Tuesday 26 March 2019

Spring in England

My hands hurt. In the past I have complained about this because I was working with stone in Spain, but this year we are staying in England for spring and my hands hurt because I have been working with stone in England.

For me spring begins on the 21st March. That’s potato planting day for those of us who plant potatoes. Years ago, when we had our little farm, I’d couple up the potato planter to the old Grey Ferguson tractor, empty a load of seed potatoes into the hopper, sit a child on each side to put the seed potatoes one-by-one into the chutes and tow the jolly lot along a newly ploughed bed. Nowadays I do it by hand, alone. In those old days I always planted loads of that old favourite Desiree: this year I put in just three short rows of Casablanca, an early variety which is new to me. I also planted carrot seed together with onions, leeks, parsnips and broad beans. The process of germination which I have now set in train for the umpteenth year still fascinates me, as does the complex workings of photosynthesis which will power the seedlings (hopefully) into productivity. For now my job there is done. I left it to the brilliant sunshine and the moisture in the soil to awaken the dry, seemingly inert, seeds.

I then moved on to the real challenge of my week: rebuilding a section of collapsed dry stone wall at the road end of our field in Stow on the Wold. Most people love to see Cotswold stone walls deliniatiating the landscape, but for me they evince mixed feeling.  From a distance I too think that they are lovely, but close up I view them more critically: do they have the right taper, what sort of stone was used in their making, was ungiving and untraditional mortar used to set the headers, were faults introduced between the layers? It’s not that I am an expert, far from it, but I know enough to be aware of the things that I do incorrectly.

Almost done

Don’t be inclined to romanticise the role of that lone and lonely stone laying man working away at the roadside (yet to see a woman doing it so far, but why not). It may seem like a work of art, but it is actually mind bendingly boring and frustrating work. The idea is never to cut a stone to shape. In Spain during the years I spent building my little caseta I spent some time searching for the right stone to fit the next space followed by quite a lot of cutting to shape. In the Cotswolds I do much more searching and rarely any shaping. Remember, these stones are not like bricks that fit neatly together, they are of random shapes and sizes and all surfaces have to link into the wall itself: yes, a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle where none of the pieces quite fit. The best part of dry stone walling for me is to finish the job, then to walk far enough away from it so that I can view the overall effect without being distracted by the flaws.

As I paid for a pint at the Stocks on the night of the day that my task was completed, Pete the barman looked quizzically at my finger tips bound with fraying microporous tape.
“Been dry stone walling,” I answered the unasked question.
“You should ha’ worn gloves,” he said unsympathetically.
I smiled, whilst in my head I shouted, “I did, otherwise your bar would now be covered in streaks of blood, as would that twenty pound note I just gave you”.

So, back to Oxford where this blog was typed in pain whilst viewing daffodils nodding in the sun-warmed breeze through the spreading branches of a vast cherry tree with its first green leaves unfurling to expose red flower buds that will soon burst into a gloriously pink announcement of spring in the city. So very welcome.

Friday 8 February 2019

Words from the Wise?

Just finished the draft of yet another novel and am holding my breath while I await initial comments from my two indefatigable first readers.

But there’s always something to do in Oxford. Recently, I crammed two lectures on very different topics into a single evening. One was on particle accelerators – don’t worry, I’m not going to faze you with the details. The speaker, Suzie Sheeny, was an attractive young woman from Australia and paraded her stuff in a lively presentational style that I found riveting. I have always been concerned about the Hadron Collider in Geneva: it cost so much to build and operate ($13.25 billion) and was so overly hyped that any result short of time travel was almost bound to be a disappointment to the general populace. Oh yes they did find this thing called the Higg’s Boson just where it was supposed to be. Was that it? Apparently so, and life goes on as before.

But Suzie convinced me that there was more. There are thousands and thousands of particle accelerators in the world nowadays and their existence and development do benefit from the work on the Collider. Most of these are used in medicine and they are, of course, much smaller, but they do have significant benefits in, for example, scanning and the treatment of cancer. Suzie’s work is in the development of accelerators that can be used in developing nations where the electricity supply is unstable and maintenance near non-existent. Great stuff.

