Saturday, 22 December 2018

Fifty Reminiscences


Merry Christmas to all my reader (sic). I have completed my usual pre-Christmas 36 hour fast and awoke on the second day with a clear head – and this is what popped into it. See how many of these reminiscences ring a bell. If you score more than forty then you are probably more than sixty. If you cannot remember any of this then… lucky you. 

Memories are factual (unless false) - not judgemental. Additions welcome, send to

I remember when:

Pubs were pubs and thriving
And freedom of speech prevailed, mostly
And women were women
And men were men
And children were allowed to be children
And a national conscience was shared
And parenting was the responsibility of parents
And poverty was not the lack of a dishwasher
And women wore skirts and dresses, mostly
And there were less laws and less lawless
And drugs were things that pop stars did
And people thought the police were there for us
And swearing in front of the children was bad
And swearing was used sparingly and to express strong emotions
And people did not swear on the TV and radio
And there were only two sexes, plus homosexuality
And smoking was sometimes prescribed rather than proscribed
And fox hunting was unpopular, but thought necessary
And green belts were places that you could not build on
And old people’s homes were a rare thing
And Prozac and Viagra were unheard of
And racism, unfortunately, did exist
And footballers were paid a decent wage
And banks and bank managers were trusted
And it was possible to repair things that broke
And weather extremes were accounted to the weather
And snowdrops were nice little white flowers
And Christmas lasted for a week at the most
And wearing a seat belt or crash helmet were both optional
And almost everything except churches closed on Sundays
And collecting car registration numbers was practical – though odd
And bicycles had three gears or one
And women who acted were called actresses
And to be gay was to be happy
And air travel was for the wealthy
And there were markets, but no supermarkets
And vacuum cleaner, fridges and dishwashers were luxury goods
And mobile phones, the internet and personal computers were from science fiction
And the genome was an unknown
And crisps were plain with optional salt
And cancer was incurable
And human life began only in the womb
And sugar was OK
And coffee was a little exotic
And teachers could hit naughty kids
And global warming was undetected
And chemical contraception was unknown
And buses had conductors
And leaving school at 15 or 16 was the norm
And only 4% of people went to university

Monday, 19 November 2018

My role in the French revolution.

Travelling through France from Spain is never dull, but our latest journey in mid November 2018 was definitely special.  This time we travelled west across Spain from our village of La Fresneda in order to cross the Pyrenees in the Basque country just above the famous city of Pamplona. We spent the night in a vast deserted car park next to a (closed) nature and adventure park and I was, quite unusually, taken ill. I had to find a doctor’s next day or could not face the 1,000 mile drive to England. Dr Carlos put me right, but the treatment seemingly denied alcohol which, though not essential, does light up the nights of travel.

We stayed in the delightful Basque village of Lantz on the second night, it was small, but had both a restaurant and a shop. Only problem was both were closed.  The locals were very friendly so I approached a lady and asked in poor French if anyone raised hens in the village and might allow us to buy eggs. She said no, but told us to wait where we were and quickly rushed back with five eggs! She then wouldn’t take anything in payment for them! Aren’t some people generous? This enabled to have a decent meal in the van, and it was very good.

Later in the trip we left the lovely village of Beaumont Sarthe just north of Le Mans where we had dined in a warm, friendly place served by a shy but helpful fourteen-year-old young lady. The village had an excellent river, ancient chateau and delightful gardens. However, heading into Alencon the road was blocked: black smoke poured from the roundabout and there were many people there in yellow hi-vis jackets. It seemed to us that there had been a bad accident, but this was no accident. In fact it seemed more like a street party - at a roundabout! Cars and vans were parked any old way, tyres were burning smokily, wooden pallets were burning merrily, and music was playing loudly in competition with sirens, car horns and raucous singing. I found it all quite exciting; many years had passed since my own demo days.

We were allowed to weave the van around part of the roundabout, the yellow draped figures shouting merrily at us. They were all smiles for us, but there was something altogether more serious going on. Just beyond the roundabout I parked up and walked back to join in. The smoke, the noise, the friendliness, the bizarre spectacle itself really energised me. I learned that Macron was the problem. To quote from one ragged poster he was: pompier, dictateur, royaliste, menteur, arrogant, opportuniste, nuisible. You probably get the message. Motorcyclists were a central part of the protest: revving their machines to the point of near explosion, roaring up and down the traumatised roads, weaving around the crowds. The protestors told me that it was all about increased taxation, especially on fuel. I didn’t know what side I was on, but I certainly felt part of the crowd. We had to take the toll road to get away – that cost us nearly forty Euros Mr Macron.

Then we were blocked again at Rouen, both in and out of the city, this time with larger crowds and longer delays. Hey, this was not so much fun after all. We then travelled north to Abbeyville where we hoped to sleep for the night en route to Calais for our boat to England the next day. We could not get in! Yet another protest barrier greeted us as we came off the main road, Darkness was falling when we were finally allowed to pass that barrier and then we hit another! Someone told me that we probably would not get into Abbeyville at all, so I reversed back and headed out into the darkness.

