Wednesday 7 December 2022

Tasmania Calling


Hawaii to Hobart is a long stretch, we were in the air for 11 hours before changing at the airport horriblis: Melbourne. So, after further delays, it was quite late when we arrived at the Doctor Syntax Hotel and consequently there was no-one to let us in and nowhere to eat! As ever all’s well that end well and next morning I took a run down to nearby Sandy Bay – and was impressed. I liked Hobart with its individual houses that struggle up the hills surrounding the vast and convoluted bay.

It was an easy walk into the city where we learned so much more about Tasmania: from the original natives , through the convict age, the immigration phase and including some intriguing things about the flora and fauna. We also visited a pub with a handpump! Unfortunately for me it only delivered imperial stout and the rest of the beers were cold, fizzy and expensive craft ales – the norm for the last few weeks and for the rest of my world trip.

Idiosyncratically we took a bus to our next stop: Port Arthur. It dumped us about a mile away from our hotel , the Fox and Hounds.  Though isolated the place was great. Have you ever opened the door of a hotel room and expostulated a loud “Wow”? This “wow” was not for the room but the view: straight out onto the wood-lined bay with the sea lapping the shore a few metres from our full length window. Wow. Next day we walked down to the Port Arthur prison­ which was where those considered the real bad ‘uns of the day were confined, beaten and educated. It was by all accounts a horrific place, but is now tranquil and despite its horrific past, rather beautiful.

Returning to Hobart I gave in and hired a car from a backstreet dealer called Raj and we went ‘a touring. I like Tasmania. It seems that there is always a mountain range in sight plus easy travelling distance to the highly varied coast. We saw spectacular waterfalls, long stretches of zero occupation countryside, chainsaw carvings in the remnants of condemned trees, and even visited Pontypool - not the 25,000 population town of Wales  from my childhood, but a sparse community of ten farms  dotted beside a long rough road and ending in the middle of nowhere.

Our favourite place was the second city of Launceston, with its impressive civic buildings, lovely setting, beautiful parks and a memorable ravine through which one of its two rivers squeezes  into a steaming cataract. There and elsewhere we met people with English connections: direct or through ancestors. And it is there that we attended a live music concert in a pub which was great.

We found the  people of Tasmania to be very forthright and friendly, our only criticism of the place can be applied to anywhere where the USA has had an influence: the meals were just too large. We adapted by ordering one meal and two plates.

It rained heavily on our last day in Hobart and our plane to the mainland was cancelled at the last minute - an unfortunate ending to an otherwise great fortnight. Oh and don't forget the black swans, so many, so black.

Friday 25 November 2022

Hawaii Calling


It’s a strange place, this little archipelago all alone out there in the middle of the Pacific, first “discovered” by Captain Cook – who later died here. American to the core it still includes the Union Jack in its state flag and boasts of the many kings and queens of the “indigenous” people. Expensive and overloaded with tourists it has an enormous airport on the main island of Oahu with planes departing and arriving every quarter of an hour or so.

We had a relatively cheap (in Hawaii nothing is really cheap) hotel shielded from the famous Waikiki Beach by rows of sky scraping alternatives which were much more expensive. Yet the beautiful blueness of the ocean was only minutes away. We had a balcony looking down on a sumptuous swimming pool belonging to the hotel next door and were surrounded by the skyscrapers. It wasn’t a bad place and the Honolulu Lounge, possibly the nearest thing to a real pub in this sea of tourist bars and restaurants, was very close by.

The beach was wonderful and the view over the ocean with its rolling surf, soft sand and treed parkland is to die for. It is spoiled only by the masses of indulgent tourists and rich invaders who rule the economy by their presence and ruin the economy of the less well-off locals who cannot afford the prices that the outsiders pay with seeming ease. Our guide on the Waikiki Trolley bemoaned her situation in which multi-generational housing is the norm and keeping chickens a must if you want eggs for breakfast.

The entire beach area is dominated by a chain of shops called ABC which arguably stands for Always Bigger Costs. When I went out to buy the makings of a cheap breakfast on the first morning I was shocked to see a loaf of bread at $10, a few slices of cake at $7.99 and, our breakfast mainstay – cereal bars only sold singly and at a price that you usually pay for a box of them!

