tame over the years and are mostly cultivated, then comes the track which is parallel to the river and serves all of the huertos and alongside that track is our little casita which I have spent five years extending. Beyond this, the ground rises rapidly and is mostly pine-forested rocky outcrops.

 I was quite amazed to find that I owned a strip this lovely wild area right up to the top of the Mataranya valley. Of course, I was keen to explore it all, but for some reason I made a vow to myself that I would not climb to the peak until I had completed the work on the casita – and I stuck to that promise.

On Saturday 9th May 2015, we held our opening party: a big and important event for both of us. The Spanish call it an ‘inauguration’ which sounds a bit formal. In fact, it was great fun. Though I did most of the work on the place alone (“solo”, the Spanish say), Margaret joined me in the rush to finish during the week before the party, spending many hours grouting the floor and wall tiles that I had laid. We also sent out the invitations together and tried valiantly to ascertain how many might come, how much meat to order for the barbecue, how much bread, how many rice salads to prepare and so on.
And everything was all right on the day, though with a wood fire, charcoal barbeque and gas barbeque all sizzling away our lovely casita became hot and choked with smoke. I greeted the guests with streaming eyes and a hoarse cough. Lots of people brought wonderful gifts which I really did not expect: my favourite was an old and worn hand millstone that I placed with pride in the middle of the floor of the casita and then tripped over it twice. I made a speech in stumbling Spanish, Dolores recited a Lorca poem from the steps in passionate Spanish and we did the Hokey-Cokey in Spanglish.

In honesty I have not quite finished the job: I have to renovate the little lean-to at one end of the casita and sort out some drainage and water supply issues (at present I pump up water to supply the casita from the irrigation channel below, in future it will use rain water). However, all the big stuff is done and we can live in the place once we have some furniture. Hence, the day after the inauguration party, I, accompanied by a well-deserved hang over, set off for that much-delayed climb to the peak of the valley so far above us.

The ascent was hot and hard, and I suppose is best described as scrambling rather than rock climbing. As I rose, I passed through our pungent pine forest with many of the trees at odd angles due to the slope, some were actually horizontal as if they too had attended the opening party the night before.

I reached the peak at last, fully expecting to see more pines, more wilderness. Instead, I was shocked to see ploughed and terraced fields growing almond and olive trees. It was like discovering the lost world, but in reverse. I even found an old iron bed up there, accompanied by a rusting, white-enamel chamber pot and water jug.

The view down into the Mataranya valley and beyond was stunning and I was overjoyed at just how difficult it was to spot my much-extended casita. It blends in perfectly, which is in stark contrast to other buildings that have sprung up along the valley. I did so enjoy that ascent and my time at the peak. I had looked longingly at the ridge high above me so many times during the five years of lonely construction work then, at long last, I was looking down at my completed project. I emitted a triumphal whoop into the wind-ruffled silence and began my descent.

What next? Well, I have already started writing the book which will record my struggles, the amusing interactions with the locals, the inevitable confusions that arise when building in a foreign land, and the highpoints that occurred over the last five years. I hope to finish it this year. And there’s plenty more to at the huerto.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Almost there! And so green!

There’s nothing like a deadline to focus the mind. Some people hate ‘em – I love ‘em (as long as there is some chances of getting past the line alive).

My little project in Spain is coming to a climax, and the opening party is just a few days away. I finished the stonework on the last visit to Spain and built the ‘shed’ on the terrace to house the electric and water essentials. Now I have truly gone green. I have solar electricity lighting a string of LED’s in the new room and powering a mini light in the shower room. At present I use my generator (which uses petrol, so sorry) to pump the water up to the cold tank, but later the water will be supplied from collected rainfall and pumped up by a ‘solar’ pump. There is also a hot water tank linked indirectly to an external radiator/solar collector (both of which I bought second hand in the UK). These form the basis of a system that should provide solar heated water – but so far does not. The Mark II version is currently at the design stage. The whole thing, with the solar battery, is now hidden behind a wooden frontage and also includes an area in which a small person could possibly sleep.

I have recently spent a few weeks as an amateur carpenter making rough window frames, shutters and doors. The front door is in two parts and, to please Margaret, I have hammered in false nails which are quite popular around here - they give it a medieval look.

