Tuesday, 14 November 2017

A country boy in London

Yes, I am a country boy. Born and bred in the small town of Berkeley which is near the River Severn in Gloucestershire. OK, I now live in Oxford and a few other places, but I have my roots.
Travelling to London by coach reminded me of the sheer size of the place and saddened me as we passed very closely to that blackened carcass which is now almost a monument to the poor souls who died in the Grenfell tower disaster.

Arriving at Victoria brought back memories of the periods I had spent living in a hotel overlooking the station. My recollections were of grime, the press of busy hour insouciant crowds, the grind of heavy traffic and the bleakness of grim late night streets. Yet two streets to the north, where I met my daughter in the offices of Friends of the Elderly where she works, I experienced the ‘London contrast’. This was Belgravia with its proud architecture, clean streets, snobby shops and the strong sense of wealth. We chatted in a smart, quiet pub where even the TV had a frame of golden wood. I sipped at a pint of Salopian beer which came pretty near to my perfect pint – and so it should at that price – whilst Lois preferred prosecco.

Later I squeezed myself into a tube train bound for Temple and stared at the masses glued to their smart phones – hardly a newspaper in sight. On the embankment, I marvelled at the London Eye and all the other lit up buildings reflected on the surface of the Thames whilst trying to make my way east through a bewildering and determined throng of homeward bounds - some of them running in shorts through the chilly air. And along the way I missed the turning to Middle Temple! Sadly, no one that I asked could help, but were, to my surprise, helpful: they immediately reached for their smart phones.

I did reach Middle Temple in time for a glass of champagne, or was it prosecco, or even  cava – it’s all the same to me – but then could barely bring it to my lips as I stared in awe around the magnificent hall. It has a high raftered ceiling of blackened wood which forms a double hammer beam structure - and that is rare, take it from me, us country boys know about such things! And the walls: the walls are decorated with hundreds, maybe thousands of wooden shield like devices celebrating, I assume, the appointment of lawyers to the bar – a world that I cannot pretend to understand.

The speaker was a strong protagonist of another world that I do not understand: finance. Yarron Brook gave an impassioned speech entitled the Morality of Finance to an audience of, predominantly, men in suits (with the obvious exception of country boys and smart women). Brooke is an Israeli by birth who settled in America and has swallowed the philosophy of the free economy hook line and sinker. Amongst his many roles he is top dog of the Ayn Rand Institute and was giving the eponymous lecture in memory of that lady. Now don’t switch off! Many people do not like any mention of this lady’s name, would never read her books, and are utterly opposed to her philosophy – whatever that might be. I did once read her masterpiece, Atlas Shrugged, and it did change my outlook on life (warning: reading Ayn Rand may shake, or reinforce a person’s belief in socialism).

Brook's clear intention was not simply to defend financiers against the heaped criticism of the masses, but to require gratitude and admiration – a tough job in the face of some audiences, but here he boomed out confidently to a sea of suits. And of course he has a point. Given that the use of swords is prohibited nowadays, the only way to build an empire is with cash. The job of a financier he told us, apparently taking the role of a father speaking to a child, was to assemble a large cake then distribute the slices to deserving causes meanwhile collecting the crumbs for himself. The cake is of course a fund of money, and the deserving cases anything from a start up company to a vast new privately financed hospital. Cake distributed, he continued, the start up company if it succeeds goes on to employ many people (consumers) and makes profits that might be used to create more money-cakes.

“Financiers,” he added, “choose the future on a rational, self-interest basis.”

And he went on to explain that financiers, not politicians, change the world for the better citing a case close to my heart or at least my ken – China, where millions of impoverished country boys and their families have been lifted out their miserable lives by investment. And nobody dared to shout Communist China.

The questions were mostly supportive but for one: this from a very interesting young man (unsuited) who put a very simple query to Yarron.  How can you expect the people of this country to love bankers when we, the taxpayers, are paying to bail them out of their criminal mismanagement of funds in the 2008 financial crash?

Yarrow put up a pretty good defence, stating that the underlining  causes of the crash were regulatory and were the fault of government control, but this was a little beyond me as a simple country boy.

