Thursday 30 May 2013

Bumping and Streaking in Oxford

A long lull in blogging. It’s not that I have nothing to write; it’s just that I’m writing a lot. In fact, I’ve just completed a mammoth editing session and my eyes hurt. I finished writing my sci-fi novel about a month ago and, as some of you will know, the hard work then begins. I think it is just about ready now, but needs a few eBookers to read it through before publishing—any additional volunteers?
Had a good night out in Oxford on Saturday. Walked along the Thames with a friend and bumped into the crowds returning from the bumps race. The colleges of Oxford University row against each other twice a year and these May races are known as the Summer Eights. We watched as the students carried the winning boat back to its college with the Cox riding on its incredibly long hull. Wonderful atmosphere along the usually serene banks of the river —noisy, boisterous and joyful.
We had a few pints at the Prince of Wales in Iffley and were given waitress service by the charming and garrulous landlady who wanted us to stay, but we had to move on. Visited three pubs along the Iffley Road as we shuffled down towards the centre of the city: good beer in all of them.
By the time we reached the High, the light was beginning to fade so at first I thought that my eyes were deceiving me. Walking alongside University College, we heard the sound of heavy boots hitting the pavement on the other side of the street. Looking up, I saw six galloping students, strapping lads all wearing boots, yes just boots! They ran with expressions of serious intent and looked unwaveringly ahead. Shocking, yet surprisingly funny: especially after a few pints. No pictures, I'm afraid.
I am still acclimatising after our sunny adventures in Australia, etc. I have slipped back into guiding, and have led nearly thirty tours this month. Actually, my memories of Australia are mainly of the climate, the animals and the bad beer. Here my experiences are underlined by bad weather, tourists and good beer. My garden in Stow isn’t growing well at all, seeds are not germinating and it’s too wet to work on the soil. But, there is good news. Friends have visited our fruit trees in Spain and they are thriving amongst the weeds (the trees that is, not the friends) and already bearing young fruit. See the photo.

Sunday 28 April 2013

Australia: The Fatal Shore

Three weeks is not a long time to spend in this huge country and it’s true that we only nibbled at it, but then what a satisfying nibble.

High points for me were the mammals, the birds and the coast. I really did not expect to see a koala bear in the wild, but I did. At first I thought I had spotted a swelling in the fork of small tree. I left the track and getting closer saw that it was a furry grey ball. Standing beneath the tree we watched limbs slowly disentangle from the ball and a face appear. The koala looked down at us blearily and we looked back at it smilingly. A lovely encounter. 

Kangaroos we met earlier with wallabies too. And later, in a special reserve in Bunbury the tame ones
nuzzled our hands hoping for food.

I doubt that the wombats could ever be tamed. The ones I met reminded me of a hairy log with short strong legs. One passed within a foot of my foot, just rooting about and minding its own business. Like kangaroos they are marsupials, but their pouch is reversed so that it does not fill  with earth as they dig.

I did not dream that I would ever see a wild echidna; they are a little like a hedgehog with a long snout for rooting out insects. They are not marsupials: in fact they lay eggs! Such wonders. One night I met a possum, a creature hated in New Zealand as a destructive colonist. In the day along a little path leading to the famous limestone cliffs and islands near the Great Ocean Road we made the acquaintance of a bandicoot.

And the birds! They are so wonderful, so different. From the ibis that strolls around the streets of Sydney to the noisy and colourful parrots and lorakeets. Then there are the white and pink and black cockatoos who argue constantly. Everywhere there are Australian magpies which look like white and black crows and have a lovely, tuneful song, and we also spotted the splendid fairy wren, the male of which is an iridescent blue. Of course, we also saw the famous kookaburra often sitting on a telegraph pole. Margaret sang her song (learned as a brownie) to one of them, but it did not laugh. Oh, and not to forget the pelicans, and emus, and on and on.

I paddled in the sea with sting rays measuring at least a metre in width. They were flapping around taking food from the hands of children. On the same beach we watched the biggest catch of salmon that I will ever see in my life. And the waves, such mountainous waves that attracted the brave or foolish surfers bobbing about waiting for a big one on which to practice their admirable skills.

Whilst travelling I read the book The Fatal Shore, recommended by Fergus our son (he was the reason that we traveled to this great continent). It is an excellent account of the conditions in Britain that gave rise to transportation and the whole history of the use of the aborigines’ continent as a dumping ground for our felons. What a story, and what a country.

