Saturday, 3 December 2016

Knowledgeable gnomes and speedy Santas.

Yesterday evening I was invited to a friend's birthday celebration in Manchester. So off I went, despite the fact that, like Cinders, I would have to leave the party early, not because my frock would turn to rags and tatters but because of the stupid bus service, of which more later, although not MY rant this time. The pub was noisy, as you might expect, but it was good to catch up with old friends and colleagues. 

As I left the pub and walked along Deansgate, I serendipitously came across another group of old friends and colleagues, who had been having a departmental Christmas meal and were on their way to greet the birthday boy. Lots of grown-up people getting excited and hugging in the middle of the street! Splendid!   

I scuttled away to catch a tram to Victoria station, followed by a tram to Oldham Mumps, keeping my fingers crossed that I would manage to arrive there before the last bus left. With only two minutes to go when I reached Oldham Mumps, I was a little anxious that the bus might have left early, not unusual on our route. But all was well.    

At the stop was a small, rather gnome-like gentleman. Now, I will happily initiate conversation on public transport, on  train platforms  and at tram and bus stops. This gnome-like man was clearly of the same turn of mind. He enquired which bus I was waiting for - the same one he was planning to catch - and, after reassuring me that it had not yet gone, went into a tirade about how ridiculous it is that the last bus from Oldham centre to Saddleworth leaves at 10.28. After all, they have just opened a new cinema complex in the town centre and their last showing finishes at 10.30!!! Why is this allowed to happen? Thus he ranted on and on until the bus arrived.   

On the bus he continued, to my amusement. He asked if I knew who owned the local bus companies. No idea! Not something I have researched! Well, he told me, one of them belongs to an American company, the one that runs Greyhound buses all over the States. Billionaires! So any suggestion that they don't run more frequent and later buses because few people use them and they can't afford not to make a profit is a lot of nonsense. Another company is owned by the German public transport network. They can afford to subsidise their transport system, he told me, because they make a profit from the privately-owned services they run in the UK!    

All of this I took with a pinch of salt, especially as he further went on to tell me that the bus company does not bother to train drivers who are new to a route but simply tell them to work it put and, if they are stuck, ask a passenger; they usually know the route! Now, this I know to be untrue as I have travelled on buses where new drivers are accompanied by a trainer. However, it was an amusing bus-ride home!    

And it would not really surprise me to discover that our bus services are foreign-owned. After all, EDF is a French electricity company and the Chinese are building a nuclear power station here. So it goes!    

Today I walked to the local supermarket at Greenfield, another of the Saddleworth villages. All along my route I kept coming across masses of skinny Santas! What was going on? Then I remembered that today there is a fun run: the Saddleworth Santa Dash. Consequently, there were Santas of both genders, of varying heights and ages but almost all skinny runners; very few traditionally plump Santas. They seemed to be organised in teams according to the area they came from. Near to the supermarket, the Greenfield Santas were busily donning orange beards. Look carefully at the photo. Perhaps they have discovered that Santa has Celtic origins. Perhaps they want to counteract the prejudice against ginger folk.    

Despite the fact that my bus journey back from the supermarket was somewhat slowed down by this surfeit of Santas, I can only applaud the Christmas spirit and hope they made a lot of money for charity!

Friday, 2 December 2016


I used to know young teachers who took on extra jobs - bar work in the evening and stuff like that - to supplement their income. I always wondered how they managed to find the time. But then, I suppose, if it was bar work they could pretend that it was part of their social life as well. Nowadays I suspect that it would be even harder for teachers to take on extra employment as there is so much paperwork added on to the usual marking and preparation.

And then I read an article where the journalist was wondering whether Boris Johnson will go on writing his Daily Telegraph column. This pays him far more than his salary as an MP together with his salary as Foreign Secretary. I bet ordinary journalists don't earn that sort of money. No, it's his name that earns the fat salary.

However, it strikes me that if a government minister has time to write a regular column for a national newspaper he cannot be working as hard as the average teacher!

Names, of course, are very important. I hear that Samantha Cameron has launched her own brand of designer clothes, no doubt selling at quite extortionate prices. Now, I know that some will say that she is simply taking up her career where she left off to play that important role, wife of the PM. (As an aside, do the male partners of female politicians give up their career when their wife becomes PM? I seem to remember Denis Thatcher carried on with his business interests. And is there a Mr Merkel? What does he do?) However, one wonders how successful Mrs Cameron might be, no matter what training she has had in art and design, if she were not an already "known" brand!