Then we were allowed to wander around the hallowed chambers, drink wine, and not buy Yarrow Brook's latest book. I couldn’t anyway because, as you may know, I do not buy paper books anymore. Moreover, my rational self interest limits my expenditure on eBooks to £4.99. Country boys are rather mean. Besides I had to leave London for Oxford in order to purchase a quick pint before the witching hour.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Victim Report

After a rather wonderful trip through eastern France, a few sun soaked weeks in our village in Spain, a fascinating return through western France including a visit to the Bayeaux Tapestry and finally a few days in Dublin babysitting our latest grandson, we caught the ferry from Dublin to Liverpool. We zoomed down the M6 through darkness, rain and road works to take a few delicious couple of pints real ale in a Cotswold pub and then home to Stow on the Wold. Then, disaster! This is the report I wrote at the request of the local police:

On Tuesday 25/10/2017 we returned to England after a six week absence. I unlocked the door to our home and moved a few letters to the side. I then looked up and saw an unbelievable mess in the corridor leading to the office: papers everywhere and my briefcase open on the floor. I cautiously advanced towards the office passing the under stairs cupboard where we keep our booze – all gone, or so I thought, the office in a terrible mess and the fireproof safe open, documents scattered every which way. Margaret thought at first that I was joking when I told her, then she saw the carnage.
Upstairs our bedroom was a tip. All of the many drawers open or thrown onto the floor; the bed was covered in my wife’s jewellery containers, all open and mostly empty; clothing lay scattered all over the floor – what a mess. The rest of the house had been similarly frisked, though the office and our bedroom suffered the most, the kitchen and dining room the least.

It took me quite a while to determine how the bastards had got it. Both locks to the patio doors in  the lounge had been wrenched off from the outside, difficult to detect at first because the caring burglar(s) had closed the sliding glass door on exit.

How did we feel? Depressed more than anything else, but also shocked and despoiled. Money had been stolen, but the overbearing feeling is the intrusion by a stranger into one’s life and the removal of things that are dear to the heart. Margaret’s jewellery was of no great resale value but of immense emotional worth – the most poignant thing things that were taken were the items of jewellery that our daughter, Sheena, was wearing when she died.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Cataluña: a little too close for comfort?

Seventeen years ago we made a big mistake! We bought an old house with fantastic views in the Spanish village of La Fresneda for less than you would pay for a Tesla electric car nowadays.  We loved it and still love it – so what was the mistake? Location of course, isn’t it always location? Our village is not on or near the coast, in fact it’s in the lower part of Aragon which is called Teruel, a province that the Spanish say “Nobody goes to and nobody comes from”. No problem there at all, quite the opposite in fact to, say, Oxford or Barcelona with their dense populations and overbearing popularity with visiting tourists. And there I’ve said it. Barcelona, that’s the problem, that was our mistake. The local area in which our village lies is called the Matarraña and on its eastern border is Catalunia. What’s more, the people of this area look towards Barcelona rather than the Aragonese capital of Zaragoza, and the people of the Matarraña speak Catalan. Yes Catalan, not Spanish.

I’m sure you all know that Cataluña leapt onto the world stage on the first of October 2017 by holding an illegal referendum which asked the question: should Cataluña leave Spain and become an independent state? This was not unexpected, and nor was the violence which followed. It is claimed that nine hundred were injured in the tussles involving what some commentators called police brutality, yet in this massive conflagration there were only four cases of hospitalisation – which is odd.

Our own observations were not first hand, but through the 24hours Spanish TV station. And during a day that the government of the country called a transgression of the constitution, we saw the Catalan police standing back leaving the national Guardia Civil to face the sectarian fervour. Yes, we did see policemen battering through glass doorways, throwing a fat old man to the ground and pulling a woman around by their hair. One shot which was repeated over and over was of a balding man pointing to the top of his head, the camera drew closer and closer, but still we could see no sign of injury. However, there were shots of bleeding faces and of a policeman elbowing someone in the face. What we did not see is what preceded each of these injuries, but there can be little doubt that some injuries resulted from unrestrained police reaction and others from deliberate taunting of the police. Many thought that it would have been better to allow the referendum to go ahead without resistance and then ignore the result since it has no legal force – perhaps they were right.

The outcome was declared as a massive victory for independence from the Catalan government, but the truth is that most voters stayed at home. A poll taken before the referendum showed that only 40% supported independence. In fact less than 40% bothered to vote at all and, not surprisingly these were nearly all secessionists. There is also evidence that in this uncontrolled referendum where voters could choose their polling station many chose to vote at more than one! This was clearly not a legal or an electoral basis for UDI.