Then, a rapid pedal from Trinity College to Corpus Christi. Though too late for the pre-lecture drinks, I did manage to get a decent seat at the back where I settled down to listen to Chris Patten’s take on the world. He is predominantly a politician, but also the Chancellor of Oxford University, the last Governor Hong Kong, etc, etc, etc. In deep contrast to Suzie the accelerator scientist, Patten’s main characteristic is gravitas, as befits his wide experience. He is just three years older than myself, but looks more. 

Chris Patten -2008-10-31- (cropped).jpgThe scope of his lecture was grand – covering much of the last and current century. There were many interesting asides including a book reference which I have followed up, but the nub of his talk was a fairly depressing overview of the present state of the West. He touched on three major points: the 2008 economic crisis caused by excess borrowing and financial deregulation, growing inequality, and the “hollowing out” of political parties. On the latter he attacked his old organization in the UK, the Conservative Party, particularly its falling membership and, he claimed, its consequent move to extremism. A member of the audience, who sounded a lot like me, asked him why the Labour Party demonstrated the opposite effect – more members, more extreme.

He also touched on immigration from a European perspective and in so doing helped to develop my own thoughts when he contrasted the empathy evoked by drownings in the Mediterranean with facts concerning the African country of Niger where women start having children at 15 years and give birth, on average, to 7 children.

There was an elephant in the tiered theater of Oxford’s smallest college that evening, but the chairman drew back the curtains with a last question, the Brexit question. At this Lord Patten cast away his mask of philosophical equanimity and stepped in front of the dais to get closer to the audience and speak of madness and delusion. Phew, and this on the very day that Donald Tusk used the fast famous phrase, ‘special place in hell’. Fortunately, there was a little wine left to calm the frayed Brexit nerves after the show and this fuelled my cycle journey home through the rain to discuss this, and more, with my neighbour Carlos.

Friday 1 February 2019

Oxford and The Barber of Lebanon

After much dithering I had a hair cut yesterday and entered a new world: the Mancave.

Close your eyes and think of Oxford. If nothing turns up then this particular blog probably isn’t for you, but please come back later. Most people drag up images about the university: dreaming spires, icononic buildings such as the Sheldonian Theatre or the Radcliffe Camera, students in their gowns, dons on their bikes, particularly beautiful colleges that they may have visited, famous figures whose minds were moulded there,  or perhaps floppy haired students punting, partying, debating, drinking or pontificating. And yet the city is not just about the university. The population of Oxford is about 154K and the combined figure of staff and students at the University of Oxford is 38K, though how many of the students register as residents of the city is unclear. Added to that we also have another university, Brookes which has a combined staff and student figure of over 21K. That’s a lot of university people by any stretch, but what does the rest of the population do? Serve them all beer, food and entertainment of course. Well, not exactly, there are something like 10 million visitors to the city each year, and they have to be accommodated, transported, fed, watered and, of course, guided (I do my best). And there are jobs outwith the service industry including the Mini factory, Oxfam and many start up companies some of which have been spun out of the universities.

Socially Oxford can, coarsely, be divided up by the points of the compass. I live in the northern quadrant where all the rich and famous people reside (I wish), but used to live to the west in paradise. Yes really, my address was 18 Paradise Square which lies on the edge of what is now a huge new shopping centre (with a John Lewis store for the shoppers amongst you). South Oxford is mostly given over to low to medium level residential, bisected by the River Thames, which just leaves the east. Overall the city is very diverse: it’s reckoned to have the third highest ethnic minority population in south-east England and 28% of its residents were born outside of the UK. It is East Oxford that’s the main contributor to this diversity, and so back to my haircut.