Which brings me to the American designer Tom Ford who was asked in a recent interview whether he would be dressing the First Lady elect, Melania Trump. Apparently he has declined to design clothes for her in the past, saying she is not his type or shape. Now it seems that he has said that his clothes are too expensive for a first lady to wear because they have to 'relate to everybody'. Well, Donald Trump has said he wants to be the president of ALL the Americans, so that would be about right.

The fact that Tom Ford designed dresses for First Lady Michelle Obama is neither here nor there. 

Read more.

More seriously, Donald Trump is said to be on a celebratory tour of the States, thanking his supporters for electing him. On the television news last night I heard one of his fans praising him for saving 1000 jobs in United Technologies, a company that was going to send the jobs to Mexico (behind a wall?). And this before he is even in the White House. Bernie Saunders, however, writing in the Washing Post, points put that originally 2,100 jobs were to go to Mexico. So presumably over 1000 jobs are still disappearing. What's more, Trump has apparently promised tax concessions to United Technologies in exchange for keeping the 1000 jobs in the USA.

 Getting the job done!

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Fog and language!

Today has been a day of fog. White-out all over the area. Not quite bad enough to cause major traffic problems but damp and grim all over the place. And nowhere near as bad as the fogs and smogs of yesteryear. We were talking about this on Saturday, during our train journey on the Santa Express. As one of our group pointed out, almost all of the houses we were passing would have been puffing out smoke from coal fires back in the fifties and sixties when we were growing up. Cue a bit of nostalgia about walking to school with your scarf over your mouth, blowing your nose and producing a nasty black mess in your handkerchief, and those evenings when the buses were cancelled and you had to make your tentative way home on foot.

One of our members waxed lyrical about how she and a friend made it through the fog to a Beatles concert, having decided that if they were having trouble getting there, then so would the performers and, therefore, it was worth getting there even if a bit late. They made it, screamed their way through the concert and, faced with the problem of getting home again, were very relieved when one of their fathers turned up to take control! Such stamina we had in the sixties!

Today pollution is in the news again. It seems that all those trees which have lined many city streets for years and years, those trees that we have long believed to be absorbing the CO2 and releasing oxygen, have in fact been preventing pollution from escaping upwards and away from us. In fact they create a kind of pollution tunnel! Oh, no!!! Here's a link.

The other thing is speed bumps. Because cars have to brake, sometimes violently, and then accelerate away, extra pollution is released into the atmosphere. It strikes me that if perhaps the drivers kept to the speed limit for the area with the speed bumps, maybe they would not need to brake and accelerate quite so violently! Mind you, that is just my possibly scientifically ill-informed opinion!

Something else altogether is a matter of language. I have long been agitated by the fact that "fun" has changed from a noun to an adjective. It's one of my little fads. We used to say that something was "a lot of fun" or "not much fun", using those constructions because "fun" was a noun, as is "cheese". Nowadays people, at least young people, talk about something being "very fun" or "not very fun". Wrong! You never hear people taking about "very cheese"!

Now I find that the word is one of the latest anglicisms to migrate to France. Time Out France has produced "Le classement des villes les plus funs". Like every good French adjective, it is made to agree with the noun it describes. Well, technically/grammatically, since "ville" is feminine, it should have had an 'e' as well as an 's', but perhaps "funes" would have lost the anglo-pronunciation. Scores or I should say "les scores", were given for dynamism, atmosphere, restaurants and bars, variety of district life, how welcoming they are, and cost of living.

Madrid came fifth, beating Barcelona. So much for the Catalan capital being the place to go! If you want to know more, here is a link.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Reflections on a dull Wednesday

What do you do on a dull day in November? You head off for Oldham market, of course, to get your boots heeled, to buy light bulbs, to look for impossible colours of wool following a knitting request from your daughter, and to pick up a range of odds and ends from Boots the Chemist!

The lightbulbs were, in the first place because the under-the-cupboard lighting in the kitchen is all failing in one section after the other, and secondly because we have grown weary of dim rooms lit by energy-saving bulbs. The lightbulb stall man agreed with me that it is hard to tell the wattage of the ubiquitous energy-saving bulbs and that it is even harder to get hold of the old-fashioned kind. Fortunately he had some in stock but he was doing the high-pressure sell; if I went away to think about it, he warned me, and came back tomorrow, he might not have them any longer. So I bought some bulbs!

Having achieved all my objectives, I caught the bus home. Somewhere along the route the bus was invaded by a group of schoolchildren. There was a surprising amount of moaning and groaning from the people sitting near me. Considering that the kids refused to move down the bus but all bunched together near the doors, talking loudly and over-excitedly and blocking the way for anyone who wanted to get off the bus, this was not surprising really.

