Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Are we integrated? Are we part of the EU?

Do you ever wonder what the British look like from deep within the European Union? I have inside information. I have a secret friend based in Stockholm (yes Sweden is part of the EU, and no, it does not embrace the Euro).

My friend, Björn Runngren, can be succinct. Here's his current view:

"The Scottish are leaving the UK, the UK is leaving the EU, the EU is leaving the UK."

He claims that the 27 member states of the European Union have demanded a referendum on whether Britain should be allowed to stay in. Unbelievable.

He accompanied these observations with a picture of our queen in disarray which I am not including for fear of offence, and a sequence of quotes from establishment figures within continental Europe. I have censored some of these, once again, for fear of causing offence. These remain:
·         EU President Herman Van Rompuy said: “What exactly does Britain bring to the EU anyway, apart from of course your wonderful financial centre that destroyed all our economies a few years ago?”
·         Jose Triano of Madrid said: “An entire area of Spain – we call it the Costa del Crime – is a no-go area for ordinary people because of aged Brits reminiscing about the Krays while sucking up our health service like Bermuda-shorted vampires.”
·         German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “Despite our difficulties, Britain does have a very important role within the EU. “ It unites the rest of us in loathing.”
Fortunately, I was abroad when his missive arrived. Not abroad in the sense of leaving these shores. No, I was out in the rain, on my bicycle, experiencing the incredibly multicultural and integrated slice of Oxford that borders the Cowley Road. My trip turned out to be so relevant to the missive from Stockholm. I did not respond directly to my friend's report, Instead I simply let my my experience of that evening speak for itself.


I am flabbergasted. I thought that we were a key part of Europe; after all we did once rule the world, sort of.

Anyway, I have just come home from the pub and wanted to contact you to describe my outing.

Tonight I went first to the Star public house near the famous Cowley Road which has everything from a Russian Supermarket to a Caribbean restaurant (Aren't we integrated).

The Star had two beers on handpump from a brewery called Compass. The brewer is a SWEDE (Mattias Sjöberg). The pub was OK (devoted to drinking and playing games). Beer, rather good and, for the UK (excluding Scotland) quite cheap.

Then, off to the James Street Tavern [my friend has been there] for an evening of Scandinavian music (how integrated is that? (And they have Galician music there sometimes (how integrated is that?)).

By my count, there were: seven violinists, two tin whistles, three accordionists, one finger-fiddle, and a bag piper (is that normal? Will he be ousted after the Scottish referendum?). The music was something we would call folky. Nice, but a little repetitive. The musicians easily outnumbered the audience.

I had an interesting conversation with a gentleman called Simon. He was the partner of one of the many violinists (she was also an acupuncturist). He was from New Zealand and last year survived the Bull Run at Pamplona, Spain (how integrated is that?)

I cycled home through the floods which were apparently caused by gay people getting married under the influence of the UK Independence party and passed the UKIP strong hold of Bongo-Bongo land as I wobbled home. 

Just another interesting evening out in Oxford, Central England, United (with certain exceptions) Kingdom.

We are soooo integrated.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Pub Philosophy

There are many things going on in Oxford, as you can imagine. Last night I went to a meeting called Philosophy in Pubs. It was held in a pub of sorts: The Jam Factory.

It was raining so I could not cycle to the pub. I walked, arrived late, got wet. I bought a pint of beer for a staggering price of £4. Not an auspicious start.

The subject for debate was "Is it wrong for parents to genetically engineer their children?"
The organiser, a nice chap called Ben Clark, listed some things to think about:

·         Was it acceptable for two deaf parents to engineer their child to be deaf so that he or she fits into the family?
·         Was cosmetic genetic engineering OK?
·         Would designed children be critical of the genetic choices made by their parents?