Within Spain we have seen massive support for the government’s stance and the world in general has reacted predictably and mostly in ignorance of the true situation here. Travelling through Cataluña one can see posters saying “Welcome to Europe’s newest state”, yet the EU was quick to support the Spanish constitution. After all they hardly want to give the green light to the many communities within their member states that would rather be ruled from Brussels that their own capital cities. In La Fresneda reaction has been muted, though Margaret tells me that she heard a local character Phillipe shout that he was both Spanish and Catalan as he argued with the local carpenter over the matter. Personally I do not know of one person in our area that supports the secessionists though there must be some. When I ask locals what they think about the issue they shake their heads and say either ‘mal’ or ‘loco’ – bad or crazy.

What is little known outside of Spain is that Cataluña, along with others, is an ‘autonomous community’. This means that the local government has a control of most important matters, including health, education and transport, why they even have their own police force, the Mossos. What’s more they are allowed to impose their own language on children – which itself must contribute to their sense of separateness.  My grandsons were born and educated in Cataluña. This meant that not only had they to learn Catalan, they were also taught in it.  Think about that for a moment. Naturally they also have to learn the Spanish national language (here known as Castellano). So what’s the consequence? Not much time for English, the second language of the world. In fact only one of our three Spanish grandsons speaks English at all well.

There are plenty of nice things that can be said of Cataluña and the Catalan culture, but if they succeed in this minority led quest for independence then they will inherit a damning reputation as the people who broke up Spain and ruined the Spanish and Catalan economies. And for what? So that certain politicians can become leaders of a country instead of an autonomous community. And so that the youngsters inspired by them find that their prospects are diminished whilst their ‘own’ politicians turn out to be as divided and untrustable as ‘that lot in Madrid’. Read Orwell’s Animal Farm young ones – the truth is there.

And our mistake in buying a property in a Catalan speaking part of Spain? Well, at least I can use it as an excuse for my poor Spanish. This much bigger mistake, this attempt to divide and destroy a great and historical nation which takes pride in its diversity cannot be shrugged off so lightly. Let us just hope theta there will be no more violence.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Travelling gardeners

This year we’ve had stunning crops in England, and news of drought in Spain. The garden in the field at Stow has overwhelmed us - and our neighbours have benefited from our surfeit. We’ve been feasting on potatoes, peas, beans, aubergines, radishes, lettuce, cauliflower, calabrese, savoy and sweet corn, oh and Margaret’s startlingly yellow courgettes plus some very nice plums and delicious raspberries. It was really difficult to tear ourselves away, but we did, not even stopping at our home from home in Dover before landing in France and making a toll road dash for Rheims.

Facade, looking northeastWhy Rheims? Nothing to do with gardens at all.  Shortly before leaving Oxford I attended a riveting lecture on the evolution of church architecture across Europe and Rheims cathedral was highly praised.  Always difficult to park a motor home in a city overnight of course, but we managed  to find a place within walking distance of this vast, highly decorated, gothic creation of the 13th century where many monarchs had been crowned and Joan of Arc is vividly remembered. I was entranced by the dual towered entrance facade and really moved by the spacious interior. But enough of that, we had nearly a thousand miles to go before we would get to our Spanish garden.

Late on our second night we drove into a small town called St Pierre La Moutier which seemed quite an interesting place on the map. However, we quickly realised that we had made that same choice earlier in the year and found it quite dull except for the bar which was quite lively. No restaurants were open then so we had to dine on unmemorable take away pizzas. This time even the bar was closed and we dined on...

Next day, we said goodbye to St Pierre for ever and headed towards Toulouse in the hope of seeing its cathedral and visiting our grandson who lives on the other side of the Pyrenees. Neither event happened for various reasons, but on the way we did get to stay the night in Cahors, a city of France that we had always avoided for no particular reason. It was lovely. The river Lot embraces Cahors in a graceful horseshoe; the main streets runs through the centre of the place and is lined with wide pavements fronting busy shops, bars and restaurants; and that street separates the old quarter from the new where even the latter is attractive, especially the stunning bridge that crosses the Lot on that side. The cathedral, a twin domed building, lies in the old quarter of course - an area laced with narrow streets and many bars. We found one near the cathedral which sold the famous Cahors wine (Malbec) and where everyone kissed a lot – except us.