Though I have few restraints on spending regarding the essentials - beer, wine and travel - I can be parsimonious about other expenses such as food, clothing and haircuts. That is how I came across a barber shop intriguingly called the Mancave. On the phone I was given an attractive price and the information that there were only two people waiting. I cycled quickly down to East Oxford where the Mancave is located only to find that there were five people in the cave: three waiting, one in mid cut and the barber. He told me that I would have to wait for about an hour. Later, I noticed that he gave everyone that same estimate. I shrugged and sat down in the window seat, just beneath the dart board! I looked around. On a big screen coupled to a graffiti covered laptop I watched computer-game-like characters repeatedly killing each other to a background of repetitive computer-game-like music. The wall on my left was papered with old newspapers featuring blaring headlines such as The bomb that has changed the world, and on the wall beyond the barber’s chair there was display of maybe fifty vinyl LPs, all of which I’m sure contained better music than that playing in the cave. There were other things lying around that I did not really understand – or want to. So this was someone’s idea of a mancave!

The barber was a thin-faced man wearing a cap. He had a slim, agile body that wove around his current client like a snake deciding when to attack. Part way through my hour long wait, he asked me if I would like a beer. I made my usual reply that “I did not drink in moderation”, but I was touched by the gesture.

I found later that the young men waiting for a cut were from Colombia and Ecuador, though I am ashamed to say I understood nothing of their Spanish so we did not get to discuss their troubled neighbouring country. However, I did talk to the man who came in after me. He was from Italy and told me that he was a post-grad at Brookes Uni which is just up the road from where we sat. He told me that he was taking a masters in motorsport management. Now they don’t do that Oxford University do they? And yet it seemed such a suitable subject for discussion in the Mancave.

Finally, I was called to the chair. And yes, I found that my barber was from Lebanon, that his father had owned a house there, but was displaced from it because the place sat on Roman remains, that he had been ill for the last few days – hence the queue, and that he wore a cap because he was bald and potential customers might doubt the competence of a barber without hair. What a diverse haircut. I will definitely have to go to the Mancave again.

Reading this through I thought maybe, to some, it might seem sexist. But then I reasoned that there are plenty of Womancaves. However, they have more attractive names, have greatly refined decor, and are very much more expensive.

Saturday 22 December 2018

Fifty Reminiscences


Merry Christmas to all my reader (sic). I have completed my usual pre-Christmas 36 hour fast and awoke on the second day with a clear head – and this is what popped into it. See how many of these reminiscences ring a bell. If you score more than forty then you are probably more than sixty. If you cannot remember any of this then… lucky you. 

Memories are factual (unless false) - not judgemental. Additions welcome, send to rob@satin.co.uk.

I remember when:

Pubs were pubs and thriving
And freedom of speech prevailed, mostly
And women were women
And men were men
And children were allowed to be children
And a national conscience was shared
And parenting was the responsibility of parents
And poverty was not the lack of a dishwasher
And women wore skirts and dresses, mostly
And there were less laws and less lawless
And drugs were things that pop stars did
And people thought the police were there for us
And swearing in front of the children was bad
And swearing was used sparingly and to express strong emotions
And people did not swear on the TV and radio
And there were only two sexes, plus homosexuality
And smoking was sometimes prescribed rather than proscribed
And fox hunting was unpopular, but thought necessary
And green belts were places that you could not build on
And old people’s homes were a rare thing
And Prozac and Viagra were unheard of
And racism, unfortunately, did exist
And footballers were paid a decent wage
And banks and bank managers were trusted
And it was possible to repair things that broke
And weather extremes were accounted to the weather
And snowdrops were nice little white flowers
And Christmas lasted for a week at the most
And wearing a seat belt or crash helmet were both optional
And almost everything except churches closed on Sundays
And collecting car registration numbers was practical – though odd
And bicycles had three gears or one
And women who acted were called actresses
And to be gay was to be happy
And air travel was for the wealthy
And there were markets, but no supermarkets
And vacuum cleaner, fridges and dishwashers were luxury goods
And mobile phones, the internet and personal computers were from science fiction
And the genome was an unknown
And crisps were plain with optional salt
And cancer was incurable
And human life began only in the womb
And sugar was OK
And coffee was a little exotic
And teachers could hit naughty kids
And global warming was undetected
And chemical contraception was unknown
And buses had conductors
And leaving school at 15 or 16 was the norm
And only 4% of people went to university

Monday 19 November 2018

My role in the French revolution.

