Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Shopping and snow and changes!

Yesterday we managed not to have an excess of anything at the Italian class Christmas shindig. Moderation in all things! We had a nice panettone, bought from Aldi of all places.

I remember when they opened the first Aldi around here, opposite the community centre where I taught Spanish to adults. I used to stock up with cartons of orange juice at bargain prices after I had finished teaching. They sold a limited range of goods, their presentation skills were minimal - piles of boxes basically - but their prices were also minimal. This was the first supermarket I had come across where you had to put a pound deposit in your trolley. I suspect that this was to ensure that the trolleys were returned to the trolley store, avoiding the need to employ someone to round up stray trolleys. They ran a smooth and economical organisation!

The girls who worked on the tills had to learn the prices and codes for all the items on sale and were given a trial period to ensure that they worked fast enough. Those who could not put stuff through fast enough did not get a permanent job. No bar-code readers in those days! The cashiers still work super-fast - no chatting about the weather or how nice your ear rings are for them - but at least they don’t have to memorise all those prices. Which is just as well as the range of goods has gone up considerably.

I remember some people being very snobby about the store, saying it was for poor people, and others being rather shamefaced about shopping there, not really wanting to be seen there by the neighbours. And now I have my Italian teacher recommending the panettone and the Serrano ham, sold on the bone, complete with stand and special knife, for a very reasonable price! How things change!

And when Aldi shuts its door at 4.00pm on Christmas eve, they have arranged for charitable organisations to collect boxes of unsold goods to pass on to the needy. Very good, if a little Dickensian!

The country, or at least parts of it, almost ground to a halt at the start of the week after Sunday’s snow. Our second grandchild, the 14-year-old, was keeping her fingers crossed in the hope that her school would be closed. But no! She had to attend as usual. We got off lightly. For a change!

In the early evening yesterday it started to rain. That did for most of the snow around here. The hills that were white and Christmas-cardy have returned to a sort of dull greenish grey. Only on the footpaths, where compacted snow has been polished up with a slick of rain, are we reminded of the deep cold. Those footpaths were treacherous this morning and I found myself forced to walk in the road.

So it goes!

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The ornithological post!

Today we are having a bit of Christmas shindig at the Italian conversation class. It’s one of those things you do at adult classes: everyone is supposed to turn up with something to eat or drink and you keep your fingers crossed that you don’t end up with ten lots of mince pies or ten bottles of wine and nothing else. By some kind of magic, it usually works out fine.

So, with these festivities in mind, this morning I stuck my robin redbreast ear rings in my ears and pinned on my jingly robin redbreast brooch. You have to get into the spirit of things, after all! And then I scanned the newspapers online and found this article about what murderous little beasts robins are. A “vicious, murdering bully” is how the robin is described. Apparently 10% of adult robin deaths are “robin-on-robin incidents” and they get into fights with other birds too. They use their cute, pointy beaks to sever the spinal cord of their opponent! Well, I knew they were territorial but, as we often have several in the garden at the same time, I had always disbelieved the story that you only saw one in at a rime in the same area. I never had them down as the tiny thugs of the ornithological world though. It just goes to show that it’s not just your screen idols like Kevin Spacey who are revealed to be beastly! It also applies to our feathered friends and heroes! Who knew?

And yet we have always had this sentimental view of robins. After all, it’s a robin in “The Secret Garden” who reveals to Mary the whereabouts of the key to get into the eponymous garden. And did we not all learnt that nursery rhyme about the north wind blowing and the snow coming and asked what would poor robin do then, poor thing? It turns put he would probably viciously attack another robin!

It seems that robins got in on Christmas back in Victorian times when postmen wearing red coats were nicknamed “robins”. Then robins carrying cards in their beaks appeared on Christmas cards. And, besides, they stand out so nicely against the snowy background of a sentimentally white Christmas. And the rest is tradition!

But I’ve got my robin-themed Christmas jewellery on now and I can’t be bothered changing it.

The writer suggested that we replace the robin with little jenny wren. Wrens, he maintains, are bit like us in that they will snuggle together for warmth. And they have a very nice, cheerful song. Okay, but they are perhaps a little drab. I am pretty sure I saw on on the outside window ledge of our bedroom this morning.

