Monday, 15 September 2014

Poland for Vaulters

Someone (Ken Spence, actually) once told me a story about the Olympics of the past - I don’t know when. A man from the press walked up to a male contestant and asked, “Are you a pole vaulter?”
He replied, “Yes, and how do you know my name?”

We left England on the 3rd of September 2014 and did a quick dash through Belgium – very flat - and into Germany, finally slowing down in Kolenz where we camped outside the camp site (cheeky) and began our Rhine experience. It was lovely: the castles, the river, the villages, everything. A bit busy though – and far too many motor-caravans (we thought we were special, in Germany everyone owns a motor-caravan). We enjoyed Heidelberg, Bamberg and Meissen, then finally by-passed Dresden at 1,500 miles and achieved our goal: Poland.

It’s not so different here. Hmmm, oh yes it is different. They do not have the Euro, the roads are mostly terrible, they drive maniacally and have their own wonderfully unique language. Hangman cannot be played here. Many of the town names lack vowels entirely: rhythm would not be an exceptional word in Polish hangman.

Our first Pole was not called Walter, but Yollande. She was incredibly helpful when we were lost, shaken (from the roads) and despondent in Swidnica. She mounted her beloved bicycle and guided us to a campsite near the centre of town (we do not usually use them, but Swindica threatened) following slowly as she pedalled through the streets. She has a daughter in England and showed us the photos on her smartphone, many of them of the daughter’s dog actually. We thanked her effusively for her help, but she declared, to our surprise, that she did it for Jesus. So disappointing, I thought that she did it for us.

Our first meal in that city cost less than £12, including five beers. Who cares about bumpy roads now then?

Our next Pole was called Kamila, not Walter. She was the daughter of the innkeeper whose garden we cheekily parked next to for the night. He came to complain – I thought. He kept pointing at our bicycles as if this was the final straw. Here he was running a hotel in remote and rural Poland and cheeky chappies arrive from England, with bicycles strapped to their camper-van, preparing to sleep right next to his hotel.  We shared no language so he finally called his daughter Kamila and she joined us to explain that her Dad thought the bikes might be stolen: would we like to store them overnight in the hotel! Next morning Kamila served us tea in the hotel and told us that nearly all of her school friends had emigrated to England.

Our third Pole was called Yan, they often are. We met him amongst the meteor craters north of Poznan. He translated the signs for us and described his life as the proprietor of a company supplying sinks and taps to kitchen installers. We also discussed the possible independence of Scotland – bizarre and expensive – and the current economy of Poland
Polish people, at least the English speakers with whom we interact, are so nice, so helpful. Can they possibly be the same people who have cut me up on the roads, shattered my wing mirror and who wake me at six o’clock in the morning by assembling in the car park where I am sleeping in my motor-home solely in order to start a cycle race?

Tomorrow Krakow: Poland for the tourist? We will see.

Monday, 1 September 2014

A tree line to John Fowles

Just re-reading John Fowles' The Tree with whining chainsaws and the clattering of a wood chipper in the background. My house at Stow has had a line of cypress trees close to the eastern wall ever since I moved in: they were big then, now they tower above the house and they give me nightmares.

There was a similar line of trees to the west which had to go when I extended the house some years ago. My brother-in-law and I cleared them, bringing down the telephone line and nearly causing a neighbourhood feud. We burned the felled trees in the back garden as we took them down; the smoke was so dense that I was completely unaware of the visit by my enraged neighbour and of his angry castigation of my poor, innocent brother-in-law.

This time, for various reasons, I have employed professionals and am hoping for an end to my nightmares. Imagine waking up in the early hours to a strange slithering sound which you cannot identify but your half-awake mind exaggerates into the worst of horrors. Realising that the sound was simply the brushing of the branches of those trees against the roof helped a little, but also reminded me that their roots were undermining the house itself.

I love trees and destroying them pains me, but these had passed the line. Twice, I discovered that they had blocked my storm drains. Their roots had broken into the pipes and extended five metres into the weepers! Finally, they managed to topple the retaining wall beside them thus sealing their fate. Sad, but there we are.

