Monday, 30 May 2016

Viejo bastardos

At midnight tonight we will be in Malaga. At 8.00 am tomorrow morning, the builders start work on the flat above ours.

It has taken me about three minutes to write the above sentence, because I have discovered that the old Safari browser gets rid of the problems with blogging I have been experiencing in Chrome, but it seems to have a completely different word-processing system. The cursor does not give you a clue about what it is going to do next. Oh well.

My ambition for this holiday is that it is going to be relaxing - unlike Rome - so you can imagine how I felt when H.I. said, "How far is Cadiz from Malaga?" I promised to check on the map, hoping it would be the other side of the country, and it is. It would be quicker to go to Morocco. I don't even want a half hour journey out of town. To hell with any culture that doesn't involve an ancient wine bar. This cursor keeps disappearing and reappearing where you don't expect it to.

Talking of which, there is one bar - the oldest in Malaga - which I intend being a regular at for the time we are there. It has various little nooks and courtyards - one with a fountain - connected by corridors busy with the bustle of serving waiters.

Some of the walls are covered in signed, framed photographs of celebrities, some Spanish and some international. A few years ago, Tony Blair arrived unannounced and brought with him a pre-prepared, signed photograph of himself, beaming his trade-mark, lop-sided, wonky-toothed, one eye bigger than the other, perfidious smile, and the waiters made a great show of hanging it in a conspicuous place on the main wall.

As soon as the Blairs had gone, the picture was unceremoniously taken down and - hopefully - put in the dustbin. Everyone cheered, apparently.

See you in a week or so.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Guess what? More candlesticks!

To the more observant amongst you (I am thinking of John Gray in particular), these two candlesticks which I bought last night may seem pretty much identical to the pair I bought a week ago, and just as similar to the pair I bought a year ago. This is because they are.

H.I.: "You already have four of them. Why do you want another two?"

ME: "If I could buy another twenty, I would. Then I could rent them out as period drama props, for when they are filming a scene set in an early 18th century coffee house or tavern."

You see? I do have a plan, or at least the justification of one. I started off by saying that the original pair must be very rare, even though hundreds were made for public use at the time, but now I seem to be attracting the survivors.

Just to keep you entertained on this lovely, sunny afternoon indoors, I will run through the identification details again. This time, keep up.

They had to be plain and made from inexpensive materials, otherwise they would have been stolen. They were not even silver-plated, as most brass sticks were for domestic use.

They had to be robust (they are all cast solid) to survive the odd tavern-fight.

They had to be tall, so when the candle burnt down they still cast light over a wide area of table.

They had to have plain tops - any drip-tray would have cast an irritating shadow over paperwork or playing cards.

This pair will arrive sometime next week, when I will be in Spain. I will sit in some ancient wine bar, drinking the lovely Malaga wine and dreaming of setting-to with the Brasso on all six upon my return, then lining them up in a row on some huge, oak table.

Any domestic chore can be a source of joy and contentment with the right attitude. I wish I could find the right attitude toward my laundry, which is sitting in the bath waiting for me to finish it off as I write...

Saturday, 28 May 2016


There is a rather hopeless dealer at our Saturday flea-market who I will probably visit today. Occasionally he has something I want, but he has usually paid too much for it himself, so has to sell it for more money than I am willing to pay.

He was complaining a couple of weeks ago that he keeps changing his stock to stuff which he thinks people will want, but then it sits there all day without selling. He just, as he admits, cannot predict what will sell and what will not. I feel the same way about these blog posts.

The main trouble is that he doesn't really know what he is doing - I know the feeling also. I took him an 18th century wine-glass a while ago and he bought it for £50. This was a dead certainty for him, as we both knew he could sell it for about £150, which he did a couple of days later. He pretends that he knows about antique glass, but it is obvious to anyone who knows a little more than him that he does not.