If it wasn’t a wren, it was something very small and brown and feathery. Then I came downstairs and saw a tiny blue tit on the outside window ledge of the living room. This is clearly my morning for bird spotting! It’s good to know we have something in our garden other than raucous rooks and quarrelsome magpies. We do get an awful lot of both of those and it is a delight to see these quite large birds trying to hang upside down from the bird-feeders our neighbour fills, presumably with smaller birds in mind.

While I’m on about birds, the other day I was amazed at the number of starlings there were by the tram stop in nearby Ashton-under-Lyne. This is a species that is supposed to be growing scarce, or so I have been told, and yet there were masses of them, all singing quite tunefully as well.

Life is full of surprises!

Monday, 11 December 2017

Christmas trees and decorations and such.

I notice that the house across the road now has a large Christmas tree in the bay window. They’re usually the first to put up a tree, at least one visible to passers-by. It is not, of course, beyond the bounds of possibility that others have trees hidden away where the rest of us cannot see them. The across-the-road neighbours are not, however, the first to put up decorations of one sort or another. Some houses are already well and truly festooned with climbing Santas, inflatable snowmen, wicker reindeer and masses of twinkling lights.

So today the across-the-road neighbours have been busy hanging baubles and lights on the bushes and shrubs in their front garden, presumably in an attempt to catch up. Who says the spirit of competition is dead?

The daughter of a good friend of mine put the following post on Facebook, together with a photo of her apparently inadequate tree:

“Christmas tree is up!! As you can see, it is far too small for our new house, so we are going to be selling it after this year for £175 to upgrade to a bigger one. Including this year, it will have been used only twice and cost us £419 last year!!! It is a Balsam Hill 6 foot European Silver Fir Tree, prelit with clear LED bulbs. It is 78% true foliage - each individual needle has been moulded, which makes it super realistic!!

We will drop it off anywhere in London, the South East or Greater Manchester before next Christmas. Please let me know if you are interested xx”

Okay, I should not be surprised. This is the young lady whose wedding was choreographed to within an inch of existence, ensuring not only that nobody upstaged the bride but that the guests all co-ordinated nicely! And I have heard of some of the birthday parties she has organised. She is a young lady in search of perfection!

How did she and her husband ever save up for a deposit for a house if they were going round spending £400+ on an artificial Christmas tree? They must be earning too much money! I wonder what happened to young people scratching around to make ends meet. She is obviously much more into gracious living than is the ageing hippy writing this blog. No doubt she would find my tiny tree quite ridiculous.

All of this Christmas ostentation - making sure your tree is visible to all the neighbours, decorating the outside of the house and putting baubles in the trees in the garden - goes against all my mother’s ideas of Christmas decorations. She always grew sniffy about people who put their tree on the windowsill, visible to all who went past but often invisible inside the house once you drew the curtains in the evening. She did not see the point of decorating a tree just to show off to the neighbours. Quite what she would think of some of the overdecorated houses I can’t imagine. 

Personally I don’t mind a bit of garden-decoration at Christmas but I am sufficiently my mother’s daughter to say that a line should be drawn. Discretion is the better part of good taste! Besides, are not some pensioners perhaps using their winter fuel allowance to finance the electricity bill for these outdoor lights? Is that right and proper?

My tree is a very small rooted tree in a pot. It stands about 2 feet 6 inches tall and cost me a grand total of £10 from one of the local supermarkets. I was hoping to recycle last year’s tree - also small and rooted - but at some point over the last year it lost most of its needles. I was convinced it had died but at the last minute it started to put out new growth. This new growth looks fine and healthy but the bare bits of the branches make it look terribly scrawny. So it has to stay in the garden, its place usurped by a healthy - for the time being anyway - newcomer.

The usurper is currently residing in the kitchen, waiting to move into the living room on Friday, in time for a visit from our almost four-year-old granddaughter who will help to decorate it. Tastefully, of course!

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Drugs policies. Food for thought.

