Tuesday 22 December 2020

Ending 2020

 Well, we are nearing the end of 2020 with a whimper rather than a bang and I will not dwell on that here. For my own part the year began with a fairly extensive bout of travel taking in Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia and Australia, all somewhat under the shadow of the looming pandemic. We returned to the UK in early March where, in retrospect and given our travels, we should certainly have been tested for the virus, but those were the days of perhaps forgiveable ignorance.

As I look at my diary for that month I see a litany of pre-booked Oxford tours – all with cancellation lines through them. I also see my last ever shift as a Samaritan and the day upon which we bought four chickens: lock-down had arrived.

I found substitute activities, as one does and towards the end of the year began using my guiding experience to make videos about Oxford. That has proven absorbing and creative. My latest one goes live today and it is the first of a series entitled Women World Leaders educated at Oxford University. This one focuses on Indira Gandhi, that famous Prime Minister of India, a woman who had a fascinating, though tragic life. You can select the video by going to Rob’s Oxford channel, or go  directly to it by clicking here. It’s about twelve minutes in duration. The next one will feature Margaret Thatcher who, in common with Indira, was sometimes known as the Iron Lady.

All that said I really wanted to wish you as happy a Christmas as possible in these circumstances, and hopefully a happier 2021.

Friday 4 December 2020

This is blog number 200! There's a lot going on

Well, as lockdown two comes to an end in the UK, I’ve been busy. Some readers may recall that a few years ago I completed the construction of my stone hut in Spain, properly known as a caseta. It took me five years to complete, on and off. The people in our village mostly thought that I was mad to build it traditionally of stone (loco) and were amazed that I did most of it on my own (solo). I like a good project and this one turned out to be a biggy - and one that brought me more deeply in touch with those villagers who labelled me Loco Solo.

Sometimes I do wonder whether I do these things for themselves or in order to write about the experience. Bit of both, I guess. Anyway, I did write a book about the project but, for various reasons, did not publish it just then. Now, I have. It is titled Rolling Stones in Spain: Solo Loco and is available as a Kindle eBook right now, the paperback will be released next week (2nd week of December 2020).  You can see it at robsbookshop.com or here’s the direct link to it on Amazon. If anyone on my blog list wants to read it then I can send it to you for free as an eBook (you can read it on a PC, Apple or a phone using the Kindle app (also free). Just email me at rob@satin.co.uk. All I ask is that you write a short review if you like it.

And on the video front, I’ve made another for the Rob’s Oxford channel. It’s a short one entitled The Top Three Colleges of Oxford and explains how they are rated and takes a look at the top three.  That too is free, but it would be great for me if you were good enough to subscribe to the channel (free and advert free). Here’s the link.

Besides all that Christmas is on its way again, though a rather different one this year for most people – Covid Christmas. Meanwhile there may be a rather special present for me since I’ve actually now seen an image of the cover of my Indian book, not the actual book, just the cover. So, after two years of frustrating delays there’s a possibility that it could be launched (in India at least) before Christmas, fingers crossed. 

And more again, I’m just putting the finishing touches to a novel I’ve been working on for some time. Though it's an outcome of my life in Spain, the locations are imagined location and characters fictional. Watch this space.

Fortunately there is now some good news on the corona vaccination front. Obviously, I have no connection with it at all, but it is nice to see that Oxford is right up there with the lead researchers in trying to combat this scourge.

Wednesday 18 November 2020

Tolkien’s Oxford: the video

 Isn’t it nice to have constructive advice from a grandchild? And to act on it. My writing activities have entered the doldrums this year. Two books that I intended to self-publish have been hanging about like abandoned children with no home to go to for some time now, and my book on South Asians who attended Oxford University ... well, I could write another book on the ups and downs of its long trail to publication. But there is light at the end of that trail just now so I’ll save that for a future blog.  Then we had Covid which caused a welcome regression to my smallholding days and a cessation of my Oxford guiding. And then what?

I think it started with an attempt to make two videos on the streets of Oxford: one a trailer for the aforementioned Indian book and the other for the Guild of Guides. Both were failures to my mind, partly due to traffic noise, wind noise, ineptitude and poor equipment. Then I began to think about all of the film sets I had seen in Oxford over the years: Morse, Harry Potter, The Mummy, Brideshead Revisited and so on and on. Some of these interfered with my life: on one occasion I could not purchase a puncture repair kit because they were filming an episode of Endeavour in the bike shop! Often whole streets were closed and a vast crew employed, some of them ordering us to be quiet at key moments. How could I compete with that? My asset was my knowledge of Oxford; my weakness was the wherewithal of professional filming.