Fortunately, after some twenty miles, we found Chez Natalie, a small pub cum restaurant. It was open and welcoming. We had a great French meal sitting next to a warming wood stove whilst watching the recollections of the revolution on TV – we did not see ourselves: our part in the revolution remains a secret.  However, the whole thing was an interesting experience giving an insight into both the French mentality and, perhaps, my own.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

The gypsy in me

Perhaps everyone has within them the desire to wander, fancy-free. I certainly have and believe that I know the best way to achieve it. However, please don’t tell anyone the secret since there are already too many in the know – it’s via that king of the road: the motor caravan. Ah, you might think, real gypsies do not own motor caravans; they travel around in those wonderful horse drawn caravans shaped like a fat, lower-case ‘i’. And of course some do, but most do not.

When I wrote The Battle for Stow some years ago I interviewed gypsies who were attending the Stow Horse Fair, that controversial coming together of the tribes beloved by the travellers and feared by many of the residents. It was not an easy task since many of them were, rightly, suspicious of snoopers. However, one man did have a smart motor caravan and to help break the ice I told him I owned one too.

“What ya got?” he asked with interest, so I told him the make and model.

“Wanna sell ‘er?” he retorted instantly.

Not surprising perhaps since trading is what the fair is mostly about – and some of the gypsies I met confessed that they also have proper houses like the rest of us.

We have just returned from a ten day holiday from our Spanish village in the motor caravan. Some friends find this odd, assuming that a holiday is what we go to Spain for, whereas to us it is just another place where we live. The trip started in Spain then on to southern Portugal, after that to the UK and finally back to Spain – all in the motor caravan and without flying or taking ferries.
As usual the trip involved the very minimum of planning; the main objective being to explore Portugal which we reached on the second day. Arriving quite late we found, purely by accident, the walled city of Elvas and a convenient overnight spot in a car park in nearby club land where we parked opposite the local pigeon fanciers club.

The defensive walls of Elvas are unusual in that looking from above they form a star-like shape rather than the usual rectangle or circle – interesting. And, as we walked through the narrow archway into the city (definitely not motor caravan friendly), we were thrilled to find a fascinating web of even narrower streets, many leading up to the grand central plaza dominated by a fine white church. Elvas was a charming introduction to Portugal and there we dined on Portuguese pork and golden fish washed down with local wine and - no port.

The following days fell into our usual pattern. I went for a run whilst Margaret prepared breakfast; we showered then chose some destination from the map that looked interesting. We then drove there mostly by secondary roads, having lunch in the van at some nice spot along the way. On arrival we searched for a parking place big enough for the van, explored the place and if we liked it stayed, later finding a bar then a restaurant and so to sleep. If we did not much like a place we travelled on and sometimes had to find somewhere to park up for the night in darkness which can be difficult.

Our best night was spent overlooking a wonderful bay on the Atlantic coast a few K from the small inland village of Carrapteira. There we sat in the wind-buffeted van watching the sun set over the ocean then gradually spreading its fiery red illumination across the whole sky whilst we drank red wine and listened to romantic hits from the sixties. That night we ate in the van and woke to a beautiful dawn.

The worst night was in the coastal city of Lagos where we arrived in darkness and parked up in a potholed stretch of waste ground dotted with other vehicles like ours. In the morning we woke to the sound of a JCB digging a trench near our van.

But how did we get to the UK on this trip? You’ve probably guessed. On the way back we fulfilled a long term ambition and visited the Rock of Gibraltar. In retrospect I was more excited by the sight of the place as we approached from Algeciras than the actual visit though, once clear of the near frictionless border control, it is fascinating to walk across the airport runway in order to reach the city.

Once there it does seem odd to be spending pounds rather than euros and even odder that they leave the wallet so much quicker. It’s also a little weird to pass Holland and Barret (twice), to observe policemen on the beat wearing the old spiked helmets and to see so many fish and chip shops. I had a huge disappointment though. I entered a pub and asked the smiling barmaid if they sold real ale.

“Sorry love,” she said kindly, “you won’t get that on the Rock. Doesn’t travel you see.”

I refrained from giving her my lecture on Indian Pale Ale and sulkily ate my fish and chips. They were good, though pricey.  Probably much better than a hedgehog baked in a ball of clay. Do gypsies really eat hedgehogs? I’d like to try that – I think.

Monday, 8 October 2018

A letter from Spain – and Sweden

Yes, back in our village of La Fresneda after a 1500 mile (2400 Km) journey taking in Bolton, Belfast, Dublin and a string of delightful towns in France. I have worked briefly in Belfast before, but this was Margaret’s first visit and, with the very definite exception of the city hall, we both found the city to have many fine buildings, though their locations were often marred by overbearing modern constructions. The famous Crown public house was as good as ever and we even managed to grab one of the many secret snugs that are part of its ornate architecture. It was however expensive, understaffed and beset by tourists – like us. We straddled the border with the South for some time and distance but, unable to answer the ‘Irish question’ just then (we did later after a few pints) proceeded to Dublin where I tackled the more amenable task of roofing my son’s large shed.