We left Cahors vowing to return one day for a longer visit, roared through Toulouse and then crossed the splendid Pyrenees through a pass which I would not recommend to anyone in a motor home or in fact in any motor: constant tight curves always rising steeply through narrow roads lined by tall menacing trees. But it did lead us to Formiguera, an alpine-like town with crystal clear air and stunning views over a high green valley.

It was in a bar in Formiguera that we met an ex-pat who had lived in France for thirty years and knew it all.  He sorted me out on subjects ranging from real ale to Brexit and told me that he had once earned a fortune selling more than a thousand ice-creams a day on the beach in St Tropez. Fascinating.

More twists and turns as we threaded our way down through Cataluña, our belligerent neighbour which soon intends to foment the breakup of Spain through an illegal referendum. We reached Aragon, our own section of the country, unscathed and were soon looking over the five terraces of garden that is, as they call it here, our huerto.

Desiccated it certainly was, but the drought had at least kept the weeds under some control. My irrigation system, a constant work in progress, had silted up yet again, but had probably got the trees through the worst of it. One tree, growing where a joint in my plastic tubing had split, was doing extremely well; others were looking parched, but may recover. I began emergency treatment – buckets of water and intense drip feeding – hope it works. On the plus side I found some potatoes in our overgrown veg patch, handfuls of delicious grapes on the feral vines and even some small apples on one tree. No almonds, but the olive trees that I had pruned mercilessly the year before had survived and were bearing some fruit.

Margaret’s cacti up on the sun terrace of the house survived of course. Perhaps cactus gardening’s the thing. Prickly pears anyone?

Friday, 1 September 2017

Pub life: to vape or not to vape

I like pubs. I really do. When guiding in Oxford, I often position my group near a historic pub then tell them proudly, “I am an expert on pubs, I do pub tours – though sadly not often. Nevertheless I have to go out every night to check that the pubs are there, test the beer and so on.”

“It’s a hard life,” some wit often commiserates with a smile. And I nod solemnly in agreement. Of course, it’s not true. Well not exactly.

Recently, in order to supplement my knowledge of the local beer scene ready for future pub tours should there be any, I had to visit a new local brewery with a group of elderly gentlemen - of which I felt the youngest, but was possibly the oldest! The brewery was located within a desolate industrial estate, but the beer was good (and free) as were the burgers which helped to keep us warm. Afterwards I called at one of my locals where swearing is not permitted. Surprisingly, during our conversation the landlord accidentally used the ‘f’ word! He put his hand to his mouth then meekly placed a significant coin in his own swear box. Rules are rules. But what happens when there are no rules?

On the following evening I visited another local pub for an injection of the blues. Great group, really strong on the harmonica, but too loud for my failing ears, so, in the break, I headed to another of my watering holes where I have become somewhat acquainted with the owner. We talked for a while and I was about to tell him about the book I am currently reading when I realised that his focus had wandered. No, not wandered – his attention had become fixated on two gentlemen on the next table. The reason for this quickly became apparent: one of them had strongly objected to the man on the next table vaping – had, in fact, firmly asked him to desist. My man had decided that my latest book was of much less interest than this debacle and, being an ardent vaper himself, engaged the objector in a vigorous pub discourse.

At first I could not understand what the problem was so I intervened by asking the objector what he objected to – and the answer was that he feared secondary vaping might injure his health. Fair enough.

“What evidence have you for that?” asked my man leaning forward in his chair.
“I am a researcher in health related topics and it is clear that insufficient time has passed to have an opinion either way. However, since there is a possibility that the vapour might damage my health I do not wish to be exposed to it.”
“But I have seen a TV programme where experts concluded that there is no risk from direct or indirect exposure to vapour,” stated the landlord forcibly.
“That conclusion is based on a very short time period in comparison to the human life span. It took a very long time to clearly link tobacco smoking to lung cancer. Without such long term evidence I would rather not expose myself to a potential risk from vaping.”
 “Are you saying that that we should have a rule banning vaping in this pub?”
“No, only that if people vape here, I would rather go elsewhere.”
“I and my colleague...” At this point it became evident that the vaper who accidentally initiated the confrontation and had since been silent actually worked in the pub.
“I and my colleague are perfectly willing to go outside to vape if that would make you feel more comfortable.”
“That would not make me feel more comfortable since then I would be driving you from your own pub.”

