Sunday, 22 October 2017

Sunday And the world is still crazy!

Well, the world continues in chaos.

We have the crazy situation in Spain where the Madrid government wants to take direct control of Catalonia, prompting huge demonstrations in Barcelona. While I believe that really the whole of Spain should have a say in deciding whether Catalonia becomes a separate country (and I would say the same about the Uk and Scotland, by the way), I can’t help feeling that the heavy-handed way Rajoy’s government has gone about things has not helped the situation at all. In fact, it has probably made some Catalans want to leave Spain.

And then Brexit staggers along towards a NO DEAL conclusion. Or rather, the staggering looks rather like a headlong slide into that outcome. There are some who still hope for a NO BREXIT outcome. I fear that we shall end up paying huge amounts of money whatever happens.

Donald Trump has been tweeting about Britain’s crime figures, blaming it all on terrorism. This has prompted some people to make rude comments about him. Newspapers tell me that “Conservative backbencher Nicholas Soames, grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, called the US president a "daft twerp" who needed to "fix gun control". Lib Dem deputy leader Jo Swinson also responded to the president's tweet, accusing him of "misleading and spreading fear". The Labour MP, Yvette Cooper, said the statement was "inflammatory and ignorant", while ex-Labour leader Ed Miliband said Mr Trump was "a moron".” That’s another bunch of people for him to fall out with.

Moves are afoot in the UK to raise the speed limit for traffic going past motorway roadworks, from 50mph to 60mph. They have done tests involving dashboard cameras and other equipment monitoring drivers’ stress levels and have decided that a higher limit is better. On the television news last hight I heard a spokesman for some organisation expand on the stress factor. It went something like this: (my words, not his)

Lorries are often speed restricted so that they cannot go at more than 56 mph. When speed limits of 50 mph are imposed going past roadworks these lorries, travelling at 56 mph, will often tailgate cars. This makes car drivers stressed and nervous.

And so, instead of imposing the 50mph speed limit on the lorry drivers, they decide to raise the speed limit to 60 mph for everyone. Car drivers can escape tailgating lorries.

They might be more likely to cause problems for the workmen because of accidents.

However, the lorries will be sorted out.

I wondered if I had heard this correctly or just made it up and so I looked it up on the internet and found this:

“A spokesman for the RAC said the new speed limit was good news for motorists. 'It should help to improve the flow of traffic, which often builds up well ahead of motorway roadworks,' he said. 'Where safe to do so, increasing the limit through roadworks will provide better, more reliable journeys … [it] also enables motorists who feel threatened by the close proximity of HGVs in roadworks to free themselves.'”

As I see it the bullies win. Meanwhile bullying storm Brian is battering us. I looked out of the window first thing, saw the rain pouring down and the trees blowing around and decided that running was out if the question. By the time I had done some indoor exercise and later sorted myself out to walk into the village, it had calmed down a little and I could have run after all. But it was still fiercely windy, the puddles were immense and the river was bouncing along full pelt.

Later in the morning I listened to Desert Island Discs on the radio. Kirsty’s guest this week was Edna Adan Ismail, former Foreign Minister of Samaliland and once married to Mohammed Haji Ibrahim Egal, Prime Minister of Somalia (1967–69) and then President of Somaliland (1993–2002). More impressively she is the founder and director of the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital in her country and yet more impressively a pioneer in the struggle for the abolition of female genital mutilation. Her description of undergoing this herself at the age of eight was harrowing. Her doctor father’s reaction on discovering that his own mother and his own wife had colluded, indeed arranged for this to be done, was confirmation for her of the wrongness of this act. An amazing lady, she is worth listening to.

And finally, in the midst of all the craziness of the world, here is a reminder that we still find bits of beauty everywhere.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

On universities and the problems of being made to think!

Who would have thought that all these years on from when my classmates and I were applying to university the same discussions would still be going on about Oxford and Cambridge universities not accepting enough candidates from state schools? If fact, it might not just a state school thing; there is also that North-South divide thing going on. Apparently candidates from London comprehensives do better than those from North of England comprehensives. But still the major difference is between private schools candidates and state school candidates.

According to one of the speakers on Any Questions on the radio, it still comes down in part to a confidence issue and the fact that candidates from state schools aren’t as well prepared for the interview they will have to go through and to some extent they don’t really expect to get in. In some cases schools are discouraging pupils from applying for fear of being disappointed. Still? In the 21st century? (See lower down about protecting people’s feelings.)

