Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Being well-read

At least ten years ago, probably more, I went on a literary tour of Oxford, a tour I nowadays enjoy leading. It was organised by Writers in Oxford of which I was an active, now inactive, member, and conducted by Peter, an independent guide who worked, and still works, through Blackwell’s the famous bookshop in the centre of the city. That bookshop is claimed to have the largest underground display of books in the whole of Europe: so many words, so many sentences, paragraphs, chapters and of course trees. Our group were not very impressed by the tour and, after it had ended, we walked away chatting about this and that. It was then that one of the more pleasant lady members of what we then called WinO said pleasantly, “Rob is the least well-read person that I know”. I was taken aback rather than offended and responded by asking if she had read the books of Douglas Kennedy, whose novels I was reading at the time. She had not and had not heard of him. I could have gone on by mentioning a long string of science fiction authors who had fed my hungry mind through teenage and beyond, or asked whether she had read everything that George Orwell had written and so on and on.  But this would not have changed her mind. She assumed that I had not read the books that she had read, and also, probably correctly, that most members of WinO would share her canon.

Where do people get their reading material from? Many, I think, read the books recommended by newspapers or magazines and thus Guardian readers would be exposed to a different choice to, say, Telegraph readers. Some are inspired by radio or TV reviews programmes, others by the short lists for famous prizes such as the Booker, and yet others by the many books that describe the books you must read before you die. And, of course, for many there is the well-established practices of bookshop browsing, visiting the local library or simply following up recommendations from friends.
Nowadays my source (as exclusively a Kindle reader) is BookBub which suits me entirely. Everyday I receive an email listing books on special offer (mostly £0.99) with a short description and a link to the book via Amazon. Mostly I reject the lot at that stage, but every now and then a book attracts me so I examine the more detailed description on Amazon and then reject, sample or buy it – mostly the former. For me this is great. I do preselect which categories of books I want to be offered, and within my categories I get some wonderful reads. What especially attracts me is that it is all so random: no political, sexual, trendiness, geographical, or intellectual bias as far I can tell.

I read a lot when I’m in Spain, especially now that my main building project over here is complete. Currently I am reading a grand overview of human history, a book on factfulness and a fascinating autobiography by Frank Gardner of Middle East reporting fame.  I have recently finished the riveting account of Alfred Wallace’s nine year expedition to the Malay Archipelago and plan to follow in some of his footsteps next year. And whilst travelling I have also read a couple of good novels: one for the second time – a first for me.

So, am I well-read? Well, I certainly wish that I was as an author, but as a reader it all depends on who is asking the question. I certainly do read a lot, and widely - which is why if I suddenly lost all of my possessions one of the first things that I would miss would be my Kindle – followed by my smartphone, from which I can also access my Kindle store of books.

Monday, 30 September 2019

An everyday story of (Spanish) country folk

It’s so hot here in La Fresneda on the final Sunday of September that I am sitting in our old stone house as far from the windows as possible, writing. Actually I should be pursuing my latest project down at the huerto which involves digging a fairly deep hole in dried clay and rock, but at 30 degrees plus on this day of rest writing seems infinitely preferable. When I do complete my hole in the ground I plan to construct a large concrete settling pan in it that will hopefully precipitate out the sand and dust suspended in the water delivered by our irrigation channel. I will then connect up my network of tubes that drip feed our fruit and nut trees so that I can leave here confident that the pipes will not block while I’m away.

As the sun beats down on the golden limestone walls of our village, all is quiet at present. Though the two clocks compete in ringing the hour and half hour, the church bells have ceased their insistent ringing and believers have or have not answered the call. Most people are indoors for the afternoon preparing a heavy lunch to be followed by a soothing siesta. But the two bars will remain open as they compete for the odd tourist who might wander in. We love to sit outside one or other of the two bars of an evening. They are situated so conveniently on the village’s splendid plaza and there, as the locals ebb and flow, we can create our fictional version of La Fresneda.

This time we have been away for almost a year so some changes are inevitable. Vincente, who runs our favourite bar, has lost his wife. We are told that she went off with another man during the boat crossing from Barcelona to Mallorca, but I do not know if that is true – anyway her buxom presence is no more. And next door there has been an even bigger change: Ramon and Montse, whom I have written about in previous blogs, are no longer the proprietors! Oddly enough they are still hanging around as if no one has told them that their head waiter has usurped their position. He is the brother of the ex-shepherd and poet, Juli, and has a strong predilection towards moving the tables and chairs around in his section of the plaza. We knew the two brothers’ father and mother who lived nearly opposite the other bar, but they have both passed on.