If he were still around, I think that John Fowles would be quite happy with their demise: too regular, unnatural. He remains one of my favourite authors and a man I would have liked to have met. Exploring the Undercliff near Lyme Regis recently reminded of him and it was there that I took this strange photo of my son Rafe and my friend Robert Twigger. Fowles loved the wildness of nature and you can easily imagine him puzzling over the events that produced the distorted wonder that the two men are sitting on: they look like leprechaun out to enjoy themselves. In The Tree, John Fowles tries to describe his philosophy which itself underscores his wonderful novels (French Lieutenant's Woman, The Magus, etc). He believed that science and learning fetter our ability to enjoy nature. In labelling, describing, cataloguing we bury the immense joy that can be felt in finding a new flower or shrub or forest. Nature is wild and by categorising it we box it in, we curtail it: He was not a fan of Linnaeus.

When I write novels, I have only the vaguest notions of plot and ending. This gives me great enjoyment. Locked within my own creation, I often cannot wait to get back to it and to see what happens next. Reading The Tree, I was humbled and pleased to learn that my favourite author wrote in the same way. I wonder if they encourage this in "creative writing" courses. Meanwhile, though I very rarely read a book twice, I might descend once more into Fowles' magical worlds by re-reading The Magus. That's if I can get it cheaply on Kindle; I do find it hard to read a "proper" book nowadays.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

I hate computers

What if your car behaved like your computer?

You buy a new car. You had a test drive and it drove well: that's why you bought it. And for the first few weeks it is fine, just as the salesman said it would be. Then, things begin to change. Suddenly the car slows down, you push on the accelerator, but the car still slows down. Then all the dashboard displays dim out. Suddenly, miraculously, everything is OK again and you are on your way.

 No worries, just a glitch perhaps. Then it happens again and again. You take the car back to the garage, but the mechanics can't find anything wrong and snidely infer that there is something wrong with your driving.
You drive home sadly, and the slowing down starts again. You drive straight back to the garage where the mechanics greet you with a scowl - yet still they can find nothing wrong, even on a test drive.

You learn to live with the car's strange behaviour. What else can you do? Then something else develops. The car still behaves erratically, but also its top speed decreases as time goes by so that you are crawling along the road, overtaken by bicycles and joggers. The mechanics examine the car and accuse you of overloading it: too many passengers, too much shopping.

Finally, you buy a new car, what else can you do? Then the same cycle begins all over again.
Some years ago Bill Gates reportedly compared the computer industry with the auto industry stating, "If General Motors had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25.00 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon."

GM responded with a long list of outcomes if Microsoft made cars, including:
1. For no reason whatsoever, your car would crash twice a day.
2. Every time they repainted the lines in the road, you would have to buy a new car.
3. Occasionally your car would die on the freeway for no reason. You would have to pull to the side of the road, close all of the windows, shut off the car, restart it, and reopen the windows before you could continue.

So much of this is still true today - and the worrying thing is that a computer now controls most of the functions of the car.

Actually, I do not hate computers. I have grown up with them. Indeed I programmed one that controlled a telephone exchange many years ago (it rarely crashed once we had removed most of the bugs). A computer is just a machine, it does what it is told and rarely goes wrong. Unfortunately, the software that tells it what to do does go wrong and it is that which, over time, causes the enraging slowness that plagues most PC's. Problems like these bring out the witch doctors of course, but the spells they cast are temporary and the problems recurrent. In the end you buy a new machine with new software and begin the whole cycle again.

As you might guess, I am nearing that point just now - probably for the fifth or sixth time.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Babel in the Cotswolds: On language

According to the Bible (Genesis), the whole world at some time "had one language and a common speech".

Cheeky chappies of the world then got together saying, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But a jealous God is not always pleased with his supplicants. He responded in this way, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

Which is why our house in Stow on the Wold has been transformed. Our two grandchildren have recently arrived from Taiwan and chatter away in English and/or Chinese. They have been joined by our Spanish grandson who is struggling with English, but is already bilingual in Catalan and Spanish. It is still a marvel me to converse with my three-year-old granddaughter in toddler-English only to see her turn to her mother and enter a conversation in Mandarin which is entirely beyond me.