At one point a googly was delivered when a vaper claimed that vaping was better for his health than smoking cigarettes. This was quickly returned by recalling that smoking inside pubs had been banned because of the reputed danger of secondary cancer from cigarette smoke in inhaled by non-smokers. And so the argument went on. I did not join in since I could see both sides of the argument and, recalling the introduction of the smoking ban and the loss of so many pubs that followed, I did not want to further ignite the discussion.  Finally the anti-vaper and his friend (whose only contribution was a blanket assertion that vaping should be banned) left, creating a communal sigh of relief and a great deal of intense vaping.

In their absence they were somewhat disparaged and accused of being pub spoilers. They were seemingly part of the Thursday effect, this being the worst day for complaints in pubs, or so it was claimed.

I walked home smiling to myself. It had been a good to and fro. However, the outcome could be that the anti-vapers would not come into the pub again since the discussion did stray beyond the argumentative towards the aggressive, though there was no one used the ‘f’ word and no fines.

Still, that’s pubs for you. Better to let it all out than to bottle it all up.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Walking from Shakespeare to Smith and meeting Rosie

A few weeks ago I almost achieved a long term goal. I have for some time wanted to walk from William Shakespeare’s Stratford to William Smith’s Stow. There was no particular reason for this – Shakespeare was a man of words and Smith was a man of rocks, but the slimmest of connections can provide an excuse for a challenging walk.  The distance involved was significant for an amateur walker, but the attraction overwhelming given the countryside traversed and the fact that getting to Stratford-on-Avon is facilitated by a Johnsons Excelbus that leaves Moreton-in-Marsh station every morning arriving at Bridge Street, Stratford on Avon at approximately eleven. In fact I cheated a little by daring the traffic of the Fosse Way and cycling from Stow-on-the-Wold to Moreton.

The day was perfect, if anything a little too sunny and hot, and I quickly found the Avon and strode south past the Royal Shakespeare Theatre towards the rather striking church that boasts the Bard’s grave. Whilst passing that church a gentleman more advanced in age that myself called out, “Tarry a while sir on this beautiful day,” and I responded airily, “Sooth, I cannot tarry – I am walking to Stow”. At least words were exchanged to that effect. I felt fit and looked forward to the long march, though the bus journey had caused some stiffness in my left leg.

Leaving Stratford by following the river to the south was interesting, though uneventful. My objective was to join the Monarch’s Way, a long meandering footpath which is supposed to trace the escape route of the son of Charles I (later to become Charles II) after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. However, as often happens, the map did not coincide with the surroundings at one point, in other words I became lost. I waited for a while at a bridge crossing a tributary of the river in the hope that someone would come by - and they did, and they knew the way.

The someone was a man of about my age and, since we were heading in the same direction, we walked along together for a while. He was on a short walk and his pace was a little slow for me given that my destination was still some eighteen miles away, but we got on well so I matched his pace. He lived in a village nearby and told me that its only pub had closed when the landlord suddenly died, so the villagers were now trying to purchase the place and run it as a community asset. Given that his book club usually met in the pub I was surprised that my walking companion was not involved in this valiant effort. Naturally, I asked him what the club read and he told me that they had recently completed “The Rosie Project”, an amusing novel about a genetics professor with Aspergers. I made a mental note to sample it on my return.

Along the way, my arbitrary companion took a phone call from his wife and I seized the opportunity to resume my normal pace, leaving him to it. At that point I was walking along a very long lane bordered by trees shielding predominantly flat countryside, but the views became more interesting as I approached the outskirts of the Cotswolds and I consumed my packed lunch at the top of steep meadow grazed by cows below and swept by noisy red kites above. The sun shone brightly onto my shading tree and all should have been perfect, but it was not. My left leg seemed to be in a semi-permanent state of cramp so walking and sitting was becoming rather painful. I limped on through the grounds of Hidcote House and then through ripening cornfields to the pretty village of Ebrington. 

Finally I arrived at Paxford where I hoped to cure my leg with the administration of several pints of beer, but the pub was closed! I had just four miles to go to reach Moreton in Marsh and my bicycle, but without alcohol my leg just could not do it. Fortunately a young man was also hoping to enter the pub and he gave me a lift to Moreton in his mother’s Mini Cooper S and, during the journey, we discovered that we were both motorcyclists and so had plenty to talk about. 