We split into groups, discussed. Had another drink. Mixed up the groups - had more discussion.
It is an interesting and topical topic. My groups came up with lots of ideas for genetic changes like: X-ray vision, growing wings, growing replacement limbs and organs, anti-aging, beauty, and increased empathy.
Anti-aging was interesting. It started with the idea of immortality, but this was quickly dismissed because people would become bored to death and there would be just too many of us. But if your children could arrest the development of their bodies at say twenty years, yet still die at say ninety wouldn't that be good?
As to beauty, it was feared that we might all get to look the same: quintessential beauty. But then everyone would get bored so beauty fashion would change.

I found it interesting that the young man who opted for increased empathy received, and actually answered, four calls on his mobile phone whilst we were talking.

The idea of enforced deafness in a deaf family revolted most people: "condemning your child never to hear Mozart" was one reaction.

Some thought that genetic engineering would only be for the rich. Undoubtedly, it would be to begin with. But technology prices always tend to fall dramatically (mobile phones, cars, dishwashers, computers) and the rich subsidise that fall to an extent.

I told my group of Ken Dodd's desire for a mouth on top of his head so that on train journeys he could put his sandwiches in his hat, put the hat on his head, and eat his lunch without embarrassment. The group was unimpressed and not at all amused. Perhaps they could not understand why Ken was shy about eating his sandwiches in a crowded train.

At the end a vote was taken, but by then it had become clear that none of the questions posed had a simple yes/no answer. It was an interesting discussion though, not the least to observe the interaction between self-styled philosophical people.

I will go to another of these philosophy in the pub sessions - providing that I can save up enough for a pint of beer. Maybe I could link philosophy into the pub I run in my bookshop (currently being considered for renovation).

P.S. Searching my memory and the web I find that a pint of beer when I left school in 1963 was 10p (in new money). That's a one fortieth of the £4 pint. Mind you, my weekly pay as an apprentice was just £5. I suppose we must be philosophical about inflation.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Limericks, books and a new year dawning

Christmas has come and gone and a new year has just begun. My greatest disappointment was that I lost the Christmas day limerick writing competition. I thought my effort was quite good, but it did not attract even one vote from the other competitors, not one. Later I heard that tactical voting had been employed. Either way we will not be playing that game again next year. Here's my entry, which you can judge for yourself.

3d characters isolated on white background series Stock Photo - 7026400
There once were some gangsters from Buckingham
Who stole children's sweets and liked sucking 'um
To stop this shebang
They arrested the gang
And transported the lot of 'um to Birmingham

I also did badly in the quiz (I foolishly chose my topic as Spain, the others had the good sense to select a more limited subject) and even worse at the poetry reading. It's not all about winning though: the drink, the food, the karaoke and the magic was good.

The build up to Christmas was good too: an excellent carol concert in a central Oxford Church, carol singing in the street with other guides to raise money for a hospice (then off to the pub), a wonderful party to celebrate Geraldine's 90th birthday, a walk through a storm with a good friend followed by many beers in a pub with a log fire, and a nativity play in which my grandson played Joseph.

Looking further back, 2013 was a good year for travel with visits to Taiwan, New Zealand and Australia. Not forgetting Spain, of course, where work on my caseta took a bit of a leap forward with completion of two ceilings, a roof and the terrace. I also completed my sci-fi book (3D Futures) and launched it on Kindle where it picked up a couple of good reviews. I've also read some great books. Outstanding for me were:

  • The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes - about the colonization of Australia.
  • Stoner: a novel by John Williams.
  • The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama.
  • American Rust: a novel by Philipp Mayer.
  • Dorothy Hodgkin A Life By Georgina Ferry - Dorothy discovered the structure of insulin, etc.
  • Sick Notes by Dr Tony Copperfield - a medical doctor's account of modern day practice.
  • Walking the Lions: a novel by Stephen Burgen.

I finished the last book at two in the morning today, the first day of 2014 - after dancing and singing Auld Lang Syne at a local pub. It was excellent; I really could not put this book down even though I had to buy it as a paper book rather than reading it on my Kindle. It tells a complex story based in Barcelona and around. It contains: sex, violence, blackmail, betrayal, corruption, manipulation, love, intrigue, and an excellent explanation of the Spanish reticence with regard to the civil war. It's one of those books that you cannot stop reading, yet are disappointed when it ends because you want to go on even though the ending is perfectly satisfying. Thanks Sue and John for commending it to me.