The noise problem was simply solved: film all commentary in a quiet room and back it up with photos and silent motion clips. That said, I then need a video editor to bring it all together. I chose Shotcut as the package and me as the operative. The learning curve was long, often frustrating, and yet strangely rewarding. I still have a lot to learn but, frustrations aside, I like it. It’s creative.

Then the subject. This is where my grandson came in. Robin is an internet entrepreneur, he is very young but already has a team of more than ten and a YouTube channel subscriber base exceeding seven million. Out of his advice came Tolkien’s Oxford, honed by comments from good friends, including the excellent musical theme contributed by one of them. It was released this week on my YouTube channel which is called Rob’s Oxford. It’s free but I do need you to subscribe so that I can reach my aim of at least one thousand subscribers and after that to catch up with my grandson (some hope). So have a look, click on the links above: enjoy, comment, like subscribe.

Oh, and if you want to see what Robin does here’s his channel. Subscribe to that too. You’ll be in good company.


Friday 6 November 2020

Goodbye to Oxford – again

  So here we go again, back into lockdown in England. I am fortunate, it doesn’t bother me that much. Ensconced in Stow on the Wold at the top of the Cotswold Hills I have plenty to do and plenty of space, so I left Oxford with some relief since the city was not its normal self. There were no lectures, no live music, and the pubs had for me lost the allure of social intercourse - the restrictions had turned them into restaurants.

On my last guiding day, the 31st of October, I led two tours knowing that they would be my last for some time, perhaps forever – who knows? The midday one was curtailed by the restrictions already in place. It was not possible to enter colleges or university buildings, but Oxford in its externalities has enough to satisfy the eye of a visitor and I have plenty of stories that hopefully help to bring the buildings to life. Visored and distanced, I felt hoarse by the end of that tour and took a spoonful of honey to ease my vocal chords into the evening tour: a ghost tour.

All fourteen ghost hunters were young, predominantly students and mostly female. Owing to the distancing I had little opportunity to talk to any of them individually, though right at the beginning a French student from St Edmund Hall asked me if she would be frightened by my stories. Unable to answer the question I explained that this depended more on her than me and left the question hanging. For me, the object in delivering the stories is to ensure that they are interesting, have enough detail to make them believable if you want to believe, and include that essential ingredient of strangeness. Besides, Oxford at night is a spiritual experience, of sorts. They applauded at the end, but what does that mean? Relief, herd response, pity, a chance to warm their hands? Wahtever, I do hope that they enjoyed the experience.

I walked home alone, resisting the gravitational attraction as I passed four pubs. They were busy and I knew that, even if I did find one that would admit me, I would not enjoy the experience unable to take up my usual stance at the bar.

On my very last day in the city the weather was at first splendid, though chilly. I ran around the University Parks admiring the autumnal yellows and occasional reds. I even collected a few leaves from the ground. Do you know those leaves? Their shape is quite unique; they are from the tulip trees which form an arcade along the southern pathway of the Parks. There is also a flower in the picture but that is not a tulip and is not, of course from the tulip trees. Nice to find a flower at this time of the year though.

Later I took some photos for my next project: my lock down project. And, of course, it rained. Still at least the rain was not continuous and the sun broke through the clouds at times.  I enjoyed the journey in which I retraced the route C S Lewis would have taken on his regular walks from his home in East Oxford to Magdelan College. I then drove the made-in-Oxford red mini to the Cotswolds and started on the real priorities: the action list> A leaking central heating system, dripping bathroom, cheerless chickens, and so on. Keep well.

Sunday 27 September 2020

Tenth Anniversary


An old friend and colleague from the past spotted this astounding fact as he browsed through old blogs (don’t know why, bit like raking through the dust in someone else’s attic I suppose: an attic that is open to all). Yes, it really is ten years to the day that I launched my bookshop, robsbookshop.com, onto an unsuspecting, puzzled and mostly unaware public.You can see the original announcement here. This blog was initiated just a little earlier than that.

I cannot pretend that it has been a roaring success, though I did enjoy building the Literary Pub with all of its silly bars and I still find them funny. Last night I went out to the real pubs of Stow on the Wold and found them unreal during this covid-19 pandemic: we were refused entrance three times owing to lack of free tables; we were granted entry to two and sat there isolated as a vizored waiter failed to communicate with me; the range of ales available was pretty much unity and the atmosphere was lunar. So, in sympathy, I have taken a dump of robsbookshop.com with a view to removing the Literary Pub entirely – soon there will be no virtual pub unless a computer virus reinstates it, which is unlikely. Besides, the links were wearing out and maybe the humour as well.