Yet, amongst all this expensive luxury poverty is in plain sight. Behind my hotel there was a long canal which replaced a mosquito ridden swamp. It is now a very pleasant water course with a golf course on the opposite side and a park at the very end. People live in that park. They are mostly men and move their only possessions about in shopping trolleys. One man mad two linked together! They did not look at me and I did not engage with them. Drunks lie on the pavements, stepped gracefully over by bronzed young women in thongs with surf boards held above their heads.

The only thing that is cheap is the beach and the buses. A 40 minute ride from the airport to our hotel costs just a couple of dollars, though they did not run on the early Sunday morning of our departure: we had to use an Uber at more that $40!

The backcloth of extinct volcanic mountains are a delight to the eye and are often topped by impressive cloud formations, however, the incomers are creeping up the valleys towards the heights with their million dollar houses.  Fortunately, there is a coast not far from Waikiki beach which has so far resisted the real estate mongols. It is rugged, wind swept and beautiful with a blowhole that gushes pure white foaming sea water onto the black igneous rock.

Food of almost any country is available of course and can be consumed with a live band playing if you so wish. We happened to be near the most popular place in town: a Japanese restaurant with a queue extending down the street for most of the day and night. We did not queue but had a good meal in nearby Coco Coconuts, serenaded by their own band. The leader told me that he was a Radiohead fan.

Yes, a strange place. If I return, which is unlikely, I will give Honolulu a miss and explore the more natural parts of Hawaii.

Friday 11 November 2022

America Calling

We chose Austin, Texas because an America singer called Patty from our local Oxford music pub recommended it for live music. Then the harmonic player from Lighting Willy and Poor Boys sang its praises to us – his name is Fancy and they also play at the Harcourt sometimes.

Our motel was crap, right next to a roaring freeway and no double glazing, but we did meet an interesting couple in the miniscule breakfast room there (the woman guided Margaret through the intricacies of the waffle maker). He had studied English but now worked in the renewable energy world.

However, the Super 8 motel was central and had great views of the wonderful Capitol building, seat of state governance for Texas. It was also close to a nice little park beside a stream which borders the eastern part of the city, and there I saw my first group of boat tailed grackles, a bird that is very common in Texas but fascinates me in its song, its movements and general behaviour. I reckon it’s related to our blackbird.

Found great blues music at King Bee’s on the first night and the beer wasn’t too bad either. There was eve real avaible (not) see photo. Next night we ventured into Sixth Street where there is an amazing collection of bars, most with live music. We had a good time in a piano bar where a young man vamped on the keys and sang energetically backed by just a drummer and driven to excess by tips and requests.

Wasted a lot of time trying to get data to work on my phone in Austin: essential for Uber and maps. It was a problem that dogged me for most of the trip. Thank the stars for Wi-Fi, but it’s often not there when you need it.

Moved to Corpus Christi by Greyhound bus via San Antonio (Remember the Alamo) and found it as interesting as it is intriguing on the map:  the reef-like Padre Island runs along mile after mile of the Mexican Bay coastline in front of the city. At first we had a hotel with a swimming pool on the north side of a very impressive bridge which crosses the dockland inlet. There we established a local in Blackbeards: chatter at the bar and live music in the next room. Had some good conversations in Blackbeards. 

Then moved into the Emerald Hotel in the city proper and right on the shoreline, but a bit out of town (we go for cheap places but it’s still costing a small fortune to live). Room was crummy but a view to die for. From there we spent two nights at the House of Rock but the music was not as good as Austin (or the Harcourt). Then off to Harlingen in the south which so far seems a very bad mistake.

Monday 10 October 2022

My first night at the resurrected Lamb and Flag


A friend asked me along to the opening night on 6th October 2022 and I said no – it will be too crowded. Then, irresolute as ever, I relented and went along, alone, at about 8.30pm. As expected it was heaving – but not uncomfortably so. The bar-less and unfurnished front room was pretty full and the noise level was, to my ears, near to the threshold of pain as alcohol fuelled conversations battled for acoustic supremacy. I pressed on towards the remaining bar with a nod of appreciation at the piano now gracing the east wall.