When I write ‘knew’ I exaggerate. We ‘know’ lots of people in La Fresneda in a ‘hello, goodbye, how are you’ sort of way – but beyond that the language barrier drops and we have to rely on other sources of news. One of those sources should be the ‘pregon’ which I have written about a number of times in the past. Whilst we were sitting in the plaza observing and fictionalising the other night, the lanky town clerk came along on his, much too small for him, scooter. He whistled, waved and nodded to all and sundry then slipped into the town hall which impressively terminates the plaza. Within a few minutes passionate ‘jota’ music flooded the streets of La Fresneda carried by the network of speakers in each and every street and was accompanied by the usual howling of dogs who dislike the sound. The music stopped abruptly and was replaced by the clerk’s calm voice as he read out some item of news. Mostly these announcements tell us that the regular market is coming to the plaza and lists every item that will be offered for sale. On this occasion we believe the hot news concerned the closure of the plaza to traffic for the weekend, as happens every weekend.

Earlier in the week the loudspeakers crackled, then, instead of the expected jota music, we heard the plaintive chanting of monks. While this is playing the dogs do not howl and silence descends followed by the sad announcement of the death of someone in the village. These occur quite often, but on this occasion I though I picked up the name Antonio from the announcement and feared that the ex-mayors father who we ‘know’ very well had expired. However, the next day as I passed through the plaza on my motorbike, there he was, so some other Antonio has died. He will be buried within a day or so of his passing as is the custom here.

Shocks occur. Recently whilst walking down to the plaza we passed the door of the cellar of Manuel, a near neighbour. There was a loud shout and we turned to see him displaying the biggest pair of onions I have ever seen! They were the size of cannon balls, yet perfectly formed and trimmed. Meanwhile there is an almost complete lack of almonds this year: one of the area’s main crops. On the other hand we are dining regularly on our own fresh grapes and delicious figs. The mayor has been ousted! She has not been in place for very long, but was recently trounced in an alliance between two minority parties. This is a great pity, I liked her and she spoke perfect English. And to add to all of this the ruined houses that have gradually crumbled away for years at the top of the village have been demolished.

Life for us here can be compared to living in Ambridge, the fictional town in the radio soap the Archers, but with one major difference – everyone here speaks in a foreign language which we have not mastered.

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Clutched by Cambrai: the joy of travel

Sitting in my campervan looking out at a rain-pitted puddle near the entrance to the first campsite we had used thus far on our journey to Austria and onwards, I had little to do but reflect on our journey so far. We had left Oxford just one week before, where, after a great struggle was ended only with help from a removal man, I managed to manhandle a double mattress onto the top of the van (don’t ask) and strap it down for the thousands of miles to come.

Dover was dowdy and seems to be going downhill fast: closed shops, dirty streets, crumbling buildings, dubious characters. But as usual there was a bright side. I found a decent brew-pub with good ale and a cheery crowd and we ate a good English meal in our regular pub – Blakes.
After a calm channel crossing we were soon on our way eastwards across France leaving the toll road at Cambrai then taking normal roads towards Luxemburg. We did not make it. Whilst approaching the village of Le Catou, my clutch failed spectacularly and definitely. I just managed to pull onto a verge before onward progress halted entirely. We spent one night on the forecourt of a rip-off garage that could do nothing for us and the next in the wreck-strewn yard of a real garage (next to the remains of a red double-decker bus) on the outskirts of Cambrai, a city that became our headquarters for some time. On the first evening we walked into the place and found it decent enough with some impressive buildings and a few good bars. On the second day, while the van was under repair, we visited a number of excellent churches and chapels, the ‘port’ where Cambrai’s canals meet and the excellent central park full of teenagers doing the things that teenagers tend to do (still). By three we had exhausted Cambrai and ourselves, we then just hung about before beginning the three kilometer walk back to the garage. I went ahead and was delighted to see my van nosing its way out of the garage – it could go again and was out under test. I paid the heavy bill and smilingly shook everyone’s hand before resuming our journey.

We got a little further this time. About two hours out of Cambrai it became clear that we had to return! The clutch was OK but the gears were not and red lights were flashing on the dashboard.  By then the garage had closed so we slept at Hirson and met a few local bar-room characters there who told us that Hirson produced a special cheese which smelled strongly. One of the men tried to abduct Margaret on the strength of that cheese.