I guess my most successful book is still Spread Spectrum: Hedy Lammar and the mobile phone though I am not sure how much robsbookshop.com contributed to that success, if at all. My fiction has not done well, though my own favourite novel, Shaken by China, did have an early spike. At first I actually sold and delivered paper books through the site, but that proved impractical and it is now mostly a repository for all of my titles which then passes sales on to, mostly, Amazon.

I think I’ve added six books to my list since the launch and there are three more ‘in the pipeline’. During that time I have put up nearly 200 blogs, roughly 20 per year with a peak of 26 in 2014. Why do I do it? Perhaps the answer lies in a quote from the novel I am currently reading (The Gustav Sonata) where Lottie asks Gustav ‘Why do you have to do anything. Couldn’t you just be?’ Maybe.

Wednesday 16 September 2020

Fun Foods


My granddaughter eats chickens’ feet! Doesn’t that demonstrate just how diverse we have become as a family? Not really.

I have never eaten a chicken’s foot. I cannot readily think of a more revolting snack even if I try: rats’ ears perhaps or boiled toenails of an aged person maybe. But chickens’ feet disgust me. They are horny and clawed and have spent most of their lives scratching around in offal, or worse. There cannot be much meat on them so people who do eat them present a nibbling, ratty like appearance as they consume. The whole thing is quite revolting, but it is very popular.

And yet, people eat a lot of chickens, According to the Vegetarian Calculator the average person in the USA consumes 2,400 chickens during their lives. That’s 4,800 feet which, if not consumed, are wasted. Surely that’s not good for the planet!

When I kept pigs I read a lot about them. One of the anecdotal stories suggested that a farmer’s wife could use every bit of a pig bar its grunt. It was a silly statement because dead pigs do not grunt, but you take the point. My daughter had a taste for pigs’ trotters, though I always suspected she ate them for effect rather than satisfaction and I can at least excuse this indulgence since there is considerably more meat on a pig’s trotter than a chicken’s foot.

Many people in the world eat insects and in China we saw a great variety of exoskeletal treats proffered at market stalls. I did not try them because I do not like them, even though I have not tried them. In Cambodia I watched a young lady vending grubs. I did not see anyone buying them, but she liked them. Every minute or so her hand strayed towards her display, plucked a nice fat grub and popped it into her month and then munched contentedly. The grubs were rather fat, like overfed maggots – and so was she.

There’s more on the insectivores. This blog has led to the discovery that my daughter-in-law is partial to the odd insect. With certain conditions she has allowed me to include a photograph of her munching a scorpion. At first I thought the creature was floating towards her willing mouth, but if you look closely you will see that the creature is on a stick – like a lollipop or scorpionpop. 

When I was a boy we used to go levering. Elvers, I’m sure you know, are baby eels. To catch them we had first to dig up lots of worms. Then we, rather cruelly, sowed the worms onto threads, tied then all together in clumps and finally to a weight: this we attached to a stout rod with a strong cord. We then went forth to the Pill, a tributary of the River Severn, at the correct season of the year and dangled our worm clumps into the freshwater inlets that attracted the baby eels. They would hook their mouths onto the worms and we would lift them out and wipe them off into a bucket, time and time again. Might it have been simpler and equally nutritious, I now wonder, to eat the worms?

Back home my Mum would fry the elvers for breakfast and they were rather nice. Oddly, whilst writing this piece I picked up a BBC article with the headline: “Illegal elvers worth more than caviar on black market”. We could have been rich! And in a way we were, we also ate adult eels and flatfish that we caught and moorhens eggs that we stole from their nests, always leaving two behind. My mother always claimed that I and two other boys had eaten a dead seagull during one summer holiday. I have no recollection of that, but we were all three seriously ill later that year, missing almost a year’s schooling.

It is said that you are what you eat and I feel happier being part elver than I could ever feel about being part chicken foot. But what else can be done with the feet of so many chickens that are killed to provide Sunday roasts and chicken cutlets. I have a solution. When we had a small holding I killed our chickens as humanely as I could, then plucked them and removed their feet exposing the ligaments that had given the chicken control of its leg movements. I then chased our children around the farm whilst pulling on a ligament so that the foot seemed to be grabbing them. It was something to do. The chicken did not mind. It had passed into chicken heaven where its legs were extra long and fat edible grubs grew plentifully on trees.