I recognised the badge on their blazers; it had the Aim High logo of our local high school. The school is located in the main Saddleworth village, Uppermill. So what were they doing catching a bus from just outside Oldham centre? Going back to school for something they had forgotten? Going to school early for tomorrow? It turned out that they finish early on a Wednesday and had made a group excursion to the MacDonald's just outside the town centre. Now they were mostly headed for another bit of Oldham where they planned to go to "The Cliff", an old quarry. Why are thirteen year olds attracted to such an evidently dangerous place - one of them was describing quite graphically how a friend had broken a leg there! And what a busy after-school life these youngsters have! Clearly they do not get enough homework!

Almost every one of them was equipped with an iPhone. They were comparing apps and photos. Is this the case in other countries? I wonder! When I got home I came across an item in the news about cyberbullying, sexting and other aspects of online life that cause teenagers misery. Apparently Jeremy Hunt, Health Secretary, believes that this can all be if the phone companies ban these activities. He says, “There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.” and asks himself “why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18” and “why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it”.

The writer of the article says, rather scornfully, that technology doesn't work like that. The kind of scrambling of an image that takes place when a photo is sent means that you can't tell whether the photo is sexting or cyberbullying or just plain harmless until it arrives. Education programmes are what we need!

Quite so!

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Embarrassing reactions!

Some people are complaining that Prince Harry has been put in an embarrassing position because he had to take part in a minute's silence in remembrance of Fidel Castro. Our Prince Hal is on a tour of the Caribbean at the moment and therefore was there when the news of Fidel Castro's death broke. And so he found himself with various local dignitaries at a reception on the island of St Vincent during which a minute's silence was called for.

Conservative MPs have said that it was unfair that the prince had been put in this position, one of them going as far as to say that the British government should make it clear that it was unacceptable. Another however said, “I am no fan of Fidel Castro, who was more of a tyrant than an enlightened leader. But I am a fan of Prince Harry. It must have been an awkward moment for him but hey, what else could he do?”


What was the young man supposed to do? Walk out of the room and create a different kind of embarrassment?

Personally I find it more embarrassing that the queen will invite Donald Trump into the palace but that's how these things go.

Besides, when did we start celebrating the death of anybody? What makes it right for an MP to say, as one of them did, "Castro was a murderous dictator. He is dead, and good riddance." Surely it is possible to accept that you have a different life view and still be respectful or, at the very least, just keep quiet about the person who died. I was impressed by the number of Cubans interviewed who said that they had disagreed with Castro but were nonetheless sad to see him go.

Much better than the undignified partying by former Cubans who "escaped" to Miami. After all, he kept children fed and clothed, even if it was quite basically and perhaps shabbily, and educated. And he provided a better health service than many other places, even training doctors and sending them to places worse off than Cuba. Not a bad record for a "murderous dictator"!

This dancing on the grave of those you disagree with is a worrying trend. Apparently when the MP Jo Cox was murdered there were masses of tweets celebrating the event and calling her murderer a hero.

I find myself wondering what kind of world we are living in at the moment!

Monday, 28 November 2016

When the trams let you down!

Over the weekend, with all its busy reunion of old friends socialising, I spent some time, even more than usual,  travelling on Greater Manchester's Metrolink tram system. Those of us still living in the Greater Manchester area praised the system to the folk from further afield: nearby Rossendale, not quite so nearby Wales, rather more distant Bristol and faraway Switzerland, geographically in Europe but not in the European Union.

This last member, the most international of all of us, having lived and worked as well in the USA, feels no geographical nostalgia for his place of birth and only comes back to see friends and family. The rest of us, perhaps more provincial and less cosmopolitan, grow sentimental about old places around the area.

However, it was the Metrolink that we were praising, a relatively new development, expanding its network all the time, and usually very efficient. Bright and usually clean, modern rolling stock and trams every five minutes or so on most lines and even more frequently on some. Having said that, we had problems on both Friday and Saturday evening. Granted, Friday's problem was nothing to do with the system.

We had left our friends in the pub and caught the tram from Prestwich to Manchester Victoria, fulling expecting to hop almost immediately onto a tram to Oldham and planning to call for a taxi to be waiting for us at the tram stop. Imagine our dismay, chagrin, annoyance when we arrived at Victoria to find a notice so poorly punctuated as to be almost incomprehensible: No service between Oldham Mumps and Westwood services will operate Exchange Square - Westwood and Oldham Mumps - Rochdale Town Centre.