Next morning we struggled all the way back to the garage at Cambrai and kicked our heels whilst adjustments were made to the van, then on again at last. But would Cambrai let us go? Not quite. I had more red light flashings so had to pull in to a rest area where I pushed a few things around beneath the van with advice of a helpful fellow Brit, but found nothing amiss – yet, fortunately, that problem did not re-occur.  And so we were really on our way, finally leaving France on the sixth day after our departure from Oxford. Hey, ho.

We finally reached our home in La Fresneda after some two and half weeks in all, having visited some wonderful places and driven through stunning landscapes in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Southern France. I think my top spot was Bad Gerstein in Austria. I knew something of the place through my research for the Hedy Lamarr book. It is a resort in southern Austria that is characterised by its unique position snuggling amongst mountains at the end of a long flat valley; by the incredibly white and noisy waterfall that crashes right though it; by the plethora of tall majestic buildings which were frequented by Sisi, the wife of the Austrian Emperor in the “good” old days; and finally by the eerie realization that it was virtually deserted – a ghostly watering hole.

Our Spanish village was a complete contrast to Bad Gastein. Racing was on at the nearby track so the village was full of black sheathed figures on their shining motorcycles. Our very special plaza was noisy and lively, the  crowds centering around the two bars. We were greeted in our favourite watering hole – Bar La Plaza – by people who had, for once, noticed our absence (nearly a year since our last visit). We answered the usual questions: how are you, when did you arrive, and when are you going? Then, our Spanish having been exhausted by these three questions, we were left to enjoy the comings and goings in the plaza over beer and tapas. 

Thursday, 15 August 2019

How China can save the planet

Ridiculous title I know, but it wasn’t of my invention. It was the last lecture that I attended in Oxford before the ‘great intellectual desert’ began. This is something that happens regularly at the end of the academic year when Oxford is transformed. The city is then invaded by youngsters from all over the world who come here to learn ‘Oxford English’. Funnily enough there is no such thing. As I often observe, the people of Oxford talk, “like what I do when I be ‘appily speaking in me properrr coun’ry accent with no ‘h’s and lots of ‘rrr’s”. And, of course, the people of the University itself are from all over the place. I suppose the myth derives from that phenomenal creation The Oxford English Dictionary, but I won’t bang on about that since I put all I know of it in my book.

Yes, for a few months the streets are full of young people often clad in the colours of the many language schools that sprout like mushrooms around the city, and then lie dormant for nine months until the next big influx. Added to that we have a massive peak in the number of tourists visiting the city (yearly around nine million and growing) during the months of July and August. These are the months when I am filled with both guilt and shame through my association with the Oxford tourist industry.

It’s funny, but the ‘great intellectual desert’ begins with music – classical music. I have never understood why, but the number of concerts held in the city seems to reach a peak as the student go off for their long break. And there is also an outburst of outdoor Shakespearean plays, many held in college gardens. So maybe it’s not a desert at all, but for me it is since there are virtually no public lectures.

My pitiful life in Oxford is mainly controlled by a website called Daily Information where I zoom straight into the What’s On section, then to the Lectures and Meeting bit, followed by the Gigs and Comedy bit and finally the Concerts. Sometimes I have a hard time choosing which lecture to go to since they are mostly bunched in the five until seven evening slots of the day, but meeting tend to be later and gigs later still. So, in August, I am starved of thought provoking lectures, but I still have music and the last few days have been particularly good. On Thursday night I cycled down to the Cape of Good Hope pub on Oxford’s busy roundabout The Plain. There were not many players or listeners around, however one guitarist was brilliant. He could really belt it out and started his spot with a reggae number and stuck to that as a theme through a series of songs which were not actually reggae.

On Saturday night I took Margaret to the Tree Hotel where Pete Fryer was celebrating his 70th birthday by playing a gig. This place was packed and Pete sings great oldies with verve and passion. He is backed by his brother Phil on lead guitar, Phil’s partner Sue on bass and on this occasion the son of Pete’s partner Liz’s son on drums. These people are legendary in Oxford having entertained the populace in various ways since the sixties. I particularly liked Another Brick in Wall and decided that night that I would like to rewrite the lyrics to emphasise the dark supremacy in today’s classroom, but wonder if my near namesake, Roger Waters would approve? All in all, it’s just another kick of the ball.