Last week I read about Portugal’s drug policy, which basically decriminalised drug use and set up very good clinics to help drug users. Here’s a link to an article about it. Today, I have been reading about Uruguay, where some chemists are legally selling marijuana, state-controlled, high quality marijuana, thus avoiding the problems of the adulterated stuff they sell on street corners. There are a few anomalies: medical marijuana is still illegal in Uruguay; purchasers have to be registered and so (a) tourists cannot buy the good quality stuff and (b) pushers still have a market; not many pharmacies are taking part yet as the banks have been putting pressure on them, threatening to close bank accounts if they sell the drug. But they are working on ironing out the wrinkles.

Two smallish countries are attacking the drugs problem in an innovative fashion. Time for others to think about it in a new way too?

Uruguay sounds like a very modern, forward-thinking country. In 1913 - yes that’s 1913 - a law was passed that said that women could separate from their husbands just by asking a court for permission. And it is still the only Latin American country apart from Cuba to have legalised abortion. Apparently part of the reason is a longstanding separation of church and state. There is no official Christmas Day on the state calendar; it is called Family Day. And Easter week is referred to as tourism week. There you go!

Here’s something else: every week in the Saturday Guardian there is a column which consists of readers’ responses to a question which was asked the previous week. This week people were offering advice in response to this question:

Should I try recipe meal kits? My partner and I work long hours, and I’m looking for a quick, healthier alternative to similarly priced takeaways.

Here is a link to the column, in case you would like to see all the replies.

In the meantime, here are a few examples:

“I've tried both Hello Fresh and Gousto, and am a big fan of the latter for its interesting recipes, tasty meals and clear instructions. (Though Gousto is the worse of the two for quantity of unnecessary packaging.) I tend to use them occasionally, but keep the recipe cards to make the same dishes again and again on my own, more cheaply and in larger batches that can be frozen or see us through a fewbusy weekdays. I'd suggest you try the same - not least because preparing the same (tasty) meal repeatedly sees you doing it considerably faster than getting to grips with a new recipe each week”

“They are a reasonable hands-on approach to cooking if you're not so confident. Having everything available, like in the TV demo, and ready measured is a relatively painless way to concentrate on the mechanics of cooking, like temperature, timing and when to stir. They do have more detailed instructions than any cook book would provide, and that's what some find useful. And there are places where having only just enough of all the ingredients is ideal, at a rented holiday cottage for instance.”

“But the cost should tell you it's a premium way of learning to cook or expanding your range. It shouldn't be your default meal choice; that's only a marginal improvement on ready meals. If you're cooking the same meal from the box for the third time, you're not making the most of the learning opportunity.”

Now, I know about these services in a roundabout, secondhand sort of fashion. Last time I visited my son and his wife, a number of their friends were talking about using these services while away on holiday in the UK. As a way of having all the ingredients you need for a good meal while in a self-catering holiday place it sounds ideal. And you get to keep the recipe cards! They were all pretty sensible about it and pooh-poohed the idea that it might be a solution to everyday catering needs.

Two partners working and meals to cook! A very “modern” problem, this one! Or is it? Haven’t almost all of my generation had the same thing to deal with? Most of us just cooked double amounts of whatever dish we were preparing, eating half and freezing the rest for future occasions. That way there was almost always something ready to defrost for those days when you both arrived home feeling too weary to start major cooking.

Don’t the younger generation have freezers?

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Tempting!

Pope Francis seems on the whole to be a good bloke, trying to be as modest a pope as possible, maybe not as penniless as his namesake St Francis, but reducing papal grandeur as far as the system will let him. Now he wants to change the wording of the Lord’s Prayer. Apparently he is not happy with the line that says “lead us not into temptation” because he believes that God does not lead people into temptation; that is the Devil’s work. We’re getting back into angels on the head of a pin territory here. Surely there are more important things to pontificate on!

An Anglican theologian has said, “In terms of church culture, people learn this prayer by heart as children. If you tweak the translation, you risk disrupting the pattern of communal prayer. You fiddle with it at your peril.” Which says something about how much people think about prayers as they say them. It also says something about the conservative nature of church establishments.

The French have adapted their version of the prayer so that it says “do not let us fall into temptation”. Very nice!

Nothing seems to have stopped Mr Trump from being led into temptation or from falling into temptation as regards declaring that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. There is nothing quite like a bit of extra potential for conflict as Christmas approaches!