Of course, the interchanges are often puerile; after all she is only three. Recently we visited the imposing remains of Raglan Castle in Wales. I spent some time having mock fights with my seven-year-old grandson. At the end of one battle, we heard a call in Chinese from the top of the central tower; it came from his sister. He responded and for a while they shouted the same words back and forth. I asked him what they were saying. He grinned and replied gleefully, "We are shouting 'pooh-pooh' in Chinese."

In Spain we often think that the conversations that we overhear in the village are quite profound. The villagers are very intense, they gesticulate wildly their expressions graduating from solemnity to rage. Yet when we ask someone what they are talking about it is often the price of bread, or the ripening of tomatoes, or straightforward gossip. The language barrier when lifted can lead to disappointment.

And of course, the language barriers are falling. My Taiwanese grandchildren will have direct access to 1.4 billion Chinese plus all of the English-speaking nations of the world and all of those who speak English as a second language (the most prolific second language). My Spanish grandson will have all of the latter plus the entire continent of America (north and south) at his command. I envy and admire them even though, for the Taiwanese children, bilingualism it is a natural process requiring no conscious effort on their part.

Why has English become the dominant second language of the world - the equivalent of Latin in the middle ages? Well, it certainly does have a simple verb structure (though I think it is more complex than Mandarin where past present and future are all the same); but it also has grave spelling and pronunciation problems (remember 'fish' spelled 'ghoti' from George Bernard Shaw: 'gh' as in rough, 'o' as in women, 'ti' as in nation). I suppose we owe the success of English to the British Empire and the global dominance of the USA in commerce and entertainment.

Of course, the Americans have tried to improve English by rationalising the spelling of, for example, 'plough' to 'plow'. So sensible, yet we then lose the derivation of those words over time. What I am really unhappy with is the dumbing down of our language by emulating the Americans, and I am thinking now particularly of the use of 'guy' instead of man, bloke, chap, fellow, old boy, etc. OK, I know that the term can be used as a generic for men and women, but we already have generics such as folk, people, etc which are asexual. So, let's get together folks and speak English-English thus avoiding any confusion between rubbers and condoms, pants and trousers.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Reflexions of an Oxford City Guide

I have been an Oxford city guide for some eight years now and it seems a good time to look back over this new career of my third age. You meet people from lots of countries in this job: mostly nice, some irritating. One of my first experiences of the latter was provided by a large woman from the USA who, at the beginning of a two-hour walking tour, asked very loudly "will there be much walking involved in this tour?" I explained that it was a walking tour to which she responded, "Well, I cannot walk very far you know". I allowed silence to reign and tapped into the growing discomfort of the other eighteen or so walkers.
Encaenia 2014
Tour groups are like a person, they have a mass character usually determined by the more vocal members and backed up by the rest. Some are great: the spokespersons ask sensible questions, engage in repartee with me and sometimes supply useful additional info. Like the performer that you are, you feed off this: it fuels your ego and pumps up your act - it really does. Children, teenagers and corporate groups can bring you down: the former two by showing complete disinterest in anything not connected with Harry Potter, the latter by their their overweening interest in their work and their corporate buddies. These groups have not chosen to come on a tour; someone selected it for them and paid for them. They reap what they sow: a lukewarm performance from a clockwatching guide.

Interestingly, when you start out as a guide you fear questions that you cannot answer - and have to restrain yourself from attempting to answer them regardless. As you mature into the job then you relish an interesting question that you have never encountered. I have not stopped learning (information about Oxford is glacial), so an interesting question turns me into a researcher rather than a regurgitator. Science tours are best for this I find, it's in the nature of the people who choose that tour to be searching, and in my nature to search.
Occasionally I have taken 'important people' on tours. I do not wish to do so again. Usually these people are accustomed to 'royal' treatment and cannot or will not respond to my same-level approach to guiding. One of them would not follow me (I am the guide!), another would pass on by when I stopped to explain something.

One thing worries me about people in groups (and perhaps about humanity): they can so easily lose their individuality. For example, there are times when you have to cross a road where there is no pedestrian crossing. I ask them to be careful then begin to cross only to find they are following like lemmings - not looking out for traffic at all.