On Sundays we usually go the Harcourt Arms in Jericho for open-mike which is always good fun. But instead we walked a little further to the Bookbinders where the beer is better and the musicians often of higher quality (imho). It was almost deserted and the barmaid tried to overcharge me for drinks, so this was not a good start. Then two fellows took the stage, one with harmonica, the other with guitar and vocals, and magical music poured forth and the beer was great and there was nowhere I would have rather been. I suppose they played six or seven songs, all excellent and everything from Blue Moon to Willie Nelson, and the entirety played their own special way. The harp was the best I have ever heard and singing and guitar playing excellent.

Now I’m sure you're thinking what has all that got to do with China saving the planet? Well, the speaker at the lecture told us that China has the most solar power in the world and the most wind turbines. Unfortunately it also burns the most coal. So all they have to do is stop burning coal and start playing music instead.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Licking cows, flat batteries and good Samaritans

Imagine a powerful computer that is so small it fits into the palm of your hand, can listen to geostationary satellites way up in the sky and communicate with any other device like itself in the world; something that can be calculator, can recognise speech and turn it to text, is a word processor, a diary and a source of all sorts of applications including one for bird spotting. No need to imagine it though, because it is today’s smartphone – wonderful.

I recently walked from Wantage, near Oxford, to Lyme Regis on England’s south coast following the ridgeways which make up the country’s oldest travel routes.  I did it the wild way: no forward booking, no cloying timetable – simply a return date on which I was booked for a tour some nine days after my departure. Freedom: but at a cost. The cost was the weight on my back of the tent, sleeping bag, mattress thingy, clothes and footwear, water, food, books and maps. The desire to minimize that weight became almost paranoiac.

I would have needed four or more maps, why not use phone? I tried it out using something called OS maps and it was great, the phone knows where it is from GPS and the app projects that onto a map. It’s a bit small in coverage at times but otherwise probably better than a map. But I needed books, particularly my bird book. Here a friend recommended a bird spotting app and that was great too. I didn’t even need to take my Kindle because I could read my current novel on the phone. Great, everything great and light. But what about charging the phone? I bought a battery pack with a solar charger, a bit heavy yet only about the size of the phone itself – I was off grid!

All went fairly well. The load I carried was still quite hefty and so my feet began to ache and my posture to sag as each day wore on, but I could cope and cover the 15 plus miles a day needed to reach my goal. I met many interesting people along the way or in the pubs where I ate each evening. I did not see many birds of interest, but had a good sighting of a country fox and an unaware hare. 

Each day I rose very early and walked some way before stopping for a simple breakfast. On one occasion I sat on a bank to change from sandals to boots and to eat. The location was pleasant: a hill rose up behind me dotted with cattle and to my fore I had a wonderful view over a valley. I noticed the cattle coming towards me as I finished my meal, about twenty of them. I was ready to move on but they were upon me before I could pack up to go. Usually cows do not come too close and a shout or a wave deters them. Not this lot. Led by an aberrant one, let’s call her Kate, they crowded around me. Kate was determined to explore my bits and pieces which were strewn on the ground. She licked my tent bag (green) dripping saliva over it. I hit her on the nose – no effect. I grabbed the tent bag. She turned her tongue to my sleeping bag (not even green), slurp, slurp. The others kept pushing forward, but left it to Kate to do the exploring. I grabbed the sleeping bag so she started slurping away at my mattress whilst ignoring my heavy blows to her snout. Awkwardly hanging onto my bits and bags I managed to struggle out of the crush at last and luckily Kate did not follow.

Entering Dorset I found the countryside particularly stunning. It’s Thomas Hardy country and best described by him, but here goes: rolling hills, valleys full of irregular fields bordered by thick hedges and fulsome trees. Every shade of green imaginable and so little in the way of human habitation that the scenes slumber in the warm sun evincing feelings of softness, peace and harmony.

My favourite village was Cerne Abbas: beautifully kept with three pubs one of which does not sell Palmers beer, thanks be. My nemesis was the next stop – Beaminster. I found a nice spot beyond the town in a wood near a stream (for my ablutions) and apparently only visited by dog walkers who seemed a friendly bunch. The only cloud on my horizon – the phone had stopped charging though I had juice in my battery pack. I could no longer access the maps  and without maps I could not follow the Wessex Ridgeway to Lyme because it was not well marked. I walked back into Beaminster and tried to get someone to charge me up in the pubs – no success. I did not sleep much that night since I thought that I must abandon the walk at that point: so near and yet so far. 

In the morning after my “showering”, a dog walker passed by and I asked him if I might buy a map in Beamister. He said no because there were no shops of that sort and besides it was Sunday (I had lost track of the days).  However, he and his wife said that they had maps I might borrow so we arranged to meet at their car and they did indeed lend me a perfect map. Using that I pushed on, finally arriving in lovely Lyme Regis at seven-thirty the next morning for a quick swim in the cold English Channel followed by a journey by public transport back to Oxford.