I downed a few pints of Wye Valley Bitter in the Redesdale Arms and then cycled back to Stow. Beer did anaesatise the ailing leg, but the uphill journey to Stow via the raging traffic of the Fosse Way – never again.

How I love the arbitrariness of life. I did sample the book recommended by the other walker during our brief encounter and was so taken that I bought it despite the excessive price asked for the Kindle eBook. Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed the “Rosie Project” and you might too. It is a love story set in unlikely circumstances and is both amusing and thoughtful. Don and Rosie are most unlikely lovers sitting at each end of the mental spectrum. My leanings are towards Don, the Aspergers professor, but I guess that most people would probably empathise with Rosie.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Enantiodromia: the EU and the horse trough

For many years now there has been a wonderful skit bouncing around the Internet about the progressive changes to English to formalise it as the standard EU language. It is a real hoot as it gradually and subtly transforms English into German. I was reminded of it as, with widening eyes, I read a Guardian leader on future EU policy for the UK.

Now I must state that I am not a Guardian reader, in fact I do not read any newspaper except on the rare occasions that I pick up an abandoned one on a train or in a dentist’s surgery. I do read the odd article though, usually, as in this case, through links embedded in web pages, or sometimes the odd Telegraph clipping that my wife slips in front of me on her Kindle.

I must also add that I have avoided writing much about Brexit in this blog. Not because I lack a definite and consistent view on the topic, no, more because I have and therefore think that my bookshop blog is not the forum for this sadly divisive topic.

There must be a word for what the Guardian article attempts. The nearest I can find is enantiodromia, but that’s not quite it. Anyway, the manner in which the skit mentioned above turns an intention to standardise on English into the establishment of German as the standard is a good example of what I mean.

The Guardian article generously admits that the people of the UK did vote to leave the EU – then effectively reverses that admission by enantioromia. Take this wonderful paragraph which continues an argument for seeking “as soft a Brexit as is practically possible”:

“The next imperative is to secure the British economy and the prosperity of the public in the long term. That would be best done by remaining within both the single market and the customs union for the duration of the transitional period and, perhaps, beyond. That is not at odds with Brexit. The UK would still cease to be a member of the EU. This would put the UK at a disadvantage, because it will no longer be a single market rule-maker. That, though, is what the public voted for in 2016.”

There you have it! Clear as mud, logical as a fruit cake. No wonder that some complain that the situation is confused: there are people out there determined to confuse us.

While searching for that old skit on the transformation of English into German I came across some funny stories about the EU. One of them is pretty much in line with my own experience of working in Brussels, here it is. A visitor to the commission asked why there was a yellow line along the middle of the corridor and was told: that is to ensure that the workers arriving late do not collide with those leaving early.

Another is rather unkind to the character of my second country: Spain. The EU offers a prize of one million Euros to anyone who can solve the mystery of a fabled black and white striped horse. The German participant spends two weeks in the library researching the subject. The English contender visits a hunting shop and buys all the gear needed to track and kill a specimen in Africa. The French competitor purchases a white horse and paints black stripes on it. The Spanish hopeful goes to an expensive restaurant and orders a top of the bill meal accompanied by expensive wine and champagne. Afterwards he sits in the lounge to enjoy a coffee with Napolean brandy plus a fat Cuban cigar and to think about how he will spend the one million euros.

In fairness though, the EU has been kind to Spain. Above is a photograph I have taken of the ‘much needed’ horse trough beneath our village home there. Note also the sign recognising the EU’s valued contribution - and the lack of horses.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Forget Glastonbury, we had our own festival

I love live music, beer and the open air, so, with that background in mind there was bound to be a moment when I might think, “I want to run a festival”. That thought occurred this year because three things came together: we had recently purchased our own field, it was my 70th birthday and it was our 50th wedding anniversary. So I mentioned the festival to Margaret, my long term wife, and she froze! But, after some discussion, her initial fears faded and she became as enthusiastic as I was, if not more.

And so, after months of planning, IvyFest came about on June 3rd 2017, my birthday. As the great day got closer, I began to think about who we should invite and I froze – there were too few to make it a festival. Then I sat down with Margaret and  the potential list began to rise, peaking at nearly one hundred. We trimmed it down and sent out early invitations, some key people were away on the day, others couldn’t come for other reasons, so we sent out more invites, the numbers went up and began to exceed seventy, our optimum number. Later we had some cancellations: illness, second thoughts, people with better offers – so the numbers went down. Finally we ended up with a list of sixty-nine, which seemed fine.