I stood for a while taking in the space where I had spent so many happy hours chatting or just drinking alone, sharing my thoughts with an ever-changing set of hand pumps and leafing through the latest Oxford Drinker, the CAMRA magazine. The space was the same, yet different. The interesting alcoves were either curtained over or missing, the ceiling was now lined with wooded planks, the bar surface was much wider, and the place was jam-packed with youngish, happy people. But there were two proud sets of hand pumps just as before and they were serving up interesting beers - as before. I settled for Rude Not To from Amwell Springs. It’s my sort of real ale at the moment: pale and a little tangy, but smooth and refreshing – I stuck to it which is unusual for me. The bar itself was a crush, but the people behind it were both pleasant and efficient and the ambience enjoyable, even though there are still renovations to be completed.

I spotted only one person that I knew, which surprised me. He was talking to one of the community group, The Inklings, that brought this place back to life. He turned out to be a newcomer to Oxford, and I shared memories of China with his wife, though the general hub-bub made conversation difficult for me. Finished the evening back in the now depleted front room talking to an interesting young man from Stroud who ran a bar at weekends and I thought, “great, this is how the Lamb and Flag should be: excellent ale, interesting company and a complete lack of that corporate feel so common to many city centre pubs”.

I doubt that the original Inklings could have tolerated the all encompassing sound level, but I am sure that Tolkien and Lewis would have appreciated the ale and congratulated the new Inklings on their rescue of this jewel of an Oxford pub. I congratulate the New Inklings on this resurrection – it would be Rude Not To.

 Take a look at my video of the pub made before the resurrection

Monday 22 August 2022

A wedding, a book launch, and an invite to party

Having just celebrated my granddaughter’s wedding on our field in the Cotswolds, I would like to invite you to an upcoming party there which might, or might not, take place. But there is a condition.

I have just launched my latest book and it has been entered into the Amazon StoryTeller literary prize competition.  OK it’s extremely unlikely that I will win, after all the number of entries is immense and the prize equally so - a cool £20,000 - but if by some chance I do win, then you could come along to my celebratory party.

My book is a work of fiction and is a major departure for me: I am writing as a woman! I don’t mean that I have had a sex change, no, it’s simply that I am writing from a woman’s point of view and in the first person singular. I am, for this book only, Tracy. Here’s the blurb from the book.

Tracy’s adolescence is unpromising, but following her teenage years she plunges happily into the rewards and challenges of motherhood. Then, her offspring and spouse depart the nest plunging her into an emotional vacuum from which she dreams of escaping to a life in rural Spain. However, the reality of her days in that sun-soaked country rapidly descends into an extended darkening nightmare.

It is inspired by a true story and draws heavily on my own experiences in Spain over the past twenty years or so. One early reader told me that the graphic descriptions of rural Spain were so real that “I believed I was actually there and could almost smell the air”. That was encouraging.

It’s called That Place in the Sun. Clicking here will get you to more details on my website or here to go direct  to the Amazon page where it’s available in paperback or Kindle form. Have a look.

OK, but what about the party? Well, if you buy the book, in paper or digital form, it may well help me get through to the final line up of the Amazon competition and even gain that substantial prize. Just show me that you’ve purchased it and I’ll add you to the guest list. Do a review (good one preferably) and I’ll sit you at the top table!

I know, I know, the prize and the party are as likely as pigs flying – or less given the rapid advances in genetics. But you never know. What have you got to lose? Well, if I lose then there will be no party, but you will still have the book.

Please pass this invitation on – the more who come to this unlikely party the merrier it may be. 

Thursday 21 July 2022

I surrender: Mother Nature Wins


Visited our village in Spain for a short break recently. We did not take the motor caravan because the ferry to Sant Ander now costs over £1000 - another inflation-based decision. We flew by Ryanair and took buses plus a lift on the final leg from friends who live in La Fresneda.

This meant that I had to walk down to our huerto (large terraced garden and orchard): a distance of about 2 or 3 Km. The irrigation ditch had blocked and surged like a waterfall when I unblocked it which was a bit scary, but all well in the end and the casita that I built in the past seemed OK. However, the terraces below were completely overgrown and some of the fruit trees had died. The brambles are back with a vengeance and the main terrace is bursting with canes.

