Saturday, 26 October 2013

Seduction: Ancient and Modern

Decimalisation and the changes that have taken place in weights and measures have shafted English writers. It’s just too difficult to make the necessary conversions. For example, it is quite unacceptable to modernise “the murderer inched towards his victim, his heart pounding” to “the murderer centimetred towards his victim, his heart kilogramming”. And how can you express the old adage “inch by inch it’s a cinch, by the yard it’s very hard”? Here’s my best attempt “millimetre by millimetre it’s much simpler, by the metre it defeats you”. Hardly trips of the tongue, does it?

Reversing the situation, it is almost impossible for the youngsters of today to understand the words of some dated novels, poems or songs. My prime example is one of the songs I sing down on the huerto when creating yet another plaster arch between the beams. There are sixteen new beams, which makes eighteen spaces to fill. Each space takes about a day to complete and I start by installing six formers then laying twelve or so lathes on top of them. I then spend an age cutting short lengths of bamboo to fill the inevitable gaps where the lathes meet the wobbly beams (they are actually trees with the bark and branches removed). I finish the preparation by placing four leaves on the lathes (to leave their imprint) and by making and installing three wire-ties which will become embedded in the plaster.

Have you followed all that or just lost interest? Anyway, I am then ready to pour plaster between the beams: it usually takes ten mixes of the stuff. All of this means that I climb up and down to my wobbly scaffolding at least twenty-five times each day. In short, it’s all a bit boring which is why I sing. My prime example of dated English is Mary of the Mountain Glen. Here’s the first verse in case you’ve forgotten it.

Mary of the mountain glen
Seduced herself with a fountain pen
The pen it bust, the ink went wild
And she gave birth to a blue-black child
They called the bastard Stephen
They called the bastard Stephen
They called the bastard Stephen
Because that was name of the ink
Not Quink

Singing this to any of my grandchildren would produce an increasingly blank face. They might, just possibly, know what a glen is. After that it will be downhill all the way from the fountain pen to Quink. So, whilst placing all that plaster (nearly one hundred bags) my mind has not been idle. Here is my creation: a modern verse for the song:

Mary grew very fond of her son
She thought she would have another one
One day when she was all alone
She seduced herself with a mobile phone
The phone it rang, Mary went wild
And she gave birth to a cellular child
They called the little one Samsung
They called the little one Samsung
They called the little one Samsung
Because that was the name of his Dad
Step Dad.

So what’s next? Assuming a little health problem is dealt with, I shall be back to work on Monday and will finish the plastering later in the week. Then I will spend a day or two laying a concrete slab on top of the plastered beams followed by replacement of the original roof tiles. Tradition claims that these old clay tiles have been shaped on a virgin’s thigh, which is perhaps why they are so rare nowadays post the invention of the fountain pen and mobile phone.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Political order and my Spanish stone hut

I have lots of time to think whilst here in rural Spain. Most of my hours, on most days of the week, are spent all alone working slowly to create a living space within the huerto (garden/orchard/olive grove thingy). I like it there and am making some progress: on this visit I have installed the beams, created a traditional ceiling of arched plaster between them and on Friday poured concrete on top to create a terrace. What do I think about whilst doing all this very practical stuff? The work mostly. It is absorbing and engages most of my conscious thought. Sometimes I sing, so it’s fitting that I’m alone.

In my other life, my home life if you like, I drink plenty of beer and some wine. I eat delicious food, watch some Spanish TV and the occasional English video, greet the villagers at the bar and bid them adios, write notes about what I have done and read. Yes, of course, I read.

Since I have been here, I have read and enjoyed a large biography on Dorothy Hodgkin. I did this with a vague intention of writing about her and Margaret Thatcher. Dorothy was Margaret’s tutor at Oxford and became famous in scientific circles for her work on the structure of molecules (she tied down the nature of penicillin and insulin, for example). She was also an ardent leftist and supporter of the Soviet Union, Communist China and North Vietnam. Margaret Thatcher…well everyone knows about her, though not everyone is aware that she started out as a research chemist. Interestingly, I could only get Dorothy’s biog as a paper book and found it both odd and frustrating to read. I am now a committed eBooker (a reader of eBooks) and miss the facilities that my Kindle provides when forced to read a “real” book.  