You do regularly meet the same type of punter. There's the 'echo' for one. After a spirited description of a college in which you supply its name, age and history the 'echo' asks, "Which college is this?" followed by, "How old is this college?" Then there's the 'expert abroad' who is intent on telling you and the other 
members of an Oxford tour all about their hometown: Northampton, or Swindon, or wherever - fascinating. And there is the 'googler' who asks why a particular niche is empty, or why a hand is missing from a statue, or where a particular chunk of limestone came from. But all these types are the exceptions not the rule and they are sent to test our gentility.

When I started guiding, there was little competition. We, the trained and badged guides, worked from the Tourist Information Centre; there was also a small group hanging around Trinity College for the good summer pickings; a nice man from Blackwell's called Peter; and a drunk who haunted the remoter regions of the city.  Nowadays you can barely pass the information centre without tripping over a board offering 'free' tours, or hear yourself speak for the cries of so-called guides vying for the punter's attention. One lot offers 'official free tours' whatever that means. Another encourages their free-borders to leap up and shout under what they misleading call 'The Bridge of Sighs'. Disneyland has arrived and there is no attempt to regulate this menagerie.

Thing are not what they used to be, but I still enjoy far more than half of the tours that I do - and grin and bear the remainder. The city is beautiful and its history sublimely interesting.

Monday, 16 June 2014

England, my England

Likes: greenness, pubs, real ale, historic buildings, most people.

Dislikes: bad weather, thoughtless development, bad beer, some people.

Living away for significant periods certainly stimulates awareness of your homeland. Last week we did a little historic tour of the south west, or at least a small part of it. As usual we travelled and lived in our motor caravan, mostly sleeping in car parks. Maybe there is a book there: England's Car Parks at Night. Not really; nothing much happens.

First, we went to Woodchester Mansion, a gothic revival project near the town of Stroud - itself located in the delightful golden valley. The mansion is Victorian, and one of its main features is the fact that is incomplete which allows visitors to view its internals in a way that verges on voyeurism.

Things that stick in the mind are: the fireplaces suspended high up in the floorless walls, the one room completed for the visit of some dignitary, the horseshoe bats who are the only occupants, the large ladder still standing against a wall and partly rungless, the crumbling chapel, the use of brick infill in a limestone clad edifice, the unfilled holes where the putlogs of timber scaffolding once rested.

We travelled on to Wells, the smallest city in England. Its cathedral and bishop's palace punch well above Well's weight in the population stakes. The west end of the cathedral gave me one of those moments: a surge of emotion that happens rarely and brings unexpected  and inexplicable tears to the eyes. It is wonderful. The two towers look chunky from afar, but close to are intricately carved and light in texture. The long internal arching is brilliant and the eye-like crossing formed by its inverse gothic arch is quite entrancing. I could go on and on - enough. We had a brilliant guide, an ex-architect with a depth of understanding of church structure that impressed the hell out of me - if you can say that of such holy surroundings.

But my favourite stop was Sherborne: a small Somerset town with something for all - and a quiet car park to sleep in. There is a group of delightful buildings around the strange conduit building in the centre and nearby a very large abbey church with a well-preserved Norman entry tower (we did not go in - you can become a bit over-churched). And the pub! They still exist you know: traditional pubs with no music or TV and a sign indicating a fine of 50p for anyone daring to use a mobile, real ale at £2.40 a pint,  lots of alcoves...the Sherborne Tap is a jewel. We left reluctantly to purchase fish and chips from a Glaswegian fryer who set me to rights on Scottish independence and many other topical points while cooking the cod. Then jazz in another pub! I don't even like jazz, but I liked it there - and enjoyed the people that we met.

Next day I jogged around the Sherborne Castle Estate, then we visited the two castles - old and new. The latter was originally the house of Sir Walter Raleigh, an Oxford graduate who brought potatoes and tobacco to us from America. He was executed before lung cancer and blocked arteries could bring him down and his house was bought by the Digby family who expanded it into the castle that we saw. It has nice stone framing, but the inset panels are rendered (the receptionist told me that it was the first rendered house in England). Concrete does not age well so, at close quarters, the place looks somewhat unattractive. But inside it is wonderfully furnished and decorated. The unusual shape provided by four wings built out from the original house ensures an extremely light interior and delightful views of the grounds from almost every room. It is a treasure, as is the ruined old castle and the extensive lake.