Then, at last, the marquee arrived and the toilets, I collected the beer and the bread and Margaret got the food together and the guests began to drive into our field - one friend I had not seen for the last fifty years!

The main theme was live music so I had recruited a wonderful double band from Oxford: The Mighty Redox and the Pete Fryer band with their unique combination of original and rocking-cover songs. Good friends and great musicians, they filled the evening spot. In the afternoon we had solos from the honey-voiced Pete Madams singing Leonard Cohen, Willy Nelson and many of his own songs, plus Ken Woodward singing country and western in a shirt that he probably bought in Nashville. The afternoon group, No Horses, played earthy electric blues with spirited harmonica accompaniment. And people danced – yes they danced.

In the midst of all this professional music the scratch male and female voice choirs vied for singers of the festival. Pete, the judge, selected Rob’s Old Boys for the award – based, I think, on entertainment value rather melodic content.

There was a Spanish influence abroad. IvyFest started with a boom from a rocket ignited by Carlos, the Spaniard. Everyone cooked their own food (including a chorizo) on wood fires and many bottles of Spanish wine were consumed along with the barrels of local real ale.

Quite a few people camped on the field and I was the last to leave the dying embers of the fires - or so I thought. I checked around, locked up and went to bed, tired, replete and happy. Next morning, after a visit to the toilet at about seven, I pulled back the curtain and peered onto the field and spotted my granddaughter, Hope, lurking near the marquee. Later I found that I had locked her out and she had “spent the worst night of her life” in the field! Poor girl.

That aside, it was a great day. Some guests were so pleased with IvyFest that they suggested we make it an annual event. Nice thought, but therein lies bankruptcy. IvyFest was definitely a unique one off.

Mind you, a ticket to Glastonbury would set you back nearly £250! Makes you think doesn’t it?

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

When I was eighteen or so.

When I was eighteen or so I was an apprentice, training to become a telephone engineer in what was then the GPO later to become British Telecom. Yes, I worked for a nationalised industry, one of the biggest in the UK at the time employing some quarter of a million people.

On my first day I cycled to a specified depot to begin my first chunk of work experience with an overhead gang, whatever that was. I arrived dead on the dot of 7.30 as instructed, but was surprised to find no one else there. Gradually people began to trickle in and I was allocated to a particular gang. This gang’s main task was to erect telephone poles and string wires between them, but, as five of us set off in the big lorry, we headed instead to a particular cafe where puzzlingly we had breakfast. I had already eaten mine at home; I had a lot to learn.

The gang had a foreman whose main task, it seemed to me, was to ensure that we were always at least three miles away from the depot at lunch time. Why? Because then we could claim subsistence money! Tea breaks and lunch breaks were strictly adhered to. The gang members read their newspapers and I read the New Musical Express and the Melody Maker (I’m not sure why). There was little discussion and politics was rarely mentioned.

I experienced the various activities of the telephone company and, along the way, became a convinced public servant. We had an important role: the dependable working of the telephone system was vital to the country as a whole and we were the people who made it all work – no one else was allowed to do so. The fact that some engineers did ‘moonlighting’ using the skills taught them by the GPO and sometimes using the materials supplied by the GPO puzzled me. Why would they do that?
I progressed, even went to university to obtain a Master of Science degree and there became an ardent socialist, anti-apartheid protestor and so on. What did I know? I knew that apartheid was evil and still believe it to be so – though I did not understand the complexities of the issue at that time. I knew socialism was the answer and refused to let my zeal be dampened by regular news of its cruel imposition in the Soviet Union and China. That, I thought was not really socialism, those countries forced a certain belief system onto its people, my sort of socialism – for some reason that I never did figure out - would not do that.

