Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Rob’s CV diaries 2: Isolation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Rob’s CV diaries 1: Eruption

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Rob's best reads of 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 6 March 2020

Contrasting Australia and Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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