Wednesday 22 October 2014

The AIDS question

Whilst living in Spain I am mostly busy: building the extension to my little stone hut (the caseta), writing notes on our life here, social outings which usually involve eating and drinking, and the usual practicalities of life including visits to the shops and house maintenance. But, I still find time to read – mostly when eating, siesta time, or in bed prior to sleeping.

Recently I finished “Are you positive?” by Stephen Davies and started “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist” by Robert Tressel,  “Chrome Yellow” by Aldous Huxley, and “Germinal” by Emile Zola. The middle two I have abandoned. “Ragged” because, though many socialist friends have recommended it in the past, I found it unreal, not well-written and belonging to an age of the past where most active socialists rest their case. “Chrome” because it was also unreal, set amongst a world of rich and shallow people to who I could not relate. “Germinal” I will finish because it is so powerfully written and convincing, and because it touches on both rich and poor of a distant past.

“Are you positive?” has no ending. It portrays a fictional court case and leaves the reader to decide the verdict. However, at the end of it all, my eyes have been opened: it has cast doubt upon a subject where before I had none. I knew that HIV caused AIDS, that you die of AIDS (or actually the diseases to which you are no longer immune),  and that HIV is passed by blood or semen or both which is of no direct concern of to me since I am not a haemophiliac, do not inject things into my body with dirty needles, and always wear a condom. Now I am not so sure, and have therefore discarded the condom.

The trial concerns a young man accused of murder. The prosecution state that he knowingly had unprotected sex with a younger woman fully aware that he was HIV positive. She consequently became HIV positive, took the prescribed medication and died of liver failure. The masterly defence lawyer calls upon expert witnesses from around the world in order to prove that:-
  • ·         The tests for HIV are flawed and anyway only show the presence of antibodies – proof that you have had HIV and your body’s immune system developed a defence against it, or that you inherited that defence.
  • ·         That there is no proof that HIV leads to AIDS.
  • ·         That the medication given to HIV positives to prevent the onset of AIDS kills many of them.
  • ·         That HIV is not transmitted by heterosexual intercourse.
  • ·         That the reason for death allocated to HIV positives is recorded as AIDS when it may be something else entirely.

All of this took me back to San Francisco, somewhere near Alcatraz prison, in the late 1980’s. Listening to the sales pitch of a super-confident and racist man who presided over the company supplying some technology we were about to buy, I was shocked when he suddenly announced, “AIDS…it's something that homos, actors and druggies get. We’re better off without ‘em.” And it reminded me too of TV coverage given to America’s favourite princess, Diana, bravely holding the hand of an AIDS sufferer to prove to us all that aristocrats were immune. It’s that blue blood, you know.

Is it possible that the entire AIDS mountain is based on a fallacy? That Robert Fallo who is said to have made a fortune from the patents surrounding the HIV virus and its detection in humans and who is also  said to have stolen the virus from the French (oh no, not the “French disease” again), was in fact, intentionally or otherwise misleading the whole world.

The trial and its background is seen through the eyes of a lady reporter who is convinced that her brother died as a result of taking the HIV medications and whom she had encouraged to do so. She has little doubt that the AIDS Industry is there to preserve itself and its income. Personally, I really don’t know.

If in doubt, consult the oracle. Not surprisingly, the Web is full of contradictory arguments. One site provides quote after quote disparaging the case for HIV=AIDS from seemingly pucker sources such as the Sunday Times and Lancet. However, there are others which argue the opposite, for example the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has an online paper providing a myriad of references to research studies which are said to prove the link between HIV and AIDS. It lists, then systematically destroys, a whole series of AIDS myths. Who is right? I still don’t know. But I am left with a question mark in an area of my brain that was formerly quite positive.

Meanwhile, should we be spending a fortune on medication for AIDS in Africa where there may be deeper problems like malaria and unclean water and civil wars – killers all? What do you think?

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Walking, working and following the band - Spain again.

I‘ve settled back into my second country after the trek (in our motor caravan) across  Europe. It is nice here, though the weather’s a bit too hot so I’ve taken to a siesta. I start work on the caseta reasonably early, go home for lunch at one, by which time it is pretty much unbearable (especially becuase the flies love it), bit of a nap and a read then back down at three – by which time part of my little building site is in shade.