In that city we had a good night out at a local pub witnessing the Dubliners at their most abandoned. A bacchanalian scene fuelled by the second (yes second) night of Dave and Rachel’s wedding celebration apparently, plus lashing of alcohol of course. At one point Dave took the microphone from the professional DJ. He joked as confidently as a Frank Sinatra, then sang with the force of a Frankie Vaughan.  Meanwhile his five-year-old daughter rushed aimlessly around the vast bar in her bridesmaid dress and a much older and much larger lady roamed around predating lecherously on younger men.

As usual the good ship Oscar Wilde took us to Cherbourg, a dull crossing with very few passengers aboard – though I did meet a young man who professed to be the son of Martin McGuiness who told me that he was returning from a meeting with Jeremy Corbyn, “your future prime minister who will immediately unify Ireland as soon as he gains power without a gun being fired”. No wait, that was on the trip to Belfast. How the mind can play tricks – and so back to my previous blog on the brain. There I introduced the concept of ‘aporia’ and what follows is a comment from a good friend of mine from Sweden who explains it all so much better.

 Your stories remind us that no absolute truths exist. The premise is wrong, i.e. that our brain is first and lastly logical and just a little emotional like the scum on the sea’s waves. Actually, it’s the other way around. This state of our mind has fostered reams of ridicule and we are ourselves delighted in making fun of our brain’s shortcomings. The latest proof of this is Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. After having read it there is just one comment: “so what?”

If we didn’t have any biases, cognitive dissonances or emotions, we would be a completely different animal. Or why not a robot as we are slowly approaching a robot like state of mind from being stereotyped by social media (internet).  Forget biological evolution, which has been overtaken by technological evolution, which is so fast and unpredictable that we have lost control of it. “Earth, we got a problem.”

So why are there no absolute or universal truths? If there had been they would since a long time ago been thought out. We have had to do with our own laws, manmade like time, before and after, limits, endlessness, eternity, etc. just to cope with life.

It is said that libido is the ultimate drive for life, for animals as well as for mankind. Not so, this is where we differ. Our lust to hang on to life and live (long after we lost our libido and money) is our curiosity, to see what’s around the corner (to be transformed to the fly on the wall).
Not knowing anything, just being suspended in the air and revelling in the unfolding of world events that is true happiness. Happiness through aporism. QED!

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

About the brain and us

In 350BC, Aristotle noted that “our senses can be trusted but they can be easily fooled”.

Let me start this with a story that I have told many times. Many years ago my wife and I lived on the edge of the city of Ipswich. You may wonder why we lived there since the house looked out onto one of the sink estates of Ipswich, to our left we had a scrap car yard, and to the right a rubbish dump plus the house had no mains drainage or water – but all that’s another story. The house came with a resident female cat, Jemima, and we adopted each other. After some time the cat became pregnant and gave birth, in my shed, to a delightful litter of kittens. Soon after their birth they were all killed!

A few years later we were revisiting the tragedy and found that we had quite different recollections: in my version our dog, Droopy, had killed the kittens, Margaret recalled that a local tom cat had done the deed. Fortunately I kept quite a detailed diary in those days and was able to refer to my notes. Shock, horror, Margaret was right. My memories of the event, though clear, were false.

We all have false memories some of them pure invention, some distortions. Most people do not believe this, but it is true – and scary. In what can we trust?

Another story. Fairly recently a group of us were shown a video of football game: we were told to watch the player in the black shirt and count how many times he kicked the ball. At the end of the short display we were asked for our answers which were quite varied, but similar. We were then asked, “Did you see superman?” Puzzled, we all said no and the video was replayed and there he was threading his way through the players as large as life! A trick – yes, of the brain. Actually I have changed the players and the intruder in this tale so that this will not be a spoiler if you if you sometime see the original, but hey the brain’s flexible so that’s OK.

In a somewhat related phenomenon your brain filters out the mundane. Its overriding duty is to keep it, and therefore you, safe, and it’s the new, the unknown, and the surprising, that are likely to be dangerous. Hence: a liking for sleeping in one’s own bed, home being where the heart is, blood seemingly thicker than water and so on. However, to the contrary, new environments or challenges steps up the brain’s awareness, hence the stimulation of travel (which ‘broadens the mind’ apparently).

We often need to ‘see for ourselves’ or maintain that we only trust ‘the evidence of our own eyes’. But should we trust that evidence. There are numerous illusions which dramatically prove that our brain messes with reality.  A simple matrix of blobs appears to be moving yet we know that they cannot be, spinning dancers uncannily rotate clockwise or anticlockwise depending on which you set your eyes upon first. And so on and on as more illusions, old and new, are discovered and broadcast over the Web.

Science, one might think, can slice its way through this nonsense to reveal reality. But can it? Much of what is ‘observed’ in modern science is detected by a sensor and relayed to us through a computer which processes the data. We can never see the ‘new’ particles which constitute the things that we actually see, though there was a time when we could observe the tracks of some of the particles in a cloud chamber. Nowadays sophisticated detection and heavy processing sits between the collisions which occur in the Hadron Collider and the graphs that allow physicists to buttonhole the Higgs boson.

There are more and more examples which shake the very foundations of our natural belief in our powers of observation, and yet more can be supplied by philosophers in relation to our powers of reason, meanwhile life goes on. After all, too much doubt in ourselves might cause a collapse of confidence and a resort to instinctual behaviour or a cynical retirement from life itself.