Now I need to start writing. I've dithered for too long between commencing the second book of 3D Futures and carrying on with my Margaret Thatcher in conversation with Dorothy Hodgkin thing. I've decided to do the latter first - bit scary though.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Christmas Fast and Christmas Present

I have, for many years, held a fast a few days before Christmas. I start at around midnight and take nothing but water (warm water) for thirty-six hours or so until I break my fast with breakfast. I have written about this before, but cannot resist doing so again.

Why do I do it? I'm not entirely sure. I once worked with a man called Aziz Ratansi. An interesting fellow, he told me that he had once suffered from depression and had cured himself by fasting. This intrigued me. Besides, I think we all eat too much; it becomes a habit rather than a necessity or a pleasure. Also, admiring the iron will of great men like Gandhi I wanted to experience starvation, at least the early stages, for myself. And, again, my fast is a counterpoint to the coming overindulgence of Christmas. Strangely, over the years, it has become part of Christmas for me.

I fast alone. I do not mean that I isolate myself in a darkened room or walk off into a dark forest: I just carry on as normal. However, on one occasion my eldest son joined me. He did well until the twenty-fourth hour when he hungrily scoffed everything that he had missed during the day! I am told that I become grumpy during my fasting day - an accusation that I angrily deny. I am taunted sometimes. Years ago, my sons would come to find me after a meal, describe what they had eaten then blow food-laden breath into my face. I almost broke down when they had been eating baked beans.

Breaking the fast has become ritualistic. I carefully prepare my food then lay it out in front of me: cereal bowl to the fore, banana behind, fruit juice to the right, herbal tea beyond. The radio must be turned off and I do not read (I usually do read at breakfast time)). I then sit quietly for a few minutes studying my inner feelings: the slight discomfort in my stomach, the metallic taste in my mouth, the very mild headache. Then, slowly, I raise the glass of juice to my lips. This year I drank cloudy apple juice - glorious. The first sip, so strong in taste, slowly travels over my taste buds gradually invading my entire mouth- wonderful. Then the warm crunchiness of the pecan and maple cereal, so sweet, so textured, so satisfying. Then the  ceremonial stripping of the banana, that wonderful fruit that nature supplies pre-packed, its texture so soft and dense in contrast to the cereal, its flavour unique and delicious. Finally the tea: fennel tea. I drink it every morning and am usually barely aware of it, but on this day my awareness is at a peak, I am instantly conscious of an overwhelming sweetness which almost hides the subtle flavour of fennel, perhaps I should not add the sweetener tablet on fast days.

And then it is all over, I have done it again, back to normal. Fasting is not easy to do, and does not get easier with practice, but I will do it again. It is sort of cleansing, I believe. And it suits my mental outlook. I shall enjoy Christmas all the more for having fasted. Roll out the beer and brandy, the immense roast dinner followed by unneeded Christmas pud, chased down by cheese and port. Mouth-watering.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

My latest book - 3D Futures - got a great review.

I know that most regular readers of this blog are already aware of the launch of my first science fiction novel. However, I can't resist putting the first review up here so that others can read it. Obviously it is a good one (would I put it here if it wasn't?) But I am impressed and delighted by Giulio Prisco's comments. He has clearly read the book fully, not just scanned it to produce a review.

Here it is in full. Alternatively you can access it at his sci-fi website which is called skefi'a - just click. The eBook is still on sale for just under a pound/dollar/euro as an intro price from Amazon and Smashwords. Just click here to see it at my bookshop.

3D Futures: The disembodied, the departed and the dispossessed, by Rob Walters, is a fresh, entertaining and thought-provoking science fiction novel with interleaved stories, including a thriller in a future society of uploads.