(P.S. My son claims that he and I once did eat a chicken’s foot in Taiwan for a dare. I have no recollection of that and may have been drinking that country’s chicken soup laced with very strong rice wine at the time.)




Thursday 13 August 2020

The Sky


This is the view from my ‘library’ in Stow on the Wold, the room in which I often write when I wish to unplug (no Wi-Fi there). The panorama is dominated by the sky and looks NNW. The hills that you might just be able to see in the distance delineate the horizon: these are part of the Cotswold escarpment which drops steeply down into the Severn Valley. We are on the very edge of Stow, overlooking our own field and down towards the village of Longborough. It is a pleasant landscape, however the aspect that moves me most just now is not the land, but the sky.

The orientation of the house is such that when I sit in my usual armchair in the lounge I can, with the slightest movement of my head, glance from the TV screen to a broad section of the sky centered on the setting sun, and most evenings the latter is by far the most interesting. Those sunsets are so varied, so spectacular, so colourful, so expansive, so inspiring, so moving that I fear that I do not have the vocabulary to adequately describe them. Anyway, what would be the point of a word picture depicting a natural phenomenon that everyone experiences hopefully many times in their lives? I could take a photograph of an especially exceptional sunset of course, and I have, but the equipment I possess never quite captures my own experience, and I guess that everyone’s experience of sundown is subtly different anyway.

During the Covid lockdown I saw many spectacular sunsets and, perhaps as a result, this reawakened a dormant interest in what follows: the sky at night. I think that my reawakening was also stimulated by the Elon Musk’s Spacex rocket used to carry two men up to the International Space Station (ISS). Interesting to see that space travel is now a commercial, rather than government funded, venture and intriguing to see the ISS pass through the night sky with those two men aboard.

We knew roughly where to look from a website so we stood in our field watching the sky to the south on the night after the launch. Margaret spotted it first: it was very bright and moved through the heavens quickly, leaving no doubt about what it was. It was rather humbling to think that there were people up there. This event then seemed to lead naturally to spotting the planet Mercury which appeared just after dusk and quickly passed beneath the northern horizon. Though just a pinprick of light it was exciting to watch the Sun’s nearest planet move through the sky.

I found Mercury with the help of a mobile app and this progressed to the location of Jupiter and Saturn in the southern sky. I learned that Jupiter is at its brightest for us just now and, as the most massive of the planets, is - apart from the moon of course - one of the most luminous objects in the night sky. I have been watching it rise and fall for a couple of months now together with Saturn which seems to follow it across the southern hemisphere. Lately Mars has risen in the east and I have been able to see all three from the south facing window of this room. Together with sightings of Venus, the brightest of all, that completes the planets nearest to our Sun. The more distant ones, Uranus and Neptune, are harder to see, but I do hope to spot them soon.

As if to underline my admiration of the infinity that envelopes us, the mid-August night sky put on a special display recently. The evening was dry, hot and humid and there was little cloud cover, just a few large formations in the north-west. As darkness fell these began to glow intermittently with a soft inner light reminiscent of an incandescent tube flickering into life. This display of intra-cloud lightning endured for some hours, and to add to the eeriness of this sight there was a complete lack of sound - a sure indication that the storm was a considerable distance away and that we gardeners wouldn’t be getting any rain. I was disappointed that I did not see the expected meteor shower that night, but those luminous clouds were enough.

Then, on the very next day, we did have a thunder storm. We were walking to a pub in a nearby village  to do our bit for the Eat Out to Help Out scheme. It was warm and humid with barely a breeze as we strolled down a sun stroked lane towards Broadwell, then, very suddenly, a fierce wind ripped through the woodland at our side almost blinding us with air born debris. The sky darkened quickly and a few drops of rain fell. We still had a few miles to go towards our destination, but good beer and food beckoned so we pressed on. At one point we had to shelter in a copse as the rain belted down. When it lessened we had to cross a wide, recently harvested field feeling very exposed beneath the looming thunder clouds. Suddenly a brilliant streak of lightning forked down straight ahead of us as if creating a short-lived pointer to our destination, and this was immediately followed by a deafening crack of thunder so this time we were near the eye of the storm. I did get quite wet (Margaret had the umbrella), but it was well worth it: both to experience the angry sky and the welcoming inn.