We spent our last night in Bradford-on-Avon's station car park after enjoying the delights of an open-mike night in the Swan. It is a lovely town with many attractive stone buildings clinging to the hillside and a simple, but endearing, Saxon church.

And so back to Stow, where I dug in the lettuce plants bought in Wells and admired Margaret's colourful flower garden. An English country garden.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Political Chemistry

Sometimes things go wrong, yet turn out right. I launched my book on the chats between Margaret Thatcher and Dorothy Hodgkin in March then dashed off to Spain. Not a good move. I had real difficulty drumming up any media interest (Thatcher aversion?) then Radio Oxford had a programme on Margaret just after I left and invited me along to speak, but I was in transit and am not one for turning back. Then, just before I left, I received two pages of comments, criticisms and suggestions from Margaret Bullard, a lady who was married to Dorothy's cousin and had known both of the subjects of my book well. Her son Robert had kindly passed a copy of the manuscript to her and, to be honest, I did not really expect a response so was unwilling to delay publication - the changes came too late.

But in this world of instant publication it is never too late: the comments were so important that I knew I would have to incorporate them. Coupled with this I had a strange reaction to the book - some people thought that the conversations were real! They were shocked to discover that I had invented them and I was shocked that they should think otherwise. Did they think there was a tape recorder under the desk? Well, be aware people, Bing Crossby only discovered the tape recorder in 1947, the year of my book, and it was then much too big to conceal under a desk. Nonetheless, I looked at the title and decided that the mention of conversations might, just might, have led them to this absurd conclusion, and realised that I would have to change it.

Now I have a new, and better, title - Political Chemistry - and a better book thanks to Margaret Bullard's comments, so I have republished. I suppose that this sort of thing has happened before in the era of printing presses and such, but not this quickly. Political Chemistry in eBook form is available as I write and will be available as a paper book within a few days - both on Amazon and cheap at present.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Letter from Spain: I finished a wall!

I have been working on my little stone hut for some years now, on and off. The end is now in sight. I still have more stonework to do when I return to Spain in September, but I left this time feeling that I had really got somewhere. In the early days, whilst still honing my skills as an amateur stonemason, I had almost despaired at my slow progress – thinking that I would never finish the project. At the time I was only partway through the south wall - my first.

The wall I have completed is the north wall and it is largest in area.I have given the walls a slope upwards to carry on the angle of the original roofline. I will then cap them with tiles and from most aspects they will look like a continuation of the roof – in fact there will be a small roof at the western end, it will cover a little hut or cupboard in which I will install the water tanks and batteries and on which I will securely clamp the solar collectors (people steal them I’m told). In the middle there will be an open terrace, the base of which I have already laid.

The plan is this: Margaret and I will crouch beneath the sloping walls waiting for someone to come by at speed (there is a 30 kph limit on our track). They will admire the new roof from below then, suddenly, we will pop up, as if from nowhere! This will cause them such a shock that they will lose control of their car, tractor or van and plunge into the stream that runs alongside the track. We will then present them with the proverb “more haste, less speed” carefully translated into Spanish and printed on one of the terracotta bricks that they use to build modern casetas and houses around our area and they will never speed again.

Many Spanish people do tend to drive quickly and dangerously. It’s odd because they amble to their cars, slowly get in, gradually get started – then roar off at high speed, cutting corners wherever they can (the white lines on Spanish roads are there to straddle), overtaking anything in their path and then screaming to a halt at their destination (if they make it). They then turn off the engine, sit for a while to rest, then amble slowly to wherever they are going – the shop, the bar, the friend’s house or whatever - chatting amiably and patiently to anyone they meet on the way.