My core reading over here is a tome (does that term apply to eBooks?) by Francis Fukuyama. It’s all about the origins of political order which may sound dull, but I find it fascinating. I was equally impressed and enlightened by his previous book entitled The End of History and the Last man. For me he has the ability to clarify things that I half understand about history and particularly the evolution of society, of us that is. To my delight, he does not start his analysis with England and the seventeenth century, though now having read 60% of the book that has become his focus. No, he starts with China of 2,000 plus years ago when Confucius placed the emphasis on learning and when the most able ran the state, i.e. those who had passed the relevant exams rather than the sons of the previous ministers. I learned a little of this when we taught in China and was impressed by the longevity of the Chinese empire and its ability to absorb rather than be usurped by invaders. Of course, what Chinese government lacked was any accountability and it did produce many cruel regimes (the cruelest of which was lead by a woman – Empress Wu), but it was incredibly successful at building vast transport and irrigation systems and stable systems of government capable of holding together an immense empire over millennia.

The thing about a book like Fukuyama’s is that it makes me think. However, this does not apply to my working hours at the huerto. There, if you opened my mind, you might find the words of that old rugby song Mary of the Mountain Glen, or a debate on whether to use a screw or a nail, or the  need to know what a passing farmer is transporting in his tractor trailer, or a curse as a large stone slips from my grasp, or just nothing, nothing at all.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

When is a holiday not a holiday, and what would the bull say?

Yes, I now, everyone thinks that we go to Spain for holidays, as we say our goodbyes many people kindly say “have a good time” or “how lovely, enjoy the sun”. To us, our house in the village of La Fresneda is home, just another one that’s all, and I certainly know more people here than I do in Stow-on-the-Wold! But, occasionally, just occasionally, when we are here, someone rents the house so we carefully hide all the booze and delicacies and take off in our motor caravan.

Curmudgeonly, I begrudge these interruptions to my work on the stone hut, yet I usually enjoy them enormously. This one started badly. Friends kindly invited us to a karaoke night at a bar run by some English people in a town down on the coast. Fresh from our most recent visit to the karaoke culture of Taiwan we expected too much from the evening. Here the singers mostly sang to the screen and were pretty much ignored by everyone else, good singers though they mostly were. Doing karaoke in Taiwan we feel part of something different and we always sing, in Spain we did not.

Next day we took the prostitute-lined road south, in search of the ephemeral “nice seaside town”. Most places that we visited were awful: overdeveloped and for sale. Then we found Acossebre which was low rise, pretty, had excellent beaches and was holding a fiesta that very night. We went to see the bulls twice! No not that awful business where the bull is tortured to near death then killed, often badly, with a sword. Not that at all. Here the daring young men who face the bull are the only ones in real danger. They “play” with the thing, enticing it to gore them then escape onto robust tables or behind thick iron bars when necessary (at one exciting moment the bull jumped onto the table too).

Personally, I see nothing wrong with this, though others do not agree. A good friend from our village asked me “what would the bull say?” I don’t know of course, no one does. But, is it just possible that the bull might choose a Saturday night out with flaming torches tied to its horns whilst chasing after crazy men over a quiet night in the bull pen, or a karaoke evening?

We moved on to the towns of the upper Duero river above Madrid. One of these, Medinaceli, was so quiet that deathly would be an understated adjective (I think I heard a dog bark once). Another, El Burgo, had one of the liveliest central squares that I have ever seen: people all around and kids tearing across the place on every conceivable child’s transport. Inevitably there was a crash and some tears until the injured were taken away to the sweet shop.

The Duero is nice, it flows all the way to Portugal, through Oporto and out to sea. W saw some remarkable churches, castles and so on in the towns that it passes through. However, in the architecture stakes I give Tarazona, in our own region of Aragon, top marks. It has fine examples of Gothic, Romanic and Arabic architecture together with a jumble of streets in the old Jewish quarter which boasts hanging houses (no we did not hang out there). We ate tapas in Tarazona, slept in the hospital car park and then went home – to La Fresneda. No bull.