I’m sure that most of you have seen many beautiful sunsets, witnessed impressive thunder storms, and also spotted the planets. But for all of that, I felt a strong need to share my wonder, awareness and enjoyment of the sky. It may be so terrifyingly grand as that it diminishes our individuality, but it can also expand our minds.


Sunday 26 July 2020

Oxford: tours and pubs

Although the Visitor Information Centre in Oxford has closed it doors for good (unless the city council comes up with a rescue plan, which seem unlikely), it seems that the guiding side of the business is not quite dead. In fact, I actually had a booking in my diary for a tour on the 23rd of July.

I dutifully drove to Oxford on that day after carefully studied the rules of guiding in a post lock-down scenario.  However, soon after letting myself into our flat I glanced at my phone only to find that I had two emails a couple of missed calls and a voicemail. All of that made it quite clear that the tour had been cancelled for the simple reason that no one had booked onto it. Oh well.

That afternoon I caught up with some Oxford related business and glanced at my usual source of what’s on in the city. It did not take long. Virtual stuff, which can be viewed from anywhere, anytime aside, the answer was nothing. No live music, no lectures, no concerts – not a thing. No great surprise there. But, I thought to myself, there’s always the pub.

Rather than visit my locals that night I decided to take a look at the pub situation in the centre of Oxford on the assumption that it would be livelier than the Cotswolds. As I cycled towards the centre I passed the famous Eagle and Child – closed. And on the other side of the road one of my favourites, the Lamb and Flag – closed. In Oxford’s busiest street I found that the newest pub to open, the Plough, was closed. My heart began to sink and my wallet flexed its expansive muscle.

But I found an open pub – I usually do. It was the Chequers, another of my favourites lurking in its fifteenth century glory just off the High Street. Now, the last time I had set foot in the Chequers, just before the lock-down, it had been deserted and I immediately blamed the impending Covid restrictions. However, it soon filled up – in fact there had been a power outage.

This time it was almost empty, just one table was occupied by a lively, isolated group and it did not fill up. As I sat alone near the entrance I mused: the beer is good, the price reasonable and there’s a darts match on the TV - so what’s the problem? Quite simply the pub had the atmosphere of a burst balloon. Then one of the key players of the local CAMRA branch came in, ordered a pint of cider and we plunged into a spirited conversation on pubs and their possible demise, on beer, on travel, and on the virus.

Later we visited two more pubs, both closed, then to the pitifully name White Rabbit aka Gloucester Arms, aka Glock. Getting in was a little difficult but once inside I found that it had barely changed from, oh, ten years ago when it was the headquarters of the Oxford rockers, had the loudest, meanest juke box in town, and anyone without a tattoo was looked upon with deep suspicion. On the night that I suggested barmaids in suggestive tatters roamed around but did not approach us; the two old tattoo less males. At the bar itself there were only two cask ales available apparently, but I was given the other one from a pump with no label. A golden beer, very refreshing and the best of the night. My friend who is an infinite source of knowledge on the subject of beer told me that it was Golden Citrus from the Turpin Brewery and the long bearded landlord told me that it was his favourite beer, just as one of the keg beers had been earlier! The pub buzzed, it was alive. There is hope yet that Hilaire Belloc’s prediction “When you lose your inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England" may not come to pass. By the way I was recently asked to choose an object that I could take with me as a castaway on a desert island - can you guess my answer? Click on the pub below to find out.

Next night I went, with a friend, to my main local, the Rose and Crown. It is a small, loveable place and though there were not many there it had, as ever, atmosphere. Its balloon was inflated by the irrepressible landlord, Andrew, who has the essential gift of linking strangers together then stepping back to enjoy the show. And the beer – Golden Citrus again! Long live the Rose and Crown and pubs like it. You know the tune, join with me to sing:

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk into England’s great pub scene
And was the holy grail of ale
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

Sunday 5 July 2020

The pub again – at last

Running around Stow-on-the-Wold on the morning of the important date of Saturday the 4th of July (lockdown up) I deliberately ran past all of the pubs (there are eight – plus a social club) in preparation for a pub opening adventure that night. The first that I encountered, The Queen’s Head, had a notice proudly stating that they were opening at 12pm that day which threw me into such confusion that I wavered on my way. Did they mean noon or midnight, must be noon yet that follows 11.59 AM. Best to say 12 noon or 12 midnight to avoid confusion. Another pub on the square was opening on the Monday (why wait?) and yet another, The Bell, was waiting until the 20th. Others did not commit.