On Sunday I went on a walk organised, I think, by the local government. I’m not much of a group walker, but thought it would be interesting. A friend picked me up and we arrived at Nonaspe, a village some way to the north at nine-thirty. Things seemed pretty quiet at the starting point (the main square of the village) and that was not suprising since we were told that everyone else had started out two hours earlier!

We became known as “the ultimos” – the last ones -  and seemed to get special attention from the many helpers dotted along the way: we were often mentioned on the radio links (as the ultimos). The two ladies at the starting location actually applauded as we returned. Anyway, for us two it was not a group walk at all, though we did meet some of the returning heroes from the long route – they looked so professional, and hot. Nevertheless the walk was great; after a stumbling start we ascended to a ridge which gave a lovely view of the curving Mataranya River framed by a vast, striated cliff beyond which, I think was the Ebro, the river that ours joins and is then swept down to the Mediterranean.

The walk cost fifteen euros, and that included a meal – of sorts - canteen paella swilled down with dubious white and red wine diluted, for taste, with soda water. It was held in the vast and modern sports hall which even the smallest villages hereabouts seem to have. There were a few hundred of us there and we took up only a fraction of its extent. It was fun though. Once it was discovered that I came from La Fresneda, then someone was dragged out of the crowd and introduced to me. She was born in Nonaspe, but now lived in our village. Such camaraderie between fellow villagers.

Our favourite village in the area of the Mataranya, beside our own of course, is Cretas. We disliked it at first, seeing only its uninteresting main street and the unsightly modern development to the east. Then we discovered its wonderful plaza, its bars, its wine festival, and its late-in-the-year fiesta. Last night we went to the opening night of the latter, and followed the jota musicians and singers around the delightful antique streets. At regular intervals we stopped at tables laden with savoury or sweet tid-bits and, since this was supposed to be a tour of the bodegas (the wineries), there was also sweet, sour, or red wine available in little plastic cups – all free. I cannot imagine a better way to spend a warm October night – or maybe I can. Anyway, it was delightful. I was the only one left of our small party at the end – around two thirty in the morning – and they did save the best to last. More music, snacks and wine, but this time in the vast innards of an olive oil press, dwarfed by the olive grinder and using the presses to stand our drinks on. I was introduced to the mayor of Cretas, I believe that this glorious night’s expense was on his tab.

Saturday 27 September 2014

Tunnelling through Europe as a drain mole

This trip to Spain was our longest by far: it took three weeks and on the way we visited Belgium, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Italy and France. In three and half thousand miles (5.6 Km), we suffered only two minor collisions: both affecting the same wing mirror!

Most of the time we were above ground, but we did spend many hours in tunnels: like moles we threw ourselves into the ground, popped out for a few seconds then under again. Unlike a mole, we could see, but I can assure you that there is little of interest in tunnels except, perhaps for civil engineers (damned impressive curve that, just look at the finish on that concrete, etc). One tunnel was over two miles long…and the words ‘never ending’ were mentioned.

How does a mole navigate? I guess it does not; after all, it has nowhere in particular to go. A mole’s journeys must be fairly random (witness the tell-tale molehills) searching for the next worm. They are a bit like us on our journey: for ‘next worm’ substitute ‘next pint and a schnitzel’; gosh I ate a lot of schnitzels, love ‘em.

 SatNav, of course, does not work below ground, so would be little use to moles and, though our radio is SatNav capable, we do not have the necessary disc to enable it. I am in charge of route planning, whilst Margaret is the real time navigator and back up sign reader. We use maps of course, and as a back up - in other words when we get lost - I ask for help. We do meet lots of nice people that way. I would not say that we deliberately get lost, but it is worth considering.

Italy loves tunnels. I do not know why, perhaps there is some link here with macaroni. The coast to the west of the incredibly busy city of Genoa is laced with them. In fact, the gaps provided by the elevated motorways which bridge the deep valleys between each pierced mountain range are much shorter than the tunnels themselves. Yet the coastal road is incredibly bendy and often dangerously narrow for a motor caravan, so the mole route is essential. It costs of course. Margaret is in charge of payments since the toll booths are on her side of the van. It was quite amusing to watch her antics as she almost climbed out of the window to reach a high ticket machine, or almost vanished as she dangled down to make a payment. I almost lost her once.