And the weather here? As I passed the butchers today, the display said thirty-one degrees. Everyone else was asleep.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Dying trees and Syria

We have now planted about a dozen fruit and nut trees on the terraces of our “huerto” in Spain. Naturally it is difficult to care for them when we are not here, but I have installed a system of tubes so that they are drip fed with water during the intense Spanish summer. The first sight of our efforts was discouraging. Someone had removed my tube from the water channel cutting of the supply of drips, and the weeds had grown so high (nearly three metres in places) that there was no sign of our little trees!

The rescue attempt has has been a slow, early morning chore before the sun rises to full strength. I first reconnected the drip feed tube then gradually pulled up, or dug up, the malas hierbas (bad plants) to expose the good. At least two trees had perished through lack of water but I can now see the remaining ones and, when there is sufficient rainfall to soften the rock hard ground, I will rotavate the terraces. This will destroy the root systems of remaining, but will extend my sysphean efforts by churning in their seeds into the fertile. There is an end in sight though: one day the tress will be big enough to fend for themselves – I hope.

It may seem trivial to compare my horticultural world to the present situation in Syria, but I feel compelled to do so. Recently we heard that the attempt by the UK’s Conservative led coalition to involve our forces against the current regime was thwarted by a slim majority of thirteen. Hallelujah. I am not an expert on Syria in any way, but I have spent some time back-packing there and feel some sort of affinity. I also suspect that my, very limited, knowledge of that fraught country is just a little greater that that of David Cameron and his foreign secretary – and that’s not saying much. But it is sufficient to say this: don’t interfere. You do not understand the situation and you certainly do not know what demons you support in siding with and opposition which is very likely to be far more oppressive, and certainly more extreme, than the current regime.

Of course, we should provide humanitarian aid for those displaced in the fierce tussle for power in this culturally rich country, but that should be all. It is not our business and one should keep one’s nose, however well meaning, out of other people business. Surely, we can learn some lessons from the very recent past: we and our friends in the USA are not much cop at nation building, are we?

OK, it is all very well to pontificate when you are sitting in a tiny village  in the middle of Spain, but before leaving I did try. I wrote to William Hague over a month ago questioning his outright support for the opposition in Syria and the futility of aiding victory by yet another extremist Muslim regime whose support for democracy is belied by their true beliefs. I received a long, well researched, and polite response written by an aide which told me how wrong I was. Fortunately, our democratic processes did not agree with that aide.

I really do not know what the Spanish attitude towards Syria is, but I can guess. With a collapsed economy and youth unemployment running at 50% they have other concerns: like the repatriation of Gibraltar, a great smokescreen spread to obscure the underlying economic problems. That aside, it is my belief that they would not support military intervention in Syria. They have an underlying understanding of the conflict that nationalism and separation brings. They would leave well enough alone, yet would help the innocents damaged by a conflict which they neither started nor support. We should do the same.

I can easily distinguish between the weeds and the trees over here and hence root out the bad plants. Over there it is far more difficult. My neighbour, a slash and burn style farmer, told me that I should use chemicals to suppress the weeds. My response, that I did not support the use of poisons on ground that grows food, was probably lost in my faltering Spanish. But my utter condemnation of the use of chemicals to kill innocent men, women and children should penetrate any language barrier. It is my sad view that the argument of who did what and to whom in this matter may never be resolved and to attack selected parts of this ailing country on this pretext is so reminiscent of those elusive Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as to be prophetic.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Spain again, but England is loath to let us go.

The journey from Oxford to our home in Spain is about 1,300 miles. We mostly take it slowly and endeavour to enjoy the trip: it’s like a holiday.

This time we travelled in our replacement camper van: it’s bigger than the old one which we had for ten years. We got as far as Dover without mishap. There we visited the castle which is enormous and commands an imposing position high above the famous white cliffs. There I learned that this stronghold was only once invaded – by a group of drunken townsfolk during the English civil war. We ate in an interesting restaurant called the Allotment and had a long conversation with a delightful pair. The mother was some sort of adviser to the EU in Brussels and the son captured pirates in different parts of the world. We were in awe.