If there is one thing that I hate about charity shops, it is when one of the volunteers puts a printed-out eBay description of an identical item which the shop is selling, and quotes the asking price - not even the sale result - as its true value.

There is a pair of candlesticks which I intend to buy on eBay, and so far they have not attracted much bidding, which is fine by me. A few days ago, someone put up a series of really crappy photos of a single candlestick of the same design. The main photo was on its side - he did not even bother to flip it - and all of the rest were so blurred that you really could not see what was going on.

The pictures were not so blurred that you could not tell that the stick was battered, filthy and covered in old wax though, and the description was appallingly written, ending with the encouraging, 'Go on! Dip your bread!'

I took an immediate dislike to this seller, but was still prepared to bid up to about £40 for this single item. It sold for £80.

Selling things is an art which does not seem to have any particular formula. Some people just can naturally, others cannot. Having said that, I suspect a bit of foul play was going on with this single stick. I hope it backfired on him and he ended up buying his own goods back.

Friday, 27 May 2016

The Old Teagarden

Assuming that Google Blogs allows me to upload a photo without spending all day on it, the above is of a little cottage near Bradford on Avon that I once lived in, but I was there about 120 years after this picture was taken. Some of you have seen it before, but some haven't.

John has reminded me of village life, but this place was more of a hamlet than a village, set at the bottom of a very - very - steep hill, and centred around a sweet spring, locally known as 'The Green Man'. We still got tourists who would occasionally turned up looking for a quaint little pub called The Green Man, having been sent there by a traditionally xenophobic farmer. You know the sort - the ones who deliberately turn road signs the wrong way because it amuses them to think of the trouble they have caused.

We had the whole spectrum of society in this place - rich and poor, famous and obscure, the devout middle-class - the Alpha Male literally overlooked my cottage, as he lived about 30 feet above me, half-way up the hill. He could not bear to watch me cutting my lawn with a sickle (hard work, but a lovely, sheep-nibbled type of finish), so he would bring his petrol strimmer down and wordlessly (it could not have been anything but wordless, so loud was it) attempt to take over until I told him to turn the bloody thing off. He had to retire due to heart problems. Not enough physical exercise, I suspect.

A little higher than him lived two lesbians - one young and one older - who seemed to spend most of their time engaged in bitter, public arguments. It really was straight out of 'The Killing of Sister George', and not 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane' as I wrongly said on John's blog.

There was a very pleasant but very reclusive lady on the other side of the road, and we only communicated with her at the Christmas get-together. The rest of the inhabitants wanted to keep themselves to themselves, so - observing village etiquette at close quarters, we let them.

Right at the top of the hill was a couple whose daughter was - and still is - best friends with H.I.'s daughter. We didn't see much of them either, as he would leave very early in his Porche, in the never-ending quest for riches. His wife continually campaigned for urban street-lighting around the dark little lane, but was kept down by the rest of us. She would almost scream with panic if I approached her in the lane at night, so I would have to coo, "It's only me..." to calm her down.

The largest dwelling in the place was named after the spring, and housed the couple who were the main instigators of the Christmas parties. To one side of their place was a large chicken-run, and my cottage overlooked it.

I would hear the lady of the house clattering around at dawn with metal buckets full of feed, before she went to work as a nurse. She had the brown skin and black hair of a true Cornishwoman, because this is what she was. I knew she fancied me, and I knew that her and her husband were on the point of parting company, so I tried to stay out of trouble - an uncharacteristically prudent bit of behaviour on my part.

My immediate neighbour was Chris Patten, so there was a constant but discreet police presence in the lanes most weekends. They had already checked me out, which allowed me to drive home at night slightly - just slightly - over the limit, just so long as I didn't ram their cars in the narrow lane.

Almost every Sunday, I would have friends round for a roast lunch. I would prepare the food whilst listening to Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, and I can never hear it now without being taken back to the smell of the roast and the sight of the garden through the open door.