One person who spoke on the Any Answers programme bemoaned the loss of the initiatives that I remember existing in state secondary schools, such as the Gifted and Talented programme, which selected pupils early in their secondary school career and kind of groomed they for greatness. Quite so!

The sixth form colleges (state institutions) where I worked had a specific member of staff assigned to encourage and oversee applications to Oxbridge. In both cases these were people who had actually studied there themselves and had experienced the system from within. Perhaps every school and particularly every sixth corm college should have an Oxbridge graduate on their staff for just that purpose. Of course, that would involve finding idealistic Oxbridge graduates prepared to work for a teacher’s salary!

Cambridge has been in the news as well for issuing what they call “trigger warnings” to students in advance of lectures to help prevent distress. Thus, students of English were given advance warning that a seminar on Titus Andronicus would contain discussion of sexual violence and sexual assault. Surely, since Cambridge expects students to have read the texts under discussion, you might think those bright and confident enough to get there might be able to work that out for themselves!

It’s all part of a process they refer to as making universities into “safe” places. I am not quite sure what they mean by this but it seems to involve removing stuff that might upset some people. And so there was a controversy about the Christian Union - I think that is who they were - not being allowed to have a stall at a freshers’ fair in case it caused offence!! And certain people have been banned from addressing students in prearranged meetings because of certain “disagreeable” opinions they have expressed.

Maybe films and books should also come with warning they might just possibly make you cry, make you angry, or, heaven forbid, make you think!

Now, I am all for keeping people safe but I like to think this means physically so. It should not mean that we don’t allow students to be confronted with ideas and opinions that they might disagree with or that might upset them. Isn’t studying at university supposed to be about learning to discuss things rationally and, from another angle, to prepare students for life beyond their studies?

Or am I just being old fashioned about it all?

Friday, 20 October 2017

Coffee addiction and other food fads.

Years ago, when David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" was first seen on British TV, we were amused by Agent Dale Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan, and his love of coffee. At least once an episode he was heard to declare, "This is damn fine coffee". We still echo him from time to time.

Now I think that Agent Dale Cooper was simply an alter ego for David Lynch who says that his "relationship with coffee" began at the age of three. Modern mothers would throw their hands up in horror at the prospect of their three year old drinking coffee but I can remember people who gave their small children weak milky coffee in a bottle. No wonder they sometimes had trouble sleeping!

David Lynch reckons that at one point he was drinking as many as 20 cups a day. Nowadays he averages 10, but the size of the cup has increased. I wonder what size of cup he drinks nowadays, considering that what Starbucks calls "small" seems to me to be enormous! A good coffee, David says, “should have no bitterness, and it should be smooth and rich in flavour. I like to drink espresso with milk, like a latte or a cappuccino, but the espresso should have a golden foam. It can be so beautiful.” A coffee lover!

I thought of him the other day when I drank coffee with my German friend in the Vienna Coffee House in Manchester. She was drinking an Americano and expressing her annoyance at the Americans having claimed ownership of the large black coffee, which she said should rightly be called a German, or possible Austrian, filter coffee. Nonetheless she enjoyed coffee, declaring it to be very good. Which is ironic as in her house she serves rather poor instant coffee.

Of course, the other big irony is anyone laying claim to coffee as belonging to their nation, apart from tropical Africa where it originated. I wonder if Donald Trump knows that this so American drink, served with just about every meal and cups refilled frequently in diners, is really an immigrant!

I have to confess that Phil and I have become awful coffee snobs. Instant coffee has not been seen in our house for a long time. We remember, with a shudder, my mother making coffee with milk but no water and the merest sprinkle of instant on top of the hot milk. She more or less showed it the coffee jar and that was it. No doubt she would really enjoy the caramel lattes, cinnamon lattes, vanilla lattes and all the other abominations that are offered in coffee shops these days.

Other famous people are known for their eating fads too. Steve Jobs was vegan most of his adult life, believed in fasting, and had periods of being a fruitarian, eating nothing but fruit and nuts. He is said to have believed his diet prevented him from sweating and so did not always wash regularly or use deodorant - not really advisable when you work closely with others! He is also known to have sometimes lived on nothing but apples and carrots, convinced that they gave him everything his body needed. I could almost share that belief, having lived on almost nothing but apples at times during my student life. I am doubtful about the carrots side of it ever since a friend of mine went on a strict carrots and potatoes diet and found his fingers beginning to turn orange from a surfeit of carotene! 

Jackie Onassis is said to have eaten one baked potato a day stuffed with beluga caviar and soured cream. She watched the scales “with the rigour of a diamond merchant counting his carats”, according to her social secretary Tish Baldrige. If she went a couple of pounds over her usual weight, she would fast for a day, then confine herself to a diet of fruit until she was back to normal.