Next morning we got up in plenty of time for the ferry to Calais. I went for a run, we ate breakfast, showered, then with an hour or so to go before departure I turned the key of the van. Nothing. It had a completely flat battery! I raced around trying to find someone with jump leads: no good. A kindly local lead me to Halfords, but it did open until 10 a.m. on Sundays! I ran back to the van removed one of the bicycles we were carrying and pedalled quickly to the ferry terminal arriving just before our boat was due to depart. There a friendly P&O Ferries employee rang a few people then informed me that it was OK: I could take a later ferry at no extra charge.

I cycled back to the van then walked once more to Halfords which was about a kilometre away and just opening. I explained my problem and asked if they could bring a new battery around and possibly fit it. The young man at the counter was willing to bring the thing around in his own car, but had to check with his boss. This man shook his head slowly and mouthed the stultifying words “health and safety”.

So, I had to carry the heavy battery back to the van – and it was heavy. At least two people actually said, “That ttttlooks heavy,” as I struggled along – such wits the Dover men. But I finally got there and began the difficult job of changing the batteries over: things are such a tight fit in modern vans. By two o’clock or so we had left the old battery at Halfords and were on our way across the channel. Not too bad really. The man at the ferry gate wanted to see the receipt for the battery before letting us through, but then gave us a ten-pound token to spend on board! I had a Cornish pasty, the last for at least three months.

France was as enjoyable as ever, but expensive for food and drink, and run down in places. Highlights of the journey were the Ouche Valley in the Bourgogne where we rode our bikes alongside the canal, and Villefranche in the Pyrenees, a magical walled town full of shops and restaurants.

We reached our village just in time to catch the end of the major fiesta where the firework-spitting bull chased us. We danced, were kissed by people we hardly know, drank far too much and finally went to bed at five in the morning. Nice to be back.

Monday, 12 August 2013

A fairy tale reborn

I started writing a long time ago. In the past much of my stuff was technical - reports, conference papers and such, then latterly books. But I also wrote things for my kids in the early days and did try to get one of my creations published. It was a long poem called the Bogle of Bump and I must confess that quite a lot of it was written during interminable meetings! Through the Campaign for Real Ale I met an illustrator, Liz Worsley, and she prepared some lovely drawings to accompany the poem. I offered the thing to a few publishers, but soon gave up. After all, the Bogle of Bump was really written for my girls, not for the public.

Later, the boys came along and I read the tale to them whilst showing them Liz's colourful pictures. I think they liked it. Time passed, the typewritten verses began to yellow and the pictures to fade then, possibly stimulated by my son's poem , The House of Stink, which is much better than mine and illustrated by himself (Rafe's a clever lad), I thought - why not resurrect my old story?

I dug it out, scanned the written sheets and passed it through some software to change the typescript into text, then scanned the pictures and chopped them up them to match each verse. Next, I used PowerPoint to combine the pictures and text exporting these as image files into the Kindle comic creator. It all took a long time - though not as long as writing the thing in the first place. And, thirty-nine years after reading it to Sheena, my eldest daughter, I uploaded the thing onto the Kindle Store: The Bogle of Bump was published as an eBook!

It's a story about a wicked witch and an ugly bogle called Bungi, together with pretty fairies who have lost their fairy light and their sight: good old-fashioned fairy tale stuff with a happy ending. I don't suppose it will ever sell many copies if any, but I offered it for free for a couple of days and there were a few takers in the USA, UK, Germany, Italy and Japan!

Of course, bogles and their like do not age, but since Bungi Bogle was born in my head it will be his fortieth birthday next year. When he was conceived, the Internet was just a whisper amongst academics and a secret tool of the military. There were no mobile phones or personal computers, microwave ovens were for the rich and the nearest thing to facebook was a pen pal or two. Nowadays, my Bungi Bogle is dancing around the World Wide Web!

Sunday, 4 August 2013

They're stealing my books!

On Thursday night I went to a strange do in Oxford. Held in a pub, of course, it consisted of a couple of plays without scenery and then an off-the-cuff performance which included members of the audience. It was a little odd, but rather fun. I didn't get involved in the extempore stuff, but did get talking to some of the actors over a pint afterwards. One was a bright young software engineer from Moldova (next to Ukraine, he informed me tiredly). His girlfriend is writing a book (who isn't?) so we got to talking about eBooks.