I have a thoughtful friend called Bjorn in Sweden who seems to have found refuge in not knowing and has even found a term to describe his philosophic position which dates back to the Greeks – aporia. Whether aporia  leads to greater clarity or simply defines doubt and confusion, I do not know.  But one thing’s for sure Aristotle was right to say that our senses can be easily fooled – and therefore so can we. I suppose the one thing that we can know for sure is that we don’t know, for sure. However, I’m pretty sure that I am off on my travels in a few days time: Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Bookend Blues

Haven’t written a blog for ages. Been busy: hopefully honing my writing skills.

One of my regular delights is a negative one: it’s not having to get up in the mornings. I do get up eventually of course, but not at those ghastly hours when I had to catch a train to London or motor up to some outlandish place in the north to attend a meeting or deliver a course. Nowadays, my radio belches out the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 at about 7.30 a.m. and then I just lie about cursing at the aggressive bias of the interviewers until I feel ready to take a run or cycle to the gym.

                                                     bookends |

It was on such a morning that I heard the announcements concerning this year’s UK exam results for sixteen-year-olds – the GCSEs. Hardly jump out of bed stuff, but it did send me spinning back to my own teens. In my day you received the dreaded results by paper mail. I can remember looking at mine with some disbelief. 

Funnily enough I can remember the exact street in Cheltenham where I studied them. The bearer of this momentous piece of information was devastatingly disappointing: a flimsy slip of paper simply listing subjects and grades, little more than a single shred from today’s shredders. In those days grades were not that important. In ‘O’ levels, as they were called, failure was not encouraged, but it was allowed: it was the number of subjects that you passed that mattered. I did OK - I seem to remember that I got a grade 1 in something; grade 8 was a pass.

Dozing can lead to considerable confusion and listening to the radio I was – confused. Everything seemed upside down as they reported on the year’s results. In previous years they had used letters to represent grades, but this year they had reverted to numbers again. However, grade 9 was the top and grade 1 was the bottom. Seemed odd, and to quote from David Richard Getling who knows more about this stuff and is a little more outspoken than I am : ‘Of course, only someone as intensely stupid as the British government would have invented such a grading system. Top grades have always been 1 or A. We talk of something being first class, or A grade, if it's the best: and this is common throughout the world. So it takes a complete and utter moron to do the opposite.’

Those recent announcements reminded me of how hard I worked in revising for my exams. I can remember the hunted look on the faces of my teachers as exams loomed and I approached them with my incredibly long list of questions in which I tried to understand all the things I should have understood from their lessons. More topically I can recall the longing for the revision and the exams to come to end so that I could be free. Yes free. Free to do what?  Instead of freedom I actually experienced what is best described as bathos, or anticlimax, or post natal depression without the baby.

Finishing reading a good book is a bit like that. Finishing writing a book is exactly like that: hence the title of this blog. Actually I haven’t quite finished, one never does. But the first draft is done, the bathos then has two sources. First, during the very creative part of researching and writing there aren’t enough hours in the day: in other words there is always something to do – and a deadline to meet. And second, now that the baby is born, one becomes protective, yet critical. Is it any good? Wouldn’t it have been much better structured in a different way? Does the title do it justice? If I start fiddling with it, will the panoply collapse and all the cross references go astray?

Though I often self-publish, this one goes off to the publishers. More worries. Is it ready? Will they like it? Is it what they thought it would be? Will their editors tear it apart and bastardise it.

Hey, ho. The journey’s been good though. There should be a song The Bookend Blues. I’ll make a start on the lyrics right now, but then would I be happy with them?

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Rob and Rob in Oxford

Conducted my first Hen Party around Oxford on Saturday– has it come to this? Actually they were quite sweet – laughed at some of my quips, with a little prompting. Hope Becca enjoyed it.

Then, the very next day, it was my birthday – again. Can it really be a year since we celebrated IvyFest on the 3rd June 2017: my 70th and our 50th?

I like to spend my birthday in Oxford with my wife. No party. Drinking taking primacy over eating. Lot’s of stuff. One of my most memorable was when I clocked up six physics lectures, then off to the pub. This one was a little more refined.

First we wandered into the centre where there was music at the Wheatsheaf all afternoon. It is still odd to go into the old place: to look around and wonder ‘What if?’ – it’s at least twelve years ago that I tried, and failed, to buy the place. The music was OK and the beer was OK (Doombar). In fact the best of the three acts was Tony Batey, the blues man who has been playing Oxford for all the years that I’ve been here and many more. I thought that I’d been over-exposed to his music, but it was good, very good – and his guitar playing is superlative.

Then off to the refinement: Somerville College chapel for a talk plus performances by the choir. The latter was wonderful, the girls could ‘lift the roof’ and I thrill to that. The talk was, well, boring really. Still, one must sup for your singing I suppose. Next a quick pint (Doombar again, drat it) in the Royal Oak, which is almost opposite the college, while we waited for the #6 bus to Wolvercote and nearly missed it.

