Monday, 30 April 2018

The Irish Question

I do remember something about The Irish Question (which never seemed to have an answer) from my early history lessons: names like Parnell and de Valera, plus various versions of home rule, lurk somewhere in my mind. And then of course there were the troubles – I believe the question was then answered by The Good Friday Agreement, but that answer was wrong apparently because Northern Ireland cannot form a government and so the answer is Direct Rule from London.

Actually, the ‘Irish question’, posed here is simpler. It is whether or not to fly Ryanair! Of course, according to the boss of this much maligned company that choice will not be on offer post Brexit since he plans to take his aeroplanes elsewhere, but nevertheless we have recently had to make a choice. We needed to fly to Dublin in Ireland, then on to Reus in Spain and then back to England.  Fortunately my wife did the bookings since I am suffering from repetitive strain injury following the mammoth task of obtaining flights and visas for our far eastern trip to India, etc earlier in the year.

The question is actually quite, simple though manifold: do you want to be restricted to cabin baggage which roughly equates to a small lunch box and baggage space in the hold for a bag which weighs  less than pair of good walking boots and fits in a receptacle smaller than most suitcases? Are you happy with waving to your travelling companion in seats that are at each end of the aircraft?  Do you mind being shouted at during boarding as if you are a recalcitrant school child? Are you happy that during the flight that there is certainly no free alcohol and probably none at any price? Are you happy walking in the open air to the plane carrying your (admittedly light) luggage during the incessant bouts of rain that descend upon Ireland? If your answer is YES to each of these questions then you are a man for Ryanair my friend.  Put it another way. If you are willing to pay quite a lot more to avoid all of these petty restrictions and irritations then you have the choice of many different airlines. We chose Ryanair again of course.

In fairness the two flights so far have not been that bad. On one of them I managed to sit next to my wife after a serious bout of seat swapping and we were allowed to take our bottle of water on board which was kind. Also we had two interesting experiences. First, a first for us, our air host/ess was a man with hairy arms and shaven legs dressed as a woman – and the service he gave was well up to Ryanair standards, if not higher. Second, we had a deportee aboard. A policeman entered the plane soon after the Spanish landing in search of this deportee and a police van waited to transport him or her to jail. We suspected that it was the old lady with the stick who sat in front of us who seemed unwilling to leave the aircraft. Meanwhile, given freedom of movement, we cannot figure out how or why a person can be deported from one EU country to another. Has Brexit come early?

Back to the big question. Brexit has certainly placed the island of Ireland centre stage with all four parties (Eire, UK, EU and DUP) seemingly demanding the same thing: a soft border. So what’s the problem? The Swiss seem to manage this OK, yet they are a jewel set in the EU’s firmament. But of course they do not have serious issues like the demands for a united Ireland, the right of the Northern Ireland majority to remain part of the UK, the need for the EU to punish the UK for leaving, retention of protectionist trading, and deep underlying social and religious divisions. In my recent visit to Dublin I did not discuss this with anyone – possibly because I spent most of the time alone at the bottom of my son’s long garden building a concrete block shed. Best place perhaps in interesting times.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Does travel broaden the mind?

As a young boy I wondered if foreign countries really existed. Quite why I thought that someone had invented China or France I do not know. I can only suppose that the idea may have stemmed from attempts to convince me that a supernatural being existed, but could not be experienced.

I was not an early traveller, my school did not take groups abroad and if they had then I know my parents would not have been able to finance such a thing. In fact my first foreign visit was to Sweden when as teenagers my friend and I embarked on an unsuccessful quest for free love. However, through work, I did meet men who had been abroad - mostly as soldiers during WW2: men from my father’s generation. One of them was the most narrow minded bigot I ever met (I have mentioned him before – he’s the man who refuted the existence of negative numbers).

Just back from a long trip to the Indian sub-continent, I feel that if travel does broaden the mind then mine should be the breadth of Myanmar’s, mostly unused, twenty lane highways located in its new capital established by the military junta some time ago. Like most people I did not visit the place, leaving that to Boris Johnson on his recent visit to remind Aung San Suu Kyi of the plight of Rohingyas. I went instead to the old capital to visit the home in which Myanmar’s leader grew up and also the one in which she was for so long incarcerated by the junta.

Yangon, formerly Rangoon was a little like taking a long refreshing shower after nearly three weeks travelling through India by train and bus – and that was a complete surprise. I left Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, expecting somewhere much worse – and I was gratefully wrong. I would say that my most harrowing experiences – of filth, poverty, neglect and overcrowding – occurred as we left Delhi by train, as we approached the incredibly beauty of the Taj Mahal through Agra, and finally in the city which many still call Banares (Varansi). It was in the latter that I could so nearly have experienced the worst possible end to my travelling life.  Arriving in darkness from Lucknow, we were informed by a series of tuk-tuk drivers that our hotel was not reachable. They would drop us as near as they could, then we would have to drag our luggage a kilometre or so through narrow, twisting and dangerous streets. Usually I ignore such tales because tuk-tuk drivers will tell lies in order to get a fare or even better to get you into a pal’s hotel – but this time the story was consistent. Added to which my phone would not work so I could not call the Hotel Alca (carefully selected because it served alcohol AND overlooked the River Ganges).