We did not meet any aborigines (it seems from the stats that many of them are in prison) but we did meet plenty of resident Australians: helpful, straightforward, friendly, and unpretentious people on the whole. Many own large 4by4 trucks and they live hard and play hard. Yet surprisingly, we found that there were many petty restrictions, but these were leavened for the locals by the freedom to surf in the lunchtime and generally take advantage of the wonderful country life.

Pubs, the best ones, were enormous: they often have a large public and lounge bar, a games bar for pool and darts, a bistro, and a pokey room for gambling. The beer is cold and fizzy on the whole. One place actually advertised “tooth crackingly cold beer”! In one remote place I met a man who had visited Manchester and complained to me of the flat, warm beer he had to drink there. “Lies heavy on the stomach,” he said, “no fizz to lighten it up.” There is no accounting for taste or for the willingness to buy expensive keg beer at more than £10 a pint in some places.

Sunday 7 April 2013

Drifting in New Zealand.

New Zealand was the last country to be colonised by man. It now has a population of nearly 50 million – most of which are sheep. It is famous for the invention of bungee jumping, jet boating and highway drifting – all semi-dangerous activities. Meanwhile it has no snakes and by far the most dangerous animal there is man.

We drifted from Auckland to Christchurch over a period of nearly three weeks, mostly in a motor caravan. I saw bubbling mud and smelt it (very bad eggs). I saw geothermal sawmills and an active volcano spewing smoke into the sky above Lake Taupo and burned my feet in the hot sands surrounding that cold lake. I discovered that the Maoris are mostly physically integrated, by interbreeding, with the second wave of colonials from Europe (and that they are big people). I actually hunted down a kiwi bird. In fact, I think I saw two of them in the artificial gloom of a special enclosure, but I’m not sure – it was pretty dark and they’re shyly nocturnal. I did see and befriended a couple of fantails – my favourite bird in NZ - one of them nearly perched on my shoulder. I also admired the tui with its smart silver ruff and so-white bow tie. I did not enjoy the beer from the brewers who have stolen the tui’s name – but let’s not get on to NZ beer.  But, let’s not forget the silver eye bird or the blue swamp hen. I shall miss them.

I was encouraged to hate the possums. They destroy the environment for other creatures and steal birds’ eggs. Enjoined to squish them if I spotted one on the highway, I neither spotted nor squished. They are sweet looking creatures and NZ is the only country where you can legally hunt them.

I love trees and New Zealand has plenty. I became familiar with lancewood, whiteywood, the different beeches and the enormous totara. Also the strange cabbage and fern trees and the two species of tea trees.
I visited my first glacier and sailed through my first fjord – you can do so much in this little country. I paddled my feet in the Pacific and the Tasman, drank rum and coke, coughed a lot and itched unmercifully because of my attractiveness (to sandflies).

I was both hot and cold, wet and dry, and I got nicely brown on the exposed bits. I drove nearly three thousand kilometres, but it seems like much more: roads in NZ are narrow, mostly twisty and steep, and dual carriageways are solely for the cities. Along the way the patterning on many roads intrigued me. At first I thought that there had been many accidents, but no, those tyre marks were deliberate. Some zigzagged up the road, others showed that the driver had performed a full 360 turn whilst burning rubber. Our only hitchhiker, Raj, told me that drifting is a national pursuit for young drivers. It’s easy: you build up a lot of speed, pull on the handbrake and … drift. It’s also cheaper than bungee jumping and drier than jet boating.

I can now speak like a Kiwi (not the bird). How’s this for ‘ten hard men’: “Tin haad min.” Sadly, I think that the famed winky-wanky bird of a certain rugby song becomes the winky-winky bird, which sort of spoils the point. And ‘ten tin sheds’ becomes tin tin shids. What can I say?

Of the Kiwi people? Lovely: friendly, helpful, smiley, talkative, polite – one man volunteered the parking lot in the front of his paint spray business as a night stop for our motor caravan. How kind.