He was particularly interested, I recall, in protection. How could you ensure that your book wasn't pirated: copied then sold, or given away, by someone else? We talked a little about Digital Rights Management which is supposed to protect eBooks, but neither of us knew much about it. I told him that Smashwords (which sells eBooks in lots of formats) did not use it and claims that it is actually counterproductive: it's better to have your words out there regardless of the odd bit of pilfering, they say.

Recently, I made the exciting discovery that Smashwords had sold a number of copies of my novel, Shaken by China, in New Zealand and Australia. Since then I've been going a little Smashwords crazy. I now have seven books in their eBook shop and I told my Moldovan friend that I was quite happy with the odd person copying a book that they had bought of mine and giving it to someone else. It seemed to me a little like lending a paper book - but it isn't.

Next evening I did a search for "Hedy Rob Walters" I can't remember exactly why, I think I was trying to get to the Hedy Lamarr page of my own website without clicking the visitor count. Anyway, I was amazed at the sheer number of hits that came up and started to wade through them, then I came to this:

Yes, my Hedy Lamarr book available for FREE to anyone! I was stultified. That book took ages of research and months of writing and rewriting. I sell it through Amazon as a paper book and an eBook and though it does not sell in huge quantities, it does sell and I am gladdened by every sale. Meanwhile, I now find that anyone searching for my book can download it for free from this pirate website and I have no idea how long this has been so.

How did they get my book? I don't know. Why do they do it? Money, somewhere along the line, I suppose. How did I feel? Angry, despoiled, gutted, but unsurprised. I immediately bashed out a flame email starting with "How dare you..." and ending with the threat of action if the book was not removed within one week.
Later that night I met Jim in one of my favourite pubs in Oxford (Far from the Madding Crowd) and told him of my shock discovery. He was unperturbed. He told me that he had found one of his own publications offered for free recently and was pleased, but then he's an academic. Moreover, he also told me that he had software that can strip off any protection surrounding an eBook or document. So what can you do? Anyone else experiencing this?

Part way through writing this blog I found another shocker. Someone has put much of my novel, Shaken by China, onto their website for anyone to read. They call themselves Kilibro and claim to offer readers the opportunity to dip into books before purchasing them, yet they offer no means of purchasing the book! I'm afraid that the more I search for this sort of thing the more I will find. It's a rough world out there in the Internet.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

English Heritage and the Death of the English Pub

We have a new second-hand camper van! It has a fixed bed and table and other luxuries which wild campers and one night stayers relish.

We have also taken out a years' membership of English Heritage which gives us free access to hundreds of ancient building across the country.

Recently we combined the two by taking the camper van on its first outing and visiting a number of castles, stately homes and such to the north of us. The sites we visited were great, the state of the pubs we passed was dire.

Let's take Bolsover. We didn't like it at first so went searching for other places to stay. We tried two nearby villages. Both were run down, both had boarded up pubs and clubs. It was depressing and a little scary. Sufficiently so to send us zooming back to Bolsover which then looked quite attractive!

We found a free car park which was quiet and had a space big enough for the van and then set off in search of beer, food, and good company. The pub near the car park was OK...just OK. Beer was cheap and local and decent. The place was a bit corporate, quite large and largely deserted. We had a drink and went out to explore the town, soon coming to a nicer looking pub. It was closed! Not permanently I think, just closed because there was no one about on a Tuesday night. We walked to another place standing next to the castle. It was closed, in fact it had not yet opened. It was a Wetherspoon place due, we later learned, to open in a week or so. It was called the Pillar of Rock. 

We walked further up the hill and found another pub which was open, but should not have been. It smelled inside and the garden was an untamed jungle of rotting picnic benches surrounded by litter. No one spoke to us and the beer was well past its best, as was the pub.

We shared a nasty bag of fish and chips whilst gloomily watching other people popping into the various take-aways. Then we found a smashing looking pub on the main street, but on closer examination it was closed and up for sale. Then another nearby: closed. We returned to the first pub and sat in its yard where we watched  the cavortings of a dog with an enormous head and worried about the pub scene.