So the Queen’s it had to be. But hang on, though I like the pub very much, the beer is not to my taste. It is a local beer from the small but delightful Donnington Brewery with its lake, black swan and water wheel. I should like it, I know I should and I once did but, well, let’s just say it is not my favourite tipple and I wanted a beer that I savoured to celebrate the end of lockdown.

So we went to the nearby village of Oddington where the Horse and Groom serves a good pint from one of my favourite breweries: Wye Valley. This place is more of a restaurant than a pub to my mind, a bit corporate perhaps, but very well run and welcoming.

Looking back to pre-lockdown, the last pub that I visited was the Harcourt Arms in Jericho, Oxford, a regular port of call on a Sunday since it has the ‘best open mike night in Oxford’ and is not in any way corporate. The Oddington place could not be more different to the Harcourt, but it does serve a cracking pint. That night I had two delicious pints of Butty Bach and really enjoyed them.

Covid set the rules of course. My name and telephone number was taken for contact purposes, there were rather attractive ‘one way’ markers on the floor, and it was table service only. The place was not very busy, but peeping around the corner I saw and heard a group of about eight drinkers who all came from the same household judging by their proximity. They were quite rowdy and gave a bit of atmosphere to the place – and the beer was top notch after months of mostly bottled beer.

Then back to Stow, only to find that the Queen’s had closed at nine! What was that all about? Perhaps they had opened at 12 midnight after all and were whacked. Instead we went to the White Hart (recently renamed The Stag, but locals still call it the White Hart) which is hotel and hence a bit corporate, but welcoming. Same Covid arrangements and here we were given a table which a couple had just vacated. The seats were still warm, isn’t that a bit…oh well. I needed to visit the toilet, but was faced with a notice outside stating that only one person was allowed inside. This confused me. I stood at the door not knowing if there was a person inside or not. There was. The door opened and he and I did a little social distancing dance as he left and I entered.

Much of the conversation here centered around how many people had turned up on this first day out of lockdown – lots at lunchtime, fewer tonight - and how many people were still afraid to leave their homes. I felt a little uncomfortable to be out and about myself after all these weeks and the atmosphere generally was a little surreal. Added to which we did not meet anyone that we knew, but that, no doubt, was because I chose good beer over local society.

It’s funny you know, I thought that I would really miss my regular trips to the pub, but I did not, not much. And I also thought that I would suffer withdrawal symptoms owing to lack of real ale, but I did not, much.  But it was great to be back: especially drinking those two pints of Butty Bach.

Thursday 18 June 2020

Thoughts on editing

Though I set up this blog to write about my writing, I rarely do that. The subjects covered are wide ranging and mainly stimulated by happenings in my day-to-day life and often focus on travel. So, back to books for a change and to that great improver of one’s writing – editing.

When I decided to write about this topic, one which is so close to the soul of anyone who writes, I happened to be reading Bill Bryson’s Troublesome Words where he remarks that whenever anyone writes about editing there will always be an elephantine abuse of English somewhere in their text. So look out!

The professional editor’s basic role, as I see it, is to remove grammatical errors and typos, clarify unclear English and impose the house style of the publisher (things like the use of inverted commas, capitalisation, use of numbers such as 100 versus one hundred, use of slang, etc). Even this can cause problems between the editor and the edited.  When I wrote technical books they were mostly published by US-based publishers and it was one of these that changed the verb following a word I used extensively (data) from singular to plural: where I wrote ‘data is’ they substituted ‘data are’. However, general usage had settled on data as both singular and plural and the singular (datum) was little used. The publisher tried to insist on ‘data are’ so I checked out five previous books that they had published – all of them used ‘data is’ extensively. Other battles were not so easily won.

Many years ago, I met my first self-proclaimed lesbian in a bar in Georgetown, USA. The conversation began because she had a broken leg and her plaster cast occupied the stool between us, but that is by-the-by. It occurred around my ‘data is’ period just mentioned and I needed a shoulder to cry on, so I told her about it. She then confessed that she was not only a lesbian, but also an editor. However, her writers called her the ‘stealth editor’ because when they read the edited manuscript they could not detect what had changed, yet proclaimed that the outcome was better. I wished then, and many times since that she could edit my writing.

Before that incident, in fact years before I published my first book, I met an editor in a bar in Ipswich, UK he was, actually a sub-editor of the local newspaper. I was a minor contributor to that rag at the time through the correspondence column and my activities as chairman of the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale. We were talking about beer and I asked him if he had read my latest article. What he said surprised me: “Oh no. I don't read content when I’m editing, if I did then I would miss the errors”. That’s the sort of editor I like, I thought.