Wolvercote has two pubs in very close proximity: Jacob’s Inn which is an eatery where we ate and the White Hart where we dank and sang. The White Hart is now a community pub and a fellow writer is one of the directors. It was Sheila who told me that they sang sea shanties there on Sundays – and I like a good sea shanty. The beer was excellent (Spring), but the pub was a bit quiet. Sheila wondered if they had enough people for the shanty session. But we joined in, and then a group of blokes from the other pub staggered in and soon we were ‘lifting the roof’: there was even a shortage of song books. We sang ‘Leave her Johnny, leave her’ and ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor’ and many more shanties that I had never heard of, but thoroughly enjoyed. The beer flowed and songs were sung and then something ridiculously odd bubbled to the surface. During the gaps between songs people chatted and somehow it became clear that the group of blokes were there to celebrate one of their number’s birthday, like me. Then it became clear that his name was Rob, like me. Then, now you are not going to believe this, but it finally emerged that his name was Walters, like me!

Can you imagine the excitement that caused? Buoyed up by beer, lifted by song, then this most weird coincidence was discovered. I’ve never met another Rob Walters before and nor had the other Rob Walters. Two Robert Walters’s in the Wolvercote White Hart on the same night, singing sea shanties and celebrating their birthdays – he fifty – me twenty-one years his senior. I could have been his dad, but we are pretty sure that we are not related. Then, to my delight and surprise, a very good friend turned up with his wife - and his name was – no that would be too much, his name was Peter. Great night. Wild night.

Monday, 30 April 2018

The Irish Question

I do remember something about The Irish Question (which never seemed to have an answer) from my early history lessons: names like Parnell and de Valera, plus various versions of home rule, lurk somewhere in my mind. And then of course there were the troubles – I believe the question was then answered by The Good Friday Agreement, but that answer was wrong apparently because Northern Ireland cannot form a government and so the answer is Direct Rule from London.

Actually, the ‘Irish question’, posed here is simpler. It is whether or not to fly Ryanair! Of course, according to the boss of this much maligned company that choice will not be on offer post Brexit since he plans to take his aeroplanes elsewhere, but nevertheless we have recently had to make a choice. We needed to fly to Dublin in Ireland, then on to Reus in Spain and then back to England.  Fortunately my wife did the bookings since I am suffering from repetitive strain injury following the mammoth task of obtaining flights and visas for our far eastern trip to India, etc earlier in the year.

The question is actually quite, simple though manifold: do you want to be restricted to cabin baggage which roughly equates to a small lunch box and baggage space in the hold for a bag which weighs  less than pair of good walking boots and fits in a receptacle smaller than most suitcases? Are you happy with waving to your travelling companion in seats that are at each end of the aircraft?  Do you mind being shouted at during boarding as if you are a recalcitrant school child? Are you happy that during the flight that there is certainly no free alcohol and probably none at any price? Are you happy walking in the open air to the plane carrying your (admittedly light) luggage during the incessant bouts of rain that descend upon Ireland? If your answer is YES to each of these questions then you are a man for Ryanair my friend.  Put it another way. If you are willing to pay quite a lot more to avoid all of these petty restrictions and irritations then you have the choice of many different airlines. We chose Ryanair again of course.

In fairness the two flights so far have not been that bad. On one of them I managed to sit next to my wife after a serious bout of seat swapping and we were allowed to take our bottle of water on board which was kind. Also we had two interesting experiences. First, a first for us, our air host/ess was a man with hairy arms and shaven legs dressed as a woman – and the service he gave was well up to Ryanair standards, if not higher. Second, we had a deportee aboard. A policeman entered the plane soon after the Spanish landing in search of this deportee and a police van waited to transport him or her to jail. We suspected that it was the old lady with the stick who sat in front of us who seemed unwilling to leave the aircraft. Meanwhile, given freedom of movement, we cannot figure out how or why a person can be deported from one EU country to another. Has Brexit come early?

Back to the big question. Brexit has certainly placed the island of Ireland centre stage with all four parties (Eire, UK, EU and DUP) seemingly demanding the same thing: a soft border. So what’s the problem? The Swiss seem to manage this OK, yet they are a jewel set in the EU’s firmament. But of course they do not have serious issues like the demands for a united Ireland, the right of the Northern Ireland majority to remain part of the UK, the need for the EU to punish the UK for leaving, retention of protectionist trading, and deep underlying social and religious divisions. In my recent visit to Dublin I did not discuss this with anyone – possibly because I spent most of the time alone at the bottom of my son’s long garden building a concrete block shed. Best place perhaps in interesting times.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Does travel broaden the mind?

As a young boy I wondered if foreign countries really existed. Quite why I thought that someone had invented China or France I do not know. I can only suppose that the idea may have stemmed from attempts to convince me that a supernatural being existed, but could not be experienced.

I was not an early traveller, my school did not take groups abroad and if they had then I know my parents would not have been able to finance such a thing. In fact my first foreign visit was to Sweden when as teenagers my friend and I embarked on an unsuccessful quest for free love. However, through work, I did meet men who had been abroad - mostly as soldiers during WW2: men from my father’s generation. One of them was the most narrow minded bigot I ever met (I have mentioned him before – he’s the man who refuted the existence of negative numbers).