The novel is set in the 23th of 24th century, or so I guess from hints in the book: a World Constitution (something that may happen in a few decades) was adopted in 139 Before Separation (BS), and the events in the book seem to take place at least a few decades after the Separation. Read on to find out what the Separation was.

Most of humanity, the Dispossessed, have returned to savagery, with some communities trying to slowly rebuild civilization after the Separation.

En route to the stars to settle a new planet, the spaceship Shi Shen is populated by a few thousands of people, the Departed, mostly of Chinese origins. It was launched by the Chinese Economic Entity, one of the world powers before the Separation.

The Separation: after the development of mind uploading technology, most among the rich and powerful have chosen to upload and become the Disembodied, living as pure software in Cworld, a virtual world running on supercomputers on Earth and in space.

“Research into consciousness had lead to a startling, though perhaps obvious, conclusion: consciousness was simply the total sum of the brain’s activity—its memories and processing capability… It was then a small step to envisage the movement of a conscious persona into a bodiless digital network… [T]he complete physical transfer of a persona into a digital store, and the provision of a sufficiently powerful computer system to support an artificial world in which personas could reside. This world was Cworld, and it promised immortality: an existence without physical danger, disease or ageing.”

Rob Walters is an experienced writer, author of many books of varied genres, but this is his first science fiction novel. In the Introduction, he says:

“In my youth, I read science fiction books avidly, sometimes as much as a book a day. My masters were: Asimov, Clarke, Sheckley, Aldiss, Moorcock, and many others… Later, when I started to fancy myself as an author, I began to realise that the sci-fi genre offered a writer the ultimate freedom in creativity. Nevertheless, I did not feel inspired to tackle a genre which, I suspected, was still dominated by the mentors of my youth.”

For a first science fiction novel, this is a great one. I encourage you to buy the book for 0.99 US$ (yes, 0.99 US$) at Smashwords. You will not regret buying the book: perhaps this is not a Hugo or Nebula winner, but it’s solid, well-thought, and entertaining science fiction for many hours of reading pleasure.

There are four interleaved stories. One sketches the history of the world from our days to the World Constitution, the launch of the spaceship Shi Shen, the development of mind uploading technology, the Separation, and the development of the Disembodied society in Cworld. The other three stories are narrated by Remus, the leader of a small band of Dispossessed, Tali, a young Departed on Shi Shen, and Zimbaud, a Disembodied in Cworld.

I found especially interesting Zimbaud’s story in Cworld. In this thriller, Zimbaud and friends must find and defeat the source of a mysterious influence, a software “corruption” that threatens all Disembodied with madness and eventually dispersal, the disintegration of personal software identity. In the story, which strongly reminds me of Greg Egan’s Diaspora, we see many features of Cworld history, technology, and society, shown in-depth and with attention to detail.

Remus’ adventures, a classical post-apocalyptic “science fiction western,” lead his little band to a settlement where people try to rebuild a functional, civilized community. To ensure the security of their new home, Remus’ band will have to fight the savage Morgants, whose apocalyptic “religion” offers hopes to gain immortality in Cworld… as a prize for slaughtering enough people.

Tali’s thread is the coming-of-age story of a young rebel in the small society of the Shi Shen starship. Planned by the Chinese bureaucracy before the Separation, the starship is governed by a militarized crew with strict authoritarian rules under a benevolent cover, ubiquitous surveillance, and mind-wiping (or worse) for the dissenters. The crew seem to have lost control of the starship, which of course is kept secret from the passengers. Tali and a handful of rebels will take back the control of Shi Shen with the help of a “ghost in the machine,” and perhaps they will steer it back to Earth.

The three story threads, initially unrelated, come loosely together at the end. But there are still many questions to answer and much to be seen in Walters’ 3D Futures universe, and I definitely look forward to reading the promised sequels.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Mandela Gone

I read about his death on the big screen of a pub last night. I was out celebrating my return to Oxford with a friend whose wife is from South Africa: that seemed sort of appropriate. We talked about Nelson and the way that he had impacted our lives of course, but I was unemotional; no man can go on forever. This morning lying in bed listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 review Mandela's life, character and achievements, I shed a few tears. In common with so many people I feel that the man, and the fight to defeat apartheid, are part of my life.