The kitchen unit, which I have mostly knocked up from wood used as concrete shuttering during the stonework years, is now tiled and awaiting curtains – it’s strong and of a traditional design, sort of. I have incorporated one of those strangely deep sinks which are common here; I think they were previously used for washing clothes. I’ve fitted it with old brass taps, and similarly for the little basin in the shower room. I bought the latter at our village’s antique fair for seven Euros each, then later found that you can buy them new for not much more.

The entire floor of the casita is now covered with very thin tiles which crack if you stand on them too heavily, but I have created a nice pattern in the middle.  I have still to tile, paint and provide a shower in the shower room. There will be no toilet at first since there is nowhere for the effluent to go, but I am working on that. Isn’t it great to be green? Self sufficient, ecological, low carbon and all that. Can I offset this against my carbon count in England is some way d’you think?

Anyway, the mayor (ex), the landlord of our favourite bar, the mechanic, the stone transporter, the blacksmith’s son, and fellow huerto owners and friends will, together with their families, hopefully be joining us for hamburgers, sausages and a rice salad at the “inauguration” at the end of the week. Oh, and I must not forget to buy beer and wine. Could I forget the essentials?

Thursday, 16 April 2015

A squeeze of the shoulder

I come from a remote family – in the sense that we kept our distance. The nearest my father came to hugging me was an outstretched handshake. That’s not a complaint, quite the opposite, although I enjoy the occasional hug with those I like very much or love, I do believe that hugging in the UK is little overdone nowadays and has lost its way. In Spain it is very natural, of course.

My first intimate experience with a Spanish woman dates from our time as smallholders on the outskirts of a town called Woodbridge. New people had moved into the cottage at the end of our lane: he built boats (big ones) in the attached barn, she embraced me as if we were long lost friends or lovers. I quite liked it. Annabella brought a touch of sunny Spain to sombre Suffolk and a friendship which has certainly outlasted the boat builder (never liked him much anyway and have no regrets about throwing him into our swimming pool – boy was he cross).

If I were sitting in a pub in Oxford, or even Stow-on-the-Wold, and some bloke I barely knew squeezed my shoulder , I would be deeply shocked and suspicions would crowd my sozzled mind. Yet here in La Fresneda it is quite normal: often nothing is said, just a squeeze and a smile. And I quite like it. I sometimes squeeze the shoulder of some villager I know and respect. I think my advances are always well-received.

There are, of course, some people that I would not like to be squeezed by at all: the carpenter for one. Eva is quite the opposite: she is the most passionate woman in our village. A lovely woman , she greets us with such enthusiasm: hugs and showers of kisses. Like most Spanish mothers she has taught her charming little daughter  well – the little girls stands face up waiting for a kiss once her mother has finished with us.

On Friday last we were taken on a mystery tour by our near neighbours who are both enthusiastic nature lovers. He is English and she is Swiss so the hugging and kissing is mostly replaced with a firm handshake before they drive us out into the countryside to view waterfowl and wild goats. We had a lovely day. 

Towards the end of it they took us to a village in the Maestrazgo mountain range where they  have befriended a very nice family who run a Casa Rural ( a sort of B&B) in which they often stay. The man of the family is a sort of forest ranger for the area and has two children. With the grandmother who has her own house, they dominate the village: there are just seven occupants in total. Most of the houses are unoccupied or used for tourism. Yet that family posseses a noticeable aura of contentment.

We met the thirteen-year-old daughter – out playing ball on her own.  A slim, tall girl, she presented herself to each one of us to be kissed on both cheeks with such a serious expression that I could only think of as charming.

The day was drawing to a close so we headed back to La Fresneda. Along the way we had one of those inspiring moments: a large male goat was standing proudly on a rock high above us seemingly watching out progress. With the setting sun behind him he provided a wondrous sight. He was a big boy and,  though I have milked many a goat, I would not like to squeeze his shoulder.

Oh, and that same week I saw a pine martin running over the roof that my house overlooks – a rare and thrilling sight. Isn’t nature wonderful.

Friday, 3 April 2015

A handful of chips and naming

The Spanish have solved the problem of inherited surnames. In the UK posh people in the past, anyone nowadays, sometimes combined the father’s and mother’s surname with an aristocratic hyphen. Hence Parker-Jones and Parkinson-Smith – so much more eye catching that Jones or Smith. In Spain this is the norm. The first generation take their surnames from the father and mother – in that order. That is so non-discriminatory in a country famed for its macho image and as a result, my grandson is called Robin Valero Walters.