And Theresa May has given in to the temptation to accept a deal with the EU. Let’s see how things develop from there.

Royal family watchers have been having fun in recent days with the announcement of Harry’s engagement and the Queen’s imminent 70th wedding anniversary. (Two royal events for the price of one!) In one photo of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburg as a young couple that appeared in the media, I was struck by how much the young Philip looks like his grandson William. So Kate has advanced warning of what to expect as her royal husband grows older.

We have deliberately avoided watching the TV series, The Crown, which is starting a second series today. John Crace, in his “digested week” column in the Guardian, comments: “I can’t help wondering how the queen must feel at having her life picked over and being reminded of Prince Philip’s affairs. Though perhaps she thinks her life can’t get any more surreal than it already is.” Quite so!

Meanwhile, we have been escaping from all of these things by going off yesterday for a reunion meal with friends we have known for more than fifty years, and in one case more than sixty! How did that happen? It was an excellent fine winter’s day with blue sky and rather weak sunshine that did not manage to melt the thin snow and ice. It’s good job we did it yesterday, however, as today is much greyer and the snow is falling steadily.

We might have to fall into the temptation of sitting by the fire and reading the paper all day!

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Trains and boats and planes ... well, anyway trains and trams!

I fear I may be turning into a grump! It’s all the fault of school kids on buses!

Today I spent a good part of the morning helping out my daughter by doing some touching-up of paintwork at her house. I then went on to the local Aldi store and stocked up with odds and ends they sell at good prices. Then I caught the bus home. All very efficiently done!

It started to go a little haywire when the bus arrived at Uppermill and was invaded by pupils from the local high school. For some odd reason they finish at a ridiculously early hour on a Wednesday. If they can be catching a bus before 2.00pm, they must finish at about 1.30. How is this possible? Whatever the answer to that question, the fact remains that masses of school kids got on the bus, pushing and shoving each other until they had somehow managed to accommodate themselves almost all standing as close as possible to the doors.

At the next stop several adults had to struggle through them in order to get off the bus. One elderly lady with a stick almost fell and had to be helped by a number of other adult passengers. By now there were empty seats in the rear section of the bus, not to mention a completely empty central aisle. However, at the stop after that, where one person alighted, the bus driver refused to allow anyone to get on, declaring that his bus was already too full. You can imagine the reaction of the high school pupils to this. The air was blue. Modern twelve- and thirteen-year-olds know words that I never heard when I was that age. Clearly that aspect of their education is working.

As the bus continued on its way I found it difficult to see exactly where we were on the route and so I stood up in order to have better view. As I edged my way forward, in order to be slightly closer to the door and thus able to avoid having to manoeuvre past too many adolescent bodies with my large bag of shopping, I explained to the young people that if they were to move down the bus and perhaps sit on the available seats or stand in the available aisle space then we might all be more comfortable. In response I received a lot of blank or even puzzled looks.

Obviously the only cool way to travel is standing crushed at the front of the bus. And the best spot of all is leaning against the driver’s cab, beyond the notice that says “NO STANDING PASSENGERS FORWARD OF THIS POINT”. I could almost have understood if the driver had been a good-looking young man - most of front space hoggers were young girls - but this was not the case. Amazing! 

Clearly public transport is not working well for me this week so far. Travelling to my daughter’s house this morning, I grew bored waiting for my usual bus and made the mistake of getting on a different one, but still one which went close to my destination. I knew that this bus went on a more roundabout route but I had not realised, or maybe I had perhaps forgotten, to what extent it did this. Back and forth it went through a hundred and one out of the way housing estates, visiting places which probably only see a bus once in a blue moon. I began to feel like an outside, an intruder, as one passenger after another got on, sometimes not even at a “proper” stop and greeted the driver like an old friend. This feeling was reinforced as they greeted other passengers by name. It was as if I had sneaked my way into a cult outing! It was quite a relief to get off the bus.

Even the trams yesterday were not without their little problems. On the way into Manchester my tram was held up at Victoria Station. Two passengers alighting there had stopped and indicated to the driver that there were two young men towards the rear of the second carriage semi-conscious with the drug Spice. The police were called and the young men were escorted off the tram. It’s a sad and strange aspect of the homelessness problem that you see numbers of young men lying, sitting, semi-standing, leaning against walls, completely oblivious of their surroundings, having taken enough of the drug to remove all awareness.