Such are the oddnesses of people's eating habits!

Thursday, 19 October 2017

On punishment and presents.

I read today that Scotland is banning the smacking of children. Well, good for them, say I. I have always been against smacking, which in the end serves to show children that might is right, that the strong rule and having the ability to lash out physically is better than making a rational argument about things.

The article I read said that England is one of four EU countries where corporal punishment is not forbidden. I tried to find a list of countries that forbid smacking but could only find a list of about eight or ten EU countries, nowhere near the number you would expect of we are one of the only four who still smack kids.

Spain was not on the list. I mention this because recently as I walked through St. Ann's Square in Manchester I saw a small child, a very small child, no more than 15 months old, do that thing that tiny people do, pull off her hat and casually drop it over the side. The mother, young and smart, leaned round and said to the child, "¡Olivia! ¡Dame la mano!", grabbed the proffered hand and delivered a sharp slap. I almost intervened. After all I could tell her quite clearly in Spanish that smacking a baby is wrong. However, I was not in busybody mode and refrained.

 It is worth noting that the child was in an outward facing buggy. Phil and I have a thing about buggies; we firmly believe that small children being pushed around in buggies should face the adult pushing them. It's hard to ignore a child if you are making contact with him/her and conversation takes place which is much better for language development. Had little Olivia been facing her mummy, then Mummy would have known that she was pulling her hat off before things went far enough for it to be dropped. Instead she was busy talking to her friend and ignoring the child. Of course, it is quite possible that little Olivia would have received a smack anyway!

On the subject of punishment, I was rather pleased to hear that a couple had been jailed for making false insurance claims. Twice they claimed to have suffered from food poisoning on holiday and wanted compensation. Unfortunately for them they also posted lots of pictures on social media, letting all their friends know what a good time they were having. You have to be careful what you post. Social media is a fickle friend and sometimes turns round and bites you in the leg. Now someone needs to sort out the whiplash claimants and perhaps insurance premiums will reduce a little.

Apparently Theresa May once baked brownies for the BBC team when she went on Test Match Special. Did she really bake them with her own fair hands? I suppose it's quite likely - a little bit of domestic relaxation. Anyway, on a second appearance recently, asked about these treats, she commented that Geoffrey Boycott still had her Tupperware. He has made amends by sending her a gift of plastic boxes embossed with gold labels reading "Property of Theresa May". I lose plastic containers all the time - they migrate to my daughter's house - and I have never yet received personalised boxes in return. What usually happens is that she turns up one day with a bag full of the borrowed Tupperware.

It is much more common for Theresa May to receive gifts of shoes rather than plastic boxes. As female politicians' choice of attire is much noticed and commented on, she has become well known for her love of shoes with kitten heels, or so I have read. Consequently fashion designers such as Stella McCartney send her shoes. But these gifts come at a price; government ethics rules mean the prime minister, ministers and special advisers must declare gifts received above the value of £140 – and pay for any of the gifts they wish to keep. So when these fashion designers send gifts which are well received they benefit twice: the items are paid for and presumably they are able to say "as worn by the Prime Minister".

I wonder if this also applies to the personalised Tupperware.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

The joys of public transport around Greater Manchester.

Yesterday, a fine and sunny but windy day, was one of those days when you get up, get started and just carry on all day. In my case it went something like this: get up bright and early, put a load of washing in the washing machine, do some exercise, shower and get ready for the rest of the day, organise breakfast, hang the washing up to dry, rush out to travel to Manchester, meet an old friend as previously agreed, go on to my Italian class, travel home, keeping my fingers crossed that the travel worked out okay, serve up gourmet leftovers, watch a bit of TV and collapse into bed with my book!

My travels yesterday were full of incident of one kind or another from the very start. I hopped on a bus heading for Oldham in the mid to late morning. The bus arrives at the crossroads, goes into the village, turns round by weaving its way through a housing estate and then goes back to crossroads before finally turning towards Oldham. Yesterday it got stuck weaving its way through the housing estate. Someone had cleverly parked a car very close to a corner, preventing the bus from being able to swing round properly. Well, the driver could have done so if he had not minded scraping or even taking a wing off the car. Several local residents popped out to see what was going on but were unable to identify the car or its owner. The bus driver contacted his company who advised him to contact the local police. The bus was clearly going nowhere, at least not for a good while. Some people got off and went home. Three of us shared the cost of a taxi to Oldham. Thank goodness I had got on before the bus went into the village. Otherwise I might have been waiting for ages for a bus which was unable to get out of the village.