Our trip ended in Christchurch. It was a shock to be there. You can watch disaster clips on TV and get some appreciation of a major earthquake, but to see the destruction with you own eyes is quite, quite different. At first we thought that there were a massive amounts of rough surfaced car parks until we learned that these are the plots where crippled buildings have been razed and removed. Then we thought it amusing to see an antique shop operating from a container until we came to  astrange part of the city where all manner of shops and restaurants operate from garishly painted containers whilst the owners await new premises. Then we wandered unawares into the vicinity of the crippled cathedral where street after street is fenced off, the fences enclosing tottering buildings and propped up facades. We became trapped in this awful wilderness and, tired and hungry, came across a park where some worthies were distributing hot dogs to the homeless – we had one.

There are two hundred empty white seats near that park, itself near the TV centre which collapsed causing the greatest number of casualties. Each of those white seats are empty, they represent those that died in the Christchurch earthquake of 2011. They overlook a strange and massive wigwam affair made of steel and cardboard which is a temporary replacement for the cathedral. Life goes on; rebuilding has started.

Saturday 23 March 2013

A sad tale of travel and beer.

After a really enjoyable week in Taiwan drinking beer with the friendliest people in the world, I felt the need for a pint of something more tasty, less fizzy, than Taiwanese Gold Label as we set off for New Zealand.
Unusually, I had chosen a hotel in advance in Aukland: the Shakespeare which was also a brewpub so I felt in good hands. We arrived in poor condition after another eleven hour flight plus the hop from Taiwan to Hong Kong and I needed rest rather than beer. We slept a little in our crummy and noisy room in the Shakespeare, then went out to do a little exploring. Aukland’s an interesting watery city and immensely cosmopolitan. We made plans for the following day then fell into a pub which had a  happy hour in the Britmark area of town.

First shock was the price. As someone said to me next day when I bought a bottle of Aspirin and almost swooned at the price: “Don’t do the conversion, it only upsets you”. It did. Beer was £4.50 a glass and that was less than a pint and that was in the happy(?) hour.

“What would you like?” asked the helpful but unsmiling barmaid.

Faced with one of these cool, chrome dispensers of cold, carbonated beer I did not know what to say. There were four to choose from – all unknown to me. I explained that I was an Englishman from England and did not know which to choose. She asked me if I liked light beer and that confused me further.

“Would you like to try one?” she asked kindly, but frostily.

“Yes please,” I replied with ridiculous enthusiasm.

She gave me a taste of the first: it was cold, harsh and very gassy. My dislike must have shown in my face because she poured some of the next choice into a second tasting glass: cold, harsh and very, very gassy. Her face tightened as she gave me a taste of the third and hardened further when I grimaced at the fourth.
“Do you have any craft beers,” I asked exasperated. I had read that there were craft beers in NZ. She turned to the fridge and pulled out a bottle of German style wheat beer. I had enjoyed a German beer of that style in Taiwan so I bought the bottle. It was cold, harsh and fizzy. I drank it unhappily.

So we returned to our hotel. They had a brewery there and advertised fish and chips (an NZ staple) at a reasonable price. The fish and chips were…OK. The beer tasted, if you can call it taste, just the same as those four samples: harsh, fizzy, cold. Saddened, we went out to a liquor store and bought a bottle of rum and a big bottle of coke, smuggled it into our room in black bags and mixed a couple of strong ones in the tooth brush glasses. Very good.

Next day we had a nice time doing things in Aukland then took the ferry to Devonport where I explored the lookout hill and gun emplacement and Margaret searched for a restaurant. People here were much friendlier that in the city, naturally, and I was late back having spent a half hour talking to a local I met on Cheltenham Beach (I grew up in Cheltenham Spa). Margaret and I walked to a bar near the ferry and, in trepidation, I ordered a beer. The manager was called! He explained to me that He could not sell that beer to me! Why? Because the cooler had broken and the beer was too warm. I asked to try it. Amazing: I could taste it, it was OK , it was not too fizzy. I delightedly ordered one of those and was allowed to have one.

We decided to take the ferry back to the city after that and then took a taxi to Galbraith’s ale house, a pub purporting to serve cask-conditioned beer in the traditional British fashion. And here’s the good news: it was great. Beer served at 10-12 degrees C as it should be and pulled through a handpump. The food was great too, and everybody friendly. One young barman went off and printed a long list of pubs for me: pubs I might visit on our three week tour. How kind. Then he told me the bad news: Galbraith’s is probably the only pub in NZ that serves beer traditionally. I fear the American influence has turned the Kiwis into cold lager lovers. How sad. But I’ll survive. Beer isn’t everything is it?  And just in case we will be carrying emergency supplies of rum and coke as we tour the islands in our commodious rented campervan.