 Hey, the Walters name goes on, but not for long. Assuming that Robin does marry and does have children, and lets presume that he marries an English girl with the surname Smith and that they decide to abide by the Spanish naming tradition, then what will my great grand children be called?  Valero Smith, of course. Hey, the Walters name has gone, shoved off the end by a Smith or whatever. So, what seems such a good idea and so egalitarian and non sexist is very short lived. The male dominates or, in my particular case, is soon swept aside.

Not that this bothers me much, probably not at all. But does a fair solution exist? Perhaps we should keep adding on all of the surnames at each marriage? That could be quite a burden for future generations. If my sums are correct then the fifth generation would  possess thirty-two surnames!. Alternatively, how about this: since the family is arguably disintegrating anyway we could abandon family names altogether – Bonjovi, Picasso and Bj√∂rk seem to have managed OK and this would certainly make filling forms a little simpler.

From names to chips. I am glad to get back to our little village of La Fresneda again even though the elements were not welcoming. The rain began in Perpignan, just on the French side of the border and accompanied us on our entire journey south to our village. When we arrived it was raining so much that we slept another night in our camping car rather than attempt the walk up the hill to our house. In the following days we witnessed the damage caused by days of heavy rain: rivers torrential, roadside cliffs slipping, and terrace walls collapsing. However, by the end of the week the sun was shining so we went off to celebrate in the nearby village of Cretas.

We are regulars at the Cretas wine festival, itself accompanied by a Medieval Festival where local people dress up and sell stuff from stalls. Quite a lot of the stuff is edible and quite a lot of that is “ecological”, a word that rings alarm bells for someone as embarrassingly fastidious as myself. My sensitive stomach is not sentient of course, but it does perform a gentle churn when the word  “ecological” turns up. This churn replaces words like “wholesome, natural, organic” in my mind with things like “dirty, unchecked, no sell-by date”. Similarly perhaps, the  phrase “Made in China”  associated with anything that might pass my lips has a similar effect. The sensitive stomach has been to China and only just about survived the experience. Oddly enough, it has also survived many, many years of our own home-grown food which I suppose would now be called ecological.

So, rather than snacking, we sampled the wine and waited excitedly for the medieval breakfast for which we had prepayed seven euros (£5) each and was served by hand at the staggeringly late, but oh so Spanish, hour of ten p.m. I say “served by hand” advisedly. We tendered our tickets at the entry to a vast tent with seating for at least two hundred. In exchange we were given a plastic plate on which lay a lukewarm sausage and a slice of fatty bacon. We then shuffled long to the next server who picked up a fried egg from a nest of the things and threw it onto our plates. She then picked up a handful of chips from a big heap and spread these on top of our medieval breakfast. I could not believe my eyes, she really delivered the egg and chips with her hands: I filmed her doing it! 

Fortunately, she was wearing white rubber gloves, consequently the sensitive stomach stayed calm and the food - when washed down with more wine (included in the price together with a sweet course of an apple or orange) - was OK. But, if those gloves had been green, well, I could not have eaten one chip, not one! How I love it here; things are so…so ecological.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Being Famous: meeting a Hairy Biker

I’ve been really enjoying guiding recently. The long breaks in Spain (one of which I am beginning as I write) refresh me, though the first one on my return is scary – will I remember all the necessary stuff? When introducing myself to a tour group I usually tell them that I live in central North Oxford “where all the rich and famous people live”. Some smile, some pout. Then I tell them that I live in a very small flat and am not rich or famous.

On my last day in Oxford before this trip I did rub shoulders with a “famous”, well, actually, we touched toes – whilst sitting in the same punt! This was no accident. The scene was part of a new TV series centring on the Hairy Bikers and entitled something like ‘The pubs that made us’.

How I became involved is not important, and why I was placed in a punt rather than a pub is a mystery to me and will always remain so  - the latter being my more natural environment. My Hairy Biker was Dave and we met at the punt station below Magdelan (prounounced Maudlin) bridge. To my surprise, and despite his ostentation, I liked him. It was a surprise because I am an anti-personality person to the extent that I have a very long list of ‘personalities’ that I heartily dislike. And no, I am not going to list them, it is better to ignore them.