Just back from a long trip to the Indian sub-continent, I feel that if travel does broaden the mind then mine should be the breadth of Myanmar’s, mostly unused, twenty lane highways located in its new capital established by the military junta some time ago. Like most people I did not visit the place, leaving that to Boris Johnson on his recent visit to remind Aung San Suu Kyi of the plight of Rohingyas. I went instead to the old capital to visit the home in which Myanmar’s leader grew up and also the one in which she was for so long incarcerated by the junta.

Yangon, formerly Rangoon was a little like taking a long refreshing shower after nearly three weeks travelling through India by train and bus – and that was a complete surprise. I left Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, expecting somewhere much worse – and I was gratefully wrong. I would say that my most harrowing experiences – of filth, poverty, neglect and overcrowding – occurred as we left Delhi by train, as we approached the incredibly beauty of the Taj Mahal through Agra, and finally in the city which many still call Banares (Varansi). It was in the latter that I could so nearly have experienced the worst possible end to my travelling life.  Arriving in darkness from Lucknow, we were informed by a series of tuk-tuk drivers that our hotel was not reachable. They would drop us as near as they could, then we would have to drag our luggage a kilometre or so through narrow, twisting and dangerous streets. Usually I ignore such tales because tuk-tuk drivers will tell lies in order to get a fare or even better to get you into a pal’s hotel – but this time the story was consistent. Added to which my phone would not work so I could not call the Hotel Alca (carefully selected because it served alcohol AND overlooked the River Ganges).

I chose the least villainous of the crowd vying to transport us to an alternative hotel and negotiated a price of 150 rupees (£1.50). It took about half an hour to get there: Banares is a very holy place for Hindus and therefore has a very high density of sacred cows roaming its busy narrow streets where these bovines are endangered by every conceivable means of speeding, roaring and beeping transport imaginable. I immediately rejected the first hotel judged solely on the state of the reception and the proprietor. The next place was much the same, and, as I left that sleazy hotel, I felt genuine despair – perhaps that’s why I crossed the street rather hurriedly, daring the mass of traffic to allow me passage.  And perhaps my rapid progress accounts for the fact that I did not see the slimy puddle of holy cow excrement in the middle of the road and slipped awkwardly on it, arms windmilling. Luckily, I regained my balance and was able to continue through the rush of vehicles; otherwise I would certainly have fallen beneath the madness of traffic and died there in a pool of dung on that grim street in Banares.

On the brighter side Banares is where the Hindus bring their dead to be cremated, a process that supposedly purifies the deceased once the hot ashes and bones are thrown into the sacred Ganges River. This process must take place within 24 hours of death so Margaret would not have had the cost and inconvenience of transporting me home and, since my corpse would have been already embalmed in holy cow dung, my transport to the next life would surely have been guaranteed.

Next day I ventured out of our rather expensive, but gratifyingly excellent, hotel to explore the ghats that line the Ganges. There, I found the main cremation area where they burn up to 250 bodies per day and watched the process with interest (all part of broadening the mind) and was particularly impressed with the occasional pop as an overcooked brain exploded. Pregnant women and children are not cremated in this way. Their corpses are weighted down with stones and thrown directly into the great river since they are already considered pure. Sometime these bodies pop up – which must be shocking for the young men who swim in that heavily polluted water course (and even drink from it).

There is so much more to say about this trip which touched on seven Asian countries, my notes alone approach forty thousand words – and the photos, don’t ask!! But one thing that will stay with me, particularly concerning India, is the poverty. One image that I have in my head and did not capture on camera, is of an emaciated, young mother with a child hanging onto her shoulder, one in her arms and two holding her hand. The birth rate is more than three times the death rate in India – and clearly much higher among the poor than the rising middle classes.

Did the trip broaden my mind? I think that knowledge must achieve that to some degree even though I cannot claim a deep understanding of the countries visited. But, if I could return to my young and cynically doubting self I could now truly say – they are there, those exotic, teeming, hot and sometimes beautiful countries: they really do exist.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Eggs anyway in an amazing Indian hotel

In India medium priced hotels at below say £25 per night are a little chancy for the traveller. Standards are not high, maintenance and redecoration often non-existent. Many of these places started life reasonably well –lasting just long enough for those inviting photos to be taken for the web page – then declined rapidly in a non-virtuous pact between the owners and the local customers. There are exceptions of course, and I am about to describe one.

The Kunjpur Guest House on the northern outskirts of Allahabad seemed too good to be true when I found it on the web: around £20 a night for a de-luxe room (most of the rooms in India are de-luxe), breakfast included, free Wi-Fi and picturesque. “Things that seem too good to be true are usually not true,” I warned myself as we disembarked from the ‘mouse train’ (see last blog). Yet we were picked up as promise. Our driver was Anil, the owner of the place; he had a doctorate in economics and spoke good English.

The journey to the hotel was as depressing as usual. We left the scruffy and slightly threatening surroundings of the railway station and passed through narrow rutted streets to emerge onto a wide road next to the polo ground. “That looks nice, let’s hope our hotel is here somewhere,” I thought to myself.  But it wasn’t. And anyway, India is deceptive: the polo ground has not seen a match for many years and is now owned by the army (No Photographs Allowed) and the houses on the other side of the road may have been superior residences in their time, but later, in the light of day, they looked rather sad.