Not that my role was at all significant, but every little did help in a battle where good and bad seemed so clearly demarked. I was a member of the Anti Apartheid movement. I read its regular newspaper and travelled to London for demonstrations where I was appalled and frightened by the hunger for violence shown by a minority of the demonstrators and police. I dramatically announced my determination to close my account at the local branch of Barclay's bank because of the company's links with South Africa - only to be told that I was overdrawn! We boycotted South African fruit and cheered at the grand attempts to isolate the regime from sporting activities.

Like so many I watched TV for hours as we waited for Mandela's release from prison. I can still picture the entranceway to that prison where time seemed to stand still until, finally, the great man was allowed out. I failed to go to Wembley when Mandela came to England at last, but was proud that one member of the family, my youngest daughter, was there amongst the crowds to greet him. And what a greeting. I cannot remember how many times Nelson walked to that microphone to speak, only to retreat again and again as the crowd continued to pour out warm waves of adulation. And he handled it so well.

Of course, everyone knows that one person rarely changes history, but Nelson Mandela is, and always will be, the symbol of a new South Africa and the gradual death of racial intolerance.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Historical distortions in virgins' thighs

Warning: this article could be very upsetting to those who believe the virginal state to be perfect or those who believe that they will be presented with a large number of virgins when they meet their maker. In fact, it this blog has little to do with virgins at all and a lot to do with roofing techniques in Spain. The title was chosen to bump up my reader statistics and in particular is an attempt to beat my most popular blog yet which is entitled Prostitutes, oranges and burning babies. A further warning: this article contain disturbing photographs. And a disclaimer: no virgins were deflowered in the preparation of this article.

My late father-in-law, a true gentleman if ever I met one, was a plasterer and roofer. He taught me all that I know about these arcane subjects, though solely based on English practice. How he would have coped with Spanish plaster I do not know – probably dismissed it as “foreign tack”. There are two types: rapido and controlado. The Spanish, with the exception of Speedy Gonzales and their behaviour behind the wheel of a car, are not generally associated with rapidity, yet  their rapid plaster sets like greased lightning. Even the controlled stuff sets in five minutes or less. And their roofs! They are really something else.

Many years ago I bought some farmland together with a ramshackle house built of flint. The house needed complete renovation and Henry, my father-in-law, travelled all the way to Suffolk to help me re-roof the place. It was quite a big job and I learned a lot from doing it. Sadly, a few years later, during one of the big storms, a large tree fell on the house and the roof that we had painstakingly restored had to be ripped off and redone – this time by professionals.

That roof was covered in Suffolk pantiles which were more or less regular in size; they sat on wooden battens, then on roofing felt then on the rafters. In Spain the rafters were traditionally covered in a woven matrix of cane, then a layer of plaster and finally the tiles. Nowadays the plaster and cane is replaced with a layer of concrete, but it is the tiles that I want to talk about and it’s here that we meet the virgins. These tiles are used all over the Mediterranean area, they are roughly half-circular in cross section and about half a metre long, narrowing along their length. A suitable mould for making these clay tiles could therefore be the human thigh.
A well-laid roof looks great and characterises the villages of Spain. They are made from alternate lines of tiles, one line forming the caps, the other the gutters. The gutters are laid open side up and narrow end down, the caps are the opposite. Sounds simple enough, but there are two problems: firstly, how to end the rising edges of the roof and secondly, those virgins had very varied and odd thighs.

I won’t go into the bodge that is used at the ends of the roof, if you are interested have a close look at the photo of my roof, it’s the virgins that I am interested in here. Clearly their thighs varied in width, length, girth and taper. What’s worse some of them were clearly distorted, either by the uncomfortable process of being the mould, an accident of birth or some dramatic accident in the fields (see examples). Or perhaps they wriggled when the cold clay was applied or when the tile maker removed it. Or, more simply, the tileman dropped the moulded clay on its journey to the furnace since the virgins were not baked with the tile (that certainly would have caused a shortage of virgins). Maybe the tilemakers became overexcited when removing the slippery moulded clay. Who  knows?. Just look at the photos if you can bear it.