Later, when I started up on my own, I launched a newsletter called VINE which stood for Voice in Europe. I wrote all of the content and felt very exposed since I had no one to check it over before printing. Fortunately, my old boss, Hugh Daglish, had retired just then and was at a loose end and agreed to layout each issue for printing and to check the grammar. His mother had been an English teacher, he had written a book on fonts and he knew little and probably cared little about the content. Perfect qualifications, and it worked well until his sudden death in Israel. I sold the newsletter soon after that.

Nowadays, I have two stalwarts who valiantly read through the books I write before I let anyone else see them. And, though we occasionally disagree about things like capitalization and starting a sentence with ‘and’, the process is amicable and enjoyable. And I am entirely grateful to them for spotting typos, grammatical errors, and so on. They also make useful suggestions about content which I often act upon. You know who you are, so thank you.

What has really spurred me into writing this blog is this: the editing of my latest book has been hell. The first phase went reasonably OK, though there were minor problems about English usage and so on – all exacerbated by the fact that the publishers were based in India. That done there was then an unexpected and very long second phase where a committee was formed to overview content. Now, admittedly, I was writing on sensitive subjects including potted histories of various famous figures from the Indian sub-continent, but my sources were all identified and I had no axe to bear in recounting their lives. The committee had axes! Whole swathes of the book were rewritten in a florid style completely unlike my own and including opinions, in my name, that I did not hold and could not justify. I was horrified and indicated that, despite my own considerable time and money expended on the book, I could not agree to its publication.

In the end, of course, compromises were found, tempers cooled and the book was completed (as I write it is yet to be published). But it will never be mine, not in the way that my others are. And I still dream of that stealth editor with the broken leg.

Wednesday 10 June 2020

End of an era in Oxford

Just recently I was asked to write something about being a walking tour guide in Oxford by the local Guild of Guides. The unexpurgated version of that article follows and provides a brief account of my transition from the world of telecommunications to that of guiding some fifteen years ago. As explained there, most of my work came through the vistor information centre in Oxford and today I heard that the centre is to close its doors for good: an early victim of Covid-19.

At one time the information part of the centre’s activities was funded by the local council, as most of these things are. That funding has run down over time and the centre then had to derive most of its income from the provision of walking tours. Apparently finances were not in a good state and, as with many marginal businesses, the pandemic has provided the final cut.

It is sad for me. I got to know many friendly and helpful people who worked in the centre and really enjoyed leading the so-called public tours with an audience made up of a variety of people from all over the planet. Still, nothing lasts forever and new blooms flower on the earth enriched by the old. Here’s the article I wrote, it may be my valediction.

Images of a tour guide vary so let me start by saying this: I only carry an umbrella when it is raining, I do not invent everything that I say (in fact I am not capable of that) and finally: I do not work for nothing – who does?

I started on the buses. I aspired to be an official walking tour guide in Oxford, but soon found that entry into the Guild of Tour Guides was not easy. Aspirants had to take an examined course and there were none scheduled at that time. Later I learned that courses are only run when a sufficient number of older guides had passed on so, short of arranging early demises for existing guides, I had to wait. So I started guiding on the buses: green ones at that time and labeled Guide Friday, presumably chosen to create an image of Robinson Crusoe’s native guide on his desert island rather the day of the week.

For that I was paid £5 per hour and was whipped around Oxford in that hour. This was a tad less than my rate as consultant in telecoms at that time, but hey, this was about changing my life, not about the money. The job was a bit repetitive, but had its challenges. At times we were racing around at a breakneck speed of twenty miles an hour, at others the bus was ensnarled in Oxford’s dense traffic or stationary whilst a crowd of tourists embarked each paying the driver in cash. This certainly improved my ability to prĂ©cis stories or to lengthen them. I became an elastic band of sorts. More exciting still were the sudden re-routes to avoid closed streets, accidents, etc. Suddenly I would find myself in a part of Oxford that I barely knew and one that often had no buildings of historic interest, in fact of any interest. So, I learned to improvise – but no, that still did not mean making things up.

I was back-packing in Turkey when I heard that the Oxford Guild of Tour Guides were planning to run a new course, presumably a sufficient number of older guides had expired at last. The course fee was quite a lot, I would have to pass an interview and there would be exams and test walks. All that was OK, but did I really want to do it? After my experience on the buses I wondered if, and this may sound arrogant, the role was stretching enough. I need not have worried. The course was great. I learned so much about Oxford that this in itself was worth the fee. And then the scope of the city’s history is so enormous that any attempt to master it is arrogance in itself. There is such a bottomless well of stories, characters, events and buildings in Oxford that the elastic band will always be stretched.