A few years later, I tried to move back to the same area, but it didn't work out. You cannot go back in time and expect to find the same people waiting for you as if no water has gone under the bridge at all.

If you could, then that old woman would still be serving teas, aerated waters and ginger beer.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Judge Dread

I spent a fraught 4 hours proof-reading Green-Eye's essay on the benefits of human breast milk yesterday, without thinking about human breasts once.

That's the thing about proof-reading, if you concentrate solely on grammar and punctuation, the meaning is entirely by-passed. This means that if you have to also check that it actually makes sense, then you have to read the whole thing at least twice, and usually about six or seven times.

The other factor which complicates it even further is that before the papers are actually marked, they are run through a software program which is supposed to pick up on plagiarism. In the writer's world, there is no greater sin than plagiarism, and this software is written by out of work writers, or worse - software engineers.

So here's the set-up: The student nurses are given massive reading lists of medical and clinical papers which they are expected to read, then pick out the bits most relevant to their essay. They have to refer to these selections thus: (Stephenson et al 2016) whenever they make a reference or an assertion, to show that they have, indeed, read them.

There is one catch, though. The plagiarism software scans their paper in a millisecond, and if it spots a word which is used in the original reference material, it highlights it as potential plagiarism. At the end of the scan, the student is allowed a mere 10% of potentially plagiaristic content, and anything over that is an ignominious fail. You are automatically failed by a bit of stupidly blunt software.

So the only way of avoiding being branded as a plagiarist is to try and find a different - and usually inferior - word to substitute for the one originally used, thereby watering down the original meaning. If - by sheer accident - you happen to string a five-word sentence together which turns out to be identical to something that someone else has written, you might as well tear the whole thing up.

It gets worse. Her year of students are all given the same reading reference material on the same subject, and are expected to write essays on that subject, all of which must be completely different. The software not only scans for similarities between each essay and the reference material, it also scrutinises every student's submitted essay and compares them against each other.

It gets worse still. Green-Eyes is allowed a little extra time to submit hers, because she is dyslexic. She is not stupid, she is just dyslexic. This has its own disadvantages.

The later you are in submitting your paper, the more chance there is of replicating - or just using - some words which someone else has already used before you which the software picks up on, and the greater the chance of being branded a plagiarist, or having to write whole sections over again whilst searching for a different way of saying the same thing, hours before the deadline for submission.

Robots were supposed to make our lives easier.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

One man and his dog...

Cro's post about Elderflower Champagne has put me in mind of my Summer father. This one was almost the same as my Winter father, but a little more outgoing.

I never, ever, saw my father's bare legs during the whole of my life. As a result of them being badly broken in multiple places during a bomber crash over Kent in WW2, he bandaged them both every day from foot to knee. This was a ritual which - because I knew no different - I did not consider at all unusual. The long, off-white bandages would be washed in pairs and hung to dry in the bathroom until the next change.

If we went to the beach, he would sit on the edge of the sea with his usual charcoal grey trousers on (polished on the seat to a high sheen) and if the weather was hot, he might take his drip-dry, nylon, white shirt off, but leave his baggy, sleeveless vest on. I remember my mother's horror one day in Brighton, when he actually knotted a handkerchief and put it on his head. He looked like a naughty postcard, but with the innuendo.

Sometimes he would come in from the garden for Sunday lunch on a hot afternoon and sit at the end of the table in his vest which gaped horribly to us kids, exposing a white, flabby chest which glistened with sweat. The heat did not diminish his appetite and every meal involved a massive mound of potatoes - and I mean massive - so the sweating did not diminish either.

I found his body - I am ashamed to say - somewhat embarrassing as a kid, so was relieved that most of it was hardly ever exposed, but now I have inherited an identical one, so I have been punished for my youthful disdain.

The other thing I have inherited from him is/was his tendency to suddenly hit on an idea for a little project which usually involved a false economy by attempting to make things which could easily be bought, ready-made, from people who actually know how to make them.

