Friday 28 February 2014

Why are we here?

Though I don't live there all the time, Oxford is a great place to be. Last night I had a choice of lectures: one by Steven Pinker (prolific author), one by a lady who has rowed herself around the world, and one by A C Grayling the philosopher, They were all free and, fortunately, I chose the latter.

One thing about Grayling - he looks like his name. He has a splendid mane of graying hair. He is also a kindly looking bloke (a word that he uses a lot, good man) and a wonderful presenter. The lecture was in a church, a fact that he, an ardent atheist, made great fun of as he introduced himself.

This man is more than a philosopher. He has started his own university: a private one charging fees of £18K per annum and offering one-to-one tutorials (like Oxford) together with generous grants for those unable to pay the fees.

His talk was about myths and he cleared up something that has interested me for many years: why do nearly all societies have religion? He made it sound quite simple. The idea revolves around agency. From the moment of self-awareness, humans have been well aware of cause and effect. When a stone hits the water we want to know who threw it. Perhaps we threw it ourself - then we are the agent. We caused the effect. When lightning strikes, or a rainstorm begins, or a volcano erupts then primitive man believed that some agency must have caused it. It could not have been another person, the effect is too massive - therefore it must have been a mysterious agent - a god. The next stage is to personify the gods, and perhaps to appease them by worship.

Where did the gods live? Usually on high inaccessible mountains. However, as time went by that was disproven, the heights were scaled, there were no gods. And so the gods had to be moved up, up into the sky, yet still doing their stuff. Now that we have explored the sky and there is no god there, god has become ineffable ('too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words' - a convenient cop out).
That's a brief summary, there was more. Then, in question time, a local Muslim Mullah came forward in his black robes and white hat. He proceeded to preach and was booed, "Where's the question?" shouted members of the audience. He aquitted himself well, asking: "Where does all this come from? Why are we here? Where are we going afterwards?"

Good questions, replied the philosopher politely, and then went on to explain. Religion can answer those questions in about half an hour. Remarkable! Using logic, analysis and reasoning, the scientific method takes a little longer. It requires years to truly understand cosmology, or particle physics, or genetics. Yet religion can answer those really big questions in  just thirty minutes! There is something wrong here. Scientifically, we are still investigating those three basic questions, and the work will go on and on. Yet people of religion already have the answers. Or do they?

I found Grayling very convincing in almost everything that he talked about, but particularly his statement that there is a middle way between religion and utter disbelief. It is humanism. Today I am going to join the Oxford Humanists and I am also going to leave the Oxford Civic Society. The two are not directly connected. I am simply cheesed off with the latter for its pathetic response to those awful flats that the University has built on our beautiful Port Meadow and I therefore think that my money would be better spent on something more fundamentally enriching.

(The talk was organised by the Richard Dawkins Foundation)

Wednesday 19 February 2014

An interesting new book

I've just completed a short book about women, two interesting women. The first had the maiden name of Roberts which is my first name (singular): the second had the same first name as our first goat - Dorothy. The first had the same first name as my wife - Margaret; the second had the maiden name of Crowfoot which is odd. Here's what it's all about.

Margaret Thatcher is known to all. Dorothy Hodgkin should be: she is Britain's only female scientific Nobel Prize winner, a reward for her groundbreaking work in determining the structure of penicillin and vitamin B12.

It is difficult to imagine two women more different in character and political beliefs, yet their lives were closely linked: Dorothy was Margaret's tutor when the younger woman studied chemistry at Oxford University; Margaret, as Prime Minister, invited her old tutor to lunch at Chequers.

The book is entitled Margaret Thatcher and Dorothy Hodgkin in Conversation: Iron Lady versus Socialist Scientist and has already been released as a Kindle eBook onAmazon. A paper book will soon
follow and other eBook formats are available from Smashwords.

The intimate conversations take place during Margaret's fourth year at Oxford while she carried out research work in Dorothy's crystallography lab. They range widely over topics from socialism to sexual freedom. No one knows exactly what they did discuss, but the conversations are soundly based in the factual world of post war Britain and reflect the characters of these two very interesting women.

Like most people my political allegiance has changed with time, and in the usual direction. Creating conversations between these two very polarised ladies has enabled me to continue a debate with myself that has taken up much of my life, and much to my surprise and delight friends who have read the ongoing manuscript have found it interesting, thought provoking and intriguing. I'm quite excited about it.

If you are interested in the book and don't know how to get hold of it just send me an email and I can help. The Smashwords site provides the capability to read on line and all sorts of formats which can be downloaded to PCs  and Apple devices. More details, including a sample are available at my bookshop. Just click here.

Monday 3 February 2014

Isn't the Web wonderful?

I'm writing this because my Web access is down. This peripatetic life can be frustrating at times. I have wired broadband at Stow and that's good. In Oxford I do not have a fixed line, so I use a wireless dongle for access and that's bad. If that fails (which it often does) then I have this thing called BT Wifi as a backup: it's crap too. In Spain we have nothing, and have to go to the bar to pick up emails and the newspaper via Kindle (the latter for Margaret). There they do have Wifi and its good, but they also have beer and other people which is both good and bad. Just now I am in Oxford and I have no service, or service so slow that it is worse than the early modem days for those who can remember them (just think of riding through the jungle on a sloth versus a jaguar).

OK, so why am I so dependent on the Web when I have the temerity to criticise the young and their addiction to mobile devices (see previous blog)? I'm not. I am not really dependent. Well mostly I'm not. We spend months in Spain and I do not suffer any symptoms of withdrawal. But then, I spend my days working with stone and cement and wood and such - a world in which the Web has no role (so far). I do not miss it and am unconcerned that I am missing news of great global events which would have little impact on me anyway. though, in all honesty, my wife does  keep me up to date with the news nowadays and I enjoy her interpretations very much. But in the past, when she did not have her daily injection of the Daily Telegraph I did not feel deprived.

Ironically, I need access at this time because I need to update my bookshop on the Web. And amongst the updates will be the introduction of social media buttons. Good grief, I didn't think that I would ever put a facebook like button on my site, but one must move with the times, going forward, eh guys? Fortunately I am also considering a complete overhaul of the pub area of the bookshop and the introduction of a Democratic corner. There will also be a new book to add soon, but I will announce that later: just now it's being read by friends and will no doubt need some rewriting.

By the way, if any of you do want to read any of my eBooks and haven't got a Kindle, then there are ways. The easiest thing is to download Kindle for PC which is free from Amazon and then you can read any Kindle books on your own PC. Alternatively I now have a lot of my books on Smashwords and that site allows you to download the books in a number of different formats including PDF which can be read on any device.

By the way:

Did you hear of the chap who gave his old mobile to charity?
Charity returned it since, she claimed, it lacked credit.
He turned to his sister and said with severity.
Begin at home, or you will never come out to debit.

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.