I did a bit of strimming then gave up. It is hopeless. The idea of having a garden in Spain was sort of romantic, but it’s not at all practical. The soil is rich and the weeds grow splendidly. Constant attention during the growing season is pretty much essential.

So, I will try to relax into the visitor that I actually am. I will try to stoically observe nature taking its course as it invades the three terraces that I gradually transformed into orchards and gardens. The automatic irrigation scheme that I devised over the years will block and dry up. The brambles will choke my fruit trees from below and the irrepressible fig trees will engulf them in impenetrable shade from above and the 70 olive trees down by the river will have a wild time. Hey-ho, life goes on and the experience did result in a book: Rolling Stones in Spain.

Monday 30 May 2022

A project completed and a splendid day in Oxford

I have spent a great deal of time lately producing a video on CS Lewis’ Oxford, well in fact its a mini series of three covering his arrival at Oxford, his earlier years as a fellow and tutor and then his later years living at The Kiln. Here’s the link to part one.

I admired Lewis through his books long before I knew anything about him, and I admire him still and would have dearly loved to take a pint or two with him in the watering holes of Oxford.

Finishing a project like that is inevitably anticlimactic, but now the series is done I will return to a writing project that has been neglected for some time.

Meanwhile the entertainment scene in Oxford is good, though I think that the lockdown years have subtly and sometimes drastically changed the pub scene here (four of them are still closed, three belonging to colleges). Nevertheless I had a wonderful day following the launch of my CS Lewis series. A tour in the morning then an afternoon spent in Jericho sitting beside the canal appreciating live music from a tethered barge followed by pie and chips and a few pints in the nearby Victoria. All of that was capped by a wonderful open-mike evening of incredibly varied music at another local pub. If only you could cask a day like that, and tap it when needed.

Saturday 9 April 2022

Rob’s Bookshop moves to Amazon

 Though I’m not writing much nowadays video production continues, as does the amount of guiding. I am soon starting work as a Bodleian Guide (working for the University) which allows access to the beautiful Divinity School, Oxford Uni’s oldest building. That’ll be nice. Not been in there for a few years.

I’ve also just bowed to progress by moving all of my book descriptions onto Amazon rather than doing my own in the robsbookshop website. It had become a pain making changes and most of the info is on Amazon anyway. I’ll keep the website going but mostly point it at Amazon.

On the video front I’ve just passed the 500 subscriber mark for my Rob’s Oxford channel which is great. Only another 500 and I will have reached one of the criteria to be paid by YouTube based on the number of clicks generated! However, you also have to accumulate 10,000 hours of watch time per year as well and I don’t think that I will ever get there. Still it’s creative and the occasional plaudit and the satisfaction of creating videos keeps me going OK.

I’ve just recently launched another one. It’s called Oxford University: top university in the world. It explains how the ratings are done by the Times Higher Education team and gives a glimpse of the most prominent buildings in Oxford. Have a look here.


Monday 21 March 2022

Ukraine and Shame


I did start to write a blog entitled  ‘Why make YouTube videos when you get nothing for them?’ but then I watched a programme of videos entitled ‘Voices of Ukraine’ on TV and my subject seemed utterly trivial against the background of the callous death, injury and destruction rained on  a country that has nothing to deserve such inhuman treatment. Ukraine is being viciously destroyed by the massive and seemingly impassive might of Russia simply because it wishes to be free and democratic.

Like so many we have given money to the Red Cross and sent essential goods via local people who have arranged transport, but it is not enough. I feel ashamed and wish that I could do more.

So we carry on, despite the awful reality of men women and children losing their homes their lives and their livelihoods. I do not pretend for a moment that I have some clever solution to this unwarranted attack by a corrupt and incredibly powerful neighbour. Of course not. But to write about my own petty concerns immediately after watching the terror invoked by the crushing forces of a megastate invading a blameless neighbouring country seems a betrayal to the innocents who are dying, being maimed, and terrified into evacuation by this unforgivable tyrant.

Since writing the rant above, Margaret and I have registered our house at Stow on the Wold with the Homes for Ukraine scheme so I feel less ashamed, and hence able to tell you that I have launched a new video. It is about a bunch of Oxford scholars of the 17th century who changed our world and is entitled The Invisible College of Oxford University. It includes the tale of a woman who survived hanging, a dog that had its spleen removed and a student struck by lightning. Have a look.