Towards the end of our journey, we actually slept in a tunnel! Portbou is the first resort on the Mediterranean coast below Perpignan. It has a wonderful mirador (viewing place) high up in the cliff side looking down towards the village in its bay, and south along the Costa Brava. There was no one else there and no notices barring overnight sleeping in motor caravans (this was Spain). So we overnighted there looking forward to breakfast with views to die for. At about four in the morning, I could stand it no more: the howl of the wind and dangerous rocking of the motor caravan on its springs became too much. Unwilling to die, I drove down into the village and parked in a very long tunnel beneath the railway line, just alongside the notice that stated ‘Danger. No Parking in case of rain’. The howling of the wind was replaced by the sound of trains overhead and wind-blown plastic bottles bouncing through the tunnel. We did get some sleep though, then returned to our mirador for breakfast.

Now, settled in our village of La Fresneda at last, we are enjoying the sole produce of our huerto: one large watermelon. That’s above ground. We also have potatoes below if Adrian Mole hasn’t stolen them.

Saturday 20 September 2014

Scotland viewed from afar

I have just reached Verona in Northern Italy, having travelled fairly rapidly from Poland via Slovakia and Austria. I liked the latter best. On our travels we have met a number of people of different nationality and almost every conversation  contained a discussion on the Scottish independence question (now mercifully answered, and for good I hope). The most common response was incredulity: incredulity that the Scots would consider independence at all and furthermore that the vote might be a ‘yes’. “That sort of nationalism is a thing of the past,” a man from Germany told me.

Leaving Slovakia, we circled Bratislava on our slow progress towards the south-west and got badly lost. This was not unexpected; the route was a difficult one to plot on our inadequate atlas of Europe and intersections, road numbers and terminal points were vague. Finally, we found ourselves on the road to Budapest in Hungary whereas we were supposed to be heading for Graz in Austria. We knew that we had lost it when we passed through an extensive set of dilapidated border control buildings. I left the main road and headed north in the hope of intersecting our original route. Soon we passed another border control complex and my these things were big: splitting the road into many lanes and dotted with ugly concrete constructions. The building were in an atrocious state: ceilings collapsing and the area dotted with the detritus of neglect and, of course, entirely deserted. The army of border guards had long dispersed and hopefully were now doing some more meaningful task.

Baratislava has nearby borders with Germany, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, now completely unchecked and, as far as I can tell, creating no problems. Those crumbling frontier posts should be a monument to Europe united now by peace and beneficial commerce – and to the death of that evil force that has caused so much death, pain and suffering: nationalism.

Our passage through Slovakia was not the most memorable, though the Tatra mountains were impressive and a great contrast to the flatlands of Poland. The country seems poor and neglected and our first choice for an overnight stay, Zilina, was quickly rejected. We found a better, smaller place nearby called Bytca and had a meal in the Galleria restaurant, just me and Margaret in a vast and beautiful subterranean restaurant. I was awakened at 3 a.m. by a loud scream. Someone was trying to steal our bicycles from the rack at the back of the van. Fortunately Margaret’s scream was enough to scare them off, but further sleep was near impossible.

Why Slovakia separated from the Czech Republic, I do not know. I cannot even remember it happening. Comparing what I saw of country with previous visits to Prague (probably not a fair comparison), this nationalistic split has not benefited the country. However, they do have Tesco supermarkets and Margaret took some mysterious delight in visiting one: her attempt to use her club card was, however, rejected.

And so back to Scotland. We celebrated the confirmation of the union last night with a dram in a Veronese bar. The waiter found three whisky bottles from which we could choose; of course we chose the Scotch. We talked animatedly of what would follow the “no” vote and drank again to the welcome news of the First Minister’s resignation. I then asked for the bill: sixteen euros for two whiskies!!! It was enough to make a Scotsman - and an Englishman – blanche. Why you can by a bottle of the stuff for that and, worse still, - I do not even like it.

Anyway, roll on the union. Time for closer economic ties with Ireland and a united British Isles rather than United Kingdom. 

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.