I know the stats. I know that many pubs are closing each week.  I know of many pubs that have closed. But I have never seen, or imagined, anything like this. Not on this scale. This is indeed the end of an era. To quote Hillaire Belloc once more (after carefully typing his name), ".... when you have lost your Inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England". Don't worry too much though, Belloc had not heard of Wetherspoon and was not a member of English Heritage!

Friday, 12 July 2013

Shoe shining again: eBook to pBook

Like proverbial London buses: you wait for ages and two come along together. So too with my blogs.

A few years ago I became a shoeshiner, cycling around middle-England shining shoes in the streets, pubs and offices of the old shoe-producing cities. Naturally, I wrote an account of my adventures, publishing it as an eBook in 2011. Someone has asked me to do a presentation on this subject in August and I realised a simple fact – you can’t take eBooks along with you. So I decided, with some trepidation, to turn the eBook into a paper book. The trepidation is a hangover from producing the first edition of my Hedy Lamarr book in this way some eight years ago. It was an awful experience, and costly, and I was never happy with the look or the quality of the book.

I would not say that making Being Down, Looking Up into a paper book was a doddle, but it was so much easier than those tense weeks all those years ago; especially concerning cover design. And the process is now free! I’ve already received the first version and with a few changes (you can never be sure of a book until you hold it in your hand), my first order is winging its way to me from the States.

I did make some changes: I included photographs, did a light edit and produced a new cover. It was really interesting to read my own account through again after all this time and it really brought the experiences back to mind. Some things I had forgotten, yet reading about them revitalises the memories and seems to refresh them. I suppose the brain is remaking connections to recollections that have eroded through lack of use. It does convince me that it’s all up there somewhere, though access may be lost. Maybe keeping a diary is a good thing after all.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Walking and Writing

Blogging sporadically lately. Too busy writing, editing, publishing, guiding, campaigning and just living.

On Tuesday I set off from Stow-on-the-Wold to walk to Oxford. Not a great distance for some I suppose, but my friend and I did not hurry. We completed the thirty plus miles in two days. Our last walk together was just about a year ago. We began that at Yoxford, in Suffolk, and headed for Oxford. My friend did not complete the walk: he lasted just three days before dropping out with badly blistered feet. I trudged on alone and it was during that long walk that the idea for my current book occurred.

3D Futures is, not surprisingly, set in the future! It is my first venture into this genre and I really enjoyed writing it: the future is an unknown and the imagination consequently untrammelled. It has three stories running in parallel: in one the rich and clever have left the earth, living forever below it, their minds existing in digital form in highly secure servers; in another a large number of people have escaped the earth in order to colonise distant planets. The earth itself is therefore left to the dispossessed and it swiftly descends into anarchy and violence, though the green shoots of civilisation are beginning to emerge. The stories are about people’s lives in these extreme situation and, though separate, are linked in surprising ways. The whole thing is held together by ‘historical’ digressions which provide the background to the three worlds.

I uploaded 3D Futures to the Amazon’s Kindle store on the day after completing my Costwold walk whilst sitting with my feet in a bowl of hot salty water – they really hurt. I do not think that I could have walked for a third day! I have launched the book at less than a pound (or dollar or euro) and now am waiting anxiously for any sales.

I did enjoy the walk across the Cotswolds despite my hurting feet. Along the way we stopped to look in wonder at stunning views of rolling green, yellow and red fields, at the soft hills and the forests and woods. We saw a number of gracefully prancing deer; clear, swift moving streams and rivers; and delightful limestone villages. In the Wychwood forest we met a young lady crouching amongst the ferns having a fag: she was hiding from her even younger charges who were there to learn bushcraft. We camped secretly on the fringe of Charlbury and enjoyed a night of beer, food and merriment in two of its four pubs. In the Three Horseshoes we ate fish and chips watched by two King Charles spaniels lounging on the opposite settle and we entered the quiz. We came last, but strongly suspect that the other teams were cheating (smart phones were spotted).
We examined the remains of a splendid Roman villa located in a lovely and isolated spot – that is until a train rushed by just a field away. And we managed the whole walk without the use of technology: in fact, technology seemed out of place in those delightfully remote footpaths.