Moral of the story: do not rely on mobile phones too much (actually it was simply the connecter that had failed) and be grateful to good Samaritans (I am returning their map). Steps completed approximately quarter of a million. Blisters – none. Beer consumed – lots.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Gypsy moments

I do like to travel, even though I did rather too much business related buzzing around in my middle years and do not now relish long plane flights. I suppose I feel the greatest freedom when wild camping in my motor caravan, especially when the travelling is unconstrained and the next destination decided at the current one.

Our latest trip was a little constrained. I wanted to visit Ilkley, Yorkshire on one particular day for a scratch performance of The Armed Man and we had to visit Margaret’s relatives at the tip of Scotland for a few days. The rest was a blank sheet - great.

We had time to explore a little of Yorkshire Dales and the Northumberland National Park on the way up, but I think my high point was a boat trip to the Farne Islands to view the mass of birds jockeying for space on the rocks and observe the fat seals lazing contentedly on their own rugged island.

In Scotland we spent a night in Kinross, parking the van within sight of Loch Leven. Sounds idyllic, but there is a reason for that long stretch of water – it rained must of the time we were there. In the bleak weather Kinross seemed a bit of a dump and none of the pubs seem to sell my favourite tipple – real ale. Yet things can turn. In one of the town’s pubs we were told that a brewery had a bar with ‘that handpumped stuff’ further down the road. We found it and it was great. There they told us that there was a good place to eat further down the road, and it was, and also that there was great little pub a mile or so further on and there was. The Village Inn was perfect: friendly people, animated chat, excellent ale, traditional d├ęcor and more. We found nothing like it further north.

On our return we had a tyre blow-out on a narrow busy road near Fort William. Nonetheless  we had a good night in the Rod and Reel public house further south where the two ladies behind the bar served us with a Scotish scowl and politeness verging on the acidic, but the beer was excellent and so was the raucous company of two couples from Australia who were also making their way towards the Cotswolds.

Interestingly, our own town of Stow on the Wold has a counterpart in the north of England. It is called Appleby and the thing the two places have in common is the great gypsy horse fairs. So, almost magically, Appleby appeared on the blank sheet as a our last overnight stop. It was also our wedding anniversary.

Whereas Stow begrudges the influx of gypsies with their horses, caravans, trucks, gypsy queens and followers, I had heard that Appleby welcomes them. I knew that most shops and pubs in Stow close their doors whilst the fairs are in progress, yet a one-time resident of Appleby had told me that villagers set up roadside food stalls and throw open the doors of its many pubs. Why, I had even been told that horses were taken into the pubs there!

Stow and Appleby are very different places: one on a hill, the other with a river running through it. One is constructed of warm yellow Cotswold stone, the other of brick and render. And, while Appleby is overlooked by a castle, Stow looks down on one and all. And yet they are inextricably linked by the travelling people.

The horse fair had just finished when we arrived, signs were still up indicating the many parking areas allocated to the gypsies and much of the rubbish that they always leave remained to be collected. It was no surprise to find 'No Overnight Parking’ signs at all of the spots that we might have overnighted, but a friendly local told me that motor caravans often used the swimming pool car park so we ignored the sign and made camp.

Appleby is a nice village with plenty of pubs and, though the first we tried was closed, we did find a quiet hotel next door willing to serve us dinner (just us) and then we crossed the road to the Hare and Hounds for a complete and utter contrast. As I opened the door music almost blasted us back into the street, but the tall blonde landlady beckoned us in and we were soon settled next to the jukebox with a pint and a spritzer and a view of the raised part of the pub where a large group of left over gypsies sang, danced and laughed uproariousl fueled by a constant supply of drinks bought by one of their number – the treasurer presumably.

What a night, if I can think of two numbers which spilled loudly out of that constantly fed jukebox which characterized the music then these must be Tom Jones’ Delilah followed closely by Cher’s Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves. The dancing was flamboyant, suggestive, irresistible: some of it was led by the landlady joined by the short muscular man in the blue Tshirt (which he removed at one point to dance topless, the landlady did not object yet did not follow). We were drawn willingly into the party, dancing and holding hands with the gypsies whilst ‘Hands’ belted out of the machine.