Back to my wall: you know, I felt so good when I finished it. I had to keep looking at it from different angles. There is a great satisfaction in achieving something like that, despite the fact that it’s taken so long. “Poca a poca,” say the locals – little by little. I hope to complete the outside of the place later this year and am planning the opening party for next.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Letter from Spain: Easter without eggs

Easter, or Semana Santa (saint’s week), is a big thing in Spain, really big. And it’s not about bunnies, or hot crossed buns or stuffing yourself with chocolate. In fact, in our area of Spain, it’s all about drumming. Yes, I know - of course I know - it’s supposed to be all about the death, resurrection and ascendancy of Jesus Christ – and of course that religious thing still sets the scene for the Easter celebrations here. However, the thunder of the drums has mostly drowned out the praying and hymn singing in the churches, and most of the drummers are not at all religious - they do it because they enjoy it, because it’s a tradition and because it creates community.

However, our week started without drums and within our own little community of La Fresneda. The village had organised a charity bash based on local talent. It started late, of course, though I had raced to get there on time. The first performer was a young bearded man with guitar – quite nice. Then Dolors, our friend, introduced her ensemble from nearby Monroyo including four reluctant kids, three enthusiastic old men Jota singers, a short play, poems from Dolors, plus a finale. All mercifully short and therefore quite enjoyable, though I hardly understood a word. Then the stonemason’s daughter played her violin, though at no time could we see her face since it was entirely blocked by the music stand. The star of the show was an aging lady from La Fresneda who sang Jota with and without guitar accompaniment and got the audience to join in. Jota, by the way, is the music of our area: the Flamenco of Aragon, if you like. The usual old man played his accordion – not well I think, but he loves it and the crowd loves him. The finale featured a magician. He did the cut rope trick that I sometimes do, but so much better and involving the kids. He also used the linked rings with two little boys as assistants, and then for a finale passed a rope through his body. Only three tricks, but he really made them last and did them well.  

As ever, it all ended with bingo. But this was bingo with a difference: rather like a nightmare where the caller is a young woman who only says the numbers once and very quickly in Spanish. She was assisted by a friend who could not work the ball ejector mechanism that selected the numbers, so she was joined by a three-year-old girl who would not give up the balls and read out the numbers herself, quite unintelligibly. Many numbers seemed to be repeats. Calls of bingo were found to be wrong “incorrecto” shouted the three year old. Luckily, we did not win.

The week passed to the sound of distant, and not so distant, drummers practicing. Nearby Calanda is the undisputed mecca for drums around here. It is almost always featured on TV and there are claimed to be more than a thousand drummers there on a Good Friday. We have been to Calanda and will go again, but this time we went to the town called Valderrobres which is near our village for the “breaking of the hour”.
It was difficult to park, as expected, but we were still at the appointed place before quite a few of the drummers. Amazing, they practice for weeks for an event that is just once each year and must start at noon, and they turn up late! About a hundred drummers in total I guess, and all impressively dressed in shiny purple gowns. As ever, it’s the little children with their little drums that take the eye. The central Plaza de Espanya was packed. The lucky early arrivals were up above in the street that leads to the castle and some residents were out on their balconies.

Though it certainly can be, the breaking of the hour was not that dramatic that day, a roll on a single snare drum, followed by the thunder of all of the drums – big and small – as they echo the roll. It still thrills me, bringing tears to my eyes as I sway to the insistent rhythm. They repeat the sequence over and over until, at some signal from the leader, the big drum players hold up their free hands then everyone finishes together as they simultaneously bring them down. Almost immediately, the lead drummer plays a different roll and off they go again.  This lasts for maybe half an hour or more when they march off in two different directions to meet each other again in another half an hour. In that time the audience takes over the square and we, along with others, buy drinks: drumming brings on a thirst. Following a fast, furious and noisy finale, the players break up into smaller groups and seem to compete; some walk off with their drums, the day done.  Some play throughout the afternoon and into the night, their hands bleeding onto the skin of their drums.

Our vantage point was not that good. We crossed the bridge over the river and pushed forwards into the crowd just where the street enters the plaza. In our turn, we were pushed aside by the late arrival drummers. It was quite a squeeze and many of the smaller ladies could not see a thing. Ifilmed one young man nonchalantly chewing gum as he played a big drum. That was just before I spotted Jesus, right there amongst the drummers. Of course, he had disguised himself by wearing sunglasses and feigning overweight. But he had the beard, the flowing hair and the beatific face. I’m sure it was him – at times he looked wishfully upwards to the heavens as he drummed.