The roads became narrower and more rutted as we neared our goal and expectations fell accordingly. Then we stopped. Was that really a tall characterful house gleaming whitely beyond the line of tall palms and thick hedge? Surely not. But it was. Anil sounded the horn and the gates were opened so that we could drive forward.

The place was amazing: a large colonial-baroque house with imposing frontage and neat garden.  Surely this was a facade, but no:  the lobby was equally impressive with its large, high-ceilinged reception room, tasteful furniture, paintings and object d’art.  Partially in shock we were shown, through double doors into our palatial room, or should I say suite (it had an extra double bedroom which we would have found more than adequate). Our bedroom room was at least eight by six metres in area excluding the arched extensions alongside the grandly arched recessed doorway leading to the side of the house. It had a very large double bed, large wardrobe and cupboard plus two, yes two ornate settees (3 and 4 seaters). There were also four casual tables and a full sized fridge! Set back from the external doors was a second archway spanning the whole of the room and supported by two fluted ionic pillars.  The bathroom was as long as it was clean and had a huge fan inset into an external door which seem capable of extracting small children. I could not believe it. All this for 2000 rupees a night? Was there a zero missing? Was this like the Hotel California where “You can check-out any time you like, But you can never leave!"?

There were two menus in the room for breakfast and dinner. The breakfast offering included ‘Eggs anyway’. Great, I needed a change. Next morning, in the elegant dining room with its oval table in the centre of which was a silver bowl of fresh fruit, I ordered scrambled eggs on toast. Margaret ordered an omelette. We both got omelettes. I ate my omelette. Next day I ordered boiled eggs and Margaret, very sensibly, ordered omelette. We both got omelettes. I ate my omelette. On the third day I took my lap top along to breakfast. I ordered poached eggs on toast and so did Margaret. I then played a video entitled ‘How to make a perfect poached egg’ to the bemused waiters who looked on with growing excitement. And we did get poached eggs in toast, which was nice. Next day we ordered omelettes and got them.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

The mouse train to Allahabad

India is a fascinating country. Colourful and noisy, crowded and filthy, it is an enigma that you can love and hate almost in the same instant. We have now been travelling for over a month and our longest stay has been in this country, though we have rarely remained in one place for long.
Our initiation was in Chennai, once called Madras. It was, well... challenging. Landing at 4.30 in the morning was not a good start and worse, the pick up from the hotel was not there, though he did turn up later. My sensitive stomach lasted all of 24 hours and was still churning as we left on the overnight train the following day – thanks be to Imodium.

We slept for a while then ventured out. There were no pavements to speak of and crossing the road took both courage and care. The road to the beach was lined with the bed rags of rough sleepers and smelled strongly of urine. We crossed what could have been a pleasant river – it was in fact a running sewer with muddy banks strewn with rubbish. It made us both retch and wish that we were anywhere but Chennai. Then we found the university and its grounds which were a little more pleasant, though the buildings were mostly in a very poor condition. Crossing a busy road we took a long walk towards the sea through layers of litter covered lightly with sand. All around us were stalls selling food we could not countenance, miniature fairground rides we would not trust and horsemen plying a trade which reminded us of the donkey rides offered in our childhood. Waves, oblivious to this mess, crashed in and young men bobbed around in the dubious water fully clothed.

Fast forward now to Ahmedabad and the Ashram of Mahatma Gandhi (think of a hippy commune without the drugs, sex, alcohol and flowers). This, in comparison, was a very clean area - possibly because the prime minister of Israel had visited it the day before together with India’s PM.  Everyone loves Gandhi and he is a god-like figure in India, though I personally do have a bone to pick with him. His story is wonderfully told through a long poster session at the Ashram and, though we all knew that the chronicle must end with his assassination, there were many tissues in use at the end of trail, mine included. The sadness of the tale is not simply that this man who abhorred violence died violently, it is that he saw his beloved India, free at last from the British, descending into a seemingly unstoppable spiral of inter-religious brutality.

My visit to this city was very successful. I found the college of the lady I am researching, met the principal and was given an excellent tour by Ravi, the head of physics there who proved a fount of knowledge on India in general.  But there was a problem. Gandhi was born in the state of Gujarat where Ahmedabad lies and in his honour the state has declared itself dry – and what is more applies the death penalty to those making booze or selling it. Now, I have no problem with Mr Gandhi condemning alcohol and its effects, none at all. But, when this means that I cannot have a pint or two then I do have a problem.

In fairness it is possible to obtain a permit to buy liquor from certain places between the hours of noon and seven in the evening. But I can tell you that they make it bloody difficult to get one. Of course I tried, of course I did. I even got a letter from my hotel vouching for me and took this to another hotel which, I had been told, had a liquor outlet. But they would not supply the dreaded stuff in the restaurant and said that my letter was not legal. Grumpily sober I had to give up the quest and become TT until we reached New Delhi.