I chose the least villainous of the crowd vying to transport us to an alternative hotel and negotiated a price of 150 rupees (£1.50). It took about half an hour to get there: Banares is a very holy place for Hindus and therefore has a very high density of sacred cows roaming its busy narrow streets where these bovines are endangered by every conceivable means of speeding, roaring and beeping transport imaginable. I immediately rejected the first hotel judged solely on the state of the reception and the proprietor. The next place was much the same, and, as I left that sleazy hotel, I felt genuine despair – perhaps that’s why I crossed the street rather hurriedly, daring the mass of traffic to allow me passage.  And perhaps my rapid progress accounts for the fact that I did not see the slimy puddle of holy cow excrement in the middle of the road and slipped awkwardly on it, arms windmilling. Luckily, I regained my balance and was able to continue through the rush of vehicles; otherwise I would certainly have fallen beneath the madness of traffic and died there in a pool of dung on that grim street in Banares.

On the brighter side Banares is where the Hindus bring their dead to be cremated, a process that supposedly purifies the deceased once the hot ashes and bones are thrown into the sacred Ganges River. This process must take place within 24 hours of death so Margaret would not have had the cost and inconvenience of transporting me home and, since my corpse would have been already embalmed in holy cow dung, my transport to the next life would surely have been guaranteed.

Next day I ventured out of our rather expensive, but gratifyingly excellent, hotel to explore the ghats that line the Ganges. There, I found the main cremation area where they burn up to 250 bodies per day and watched the process with interest (all part of broadening the mind) and was particularly impressed with the occasional pop as an overcooked brain exploded. Pregnant women and children are not cremated in this way. Their corpses are weighted down with stones and thrown directly into the great river since they are already considered pure. Sometime these bodies pop up – which must be shocking for the young men who swim in that heavily polluted water course (and even drink from it).

There is so much more to say about this trip which touched on seven Asian countries, my notes alone approach forty thousand words – and the photos, don’t ask!! But one thing that will stay with me, particularly concerning India, is the poverty. One image that I have in my head and did not capture on camera, is of an emaciated, young mother with a child hanging onto her shoulder, one in her arms and two holding her hand. The birth rate is more than three times the death rate in India – and clearly much higher among the poor than the rising middle classes.

Did the trip broaden my mind? I think that knowledge must achieve that to some degree even though I cannot claim a deep understanding of the countries visited. But, if I could return to my young and cynically doubting self I could now truly say – they are there, those exotic, teeming, hot and sometimes beautiful countries: they really do exist.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Eggs anyway in an amazing Indian hotel

In India medium priced hotels at below say £25 per night are a little chancy for the traveller. Standards are not high, maintenance and redecoration often non-existent. Many of these places started life reasonably well –lasting just long enough for those inviting photos to be taken for the web page – then declined rapidly in a non-virtuous pact between the owners and the local customers. There are exceptions of course, and I am about to describe one.

The Kunjpur Guest House on the northern outskirts of Allahabad seemed too good to be true when I found it on the web: around £20 a night for a de-luxe room (most of the rooms in India are de-luxe), breakfast included, free Wi-Fi and picturesque. “Things that seem too good to be true are usually not true,” I warned myself as we disembarked from the ‘mouse train’ (see last blog). Yet we were picked up as promise. Our driver was Anil, the owner of the place; he had a doctorate in economics and spoke good English.

The journey to the hotel was as depressing as usual. We left the scruffy and slightly threatening surroundings of the railway station and passed through narrow rutted streets to emerge onto a wide road next to the polo ground. “That looks nice, let’s hope our hotel is here somewhere,” I thought to myself.  But it wasn’t. And anyway, India is deceptive: the polo ground has not seen a match for many years and is now owned by the army (No Photographs Allowed) and the houses on the other side of the road may have been superior residences in their time, but later, in the light of day, they looked rather sad.

The roads became narrower and more rutted as we neared our goal and expectations fell accordingly. Then we stopped. Was that really a tall characterful house gleaming whitely beyond the line of tall palms and thick hedge? Surely not. But it was. Anil sounded the horn and the gates were opened so that we could drive forward.