On the tram into Manchester, I was amused to see a very mismatched couple. She was wrapped up in a warm jacket, scarf round her neck, woolly hat on her head, warm gloves on her hands. It was a wild and windy day but this was a little exaggerated! He, on the other hand, wore a hoody with the sleeves pushed up and long shorts: his legs and feet were bare and the latter were pushed into flipflops. Yes, the sun was shining but ... the only thing they seemed to have in common was sunglasses.

The friend I met in Manchester declined my invitation to lunch at the Manchester Art Gallery, where they offer a very good home-made soup. She was happy, she declared, with coffee and cake. We caught up on all our news and set the world to rights. She bemoaned the fact that her daughter, a civil servant, is turning progressively more right wing. Despite having voted "Remain", she has just accepted a promotion that makes her a big wheel in the Brexit committee within the treasury. This slide to conservatism, with a small c or a large C, seems to my friend to be almost inevitable. She was almost inconsolable but the cake helped!

Waiting later for bus to take me from Piccadilly to Ardwick, where my Italian class is now now located, I was treated to the delights of two teenage boys, probably around 14 years old, amusing each other by phoning girls and swearing at them at the top of their voices. I did think about remonstrating with them; you can grow tired of hearing " bitch" over and over again. However, there was nobody else at the bus stop and I chickened out. I did not want their evident misogyny to turn on me when I had no back-up. Besides, the bus came quite quickly.

My return journey was expedited by a friend from the Italian class giving me a lift to Piccadilly to catch the tram for the first stage of the journey. Waiting for the second connecting tram at Manchester Victoria, I saw a man going round asking everyone if they could sell him a cigarette, despite smoking being prohibited on the platform and his having a small child in a buggy. The tram arrived and he was suddenly joined by a woman, presumably the mother of the child. They did not sit side by side, as might be expected. He sat behind her. The tiny child sat in the buggy and was alternately ignored and growled at by both parents. After belching loudly and resonantly, the father picked up the child and proceeded to use her to torment the mother, dangling the poor little thing by her arms over the mother's head. Eventually she upped sticks and moved further down the tram. The child was returned to the buggy - phew, what a relief! The father later followed the mother down the tram, taking the child in the buggy but leaving his coat on the seat. Drunk as a skunk and in the middle of an argument was my conclusion. They got off before I did, he having retrieved his coat.

The last stage of my journey back from Manchester on Tuesday is always a bit hit and miss. There is a bus from Oldham to Delph at 19.28 and I spend the last part of my tram ride watching the clock. If I miss the bus, there is not another for an hour and I often give in and get a taxi. Yesterday evening I alighted from the tram and spotted my bus waiting at the stop. A sprint got me there before the bus left. In fact the driver and a companion were discussing matters and not letting anyone on board. It transpired that this was not my bus but a completely different bus with a number that refused to change.

My heart sank. I was prepared for my second taxi of the day when, suddenly, my bus appeared, only eight minutes late. Sometimes things work out right. I managed to travel the rest of the way without further problems or items of sociological interest!

Monday, 16 October 2017

Consequences of hot weather?

When I went out running earlier this morning it was strangely warm. I had put my light-weight waterproof on as Ophelia was predicted to be making her way over, perhaps softened a bit by hitting Ireland first but still battering us a little with wind and rain. I hadn't got far before I had to take off the waterproof and tie it round my midriff - too hot. It had a try at raining as I made my way back but it didn't really get going. What wind there was blew hot. Very odd! And now the sky is a threatening yellowy grey colour, for all the world as if we are due for a big thunderstorm.

I shouldn't complain. As I have said many times, we are fortunate to have no real extremes of weather.

Late last night I noticed that a friend of mine had posted something about forest fires in Galicia. This is, of course, nothing new. Every summer there are fires. Warnings go out about not lighting fires if you go for a picnic in the woods and about being careful not to drop still-lighted cigarette ends.

But we are now in the middle of October. What is more, my friend, who lives in Alcabre, a district of Vigo down near Samil beach, was talking about the possibility of having to be evacuated from their home.

None of the British papers seemed to have news of this in their online papers. But by this morning some news outlets carried reports, but still not the main story treatment that the California fires had. And yet, people have died, people have had to leave their homes and some homes have gone up in smoke. Fires have been burning all over the place all over the region, crossing the River MiƱo to and from Portugal. This satellite view shows how many fires have been burning.