There, in the capital, I did get a drink, and as planned I met Manmohan Singh, prime minister of India for ten years. But that’s another story – one for the book in fact. As I write we are now on the mouse train to Allahabad, the city where Indira Gandhi was born (she’s another of my subjects) and we have met a mouse. It’s quite big one and runs about the floor: it may in fact be a small rat and there may be more than one. The cheekiest one lives under the seat opposite. I saw it first and said nothing. Margaret saw it next and screamed! It too is going to Allahabad, though it will probably stay on the train. I hope so and I also hope that this city is not dry, despite its name.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Tropical Christmas

Actually, for nit-pickers, we did not spend Christmas in the tropics. The Tropic of Cancer does pass through Taiwan but we were somewhat to the north of it and would not have experienced the phenomenon that defines the boundaries – the shadow less noon – since it was winter. Sunny nevertheless, but not too hot – in fact quite chilly in the evening due to the high humidity, especially in the mountains where we saw in the new year of 2018.

So much for the weather report – now for Christmas memories of Taiwan. On this, our seventh visit, our son told me that he first came to the place fifteen years ago. He now has a house, an indigenous wife, two lovely kids, two characterful cats, a dippy dog, a white car and two black scooters. Ah, the scooters: so many of them, pouring out of junctions, converging on hapless pedestrians, buzzing along pathways hardly wide enough for a walker, transporting valuable cargo which ranges from bags of groceries to  entire families including tiny, helmetless, children. This time I spotted a new twist: a squat, tight–eyed man had fitted a chromium bar above the handlebars of his machine and on this sat two colourful parrots enjoying the passing breeze.

Scooters are parked everywhere, but the favourite spots are right outside the busy shops which crowd what would be pavements in the UK. Such things do not exist here: the roadway simply blends chaotically with glass shop fronts, outside displays, tables and chairs and, of course, parked scooters and cars. Amazingly, change is afoot: pavements are being created in Judong, my son’s home town! But here’s the problem: how to stop the new pavements being used for parking the electric scooters now being subsidised by the Taiwan government.

Christmas itself we celebrated in western style of course:  grub, gifts and games for all, plus excessive alcohol consumption for the adults so that they can behave like kids. New Year celebrations are also a western tradition since the Chinese New Year is celebrated in February or thereabouts. However, our son’s wife is not Chinese. She is from one of the aboriginal  tribal groups of Taiwan, the biggest one in fact  - the Atayal – and  they do celebrate our new year hence off we went to the mountain village of her parents. Up there we both have aboriginal names: I am ‘Shee Lan’ which means head hunter and describes a major activity of the tribe in quite recent times, whereas Margaret is ‘Be Sweet’ which means peaceful, which they are not.

In the evening we were taken to Wufong, a nearby village, where there was to be an aboriginal celebration. It was a big do held on the running track of the local school and we were told that no alcohol was to be taken in or consumed. Knowing the beer and rice wine-fuelled aborigines that I had met at previous celebrations, I was both surprised and sceptical about this. And my suspicions were proved valid as it soon became clear that certain of the many food stalls were at first selling beer discreetly and, later again, quite openly. We established a base camp with the family where stools were soon heaped with take-away food above and beer hidden below. Meanwhile the locals fingered the raffle tickets which were included with the entry cost (i.e. free i.e. paid for by the government).

We looked impatiently at the large central stage framed by two big screens, with their waiting cameramen in position plus hovering drone. Many relatives came by to drink with us, then slipped away again. The local mayor offered us VIP seats at the front which we graciously (I hope) declined. Then, at last, the event began with a solo performance of very loud singing followed by the beginning of the main act – the draw.  Number after number was drawn and screeched out across the loud PA, and from then on these draws were interspersed with entertainment from local dance troupes, solo and group musicians. Meanwhile I became colder and more sober as I knocked back the seemingly alcohol free (actually 5%) cold Taiwan beer. Finally I could stand it no longer and went out into the village in search of something warming. I found an open store but it seemed only to have the same cold beer. With sign language I tried to explain my requirements to the store owner who, at the end of my performance, said one word “whisky” and led me to the right shelf section. And there I found two dusty bottles of rum – and some coke to go with it! Back at the celebration my find was greeted with great interest by the family and others and through it I somehow found myself drinking with the local chief of police at his special table behind one of the food stalls. A ball of a man with a football face and piggy eyes he was very funny through his limited English supplemented by my son’s translation. The rum had a very good effect all round, even my hands warmed up and I began to enjoy the friendliness of everyone around us.

Soon it was midnight and time for fireworks. Having been lucky enough to avoid a cling-on all evening we did attract one the end. A pretty young woman, entranced by our westerness, first insisted on high proximity photos with me, then transferred her adoration to my wife - holding her hand tightly until finally detached and taken home by her male friend!

Early next morning a pig was killed and dismembered to celebrate the New Year. More Taiwan beer was consumed and a circle of tribal elders assembled to drink rocket fuel (rice wine) and discuss ways of discouraging marriage between relatives within the tribe and to persuade more women and youngsters to attend the tribal parties. It was good to watch but, of course, carried out in their own unique language. After a big lunch washed down with more beer and rocket fuel a ‘spirited debate’ began about the quality and cost of the party. We were quickly whisked away from this to a local shop where we drank beer and sang karaoke for the rest of the afternoon.

Tropical Christmas: unforgettable.