Travelling through France from Spain is never dull, but our latest journey in mid November 2018 was definitely special.  This time we travelled west across Spain from our village of La Fresneda in order to cross the Pyrenees in the Basque country just above the famous city of Pamplona. We spent the night in a vast deserted car park next to a (closed) nature and adventure park and I was, quite unusually, taken ill. I had to find a doctor’s next day or could not face the 1,000 mile drive to England. Dr Carlos put me right, but the treatment seemingly denied alcohol which, though not essential, does light up the nights of travel.

We stayed in the delightful Basque village of Lantz on the second night, it was small, but had both a restaurant and a shop. Only problem was both were closed.  The locals were very friendly so I approached a lady and asked in poor French if anyone raised hens in the village and might allow us to buy eggs. She said no, but told us to wait where we were and quickly rushed back with five eggs! She then wouldn’t take anything in payment for them! Aren’t some people generous? This enabled to have a decent meal in the van, and it was very good.

Later in the trip we left the lovely village of Beaumont Sarthe just north of Le Mans where we had dined in a warm, friendly place served by a shy but helpful fourteen-year-old young lady. The village had an excellent river, ancient chateau and delightful gardens. However, heading into Alencon the road was blocked: black smoke poured from the roundabout and there were many people there in yellow hi-vis jackets. It seemed to us that there had been a bad accident, but this was no accident. In fact it seemed more like a street party - at a roundabout! Cars and vans were parked any old way, tyres were burning smokily, wooden pallets were burning merrily, and music was playing loudly in competition with sirens, car horns and raucous singing. I found it all quite exciting; many years had passed since my own demo days.

We were allowed to weave the van around part of the roundabout, the yellow draped figures shouting merrily at us. They were all smiles for us, but there was something altogether more serious going on. Just beyond the roundabout I parked up and walked back to join in. The smoke, the noise, the friendliness, the bizarre spectacle itself really energised me. I learned that Macron was the problem. To quote from one ragged poster he was: pompier, dictateur, royaliste, menteur, arrogant, opportuniste, nuisible. You probably get the message. Motorcyclists were a central part of the protest: revving their machines to the point of near explosion, roaring up and down the traumatised roads, weaving around the crowds. The protestors told me that it was all about increased taxation, especially on fuel. I didn’t know what side I was on, but I certainly felt part of the crowd. We had to take the toll road to get away – that cost us nearly forty Euros Mr Macron.

Then we were blocked again at Rouen, both in and out of the city, this time with larger crowds and longer delays. Hey, this was not so much fun after all. We then travelled north to Abbeyville where we hoped to sleep for the night en route to Calais for our boat to England the next day. We could not get in! Yet another protest barrier greeted us as we came off the main road, Darkness was falling when we were finally allowed to pass that barrier and then we hit another! Someone told me that we probably would not get into Abbeyville at all, so I reversed back and headed out into the darkness.

Fortunately, after some twenty miles, we found Chez Natalie, a small pub cum restaurant. It was open and welcoming. We had a great French meal sitting next to a warming wood stove whilst watching the recollections of the revolution on TV – we did not see ourselves: our part in the revolution remains a secret.  However, the whole thing was an interesting experience giving an insight into both the French mentality and, perhaps, my own.

Sunday 4 November 2018

The gypsy in me

Perhaps everyone has within them the desire to wander, fancy-free. I certainly have and believe that I know the best way to achieve it. However, please don’t tell anyone the secret since there are already too many in the know – it’s via that king of the road: the motor caravan. Ah, you might think, real gypsies do not own motor caravans; they travel around in those wonderful horse drawn caravans shaped like a fat, lower-case ‘i’. And of course some do, but most do not.

When I wrote The Battle for Stow some years ago I interviewed gypsies who were attending the Stow Horse Fair, that controversial coming together of the tribes beloved by the travellers and feared by many of the residents. It was not an easy task since many of them were, rightly, suspicious of snoopers. However, one man did have a smart motor caravan and to help break the ice I told him I owned one too.