I have seen forest fires from a distance. In August I watched fire-fighting planes scooping water from the sea to dump it on the flames. But always I saw it from a distance. Yesterday, I ma told, the fire made its way into the city of Vigo. People from outlying districts were told to leave their homes and hotels and a sports stadium were made available for overnight accommodation. The flames even made their way to the Castro Park, one of the green lungs of the city, close to the centre.

This is Redondela, the next stop on the railway line from Vigo to Pontevedra.

When Redondela has fireworks for its fiestas, we can watch them from our flat in Vigo. That's how close it is. It's an amazing photo. Fire is a beautiful but dangerous thing.

Hurricane Ophelia has had her part in this event, fanning the flames and helping them leap boundaries. And all around the region there are those eucalyptus trees, ubiquitous intruders, that burn like crazy. A major factor though is the fact that it has not rained properly there for months. Back in June, friends of ours were expressing concern about the ongoing drought. And dry months have gone by since then. And temperatures have remained high through September and October.

Astoundingly some of these fires have been started deliberately. Who does things like that?

Poor Galicia!

Sunday, 15 October 2017

On routines, food fads and gender roles.

Today is a perfectly fine, almost springlike day. According to the online weather forecast, it is cloudy and will be cloudy all day. In reality, the sky is mostly blue, the sun is shining and it is mild, verging on warm. And this is despite the fact that Hurricane Ophelia, now no longer a true hurricane apparently, is supposed to be bringing us high winds. Why there are so many hurricanes is year is one of those things nobody has yet explained to me. Consequently, I put it all down to global warming.

Because today is Sunday and because I am mostly a creature of habit, I listened to The Food Programme on the radio while doing a variety of kitchen-based tasks. Today they were concentrating on people who eat according to strict rules.

There was a jockey who talked about how he maintains his weight at around 8 stone. Now, I know jockeys are not tall and that he might perhaps be my sort of height, 5 feet 5 inches more or less, but even so, 8 stone is skinny. I know because I have been that sort of weight in the past. Apparently when he started jockeying he weighed 5.5 stone. There must have been nothing of him but skin and bone. He likes to have the occasional blow-out Sunday lunch with his family and a glass or two of wine to accompany it. After that he gets back on his disciplined routine and quickly reverts to his low weight, following a diet which he did it specify.

Then there was the former boxer, who used to follow a chaotic routine in the six weeks before a big fight: get up at 6.00 am for a run, no breakfast, back to bed for a while, then a session at the gym, after which he bought a 6 inch Subway sandwich, which he really enjoyed, and then back to bed to sleep some more. Ye gods! Is that a life? He said that his skin was terrible and he was susceptible to cuts but he maintained this routine for a long time until he got involved in something with Liverpool John Moores University. They have him eating six small meals a day, with healthy snacks of nuts and bananas; he no longer shuts himself away in his room but eats with, and interacts more with, his family, feels healthier, has no skin problems and weighs less than when he was on his Subway diet!

The programme presenter also spoke to a Jain nun, who was visiting someone for lunch, something Jainists do quite often, or so it seems.  She was a strict vegetarian, one of the things that goes with the Jain philosophy. Her vegetarianism had an extreme I have not heard of before: Jainists eat no root vegetables because root vegetables have souls. In fact they have not just one soul per veg but the possibility of multiple souls. Who knew? It seems just a little extreme to me and perhaps a bit boring.

A food vlogger they interviewed spoke about her loathing for what she calls "beige" food, by which she seems to mean pasta, potatoes and bread. This is a consequence of her mother feeding her lots of boring sandwiches in her childhood. Food should be colourful, she maintained. I quite agree, but I do think it is possible to add colour to pasta and potatoes. Everything in moderation! The excerpt they played from her vlog was, in my opinion, annoyingly chirpy and sweet, sunny-voiced and more than a little too self-assured. However, quite a lot of people follow her and many even pay £50 to download her week-long diet advice. And so she makes a living in one of the new modern ways!

In yesterday's paper, I came across this article about women earning more than their husbands, not from vlogging but in more conventional business-related ways. The writer explained how he and a number of his friends became stay-at-home dads, working freelance from home and gradually accepting that it was okay for them no longer to be the main breadwinner for the family.

Phil and I have usually been pretty much equal breadwinners. At times one or other of us became the higher earner in the family but it never bothered us. The money always went into a common pot anyway. The fathers in the article had some difficulty initially accepting their "lesser" role in the family finances but adjusted fine in the end. Role-reversal has a lot to offer, they said.

However, I found myself wondering. It may work in professional, creative families but what about the out of work unskilled man whose wife keeps the family going with several cleaning jobs and whatever else she can find? That might be a different story!