Friday 1 March 2013

eAddiction and its side effects.

This is not a rant against technology. Technology, generally, is neither good nor bad. The man who invented the motor car is not responsible for every pile up that has occurred since.
Today I have been to a lecture by Garry Kasparov (Former world chess champion and now politician) on Innovation. Nearly a thousand people pressed into the University’s Examination Schools to see and hear him. Late as usual, I had to sit in a wing of the hall where the acoustics were so bad that the speech may well have been in Russian at times for all I knew. The men on each side of me constantly fiddled with their smartphones and later one took out his iPad and started typing a memo or something. Somewhat annoying.
Went to an open-mike night at the Cape of Good Hope, Oxford last night. It often attracts some talented performers and the beer’s quite good. I soon found a place with a reasonable view of the stage. On the table next to me sat two young men armed with their smartphones. During the hour or so that I was there I estimate that they spent 90% of their time taking or sending messages, 5% of their time talking about the messages that they had received, and the other 5% poised – their eyes darting between the stage and the briefly quiescent phones. I found it distracting.
Last week in the Rose and Crown the landlady beckoned me over and pointed to a couple sitting at a corner table: they were not communicating, both had their laptops in full swing, neither of them had drinks.
Nora Ephron, Nick Hornby and  Zadie Smith all use Freedom, an app that switches off Internet access for fixed period so that they can work on their next masterpiece without wandering out onto the Web and forgetting the next twist in the plot they are developing. This is the inverse of opening hours, sort of, for those pub goers who can remember those wonderfully restricted days.
On a walk last month through wonderfully snow-covered Cotswolds hills, we passed Sezincote Manor. In true guiding spirit, I told the little that I knew of the origins of this fascinating Mogul edifice. A friend of a friend then whipped out his iPhone and just minutes later read out full chapter and verse on the place, right there in the middle of a snow covered field. I learned a lot – not.

The nearest thing to violence that I experienced whilst teaching in China was when I confiscated three mobile phones that students had been using during one of my classes. I survived.

One in four people check their phones every thirty minutes, while one in five check every ten; and 84 percent of people surveyed in a new TIME Mobility Poll said they couldn’t go a single day without their mobile device in hand.
I’m over 25! Other findings from Retrovo include:
*42% check or update Facebook and Twitter first thing in the morning
*48% check or update Facebook and Twitter during the night or as soon as they wake up

Sunday 24 February 2013

An embarrassing encounter at the bookshop

Soon we are to go abroad to Taiwan, New Zealand and Australia, so I am deciding which travel books to buy. Whilst in Smiths' bookshop in the High Street I heard my name mentioned, not once, but twice, by a small group of women behind me. They were examining a book and as I passed by them I did something very silly.
I should know better. One of my favourite novelists is Douglas Kennedy (one of his books is set in Australia: the rather scary ‘Dead Heart’) and I feel that I know him. I do not, not really. I once went to a talk by him somewhere in Oxford. He described his rise as an author and the thrill experienced when he was told by his agent that ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ was being auctioned to the highest bidding publisher.
Later I asked him a question about getting one of my books published and he answered very kindly – that’s why I feel that I know him. During his talk, he related a cautionary tale. Wandering around Foyle’s in London, he saw an elderly lady waiting in the queue to pay for a book: the book she was holding was one of his novels. He then did something very silly. He marched up to the lady and announced, “I wrote that book.”
She turned to him, looked him coldly in the eye and spat, “Fxxk off!”
Back to Smiths’. As I passed the ladies, I glanced down at the book the three of them were examining: it was my ‘Haunted Oxford’. And then I did a Douglas Kennedy.
“I am Rob Walters,” I announced and waited to be told to fxxk off.
Actually, the ladies were delightfully kind and feigned delight.
“Oooh, I‘ve never met a writer before,” enthused one.
“Have you ever seen a ghost yourself,” asked another.
I told her that I had not, but that my wife had. The other lady told me that she knew a Rob Walters at work, but that he didn’t look at all like me.
“Better or worse?” I asked wittily.
“Just different,” she said diplomatically.
I left them still looking at my book. I don’t know whether they bought it or not. In any event, I hope my publisher (The History Press) reads this. The book has sold out and needs reprinting.