This was after 11:00 pm. Consequently there were quite a lot of confused people rather the worse for drink, all trying to decipher this message. After several readings we worked out that we would be able to reach a station just outside Oldham town centre - Westwood - and then we would need to call a taxi to get us home. All well and good, but we still had to wait about three quarters of an hour for a tram to turn up! We could have had an extra thirty minutes chatting in the pub with our friends!

It transpired that there had been a very violent fight in Oldham town centre and the police had closed the crime scene, through which the tram would pass, for forensic examination. In the end our tram did go through it, progressing slowly and rather eerily through a darkness intermittently illuminated by flashing police car lights. I still do not know exactly what went on. No doubt I shall have to read the local paper to find out!

All seemed well on Saturday when I went on the excursion on the Santa Express. It was on the tram from Bury to Prestwich that we praised the Metrolink service. My friends left the tram in Prestwich, ready to continue with the reunion fun into Saturday evening. I, on the other hand, stayed on to Victoria, making my homewards to meet my chessplaying absentee husband.

At Victoria delays were announced on the Rochdale via Oldham line but it did say that there would be a tram in 16 minutes. Rather longer than the usual waiting time but still acceptable. Asking an official about the problem, I discovered that there were signalling problems at a stop on the line and the service had been suspended. So what about the tram in 16 minutes time? Well, apparently it had been saying that for the last three quarters of an hour!

So I went and caught a bus!

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Day out

This has mostly been a weekend of reunion with old friends. Well, Phil had to miss a good part of it because he could not get out of playing chess on Saturday but that's just the way it goes sometimes.   

On Friday evening we all met for a rather fine meal together at a Turkish restaurant: good food in good company!   

On Saturday, however, the day Phil had to miss, we went on the Santa Express, a seasonally modified version of the old steam train from Bury to Rawtenstall. 

We didn't really intend it to be the Santa Express. We planned a simple steam train ride but it's that time of year. So we found a carriage away from the main kids' section of the train, where they could say hello to Santa and get overexcited!    

Even so, and despite most of us wearing badges that said we were adults, our carriage was invaded by a crazy magician in a flamboyant suit made of blue cloth adorned with Christmas trees and snowflakes and other such seasonal things. 

He proceeded to make small sponge balls appear, multiply and disappear, accompanied by a fine selection of ribald comments and double entendres. Six adults were rediscovering their childhood! Totally silly!   

 However, our conversation did range over more serious topics as well. This is hardly surprising as our group comprised of one physicist, one geographer, at least two but possibly three former primary school headteachers, one of whom was a leading light in a local conservation society and me, a linguist and former head of the Modern Languages department of a college.   

As the local conservationist pointed out areas that had been underwater last Boxing Day and how close the railway line came to being washed away, inevitably we had yet another discussion about global warming and climate change.    

The physicist argued that global warming is a natural, cyclical phenomenon that has always happened and always will; ice ages come and go; the polar regions expand and contract but the equatorial regions stay much the same.   

The geographer argued that it cannot be denied that there are more cases of extreme weather than ever there used to be. Ah, but, responded the physicist, the fact of the matter is that those extreme weather cases have always happened and simply get more press now than ever they used to. In addition to that, every time there is a case of extreme weather, be it cold, hot, wet or dry or windy, someone cries out "global warming" or "climate change", as if that should explain and somehow solve the problem.   

The conservationist went on a bit about CO2. The physicist more or less dismissed it as much lesser a problem that methane, which apparently takes a lot longer than CO2 to disappear from the atmosphere.   

The rest of us just tipped in our twopenn'orth as we saw fit, perhaps with a little less authority than the scientific branch of our party, but we refused to be excluded. All of us are much too well-informed and opinionated for that.   

I am not sure where the extreme weather in Australia reported in today's news comes into our arguments/discussions. Severe thunderstorms have been doing odd things to the pollen, causing asthma attacks from which six people have died while others remain in intensive card. Here is a link to an article about it.

We were not serious and solemn all the time. We has too many silly conversations with folk dressed up as elves and Christmas trees for that. And we had an excellent walk around Rawtenstall, with our local conservationist friend pointing out the improvements that his Civic Pride organisation has carried out.   

We admired the Rawtenstall Railway Station, rebuilt 20 years ago in authentic style and looking rather fine. We enjoyed Lancashire food and mulled cider bought from stalls at a Christmas Market. Not so flashy and international a Christmas Market as you find in central Manchester, this one seemed to be selling much more local produce. Not at all a bad thing!   
 All of us thanked our organising friend, the geographer, for planning our day out and especially for organising the splendid, not too extreme weather for us.