Dave comes across as a avuncular, homely, northerner with a Dali moustache and shapely beard. He wore a mid length brown, herringbone coat with purple pocket flaps and lapels. In a very short time I learned that he had five motorbikes and a Dutch Barge that he kept on the Thames. He also told me that he had recently purchased a chateau in France and was also part- owner of a new brewery in his home town of Barrow. Yet all of this did not strike me as boasting. He was not at all like the “I’m richer than thou” character of the Fast Show who once said, “Sophisticated? Me? I’ve BEEN to Leeds!” No, Dave just seemed pleased with his new toys and somewhat surprised to find himself so lucky. Maybe talking about them was his way of sharing them.

Having met, we had to wait around whilst Graham, the producer, director, cameraman, gaffer, and all else screwed his equipment onto one of the punts whilst ours was prepared by the professional punters. Then we had to meet again – for the camera. So much has to be done for the camera in this artificial world of TV. So Dave strode manfully down the slope towards me, then slipped dramatically and authentically as he stepped onto the jetty beside the river, almost falling in. This was very funny, everyone laughed and he joined in wholeheartedly. As a consequence we had to meet again, and again, and again, until our meeting seemed natural enough  – for the camera.

The filming caught by Graham as we were punted along the Cherwell was deemed to have gone very well by the producer and the director and the cameraman (Graham), but I am not looking forward to seeing it. Dave, in parting, said, “See you on TV”. But I know that might never happen.  Both of my last two interviews have ended on the cutting room floor. Given my previous experience, this time I insisted on being paid for my services at my usual guiding rate. That way I hope to win either way since I got to meet someone famous!!

Some of you may not know of the famous Hairy Bikers and I must confess that I’ve not seen any of their programmes. Suffice to say that they are hairy, they travel around on motor bikes to interesting locations, and they cook stuff. So, why are the Hairy Bikers the bedrock of this programme on the pubs of Britain? Because they are experts on pubs? No. Because they know lots about Britain? No. Because they are aficionados of the world of beer. No, not one of the above. It’s because they are well-known and loved by thousands. They are the personalities that attract the viewers to a series of programmes which presumably would not reach the screen on its own merits. We live in a strange world where the presenter is more important than what is presented. Perhaps it’s just another symptom of the Churchillian description of the importance of a parliamentary speech: first it’s who says it, second it’s how they say it, third, and last, it’s the content.

So, Dave and the other Hairy Biker, Sy, are perhaps the right choice for this series. Dave certainly has transmittable warmth and the actor’s ability to do a ‘take’ over and over and get better each time, rather than (like me) getting worse with each repeat. I liked him and can only suppose that thousands more do so. He is certainly not on my list of hated personalities. In fact, I would have enjoyed a pint with him afterwards. Instead, I cycled home in the rain and he returned his hotel - Oxford’s most salubrious.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Humanists, Jihadists and the Archers

I became a humanist last year, but am still not sure what that means. I have noticed no changes in myself so far. There is a tendency to define humanism in terms of what it is not, for example: not an organised religion, no belief in the supernatural, not racist, not extremist, etc. Friday night, at a humanist lecture on the jihadist mentality, the speaker tried to redefine humanism; I believe his intention was to reach out towards religious moderates and hence isolate the crazies.

His name is Roger Griffin, he’s an historian with a specialism in Nazism which he has now extended to terrorism. He began by describing the modern world’s tendency to rob people of meaning in their lives, particularly the erosion of unquestioning belief (in religion, government, law, morality, etc). This, he said, leaves a hole which can, on the one hand, be filled by an addiction to shopping, watching programmes like the X Factor or gardening, or, on the other hand, by creativity in art, music, theatre or whatever. But for some this is not enough, their search for meaning becomes obsessive and idealistic. In the worst cases they latch on to some extreme idea (e.g. distorted Islam) and become so strongly addicted to that idea that they are willing to kill and be killed for it: hence the Twin Towers, etc.

I’m sure that Roger would regard this as a vast over simplification of what he said, but that’s it in essence. He gave us many examples of terrorists and their bizarre creeds including Brusthom Ziamani, the 19 year old arrested in London carrying a flag of Islam, a hammer and a knife with the express intention of beheading a soldier. This man was brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness and converted to Islam in his teens. In London, he joined a group of followers of some radical Muslim cleric.  His ex-girlfriend said that, “he wanted to die a martyr and do things to get to heaven and to please god”.