“What ya got?” he asked with interest, so I told him the make and model.

“Wanna sell ‘er?” he retorted instantly.

Not surprising perhaps since trading is what the fair is mostly about – and some of the gypsies I met confessed that they also have proper houses like the rest of us.

We have just returned from a ten day holiday from our Spanish village in the motor caravan. Some friends find this odd, assuming that a holiday is what we go to Spain for, whereas to us it is just another place where we live. The trip started in Spain then on to southern Portugal, after that to the UK and finally back to Spain – all in the motor caravan and without flying or taking ferries.
As usual the trip involved the very minimum of planning; the main objective being to explore Portugal which we reached on the second day. Arriving quite late we found, purely by accident, the walled city of Elvas and a convenient overnight spot in a car park in nearby club land where we parked opposite the local pigeon fanciers club.

The defensive walls of Elvas are unusual in that looking from above they form a star-like shape rather than the usual rectangle or circle – interesting. And, as we walked through the narrow archway into the city (definitely not motor caravan friendly), we were thrilled to find a fascinating web of even narrower streets, many leading up to the grand central plaza dominated by a fine white church. Elvas was a charming introduction to Portugal and there we dined on Portuguese pork and golden fish washed down with local wine and - no port.

The following days fell into our usual pattern. I went for a run whilst Margaret prepared breakfast; we showered then chose some destination from the map that looked interesting. We then drove there mostly by secondary roads, having lunch in the van at some nice spot along the way. On arrival we searched for a parking place big enough for the van, explored the place and if we liked it stayed, later finding a bar then a restaurant and so to sleep. If we did not much like a place we travelled on and sometimes had to find somewhere to park up for the night in darkness which can be difficult.

Our best night was spent overlooking a wonderful bay on the Atlantic coast a few K from the small inland village of Carrapteira. There we sat in the wind-buffeted van watching the sun set over the ocean then gradually spreading its fiery red illumination across the whole sky whilst we drank red wine and listened to romantic hits from the sixties. That night we ate in the van and woke to a beautiful dawn.

The worst night was in the coastal city of Lagos where we arrived in darkness and parked up in a potholed stretch of waste ground dotted with other vehicles like ours. In the morning we woke to the sound of a JCB digging a trench near our van.

But how did we get to the UK on this trip? You’ve probably guessed. On the way back we fulfilled a long term ambition and visited the Rock of Gibraltar. In retrospect I was more excited by the sight of the place as we approached from Algeciras than the actual visit though, once clear of the near frictionless border control, it is fascinating to walk across the airport runway in order to reach the city.

Once there it does seem odd to be spending pounds rather than euros and even odder that they leave the wallet so much quicker. It’s also a little weird to pass Holland and Barret (twice), to observe policemen on the beat wearing the old spiked helmets and to see so many fish and chip shops. I had a huge disappointment though. I entered a pub and asked the smiling barmaid if they sold real ale.

“Sorry love,” she said kindly, “you won’t get that on the Rock. Doesn’t travel you see.”

I refrained from giving her my lecture on Indian Pale Ale and sulkily ate my fish and chips. They were good, though pricey.  Probably much better than a hedgehog baked in a ball of clay. Do gypsies really eat hedgehogs? I’d like to try that – I think.

Monday 8 October 2018

A letter from Spain – and Sweden

Yes, back in our village of La Fresneda after a 1500 mile (2400 Km) journey taking in Bolton, Belfast, Dublin and a string of delightful towns in France. I have worked briefly in Belfast before, but this was Margaret’s first visit and, with the very definite exception of the city hall, we both found the city to have many fine buildings, though their locations were often marred by overbearing modern constructions. The famous Crown public house was as good as ever and we even managed to grab one of the many secret snugs that are part of its ornate architecture. It was however expensive, understaffed and beset by tourists – like us. We straddled the border with the South for some time and distance but, unable to answer the ‘Irish question’ just then (we did later after a few pints) proceeded to Dublin where I tackled the more amenable task of roofing my son’s large shed.