The place was amazing: a large colonial-baroque house with imposing frontage and neat garden.  Surely this was a facade, but no:  the lobby was equally impressive with its large, high-ceilinged reception room, tasteful furniture, paintings and object d’art.  Partially in shock we were shown, through double doors into our palatial room, or should I say suite (it had an extra double bedroom which we would have found more than adequate). Our bedroom room was at least eight by six metres in area excluding the arched extensions alongside the grandly arched recessed doorway leading to the side of the house. It had a very large double bed, large wardrobe and cupboard plus two, yes two ornate settees (3 and 4 seaters). There were also four casual tables and a full sized fridge! Set back from the external doors was a second archway spanning the whole of the room and supported by two fluted ionic pillars.  The bathroom was as long as it was clean and had a huge fan inset into an external door which seem capable of extracting small children. I could not believe it. All this for 2000 rupees a night? Was there a zero missing? Was this like the Hotel California where “You can check-out any time you like, But you can never leave!"?

There were two menus in the room for breakfast and dinner. The breakfast offering included ‘Eggs anyway’. Great, I needed a change. Next morning, in the elegant dining room with its oval table in the centre of which was a silver bowl of fresh fruit, I ordered scrambled eggs on toast. Margaret ordered an omelette. We both got omelettes. I ate my omelette. Next day I ordered boiled eggs and Margaret, very sensibly, ordered omelette. We both got omelettes. I ate my omelette. On the third day I took my lap top along to breakfast. I ordered poached eggs on toast and so did Margaret. I then played a video entitled ‘How to make a perfect poached egg’ to the bemused waiters who looked on with growing excitement. And we did get poached eggs in toast, which was nice. Next day we ordered omelettes and got them.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

The mouse train to Allahabad

India is a fascinating country. Colourful and noisy, crowded and filthy, it is an enigma that you can love and hate almost in the same instant. We have now been travelling for over a month and our longest stay has been in this country, though we have rarely remained in one place for long.
Our initiation was in Chennai, once called Madras. It was, well... challenging. Landing at 4.30 in the morning was not a good start and worse, the pick up from the hotel was not there, though he did turn up later. My sensitive stomach lasted all of 24 hours and was still churning as we left on the overnight train the following day – thanks be to Imodium.

We slept for a while then ventured out. There were no pavements to speak of and crossing the road took both courage and care. The road to the beach was lined with the bed rags of rough sleepers and smelled strongly of urine. We crossed what could have been a pleasant river – it was in fact a running sewer with muddy banks strewn with rubbish. It made us both retch and wish that we were anywhere but Chennai. Then we found the university and its grounds which were a little more pleasant, though the buildings were mostly in a very poor condition. Crossing a busy road we took a long walk towards the sea through layers of litter covered lightly with sand. All around us were stalls selling food we could not countenance, miniature fairground rides we would not trust and horsemen plying a trade which reminded us of the donkey rides offered in our childhood. Waves, oblivious to this mess, crashed in and young men bobbed around in the dubious water fully clothed.

Fast forward now to Ahmedabad and the Ashram of Mahatma Gandhi (think of a hippy commune without the drugs, sex, alcohol and flowers). This, in comparison, was a very clean area - possibly because the prime minister of Israel had visited it the day before together with India’s PM.  Everyone loves Gandhi and he is a god-like figure in India, though I personally do have a bone to pick with him. His story is wonderfully told through a long poster session at the Ashram and, though we all knew that the chronicle must end with his assassination, there were many tissues in use at the end of trail, mine included. The sadness of the tale is not simply that this man who abhorred violence died violently, it is that he saw his beloved India, free at last from the British, descending into a seemingly unstoppable spiral of inter-religious brutality.

My visit to this city was very successful. I found the college of the lady I am researching, met the principal and was given an excellent tour by Ravi, the head of physics there who proved a fount of knowledge on India in general.  But there was a problem. Gandhi was born in the state of Gujarat where Ahmedabad lies and in his honour the state has declared itself dry – and what is more applies the death penalty to those making booze or selling it. Now, I have no problem with Mr Gandhi condemning alcohol and its effects, none at all. But, when this means that I cannot have a pint or two then I do have a problem.

In fairness it is possible to obtain a permit to buy liquor from certain places between the hours of noon and seven in the evening. But I can tell you that they make it bloody difficult to get one. Of course I tried, of course I did. I even got a letter from my hotel vouching for me and took this to another hotel which, I had been told, had a liquor outlet. But they would not supply the dreaded stuff in the restaurant and said that my letter was not legal. Grumpily sober I had to give up the quest and become TT until we reached New Delhi.

There, in the capital, I did get a drink, and as planned I met Manmohan Singh, prime minister of India for ten years. But that’s another story – one for the book in fact. As I write we are now on the mouse train to Allahabad, the city where Indira Gandhi was born (she’s another of my subjects) and we have met a mouse. It’s quite big one and runs about the floor: it may in fact be a small rat and there may be more than one. The cheekiest one lives under the seat opposite. I saw it first and said nothing. Margaret saw it next and screamed! It too is going to Allahabad, though it will probably stay on the train. I hope so and I also hope that this city is not dry, despite its name.

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?