He was, by no means, a big drinker. He would sip one glass of port or sherry at Christmas and make it last all night. On a hot Summer day, he might buy a bottle of fizzy cider, but this was more to do with a romantic notion of what a Thomas Hardy-type rustic would do after half a day's mowing with a large scythe, and he did spend some time mowing our huge, rough patch of lawn with a genuinely large scythe before he bought a petrol-mower. This cider would be accompanied by hunks of bread and cheese with pickled onions for the full experience. It made him happy, and I often do the same sort of thing. It makes me happy too.

One day, he decided to make his own beer - cider would have been too complicated without an apple press, and pre-squeezed apple juice was hard to come by in those days.

He acquired a load of large brown glass bottles with Bakelite screw-tops and rubber seals, then set to work stinking the kitchen out with the smell of boiling hops. This beer was going to be fizzy - the fizz was the magic touch which he was looking for. The brew was to ferment in the bottles and the bottles would produce the satisfying FFFZZZ when opened, and leave a thick, frothy head on the beer when poured. Well, that was the plan anyway.

He bottled the brew and screwed the tops on tight, then stacked them in neat rows in a dark cupboard near the kitchen to mature. I think they were to be there for a week or two.

A few days later, there was a deafening explosion from the cupboard, followed by the sound of broken glass falling to the floor. We all looked at each other in shock before we understood what was happening.

My mother instinctively went toward the cupboard to begin clearing up the mess, but was stopped by him. He tried to remember exactly how many bottles he had brewed, then  - over a period of about 4 hours - we counted the explosions off one by one - and out loud - before it was considered safe to go into the cupboard. We all thought it hilarious, but he didn't.

BANG! - Number 8.

BANG! - Number 9.

(Twenty minutes later)

BANG! - Number 10.

(Half an hour later)

BANG! - Number 11.

(Around the end of the day)

BANG! - Number 15! Hooray!

"Right. That was the last."

"Are you SURE?!"

Tuesday, 24 May 2016


Here in the U.K. there is a great struggle going on across the nation to do with whether or not we should leave the E.U. (in case you haven't noticed).

Journalists are travelling to all sorts of European countries, trying to ascertain what it really means to be a European.

It is turning out to be just as difficult a concept to grasp as what it is to be a German, a Dutchman or an Englishman.

It will be just as acceptable to refer to yourself as an Englishman, they say, if you are also a member of that great tribe of Europe. You do, after all, consider yourself English, even though you are simultaneously British, don't you? So where's the conflict?

Holland, a Canadian was saying on the radio this morning, has seen itself as a haven for the dispossessed for centuries, whilst at the same time as carving great territories for itself across the world, making great highways of the oceans whilst increasing its domestic territory by pushing the ocean back into the highways. Then why are there loads of Dutch weaver's cottages dotted around the South of England from when Protestants fled Holland in the 17th century?

Great Britain  was never any greater than when fighting the Dutch and Spanish for someone else's territories, but in this context, the word 'great' only alludes to a collection of little islands lumped into one territory, so don't get ideas above your current station in world politics. It should be called 'Greater Britain' now that Ireland is a republic, then politicians could say, "Britain has never been greater!" and still not be accused of lying.

2nd generation Brits are now forced to admit to something like, "I feel British first, English second, European third and Indian fourth." Well, there is no such thing as a true Englishman, I am afraid to say. We have been a mixture of all the invaders since the island broke away from the coast of what is now Holland and France, hundreds of thousands of years ago. It's a myth.

Now stop right there and remember one thing amongst all these stupid attempts to sway you one way or the other:

Europe is a continent. It is a large body of land that has remained in one lump, like Africa, America, and Asia.

A rousing anthem ripped-off from Beethoven (which originally celebrated the defeat of the French) and a flag which accretes little stars by the month should not distract you from this simple fact.

If you want to talk about economics, then go ahead, but don't muddy the water by trying to convince us that there is such a thing as a European spiritual identity.