What did I really know? Not a lot really. The sociology students really knew about politics and their answer was of course: socialism. Now, looking back, I wonder what any of us did know at that early age. At least I had experienced work and workers at work, though for all of that I still became an idealist. I knew that the council estates of Britain were not ripe for revolution, though many on the left at my university believed they were. The Angry Brigade was active there and they were all for taking up arms and leading the workers against the establishment. But, even then, I knew that people just wanted to get on with their lives, I just would not admit it. My idealistic fuel began to peter out in my early thirties as I too learned to get on with my life rather than attempting to alter that of others.
I hated Thatcher of course. Hated her for denationalising us and then taking away our monopoly. We public servants were doing our best, it was not our fault that it could take up to a year to supply a new telephone line, that’s just how it was. And what would happen to our beloved telephone system once the Johnny-cum-latelys started undercutting us? And what would happen to our jobs?

Actually, in the end, I lost mine. Cut off from the mothership at last by that so feared event –redundancy - I set up on my own and did quite well. This was the last stage in developing my political maturity, I then knew what it was like to be entirely dependent on my own efforts for the income to feed, clothe and bring up a maturing family. It was scary, but also exhilarating and educational. I had no holiday pay, sick leave, union representation, or personnel department – and I was acutely aware of the money being taken off me in personal and corporation tax, and not too keen on Gordon Brown giving my money to babies.

Perhaps young people of today are better educated and more politically aware than we were at their age, though that is not my experience. They are as prone as ever to idealism: many want an ideal to follow and are not too fussy about the creed or personalities that lead them. It is often argued that the young should be given a stronger voice in the big decisions that we face today because it is their future. That is a facile argument. Maturity does bring wisdom to most people, and experiencing the hard knocks of life does not make older people selfish: they are as concerned about the world that their off-spring will inhabit as they are about their own declining years. 

In my own constituency of Oxford there are something like 45,000 students, such a body of young people can materially and unreasonably affect the political leaning and character of our representatives in parliament, yet they themselves will not be in Oxford to experience that. They will be getting on with their lives elsewhere, and hopefully gaining the experience to understand that money does not grow on trees, that it has to come from somewhere. And perhaps also to appreciate the crude reality of the alternative lyrics to the socialist anthem, the Red Flag.

The working class can kiss my arse,

I’ve got the foreman’s job at last.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Good reasons to be a naked mole rat

If I were a bird, I think that I would like to be a great-crested grebe. Smart looking fellow and spends a good deal of time underwater as well as above it – which must be interesting. Recently, Margaret and I went on holiday from our base in Spain. I know what you are thinking, you’re thinking that we are on holiday whilst we are in Spain anyway, but that’s not true. There is work to do on the huerto and the house: crops to plant and weed, olive trees to trim and hoe, irrigation to sort out and things to mend about the house. Anyway, our holiday started in Daroka, Aragon a unique town nestling in a narrow valley the ridges of each side being capped with ancient walls interspersed with Mudejar towers and reminding me of the crests on the backs of certain lizards and Margaret of the Great Wall of China.

Next day we moved on to visit Gayocanta Laguna, an interior salt lake, in the hope of seeing water birds, maybe even a crested grebe. But, alas, the extensive salt lake was parched, it was in fact salt – so no water birds at all. We moved on spending the night in Utrillas, an old mining town, where we dined on yet another ‘menu del dia’: these are three course meals with bread wine and coffee for a fixed cost, in this case just sixteen Euros apiece. With beer before and wine during our subject range became extensive, even incorporating the vexed question of consciousness. Margaret argued strongly with me that consciousness could not simply be something that evolved by Darwinian survival, there must be something else - though she did not know what that might be.

For me that debate surfaced my usual question: do other animals have consciousness. I believe they do to some extent and that extent may well evolve with geological time. A dog, on whose face a disc has been painted will, it is claimed, try to remove it when passing a mirror. Cats train their owners to provide them with food in trade for rationed affection. Chimps like a good joke and grebes are very much aware that other grebes may steal their dinner. Naked mole rats meanwhile may have a group consciousness. These little chaps are certainly not smart looking fellows, but you might want to be one. Take longevity for example other animals of their size rarely survive for a year or so whereas the naked mole rat clocks up over thirty! Mole rats are rarely lonely: they live below ground in tribes of as many as two hundred in service to their queen; a bit like ants. It gets a bit crowded down there so the good old mole rat has developed a plant like ability to live without oxygen - for up to five hours! They are pretty much immune to pain and to cancer and have no worries about having their coats stolen to make into trousers or being asked difficult questions in referenda.

So there you have it: either a short life on and below the watery waves as a grebe or a long one in the warm - dark burrows of a naked mole rat nest. You have consciousness, make your choice.