Friday 8 February 2013

A day in Oxford

I only usually write a diary when I’m travelling, but if I did write one when in England this might be an entry.
8th February 2013. Left Stow at about 10.30am to pick up the Oxford bus in Chipping Norton. Still enjoying driving the mini. It’s a bit like sitting in a go-kart. Bus driver was really friendly with everyone. That’s nice.
Entered the flat at about midday. Always nice to be back though it was chilly and empty. All well. Fired up the computer and had a look at what’s on through the Daily Information web page: piano concert at Harris Manchester College at 1.30pm and a play on Marx in Soho at the Burton Taylor theatre at 9.30pm. So, with the Writers in Oxford meeting at 7.30pm, that was my day mapped out.
Beans on toast for lunch. Mmm. Then off on the bike to Harris Manchester. The recital was in the chapel. It’s a plain building, but graced with colourful stained glass windows by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones (both Oxford boys). The place was virtually empty – twelve people at most – and the show was free!
A nice looking couple were introduced. They bowed gracefully then approached the gleaming grand piano. She was slim, tall and blonde with hair stretched back into a tight bun. She wore a thin cerise jumper over a small black dress. He wore a smart grey suit and sported serious glasses topped by a crew cut.
They played together: a four handed performance. How fascinating, how graceful, how intimate. First came a complicated piece by Mozart, then - changing places - a typically ethereal piece from Debussy. They finished with a romp based on a children’s’ game. Lovely.
Afterwards I explored the college. I rarely go there as a guide and, though it’s not old, it is impressive. I passed the college tandem (yes) and the dining hall to make a discovery. The college owns a long stretch of houses in Hollywell Street and one of them has a blue plaque on its back wall stating that Bishop Berkeley was ‘perceived to have lived there’. Berkeley was the 18th century philosopher who stated that the material world was created by perception. I was born in the town of Berkeley and there is a connection, I perceive.
After that a short cycle ride to the Museum of History or Science which is running an exhibition on meteorology at present. Mildly interesting. I asked the bored attendant what the illuminated blue balloon with Dell Computers written on it was supposed to represent. Apparently, it should have contained some sort of animation portraying super computing for weather forecasting - but it had broken down!
Next off to Tesco to stock up on ready meals, bananas and biscuits. I was amused to see Mark, an ex railwayman and characterful regular at my local pub behind the till. Had a light chat with him, and then home again.
Most of the afternoon spent writing away at my current novel. It’s a sci-fi, futuristic book tracing the lives of three distinct groups of people: the dispossessed, the departed and the disembodied. Just now I am writing about the departed (I write a short chapter on each civilisation in order, it’s like a long collection of connected short stories) and have managed to get Tali, my youngest character, out of a bad place. Can’t wait to know what happens next. I’m really enjoying it.
Whilst I write my laptop is perched on a high wooden flower stand. I write standing up, overlooking the passing traffic and pedestrians of the busy Woodstock Road. In the background my radio is tuned to a station called Magic which plays music almost uninterrupted by DJ’s and adverts. Best song that afternoon was Jar of Hearts by Christina Perri.
An unremarkable chicken, bacon and leek pie from Tesco for dinner, then walked off to the King’s Head pub for a Writers in Oxford meeting on publishing. It was quite stimulating, apart that is from an irrelevant talk on formulaic marketing from a Brookes academic (the four Ps and all that). One speaker gave a very good outline of the publishing world today and how it had changed out of all recognition in the last four years: the main influences being the Web, the eBook and self-publishing. He concluded by saying that content today has be shaped by the customer, at which I balked. Seems a recipe for suppressing innovation and imagination to me. Was appalled to see that most writers at the meeting were not drinking, not at all. No wonder they can’t get published.
Then a dash around to the Burton Taylor theatre for the short play on Marx. They wouldn’t let me in! They claimed that all of the seats had been sold, but I knew that they were simply discriminating against bearded men, or older men, or writers or something. Waited for returns but no luck so walked around to the Far from the Madding Crowd pub to spend the fiver it would have cost me to see the play.
Met Mark again in the pub. That’s Mark, not Marx. He’s the man from the supermarket and I find him a very interesting fellow. I think we covered capitalism, communism, the closure of the railways, the overblown sexuality of some men, children, protest movements, and who knows what else. All that discussed over three excellent pints of real ale. And so to bed.