That night the audience were clamouring for solutions to the ghastly problems of extremism rather than reasons for it. The speaker’s response was that those who have been turned can be unturned - given the right treatment. He referred to the Danish solution in which radicals returning from ISIS in Syria are treated kindly, rather than being imprisoned as they are here. They are re-educated and once converted released to become educators themselves, thus creating people with the ability to reach out to the terrorists groups that they themselves once belonged to and to reason with them. This was treated with some scepticism, but what really got the assembled humanists off their chairs was a suggestion that the humanist view should be more tolerant towards religion. Here the speaker was, I think, suggesting that the “militant” humanists (he mentioned Hitchens and Dawkins) attacks on religion sent the religious scurrying to their defensive positions and the nutters to their guns.

I think he has a point. There is, to my mind, a large area of overlap between the beliefs of atheistic humanists and the moderately religious. ‘Do unto others as you would have done to yourselves’ is surely an aim to strive for: for oneself, one’s family and the community at large. Unless, of course, you are a terrorist.

Serious as this topic is, there was a lighter side to the evening. The speaker talked of the depressing effect of news broadcasts and suggested this is why BBC Radio 4 has a comedy half-hour immediately after the six o’clock news. Naturally, this led onto the calming effect of The Archers which follows the seven o’clock news. And this sparked a brief debate about the main story currently unwinding in this long-running radio soap. And then to the disclosure (fresh from that night’s episode) that David is not leaving Ambridge. Phew, great relief all round. Sorry if this seems obscure or even irrelevant, but it does go to prove that humanists are human.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Pubs merry-go-round in Stow-on-the-Wold

I suspect that I mention pubs quite a lot in my blogs: they are very much part of my life and I did come very close to buying one – twice. To me they represent many things: a place to drink one’s own choice of poison, a meeting place for friends, a place to make new friends or to chat with passing acquaintances, a place to play the only games that I really like, a place to enjoy live music, and so on (see my pub in the bookshop for more).

I know that I have often written about the two bars of La Fresneda, our Spanish village, but think that I have said little about the bars of Stow-on-the Wold, our Cotswold base. However, there is something interesting going on there at present which reflects the swingeing changes that have rocked the pub trade over the last decades.

Years ago, pubs were owned by the breweries producing the beer, and in those pubs you drank the beer of the brewery that owned them, or lumped it. There were a few, so called, “free houses” where a variety of draught beers might be found, but by far the majority were tied to a brewery. Then, stimulated by government legislation, greed and corporate economics, things began to change: the big breweries sold off their vast estates of pubs and concentrated on brewing and spending their piles of cash. Pub companies bought chains of pubs which then purchased beer from the ever-increasing number of breweries and supplied it, at inflated prices, to the tenants and managers of their pubs. Later again, some of the breweries that had retained their pub estates sold the brewery, usually for housing development, and then outsourced their core competence: brewing. All of this has had a profound effect on the pub trade and, of course, on the pubs of Stow.

There is one area however where Stow does buck the trend and that is in closures. Pubs in the UK are still closing at the rate of twenty a week or more, yet those in Stow have been stable for a very long time. There are ten bars, some of which are within hotels, others are stand-alone pubs and just one is a club. The population of this country town is about two thousand so that is a goodly number of boozers.

When I first began to visit the place, the pubs concentrated almost entirely on selling drink, and were themselves partitioned into public bars for the working-class locals and lounge bars for the rich and the ‘better’ classes – or so it seemed to me. Nowadays the partitions have gone, the bars are mostly food rather than drink led, the classes have merged or drifted upwards and a true local is a rarity, my wife being one.  Meanwhile, some of the pubs remain tied to traditional breweries; others have seen many transformations.

I used to predict that Stow could not sustain so many drinking establishments and that the Bell, the most remote from the centre would be the first to go. It scraped along breaking the hearts of many an aspiring tenant and was an encumbrance to the pub company which owned it. I think the most enduring tenants during that period were two lesbians, one of whom regularly paced the bar draped in a large, live lizard. Even I once offered to buy the freehold of the place, but was turned down.

Finally, a lady entrepreneur did manage to buy it up, spent a lot of money on it, imported a very good chef, introduced well-kept real ale and installed pretty, polite barmaids. She brought with her a load of discerning and well-heeled customers and The Bell is now such a success that a brewery has bought it from her – Youngs’ brewery. Except that Youngs no longer brews beer! It sold its wonderful London production base some years ago and the beers are now brewed by Charles Wells. I presume the company is using cash raised by the sale of the brewery site to purchase pubs like The Bell.