(Ironically in Frank Herbert’s science-fiction story “Dune”, spice is the name of a drug of a quite different kind: “In the series, the most essential and valuable commodity in the universe is melange, a drug that gives the user a longer life span, greater vitality, and heightened awareness; it can also unlock prescience in some humans, depending upon the dosage and the consumer's physiology. This prescience-enhancing property makes safe and accurate interstellar travel possible. Melange comes with a steep price, however: it is addictive, and withdrawal is fatal.” Thank you Wikipedia.)

During my return tram journey in the early evening yesterday the tram jerked to a halt. Passengers were thrown around but nobody was hurt. The driver apologised before setting off once more and, when we reached the next stop minutes later, popped put of his cab to check that all was well. In the evening gloom a car had pulled out in front of the tram and, realising what he had done, the driver had then come to a full stop right in front of the tram. Hence the emergency stop. All could have been worse.

Such are the trials and tribulations of public transport!

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

A little rant about things educational.

Theresa May is struggling with the Brexit talks, foiled by the DUP at the moment when she thought she had cracked it. If I were Theresa May, I would be asking the DUP to give the money back. I wonder if she ever wishes she had stuck to the Remain position that she held during the referendum. 

Not all is doom and gloom though. This report tells how English nine- and ten-year-olds have gone up to eighth place in international reading exams. We used to be in third place apparently and then slipped a long way down the ratings. But now we are on the way back up - hurray! - although still behind places like Finland.

It’s interesting to see the various ways groups of youngsters differ in their reading skills:-

“More than 319,000 students worldwide were tested in 2016 as part of the 2016 assessments. Girls scored higher than boys in 48 of the 50 countries – in the two other countries there was no significant difference between the genders.

Students who attended pre-school and whose parents regularly read with them at an early age had higher reading achievement. The study also recorded a decrease in parents’ positive attitudes to reading in 31 countries, while 17% of parents reported they did not like to read themselves.

The study also found that one in 4 students arrived at school hungry every day, and had an average reading achievement score 32 points lower than students who arrived at school never feeling hungry.”

Some of it is just plain common sense. I could have told them that children whose parents enjoy reading and, perhaps more importantly, whose parents read to them are more likely to be readers themselves. We read to our children and I am aware that all my grandchildren have been read to regularly, practically since birth, although with with differing results. I remember sitting on the floor in a bookshop with the oldest granddaughter when she was about three, surrounded by all the books she had gleefully taken from the shelves to have a look at. She still reads a fair amount now, although computer games take up some of her time. The second one reads books on the bus on her way to school. Their brother has had periods of being a fairly keen reader, although never as keen as his big sisters, but mostly prefers other pursuits. He does, however, enjoy reading stories to his tiny sister. Grandchild number four, three-year-old girl cousin of the ones already mentioned, has her own section of the family bookshelves and has long kept herself busy with her story books. The youngest member of the family, the one whose big brother reads to her, will already at 15 months old go and fetch a story book and nods her head in time to the rhythm of the rhyming stories. On the whole a success, I think!

The high school our teenage grandchildren attend has a policy that all pupils should have a book with them at all times, somethin that they read for pleasure. They are encouraged tonread i  soare miments, this does not, however, prevent the granddaughter who reads on the bus from being teased for the amount of time she spends with her nose in a book. Goodness knows why this should be. I have never really understood why reading is sometimes regarded as odd and boring!

I find it quite horrific that the report says one in four children arrive at school hungry every day. Of course, circumstances vary from one country to another but in the 21st century statistics like that should be disappearing. Of course children will not learn well if they are hungry!

The estimable Paul Mason writes about the social mobility that was evident when we oldies were growing up has largely faded away nowadays. Something has gone wrong with the system. Perhaps priorities need to be re-examined. Maybe if university vice chancellors were not paid such silly salaries, then some of the money could be ploughed back into improving other aspects of our education system. I am pretty sure that the rich will disagree with me - and don’t get me started on how much more they could contribute to our society - but really nobody needs £300,000 or £400,000 or more per year to live on. It’s all out if proportion!