In that city we had a good night out at a local pub witnessing the Dubliners at their most abandoned. A bacchanalian scene fuelled by the second (yes second) night of Dave and Rachel’s wedding celebration apparently, plus lashing of alcohol of course. At one point Dave took the microphone from the professional DJ. He joked as confidently as a Frank Sinatra, then sang with the force of a Frankie Vaughan.  Meanwhile his five-year-old daughter rushed aimlessly around the vast bar in her bridesmaid dress and a much older and much larger lady roamed around predating lecherously on younger men.

As usual the good ship Oscar Wilde took us to Cherbourg, a dull crossing with very few passengers aboard – though I did meet a young man who professed to be the son of Martin McGuiness who told me that he was returning from a meeting with Jeremy Corbyn, “your future prime minister who will immediately unify Ireland as soon as he gains power without a gun being fired”. No wait, that was on the trip to Belfast. How the mind can play tricks – and so back to my previous blog on the brain. There I introduced the concept of ‘aporia’ and what follows is a comment from a good friend of mine from Sweden who explains it all so much better.

 Your stories remind us that no absolute truths exist. The premise is wrong, i.e. that our brain is first and lastly logical and just a little emotional like the scum on the sea’s waves. Actually, it’s the other way around. This state of our mind has fostered reams of ridicule and we are ourselves delighted in making fun of our brain’s shortcomings. The latest proof of this is Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. After having read it there is just one comment: “so what?”

If we didn’t have any biases, cognitive dissonances or emotions, we would be a completely different animal. Or why not a robot as we are slowly approaching a robot like state of mind from being stereotyped by social media (internet).  Forget biological evolution, which has been overtaken by technological evolution, which is so fast and unpredictable that we have lost control of it. “Earth, we got a problem.”

So why are there no absolute or universal truths? If there had been they would since a long time ago been thought out. We have had to do with our own laws, manmade like time, before and after, limits, endlessness, eternity, etc. just to cope with life.

It is said that libido is the ultimate drive for life, for animals as well as for mankind. Not so, this is where we differ. Our lust to hang on to life and live (long after we lost our libido and money) is our curiosity, to see what’s around the corner (to be transformed to the fly on the wall).
Not knowing anything, just being suspended in the air and revelling in the unfolding of world events that is true happiness. Happiness through aporism. QED!

Wednesday 19 September 2018

About the brain and us

In 350BC, Aristotle noted that “our senses can be trusted but they can be easily fooled”.

Let me start this with a story that I have told many times. Many years ago my wife and I lived on the edge of the city of Ipswich. You may wonder why we lived there since the house looked out onto one of the sink estates of Ipswich, to our left we had a scrap car yard, and to the right a rubbish dump plus the house had no mains drainage or water – but all that’s another story. The house came with a resident female cat, Jemima, and we adopted each other. After some time the cat became pregnant and gave birth, in my shed, to a delightful litter of kittens. Soon after their birth they were all killed!

A few years later we were revisiting the tragedy and found that we had quite different recollections: in my version our dog, Droopy, had killed the kittens, Margaret recalled that a local tom cat had done the deed. Fortunately I kept quite a detailed diary in those days and was able to refer to my notes. Shock, horror, Margaret was right. My memories of the event, though clear, were false.

We all have false memories some of them pure invention, some distortions. Most people do not believe this, but it is true – and scary. In what can we trust?

Another story. Fairly recently a group of us were shown a video of football game: we were told to watch the player in the black shirt and count how many times he kicked the ball. At the end of the short display we were asked for our answers which were quite varied, but similar. We were then asked, “Did you see superman?” Puzzled, we all said no and the video was replayed and there he was threading his way through the players as large as life! A trick – yes, of the brain. Actually I have changed the players and the intruder in this tale so that this will not be a spoiler if you if you sometime see the original, but hey the brain’s flexible so that’s OK.