Thursday 31 January 2013

Been to the bin lately?

We have much to thank America for: McDonalds, Budweiser beer, Elvis Presley and bourbon whiskey, to name some random examples. I do not, however, feel moved to thank it for the corruption of our language.
When we were teaching English in China we were shocked to find that the course books which we were expected to use (but did not) were American. Hang on, we thought, we are here to teach English: surely that means British English not American English. We were wrong and that’s China’s choice of course.
Personally, I have no problem with Americans speaking their own form of the language – in fact I quiet like it, sometimes. I don’t even mind Americans saying ‘bin’ when they mean ‘been’. It’s just their way, I suppose.
In fact when I grew up in the Gloucestershire we said ‘bin’ when we meant ‘been’. But that was just our way, I suppose. We also said ‘sin’ when we meant ‘seen’ and ‘snot’ when we meant ‘it is not’. We spoke a sort of slangy dialect and I had to unlearn it as I grew older, particularly when I ‘nidded to spik’ to foreign folk or attend a job interview.
Funny you know, no one says ‘baked bins’ when they mean ‘baked beans’ or ‘grin’ when they mean ‘green’. Yet it has recently become very popular in Britain to say ‘bin’ instead of ‘bean’.
OK, I know what you are thinking: grumpy old man and all that; picky old sod, or peaky old cod; a latter day canny newt trying to hold back the tide of change.
But why, oh why do British people pick up these things from the USA? In particular, why, oh why, are people here saying ‘bin’ when they mean ‘been’ even at the BBC? Also why are they all saying ‘guy’ when they could say: man, chap, fellow, bloke, etc? Is it because they are deliberately emulating Americans, admiring Americans, being trendy, going with the flow, or just showing a liberality of spirit? Or do they genuinely enjoy confusing foreigners? I would really like to know.
I am not trying to hold back the tide of change: English is an ever-evolving language and that is one of the reasons that it is the second language of the world. But ‘bin’ when you mean ‘been’ is not an evolution, it’s a confusion. We do need new words to express new concepts. I don’t tweet much but I see the need for the word – any twit can see that. I couldn’t blog until the Internet, etc had matured sufficiently to allow me to so, and then we really needed a word for it. And so on.
Well there we are. Glad I’ve got this off my chest. It’s bin bothering me a lot lately.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Bookends: Hedy Lamarr revisited and goodbye to Harry Potter.

I’m bereft. I’ve just finished two books that I enjoyed very much and in very different ways. Do you know that feeling? You get caught up in a story so much that you devote more and more time to reading it, then it’s finished and there is a sense of loss - a little like losing a pet dog or something.
More of that in a moment. I have news. After reading my book on Hedy Lamarr and her contribution to the invention of spread spectrum, a friend commented that it was now out-of-date. My initial thoughts were: too bad, I’m busy writing my science fiction novel, what’s done is done. But he had pricked my conscience. I looked at the book and was shocked to find that eight years had passed since I first published it. More than that it is my best seller as an eBook and it is a publishing adage that books sold sell yet more books (like everyone else I list all of my eBook titles in each book).
Most of Spread Spectrum: Hedy Lamarr and the mobile phone is historical. Hedy died right at the start of the 21st century and that would seem to draw a line beneath the story. However, my book was not simply a biography of Hedy and her friends; there are plenty of those around anyway. No, it was in fact an attempt to trace the history and development of this spread spectrum thing in an approachable way. Spread spectrum is the technology that, amongst many other uses, carries most of the wireless Internet traffic worldwide. Ain’t that something?
Spread spectrum is the basis of the third generation of cellular which was just entering the mainstream when I first wrote the book. Now the fourth generation is just entering the mainstream promising ever-faster Internet access and that makes my book look really dated - at least in the penultimate chapters. I’ve launched the new version on the Kindle store for a knock down price 99 pence or cents. If any of you bought the first version on Kindle and want the update then email with the address of you Kindle and I will send it to you free.
Back to reading rather than writing. Yes, I have completed the final volume of the Harry Potter saga: all volumes read in Spanish over a period of four years or so. And my opinion of them at the end of it all? Damn good. Of course, it’s a flawed opinion because my Spanish is pretty crappy – though hopefully a little better for the experience. Actually, the first book was an easy read even for me, but by the time I got to the last one Harry had become an eighteen-year-old and the vocabulary used had grown with him. I found it very hard going yet still mostly resisted grabbing the dictionary (a sure way to lose the thread). The plot is masterly and its appeal to children undeniable. There’s a good balance between slow and fast movement together with all the ingredients of a good tale: love and hate, sin and goodness, friendship and jealousy, exhilaration and depression, birth and death, loyalty and treachery – topped off with a happy ending. If you had asked me four years ago whether I would one day be expressing such praise for J K Rowling’s creation I would have laughed in disbelief, but there we are. And it’s all great background for my Oxford tours – the fans think that I really know my stuff about Harry!
The other book I have just finished is Absolute Power by David Baldacci. This starts with a bizarre scene involving the president of the US beating up his best friend’s young wife whilst watched unbeknown by a burglar trapped in a closet behind a two-way mirror: the unfaithful wife then attacks the president and two secret service spooks shoot her dead. Believable? Not at all, but I was drawn in and thoroughly enjoyed a narrative that became increasingly complex in which the baddies do get what is coming for them. And it’s mostly well written and fast moving.
By the way, I haven’t read a real book since I got my Kindle. I may even invest in a Paperwhite so that I can read in bed without disturbing my long-suffering wife. She will then have my old one. Kindle sharing doesn’t really work and she doesn’t read in bed.