Sunday 27 February 2022

Paris and Barcelona by train


For some years I have wanted to visit Paris, but not for the usual reasons. On our many trips through France to and fro to the house in La Fresneda, Spain I have looked longingly at the large blob on the map and copped out, I just could not face driving the motor caravan into that madness. So we took the train.

There were two churches on my must see list, the most important was Saint Denis. Through guiding I have developed a strong interest in architecture and the Basilica of Saint Denis is generally regarded as the birthplace of Gothic. Its western frontage was a little disappointing (Romanesque), but the nave, crossing and choir are truly inspiring and very gothic: vast pointed windows plus rib vaulting everywhere and externally the eastern end boasts what must be some of the earliest flying buttresses. What’s more most of the French Royals are buried there including the guillotined Louis XVI and his famed queen, Marie Antoinette.

My other long term ambition was to visit Sainte Chapelle, partly because I have been telling visitors for years that it is the inspiration for Exeter College’s 19th century chapel. It did not disappoint. Though not as grand as Saint Denis its Rayonnant Gothic windows are superlative in design, colour and depiction - and all so lovingly restored.

The train journey from Paris to Barcelona takes about six hours and becomes more interesting the further south one goes. We had the luck to have seats on the upper floor of the train and saw parts of France which we knew quite well, but from a very different aspect. The city was warmer and brighter of course, but we missed the Parisian buildings even though we were staying just around the corner from Sagrada Familia. Most memorable, apart from visiting our grandson Robin, was a trip to Tibidado a high hill topped by a church from which you can see the entirety of that great Spanish city and the Med.

Then, home again for some decent food and drink. And to the horrible news of Putin’s attack on the free people of Ukraine.


Friday 4 February 2022

Guiding, lectures and prime ministers


Things are returning to normal in Oxford. I’m doing some guiding and had a wonderful tour recently with two couples and a mother and son. They were soooo interested and fun, and that is like an infusion of adrenaline to a flagging guide. After we parted on a mutual high one of them turned back and asked me if I would be offended if he offered me a tip! How sweet. I gave him a book. There hasn’t been a lot of work over January, but that one tour makes it all worthwhile. Trip Advisor ought to have a section for reviews of audiences – would that work?

Also had a little glut of lectures, including one at the Maths Institute by Tim Harford (‘More or Less’) who gave an interesting talk on randomness with some mention of my ex-neighbour Brian Eno and was then followed by music (hence reminding me that I am not Bach fan).

Then I attended two lectures in one evening with a quick dash between distant locations on my bike. The first was on colour perception where I learned that women and men are different. The genes for determining colour pigmentation in the eyes’ receptors are carried on the X chromosome and as you know women have two of these and we poor men have just one. Y is that? Hence women can and often do have the capability of greater colour discrimination in the red and green area. Seems we are about the same for blue, but clearly men and women do see the world differently.

The second lecture on that same evening was on science and religion with a surprising, for me, bias towards the latter. It ended with a seemingly serious discussion on whether animals have souls, a discussion based, presumably, on the presumption that humans do!

As often in these blogs I am announcing a new video. This one is entitled: Why does OxfordUniversity produce so many UK prime ministers? It’s something I have puzzled over for many years so I thought I would have a go at it. It includes a working prime minister pump located in the Radcliffe Camera which is quite fun.

Tuesday 11 January 2022

On covid, darts and tunnels

Covid is still dragging me down a bit but I am back to jogging and working out. I have however noticed that my dart scores have dropped abysmally. After exercising in my garage I throw three hands of darts at the board hanging there in the hope that it will maintain my hand-to-eye co-ordination or something, plus I like throwing darts. I keep a record but hardly need that to show that I am scoring a pathetic number of 25 or bulls just now. Is this a long covid symptom? I hope not.

However, I have managed to complete another video. Oxford divides into Town and Gown and has done from the very early days of the University (circa 1200, when Oxford was a town). This new video is about secret tunnels beneath the University (Gown) whereas the last one which went a tiny bit viral (locally) was about a secret tunnel beneath the city streets (Town). They were both fun to research and compose, but the Gown one has allowed me to introduce a beer swilling hobbit into my creative efforts and also to attempt a little irony. Have a look sometime.