Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Tropical Christmas

Actually, for nit-pickers, we did not spend Christmas in the tropics. The Tropic of Cancer does pass through Taiwan but we were somewhat to the north of it and would not have experienced the phenomenon that defines the boundaries – the shadow less noon – since it was winter. Sunny nevertheless, but not too hot – in fact quite chilly in the evening due to the high humidity, especially in the mountains where we saw in the new year of 2018.

So much for the weather report – now for Christmas memories of Taiwan. On this, our seventh visit, our son told me that he first came to the place fifteen years ago. He now has a house, an indigenous wife, two lovely kids, two characterful cats, a dippy dog, a white car and two black scooters. Ah, the scooters: so many of them, pouring out of junctions, converging on hapless pedestrians, buzzing along pathways hardly wide enough for a walker, transporting valuable cargo which ranges from bags of groceries to  entire families including tiny, helmetless, children. This time I spotted a new twist: a squat, tight–eyed man had fitted a chromium bar above the handlebars of his machine and on this sat two colourful parrots enjoying the passing breeze.

Scooters are parked everywhere, but the favourite spots are right outside the busy shops which crowd what would be pavements in the UK. Such things do not exist here: the roadway simply blends chaotically with glass shop fronts, outside displays, tables and chairs and, of course, parked scooters and cars. Amazingly, change is afoot: pavements are being created in Judong, my son’s home town! But here’s the problem: how to stop the new pavements being used for parking the electric scooters now being subsidised by the Taiwan government.

Christmas itself we celebrated in western style of course:  grub, gifts and games for all, plus excessive alcohol consumption for the adults so that they can behave like kids. New Year celebrations are also a western tradition since the Chinese New Year is celebrated in February or thereabouts. However, our son’s wife is not Chinese. She is from one of the aboriginal  tribal groups of Taiwan, the biggest one in fact  - the Atayal – and  they do celebrate our new year hence off we went to the mountain village of her parents. Up there we both have aboriginal names: I am ‘Shee Lan’ which means head hunter and describes a major activity of the tribe in quite recent times, whereas Margaret is ‘Be Sweet’ which means peaceful, which they are not.

In the evening we were taken to Wufong, a nearby village, where there was to be an aboriginal celebration. It was a big do held on the running track of the local school and we were told that no alcohol was to be taken in or consumed. Knowing the beer and rice wine-fuelled aborigines that I had met at previous celebrations, I was both surprised and sceptical about this. And my suspicions were proved valid as it soon became clear that certain of the many food stalls were at first selling beer discreetly and, later again, quite openly. We established a base camp with the family where stools were soon heaped with take-away food above and beer hidden below. Meanwhile the locals fingered the raffle tickets which were included with the entry cost (i.e. free i.e. paid for by the government).

We looked impatiently at the large central stage framed by two big screens, with their waiting cameramen in position plus hovering drone. Many relatives came by to drink with us, then slipped away again. The local mayor offered us VIP seats at the front which we graciously (I hope) declined. Then, at last, the event began with a solo performance of very loud singing followed by the beginning of the main act – the draw.  Number after number was drawn and screeched out across the loud PA, and from then on these draws were interspersed with entertainment from local dance troupes, solo and group musicians. Meanwhile I became colder and more sober as I knocked back the seemingly alcohol free (actually 5%) cold Taiwan beer. Finally I could stand it no longer and went out into the village in search of something warming. I found an open store but it seemed only to have the same cold beer. With sign language I tried to explain my requirements to the store owner who, at the end of my performance, said one word “whisky” and led me to the right shelf section. And there I found two dusty bottles of rum – and some coke to go with it! Back at the celebration my find was greeted with great interest by the family and others and through it I somehow found myself drinking with the local chief of police at his special table behind one of the food stalls. A ball of a man with a football face and piggy eyes he was very funny through his limited English supplemented by my son’s translation. The rum had a very good effect all round, even my hands warmed up and I began to enjoy the friendliness of everyone around us.

Soon it was midnight and time for fireworks. Having been lucky enough to avoid a cling-on all evening we did attract one the end. A pretty young woman, entranced by our westerness, first insisted on high proximity photos with me, then transferred her adoration to my wife - holding her hand tightly until finally detached and taken home by her male friend!

Early next morning a pig was killed and dismembered to celebrate the New Year. More Taiwan beer was consumed and a circle of tribal elders assembled to drink rocket fuel (rice wine) and discuss ways of discouraging marriage between relatives within the tribe and to persuade more women and youngsters to attend the tribal parties. It was good to watch but, of course, carried out in their own unique language. After a big lunch washed down with more beer and rocket fuel a ‘spirited debate’ began about the quality and cost of the party. We were quickly whisked away from this to a local shop where we drank beer and sang karaoke for the rest of the afternoon.

Tropical Christmas: unforgettable.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Winter Wonderland

I still enjoy the remarkable transformation that a decent shower of snow brings. Out walking in Oxford’s wonderful Port Meadow I was delighted to see that vast area of green that laps so nearly onto the centre of the city blanketed in soft whiteness. The horses and cattle which roam freely across these thirty-five hectares of common land were nowhere to be seen. Instead the city end of this great expanse, edged on one side by the River Thames and the other by the railway line, was populated by strange white figures: some of them menacing, some sweet, others artistic. Yes, snowmen were everywhere and some clever snow worshippers had even created a snow elephant!

Though I no longer have any desire to touch the stuff myself, it is touching to look out of the kitchen window of my flat and observe the wonderment of tiny tots seeing and touching snow for the first time in their lives. The sight triggers memories of snowball fights, building yet another sledge for the kids, failed attempts at constructing igloos and success in creating snowmen who hung about for ages after the snow lying around them had vanished.

Clearly, there is no link between the magic of snowfall and Brexit – none at all. What’s more I do try to keep away from this divisive topic in my blogs. However, there is one thing that leavers and remainers can agree on here – it really is conflict-ridden. Nevertheless, I had to smile at the reaction of the media to the latest agreement in Brussels. I suppose this simply demonstrates the range of opinions amongst the UK’s pundits, but it is still comedic how one event can attract such a range of headlines. Here they are with sources, listed from good to bad, or bad to good dependent on your point of view:
  • ·       Telegraph: The Price of Freedom
  • ·       Mail: Rejoice, We're on Our Way
  • ·       Express: Huge Brexit Boost at Last
  • ·       Times: May Bounces Back
  • ·       The i: Britain Sets Course for Soft Brexit
  • ·       Mirror: Mrs Softee
  • ·       Guardian: Deal is Done but EU Warns of More Delays
  • ·       Financial Times: May's Triumph Blunted by Tusk Warning on Tough Choices Ahead

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?