Sunday 30 December 2012

Dreaming of a warm Christmas

So we stayed in La Fresneda, our village in Spain, for Christmas – and what happened? Not a lot.

The long term weather forecast predicted cold but sunny for us all over the Christmas period. It was wrong. I was working happily in my Tshirt on the Sunday before Christmas and on  Christmas Eve (my woman’s birthday) we sat drinking coffee on the terrace of a lovely hotel located in the depths of the countryside near here drenched in sun and in temperatures approaching twenty degrees (that’s sixty-eight for Fahrenheit folk).

The hotel is called Torre del Visco and locally pronounced with awe. Our friend Jet, who now owns a camp site nearby, used to be the receptionist at the place and was actually instructed to ask potential customers if they were aware of the prices before accepting a reservation – simply to avoid heart stopping moments when the bill was presented. But La Crisis (the Spanish name for their current financial condition) reaches everywhere and we, as the only people for lunch, were shown around the place by the manageress and treated so gushingly by her overly enthusiastic  Swedish assistant that I really believed that I could ask for anything. Yes anything.

After a siesta we set out at eleven or so that night for a pub tour of our village. This didn’t take long since there are only two bars and it was a little disappointing. The promised music and dancing in the second bar did not materialise. There was music, but just recorded stuff, and no dancing. In fact all seemed much as usual in Lo Coscoll except for two things: first of all most people seemed to be companionably drunk, and second everybody was smoking (yes they do have a smoking ban in Spain, hence the surprise).

Christmas day was cloudy but warm. We went to the bar again only to find it virtually empty and Raul, the barman, keen to close up and celebrate Christmas with his girlfriend’s family – then return in the evening to open the bar again - so we strolled around the seemingly empty, completely silent village. We did meet one person, Carlos, but he is Swiss and has obviously taken an assumed name and can therefore be discounted. Then home for the Christmas dinner which featured turkey with a pop up. Margaret had already told me about the pop up and I was intrigued. In my imagination I thought of the first Alien film: the scene where the alien pops out of an astronaut’s stomach. The reality was a little disappointing: the pop up is a white plastic tube with a red end which rises when the inside of the turkey has reached a certain temperature. I experimented with it afterwards. It works like a car thermostat I believe - based on wax. It could be placed in old people’s ears to indicate when they have been sitting for too long in front of the fire. I’m saving mine.

Boxing days I usually take a long walk. In England it is cold so I dress up well. Here it was warm and sunny. Mostly I walked in shirt sleeves.  I used the time to trace the origins of the asequias (aquifers?) that keep our land supplied with water, but didn’t reach the place where they are diverted from the main river. Next year I will find the source. For most people here the day is a normal working day and thankfully the bar was open as I trudged tiredly back into the village for a well deserved pint (half litre of Heineken actually, but when in Rome).

In the evening friends came round. We drank a lot (beer,wine, cava, port), ate a lot, sang carols, played poker dice, talked a lot and went to bed late. Usual Christmas really, but warm outside and in.