I do not enjoy being part of a crowd, but even this cannot stem the visceral waves of emotion created within me by all of those drums filling the plaza with sound and causing me to tap out the rhythm with my feet. Is everyone so affected? I do not know. One of the delights of the affair is to see whole families of drummers performing, the tiny ones being groomed for the future.

As if this wasn’t enough, our own village had its own procession of drummers that night. They followed the statue of the virgin from the little church to the big one. The virgin’s attendants were wearing white conical hats (Ku-Klux Clan as the opponents of this nonsense keep repeating). Later, the leader of La Fresneda’s drummers passed by our house. Fired by the emotion of the day and a few pints of fizzy beer, I opened the window and volunteered my services and those of my grandson, Robin, for next year. He accepted with enthusiasm.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Letter from Spain.

We’ve been living here in the delightful little village of La Fresneda, our village, for nearly five weeks now, it will be the first of our visits of 2014 – we plan to return in September, travelling via Poland for a change. So, what’s new in Spain?

Well, I’ve been to a beer festival! It was held in the main town of our area, Valderrobres, and it was a first. Differences: there was no real ale, there were lots of unaccompanied children, there was a very noisy Irish band with bagpipes, drums and whistle, nearly everyone was smoking, nearly everyone was shouting. The beer was mostly artensal, a word that conjures images of idyllic people picking idyllic hops and malting their own barley with love, but actually means that it is not produced by San Miguel, or Estrella. It was also mostly ‘orribley’. The only brew that stands out in my memory was called Evil Wedding (yes, in English, the founder had a pop group by that name) and was the nearest thing to used engine oil that I have tasted (not that I have, of course). Most beers were cloudy (its artensal, so its natural ain’t it), all needed the help of carbon dioxide to reach the glass (plastic by the time we arrived). All that said, I enjoyed it, and the excellent pesto pizza at Terry’s pizzeria afterwards. The place was packed, but he found us a table near to the (artensal) wood pellet burner. I drank wine – very good.

My little project is progressing  - slowly. I think the whole thing is coming together now. On Saturday I treated my wife to a ten euro ‘menu’ in the cafĂ© attached to supermarket in our nearby big ‘city’ of Alcanyiz. Don’t scoff, for ten euros you get three courses and the ability to keep watch on your laden supermarket trolley to ensure that no one runs off with it. And the waiter speaks some English and he has style. 

Afterwards we headed  to the ‘huerto’ (pronounced ‘where-toe’) where we planted eight grape stocks and some other fruit trees on our recently recovered third terrace.  If all goes well then one day we will be eating our own peaches, apples, pears, cherries, plums, apricots, loquats, olives and, of course, grapes. The land here is incredibly fertile, so the weeds grow exuberantly.  But now we have a new battle plan. We’ve bought a lawn mower! It’s yellow and the very sight of it makes the locals roar with laughter and the weeds wither in fear of decapitation. Just think, all three of our terraces were covered in dense blackberry infestations a few years ago. No w Margaret mows the ‘lawns’.
My stone hut is growing. Just today, I set two huge cornerstones at the head of what will be the stairs. I bought these, with other stone, from a Rumanian man from the town which held the beer festival. He didn’t go, he was too tired. This is not surprising since on that day he carried, on his shoulder, many of my cornerstones up the ladder to the new concrete terrace: I can barely lift them. I asked him if he went to the gymnasium. He said, “Piedras son mi gymnasium” (stones are my gymnasium).

Some people wonder why I do not construct the stairs.The reason is simple: I cannot carry heavy stones or the concrete mixes that I need up there. The usual solution is a crane, but I have another. What will be the stairs is just a slope. I have now made a platform on wheels and can, just about, pull the large stones, or a wheel barrow full of wet concrete, up there using a pulley system. It is slow work, but it works. So, I am now building walls for the second storey; they will be sloping and at one end I will build a stone shed for water tanks and the solar battery arrangement. The rest will be a sun terrace from which we can survey our growing fruit trees whilst sipping a drop of Evil Wedding, or, more likely, San Miguel.
 Cheers Roberto.