My very first walking tour, led just by me with no back up, no notes and no printed imagery (my own choice), was stretching. I was challenged just before the tour by an employee of my pimp – the then Tourist Information Centre.

“Where’s your badge,” she demanded crossly, “you must have a blue or green badge to lead the official tours.”

I tried to explain that I had passed the course and was now a member of the Institute of Tourist Guiding, but the badges had not yet been made. She was not impressed and I was discombobulated, but marched out to do my duty.

Outside a group of around fifteen people quickly assembled around me and I began my introduction, but was quickly interrupted by a large American lady.

“Will there be much walking on this tour? She asked, adding “I cannot walk very far”.

Nothing in my excellent training course had prepared me for this, so I answered, rather lamely, “Well, it is a walking tour.” Then, recalling that customers are always right, added, “but Oxford is a compact city. I’m sure you’ll be fine”.

One of the skills we were introduced to was crowd control, especially drawing in the group when the guide is speaking. Soon after my first public tour I led a private group, a group of policeman who were attending a bonding course of some sort. For all my efforts they insisted on standing well away from me and each other as if they had anticipated social distancing.

“What’s the matter?” I asked with a smile. “Don’t you like each other?”

“No,” they replied in unbonded unison.

I’ve been an Oxford guide for many years now and do regard the job as a profession. Through it we probably meet a greater diversity of people than in most other trades and I hope they are as enriched and amused by our brief encounters as I am.

Wednesday 29 April 2020

Rb’s CV diaries 9: The last entry

Now that the lockdown has been extended in the UK and I have spent a month under its strictures it seem a good point to bring these regular CV diary reports via my blog to an end. There is, in any event, a surfeit of news on the ongoing crisis so normal service will henceforth be resumed in the blog. Future entries will be about, well, whatever stimulates me to write one. In other words - business as usual.

Whitey (you can see guilt in her eye)
Looking back at my own experience during this period then, aside from a few frustrations, it’s been a breeze. The weather could not have been better, I have had plenty to do (most of which has been outdoors). My garage is reasonably well organised (I have even discovered a long forgotten lathe and am bringing that into use), plants are growing in the vegetable garden and pests are attacking them, the last bit of wilderness in the flower garden has been tamed and the pond is greening. Two of the chickens are now in lay and the other two are under investigation for egg eating (I suspect Whitey, but no confession extracted yet). Saturday night specials have become an institution at Iverley House, the most recent being an exciting game of shove ha’penny. And, thankfully, supplies of essentials like beer and bananas have been maintained.

Living here through the spring (we’re usually in Spain) has been a joy. Though we’ve had our hands dirty for most of our adult lives it’s still a revelation to watch established plants burst into life and little seedlings pushing up their tiny green tendrils to rapidly become plants themselves. I am keeping a daily watch on the beech hedge between us and our new neighbours that I planted last year. At first I thought the effort had been wasted as our other hedge, a well-established beech itself, burst into life with not a stir from the new one. But day by day in the last week I have spotted the odd bud swelling and turning green and at least one has now burst forth as an unfolding leaf.

I do feel fortunate to be on the very fringes of this epidemic, and also feel somewhat guilty for that. However, I can’t help but observe that some in the public eye are not helping at all. The Corona pandemic should not become some sort of blame game between politicians, the media and scientists. Nor should it be a platform on which to project worn out views on our nation’s future, the green agenda and the challenge of climate change, or the pursuit of egalitarianism. However, on a more positive front it has provided a vehicle to spotlight the selflessness of many who are usually off the media radar, both in the NHS and elsewhere.

There is, reputedly, an old Chinese curse which states ‘May you live in interesting times’. Well, we certainly are, and there is also little doubt that the current crisis originated in that country. But despite the loss of many innocent people I think that we are still in the ‘phony war’ phase of this battle, the truly ‘interesting’ times are still to come as the dangerous depths of the economic ramifications  caused by the lock down become clearer. Still, at least we are all right for eggs.

I wish you all well, wherever you are. Keep your distance if you can, but continue to associate through modern media which, I suppose, this blog is part of.

Monday 20 April 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 17 April 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 14 April 2020

Rob’s CV diaries 6: Watching seeds grow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 10 April 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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