Yes, what a night. We are now truly twinned with Appleby in Westmorland and have become proper gypsies.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Queer Beer in the Mendips

Because we had decided not to visit our house in Spain this spring we decided to take a few trips out in the motor caravan to enjoy our own lovely country. The first was in May Day week and we decided on a trip to the Mendip hills - an area that I have often passed through, but never explored.
The first objective was the interestingly named village of Chew Magna (they like their Chews in the Mendips), but the place was clearly motor caravan averse so we squeezed through it and drove to the only other objective of the trip: the nearby Chew Valley Lake. This was perfect. The map showed a picnic site beside the lake and it was great: spacious and not too busy, it overlooked the extensive lake and the only charge was £2 per day for parking. It also had a restaurant, a take-away and toilets – a motor homer’s dream.

Having found a good spot for the motor caravan I set out on a walk alone and entered the lakeside area ignoring the ‘fishermen only’ sign. I followed the collapsing grassed embankment and soon came to two fishermen. Would they object to my presence? Not a jot. They were local good old boys with an accent that I warm to because I grew up surrounded by it (like coming home) and we talked and laughed for some time. They were very different characters. The first I met wasn’t fishing, his rod lay on the bank so we were soon talking about the lake and such. We could see most of it from this location though an island opposite hid some of the shore. Together they told me about its origins, where to go for birding, and where to get a permit. The first claimed there was a drowned church in the lake; the second that there was a farm and that he had met the farmer who wasn’t at all resentful of the flooding which took place in 1953 to form the lake/reservoir to keep Bristol throats quenched and baths full. I asked them about the local pub but on that they were evasive, saying only that it did not keep normal hours.

That evening Margaret and I walked into the village and soon found the local pub with its fading sign. That fading was a sign in itself – the place was pretty rough inside and out. As soon as I entered the public bar a scruffy old chap hunched over a table demanded, “Where you from an’ what you doing ‘ere?” Perhaps surprisingly I found this amusing and non-threatening.

I was delighted to see three hand pumps on the bar and that one of them dispensed Butcombe’s Rarebreed , a great favourite beer of mine which I ordered without a pretest. It was decidedly odd. There were tastes present that I had never detected in Butcombe’s beer or any other. It was not off, just queer. By this time Margaret was peering around with disgust at the peeling paintwork and the advanced neglect of the place. Meanwhile the old chap (actually younger than us) gave me a long diatribe about his country upbringing enlivened with many spirited bouts of swearing. Nonetheless I found his experiences interesting especially the part about having his own cow at the age of seven and making butter from her twice-daily milkings. There were also tales of shotgun incidents where he sometimes shot multiple birds with just one cartridge.

After a while we retreated to the lounge bar where I ordered a different beer, yet it too had this queer mixed-up taste. While I supped I watched Margaret observing the barmaid at work, her eyes growing wider as she watched. She suddenly turned to me and said, “I know why your beer tastes odd”.

“Should I continue to drink it?” I asked, concerned.

She said yes, but doubtfully. Afterwards she told me that the barmaid tipped the spillage tray from the other pumps into the pint she was pouring! We were all drinking beer cocktails!

Next day we moved to a small car park near a bird hide that looked across the lake. The view from the hide was splendid, but the variety of waterbirds was not that exciting. We saw tufted duck, coots, mallards, swans, Canada geese and great crested grebe. Of these the latter were the most interesting as a pair perfored their oddly charming mating dance. And we did hear a cuckoo. It’s a long time since I had heard that lonely, lovely cry. Coincidentally, I also found some cuckoo flowers (identified by Margaret) on a meadow near the lake.

That night we walked to a very different sort of pub which did serve Butcombe’s beer in perfect condition and there met another local who told us of his life as a leather worker and ardent motorcyclist (probably got the order wrong there). This place was more of an eatery than a pub, but both beer and food were excellent.

Our final night was spent at Lacock, a picturesque village in Wiltshire much used for filming. Despite its dedication to tourism it was a pleasurable place to stroll around and the dominant building, the Abbey, was absolutely beautiful. However, the pubs were not so much fun so I, uncharacteristically, used my phone to search for another one nearby. I drove there with the intention of sleeping in its car park, but great plans can go astray: there was a notice on its front gate saying that ‘Closed for Filming’. Unbelievable. Fortunately I had passed another as we drove there and hastened back to it. Called the Bell, it did not look much of a place from the roadside, but inside a warm welcome awaited. As I eyed the line of beer pumps and the notice celebrating its choice as the local CAMRA pub of the year, I asked the landlord if we could sleep in his car park. “Of course you can,” he replied affably, “and thanks for asking”. Nice end to a nice trip. Freedom.

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.