But were virgins really used in making clay tiles or is the whole thing a fabrication by the overactive brains of the tile layers? I have conducted a simple experiment using myself as a subject. Now, I am not a virgin and that admission may invalidate the whole thing. Nevertheless, I have  endeavoured to fit traditional tiles to my own thighs (see photo). The results are quite shocking. If virgins were used then they certainly possessed very long thighs. Since Spanish ladies of the past were generally short, the long thigh could only be achieved by a shortened calf. Gosh, those ladies must have had a strange gait.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Spanish, the language. Buying and selling. Owing or lending.

My Spanish is not good, but I comfort myself with the fact that I can say much more than I understand – which I think is unusual. This does have a downside: sometimes I do not understand what I am saying myself, or what I have said.

One of my biggest gaffs was at the Chinese Bazaar in Alcaniz, our nearest city (of sorts). A few years ago these bazaars were unknown in this part of Spain, it was only possible to buy cheap Chinese stuff from street markets (one of which is run by our friends here in Spain). Now there are bazaars everywhere, selling everything from artificial flowers to tools usable for one job only (like one screw). Anyway, I entered the biggest one in Alcaniz and asked the Chinese gentleman at the till if he sold electrical cable. He turned away without replying. Puzzled, I spelled out my request very carefully, “Compras cable electricidad?” Still he ignored me. So I left, vowing never to go there again no matter how cheap the tools are.
Next day it dawned on me that I had used the wrong verb. I had actually asked him if he bought electrical cable. He probably thought that I was a cable thief and had half a reel of lighting flex hidden somewhere about my body.

Today I did it again. Our huerto has a number of small terraces. We have cleared two and planted fruit and nut trees on them. Above the olive grove is a third terrace, bigger than the others, which is rapidly being invaded by two of the most voracious weeds around here: bramble and bamboo. A villager told me that Bernado, the large man with a big black beard and a big black motorbike, had a machine that could clear the terrace. I asked if it was a JCB (in Spanish), but my informant said definitely not.

It was a JCB. Like a yellow beast from a transformer movie, it roared around my terrace razing everything including small trees, irrigation pipes and the walls of the water course. But cleared the terrace was, so I paid Bernado sixty Euros and stared gloomily at the bonfire he had created in the middle of my scourged and compacted terrace. I did ask him about the roots that clearly remained beneath the surface and he promised that, for more money, he would come back again with a tractor to tear them out once I had burned the bonfire.

As I tackled the difficult task of relaying the old tiles on the new roof of my caseta, I heard a tractor roaring along the agricultural road that runs beside the river. From my rooftop, I could see that it was carrying just the right implement to pull out those roots. I glanced up form my task regularly, noting its progress and hoping that it would be working somewhere nearby and that I could persuade the driver to deal with my terrace. Then it pulled onto my land. I thought that it was going to my neighbour’s terrace since we share an access way, but no – it turned onto mine and set about its work. It was Bernardo, no mistaking him now that he was nearby. The work did not take long and afterwards Bernardo came to talk to me as I continued my task up on the roof. I thanked him and said that now I owed him money (he had owed me some). He looked a little puzzled, but said, I think, that the work was nothing.

Later, up there on the rooftop, I realised that I had used the wrong verb again. This time I had used a verb which means – confusingly – both borrow and lend, whereas I meant to use the verb deber which means to owe. So now I do not know whether I owe big Bernardo money or not. I await with fear the sound of that big black motorbike, or worse still – the JCB.

Well, we all make mistakes. My worry is that these are just some that I know about – there must be others. It is disappointing though, I have tried hard to learn the language. Perhaps reading all those Harry Potter in Spanish was a waste of time, I certainly don’t hear the Spanish mentioning magic wands and spells very much.

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.