In a somewhat related phenomenon your brain filters out the mundane. Its overriding duty is to keep it, and therefore you, safe, and it’s the new, the unknown, and the surprising, that are likely to be dangerous. Hence: a liking for sleeping in one’s own bed, home being where the heart is, blood seemingly thicker than water and so on. However, to the contrary, new environments or challenges steps up the brain’s awareness, hence the stimulation of travel (which ‘broadens the mind’ apparently).

We often need to ‘see for ourselves’ or maintain that we only trust ‘the evidence of our own eyes’. But should we trust that evidence. There are numerous illusions which dramatically prove that our brain messes with reality.  A simple matrix of blobs appears to be moving yet we know that they cannot be, spinning dancers uncannily rotate clockwise or anticlockwise depending on which you set your eyes upon first. And so on and on as more illusions, old and new, are discovered and broadcast over the Web.

Science, one might think, can slice its way through this nonsense to reveal reality. But can it? Much of what is ‘observed’ in modern science is detected by a sensor and relayed to us through a computer which processes the data. We can never see the ‘new’ particles which constitute the things that we actually see, though there was a time when we could observe the tracks of some of the particles in a cloud chamber. Nowadays sophisticated detection and heavy processing sits between the collisions which occur in the Hadron Collider and the graphs that allow physicists to buttonhole the Higgs boson.

There are more and more examples which shake the very foundations of our natural belief in our powers of observation, and yet more can be supplied by philosophers in relation to our powers of reason, meanwhile life goes on. After all, too much doubt in ourselves might cause a collapse of confidence and a resort to instinctual behaviour or a cynical retirement from life itself.

I have a thoughtful friend called Bjorn in Sweden who seems to have found refuge in not knowing and has even found a term to describe his philosophic position which dates back to the Greeks – aporia. Whether aporia  leads to greater clarity or simply defines doubt and confusion, I do not know.  But one thing’s for sure Aristotle was right to say that our senses can be easily fooled – and therefore so can we. I suppose the one thing that we can know for sure is that we don’t know, for sure. However, I’m pretty sure that I am off on my travels in a few days time: Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal.

Saturday 1 September 2018

Bookend Blues

Haven’t written a blog for ages. Been busy: hopefully honing my writing skills.

One of my regular delights is a negative one: it’s not having to get up in the mornings. I do get up eventually of course, but not at those ghastly hours when I had to catch a train to London or motor up to some outlandish place in the north to attend a meeting or deliver a course. Nowadays, my radio belches out the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 at about 7.30 a.m. and then I just lie about cursing at the aggressive bias of the interviewers until I feel ready to take a run or cycle to the gym.

                                                     bookends | notonthehighstreet.com

It was on such a morning that I heard the announcements concerning this year’s UK exam results for sixteen-year-olds – the GCSEs. Hardly jump out of bed stuff, but it did send me spinning back to my own teens. In my day you received the dreaded results by paper mail. I can remember looking at mine with some disbelief. 

Funnily enough I can remember the exact street in Cheltenham where I studied them. The bearer of this momentous piece of information was devastatingly disappointing: a flimsy slip of paper simply listing subjects and grades, little more than a single shred from today’s shredders. In those days grades were not that important. In ‘O’ levels, as they were called, failure was not encouraged, but it was allowed: it was the number of subjects that you passed that mattered. I did OK - I seem to remember that I got a grade 1 in something; grade 8 was a pass.

Dozing can lead to considerable confusion and listening to the radio I was – confused. Everything seemed upside down as they reported on the year’s results. In previous years they had used letters to represent grades, but this year they had reverted to numbers again. However, grade 9 was the top and grade 1 was the bottom. Seemed odd, and to quote from David Richard Getling who knows more about this stuff and is a little more outspoken than I am : ‘Of course, only someone as intensely stupid as the British government would have invented such a grading system. Top grades have always been 1 or A. We talk of something being first class, or A grade, if it's the best: and this is common throughout the world. So it takes a complete and utter moron to do the opposite.’