Up the road from The Bell is a pub and hotel which has changed hands, and names, rather a lot over the years. It was the Eagle and Child at one time and is now the Porch House. Like many in this country, it claims to be the oldest in England. It too has now been bought by a brewery – Brakspear. But this brewery has also sold its brewing facility and its beers are brewed at the Wychwood brewery in nearby Witney, and that brewery has itself been bought by another called Marston’s located in Wolverhampton.

And so these bewildering cycles go round, recycling landlords and beers and tossing out dartboards, skittle alleys, pool tables and local characters along the way. Is it bad? Is it a tragedy? For some yes, for others not. 

Nowadays there is a good selection of pubs in Stow that sell a range of beers and a variety of food in restaurant-like surroundings. At present, two of the bars are closed for renovation; they will no doubt open as gastro pubs of some sort. So if you want to play darts or pool in Stow-on-the-Wold, or want to drink with the few remaining ‘locals’ what can you do? Join the club, perhaps.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Another Christmas, another year

After years of action-packed family Christmas celebrations involving plays, games, quizzes, serial present giving and of course food and drink, I spent this one in the pub. Well not the whole of it, but quite a lot of it. Did I enjoy it? ‘Course I did – even the wet walk from the bus stop to Oxford’s Thames side Isis Farmhouse on Boxing Day failed to dent my appetite for real ale and good company. On Christmas Eve, we planned a tour of the pubs in Stow-on-the-Wold and barely got past the Bell, the first one. I met a man there who works for a Chinese telecom company in Bahrain which was really interesting (yes, really). On Christmas morning, we began drinking in another Stow pub which had 7% Christmas ale…and it was uphill all the way from there. Had a nice couple of pints in the Talbot with friends whilst overlooking the delightful Stow square, then returned to the 7% place which was still open (I did lower the alcohol content of my beer selection on this second visit and consequently made it back to the house). On New Year’s Eve, we took in some music at the Wheatsheaf in Oxford from the Pete Fryer band and Redox – Christmas would not be the same without them. And last night I ventured out alone and found Oxford in a hung-over, stay-at-home, post Christmas sort of mood. However, the Rose and Crown, one of my locals, was lively enough though.

You could say that Christmas, for me, is becoming like any other time of the year since I do spend some of my time in the pubs anyway, but that’s not so. There is a different atmosphere over the festive period: people are more relaxed (or more tipsy), they are more generous, more inclined to laugh at bad jokes and smile at annoying idiosyncrasies.

Whilst on the Christmas theme, I, like Father Christmas, have always had a beard. I am therefore amused and bemused to find myself in fashion. Quite amazing how many young men are going hirsute. Where does that come from? I seem to detect a middle-eastern look to these hair-faced youngsters – surely not.

Since my return from Spain, I have taken two groups on tours of Oxford. It is quite scary to do this after a break of nearly four months: will the accumulation of facts, stories, jokes, and so forth – the tools of a guide’s trade – be there? I once told someone of my fears and they suggested that I revise; they had no idea of the enormity of that task. There are thirty-eight colleges and a myriad of university building. There is a history of twelve hundred years. There is a long list of famous or infamous personalities. There is just too much. However, all was well, both tours went swimmingly. I think these long breaks are refreshing: my enthusiasm for the work is strengthened and the visitors respond to that. On both tours, I sold books and received tips. That is not usual.

On the book front itself my Swedish translator, N Christer Frank has just launched Political Chemistry (the Dorothy Hodgkin and Margaret Thatcher book) in his language. It is rather fun to see this book with a Swedish title. This is the third book of mine that Christer has translated and I now call him eagle eyes because he does spot typos that I, and a number of English readers, have missed. Based on his comments I am just now releasing a new version of the English book. Though this is hard work, you cannot believe how much of a relief it is to be able to do so: in the past persuading publishers to produce a new edition was all but impossible.

2015 will be the year I complete, and celebrate the completion of, my stone hut in Spain – the party should be in April or May. Just now, I am beginning to edit the copious notes I have made during nearly five years of work and, that done, I will begin to write a book about my foreign venture. I think it will be my twentieth!

Happy new year to you all.