Those recent announcements reminded me of how hard I worked in revising for my exams. I can remember the hunted look on the faces of my teachers as exams loomed and I approached them with my incredibly long list of questions in which I tried to understand all the things I should have understood from their lessons. More topically I can recall the longing for the revision and the exams to come to end so that I could be free. Yes free. Free to do what?  Instead of freedom I actually experienced what is best described as bathos, or anticlimax, or post natal depression without the baby.

Finishing reading a good book is a bit like that. Finishing writing a book is exactly like that: hence the title of this blog. Actually I haven’t quite finished, one never does. But the first draft is done, the bathos then has two sources. First, during the very creative part of researching and writing there aren’t enough hours in the day: in other words there is always something to do – and a deadline to meet. And second, now that the baby is born, one becomes protective, yet critical. Is it any good? Wouldn’t it have been much better structured in a different way? Does the title do it justice? If I start fiddling with it, will the panoply collapse and all the cross references go astray?

Though I often self-publish, this one goes off to the publishers. More worries. Is it ready? Will they like it? Is it what they thought it would be? Will their editors tear it apart and bastardise it.

Hey, ho. The journey’s been good though. There should be a song The Bookend Blues. I’ll make a start on the lyrics right now, but then would I be happy with them?

Tuesday 5 June 2018

Rob and Rob in Oxford

Conducted my first Hen Party around Oxford on Saturday– has it come to this? Actually they were quite sweet – laughed at some of my quips, with a little prompting. Hope Becca enjoyed it.

Then, the very next day, it was my birthday – again. Can it really be a year since we celebrated IvyFest on the 3rd June 2017: my 70th and our 50th?

I like to spend my birthday in Oxford with my wife. No party. Drinking taking primacy over eating. Lot’s of stuff. One of my most memorable was when I clocked up six physics lectures, then off to the pub. This one was a little more refined.

First we wandered into the centre where there was music at the Wheatsheaf all afternoon. It is still odd to go into the old place: to look around and wonder ‘What if?’ – it’s at least twelve years ago that I tried, and failed, to buy the place. The music was OK and the beer was OK (Doombar). In fact the best of the three acts was Tony Batey, the blues man who has been playing Oxford for all the years that I’ve been here and many more. I thought that I’d been over-exposed to his music, but it was good, very good – and his guitar playing is superlative.

Then off to the refinement: Somerville College chapel for a talk plus performances by the choir. The latter was wonderful, the girls could ‘lift the roof’ and I thrill to that. The talk was, well, boring really. Still, one must sup for your singing I suppose. Next a quick pint (Doombar again, drat it) in the Royal Oak, which is almost opposite the college, while we waited for the #6 bus to Wolvercote and nearly missed it.

Wolvercote has two pubs in very close proximity: Jacob’s Inn which is an eatery where we ate and the White Hart where we dank and sang. The White Hart is now a community pub and a fellow writer is one of the directors. It was Sheila who told me that they sang sea shanties there on Sundays – and I like a good sea shanty. The beer was excellent (Spring), but the pub was a bit quiet. Sheila wondered if they had enough people for the shanty session. But we joined in, and then a group of blokes from the other pub staggered in and soon we were ‘lifting the roof’: there was even a shortage of song books. We sang ‘Leave her Johnny, leave her’ and ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor’ and many more shanties that I had never heard of, but thoroughly enjoyed. The beer flowed and songs were sung and then something ridiculously odd bubbled to the surface. During the gaps between songs people chatted and somehow it became clear that the group of blokes were there to celebrate one of their number’s birthday, like me. Then it became clear that his name was Rob, like me. Then, now you are not going to believe this, but it finally emerged that his name was Walters, like me!

Can you imagine the excitement that caused? Buoyed up by beer, lifted by song, then this most weird coincidence was discovered. I’ve never met another Rob Walters before and nor had the other Rob Walters. Two Robert Walters’s in the Wolvercote White Hart on the same night, singing sea shanties and celebrating their birthdays – he fifty – me twenty-one years his senior. I could have been his dad, but we are pretty sure that we are not related. Then, to my delight and surprise, a very good friend turned up with his wife - and his name was – no that would be too much, his name was Peter. Great night. Wild night.