18 November 2019

Mudbath

Blake Mere - The Mermaid's Pool
In the past two weeks my walking activity has been greatly curtailed by wet weather. I was like a tiger in his cage pacing up and down, growling at  passers by in their sou'westers and galoshes. You can imagine how relieved I was when I learnt that dry weather and sunshine was predicted for Monday.
Triangulation pillar at Merryton Low
I planned a ten mile route in northern Staffordshire. Sensibly, this ramble would include six or seven miles on quiet tarmacked lanes - selected because of the amount of rain that has already fallen this month. I knew that there would be some very muddy paths and fields.

God it was good to be out there on a chilly but sunlit day. Naturally I had my trusty "Sony" bridge camera with me. I saw many wonderful things including a herd of wild roe deer. 

By three o'clock the light was already fading. I had just paid a call of nature behind an old stone barn. Rather than retracing my steps, I decided to advance along the adjacent field boundary hoping to spot a way through the fence and then get back on the road.
Big mistake. I found myself in a marshy area with large grassy clumps and evidence of churning by cattle. I hopped nimbly from grassy clump to grassy clump hoping to keep my boots dry. And then I lost my footing. Not only were both feet suddenly shin deep in muddy water with the boots inundated but I fell over like a clown. Good job there were no blog commenters watching from the fence. They would have been killing themselves with laughter
Royal Mail van near Round Knowl
Soon after the catastrophe in the cow field , I got through the fence - back onto the quiet country road. Two or three vehicles and a cyclist passed by - probably fearful of The Beast from the Swamp who was walking back to the village of Warslow in setting November sunlight - leaving a  trail of mud behind him.

Fortunately there was a spare pare of socks in Clint's capacious boot (American: trunk).
Big Fernyford Farm

17 November 2019

Comment

Yesterday's blogpost, "Complacency" attracted some thoughtful comments. I think the words I wrote struck a chord with several readers. To tell you the truth, it was an odd post to write. Admitting vulnerability is never easy. In western culture, the default position is usually that glib "I'm fine thank you". We have all said it.

The longest and perhaps most fully considered response came from Adele. Adele lives on New Zealand's South Island - somewhere in the vicinity of Christchurch. She is not to be confused with the multi-million album selling singer-songwriter Adele who comes from North London.

A little diversion at this point. Back in January 2012, Shirley and I visited the Christchurch region. We stayed in a small village called Little River not marked on the map above and afterwards we travelled over Arthur's Pass to the west coast, stopping for hot pies in the village of Sheffield - also not marked on the map. That small rural community was named after this very Yorkshire city. To look back go here .

Anyway, returning to Adele's comment on "Complacency", I couldn't just let it slide away without sharing it properly with other readers. It seemed too good for that so here it is:-

Being aware of your comfortable situation and gratitude for the opportunities it gives you are your defence against complacency.

Good health and loving relationships usually require some sacrifice. The things we do or don't do, say or don't say, food we eat or don't eat and exercise we do or don't take - all of these have an impact on where we finish up.

We all struggle with the concept of our own death, when and how will it happen? As I hope my own will be sudden and painless (for me and my nearest and dearest), I try and enjoy each day I am gifted (whatever the weather),keep on good terms with my children and nurture my friends so there will be no regrets over things not said like " I love you".

The Christchurch earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 made us all too aware of how suddenly life can change and how little control we have over the earth we live on. A house can be rebuilt but a life lost is lost forever. Many people have since chosen simpler lives, valuing relationships and experiences above material things. We needed our neighbours for help and support.

After 46 years at work I have a small state pension each fortnight, savings and a younger husband still working. We still live on a budget. We can cover our bills and still save for his eventual retirement. I have a large home library, a stash of knitting wool, recipes as yet untried and a garden to work in and enjoy. I am never bored. We have survived good and bad times in our 40 years together - several recessions and redundancies, worked multiple jobs, economised and made things last,and raised two girls to be good, kind, hardworking people. I mostly shop in Charity shops - giving and receiving - and support overseas schools in the Pacific Islands. Education is the gift that keeps on giving.

I can no longer streak down the basketball and netball courts and my tennis days are over but there is still the joy of the Council swimming pool for exercise after a day in the garden or a walk. I carry a book on any journey so I never mind waiting and I'm always learning. I'm no longer keeping anything for best, there is no dress rehearsal, today is all we have. We use the 2nd hand crystal and china everyday as the food and drink taste better.

Most of all I don't WORRY! I leave that to my husband. I am half full, he is half empty.
Your posts always make me think and laugh. Keep up those walks, enjoy the fruit of your labours and your loins, live kindly and keep on sharing your life with the world. We've all worked hard for the freedom retirement brings. 
Let's enjoy it! 
Arohanui 
Adele

16 November 2019

Complacency

"Complacency is a continuous struggle that we all have to fight" - Jack Nicklaus

The years keep trundling by. Each day is like one silent tick from an invisible clock. Onward we go.

Have you been lucky?  I know that I have been lucky. For a man in his mid-sixties I am in good health. I have no disabilties or significant health issues. I don't do drugs and I am not an alcoholic. Though I may not run any more, I can walk for miles. My faculties have not failed me.

There's a good woman by my side and we have two grown-up children to be proud of - good people just like us. Some men of my age can only dream of such treasures. In their lives, that particular boat may have sailed away long ago.

Though I have retired from paid work, I have two pensions and monthly income from a house we rent out. We are not rich, not by a long way, but we are comfortable. We rarely worry about bills or money. If we want a fly-drive holiday over in Montana and Wyoming we can do it or a new car or a replacement television. No problem.
And yet, and yet I can hear the music of complacency in the background. What if? What if?

Death or disability could come early. Hearts fail and there are strokes or brain tumours. Diabetes or cancer. These things happen to people. People just like me. Possibly just round the corner. How would life be then?

In contrast, I could become old and frail. Me and 85. The two don't seem right together but it could happen. How would I cope? I might need personal care or residential care. How would I fund it? How would I cope?

I admit that I am guilty. Guilty of  complacency. Perhaps deep down I imagine that this relatively untroubled, reasonably happy existence will just keep trundling along. Good health and money in the bank forevermore. But as others have discovered - often from painful experience, the apple cart can so easily be overturned. And if that day should arrive, I will doubtless look back rather enviously upon the days I am living in right now.

15 November 2019

Skullduggery

Keira Knightley and Katharine Gun
Another rainy Thursday sees your intrepid reporter riding upon a number 88 bus into the centre of Sheffield to visit The Showroom. I was attending an early afternoon screening of "Official Secrets" starring Keira Knightley as Katharine Gun.

You might  call the film a docudrama because it is based upon a true story set in the years 2003 and 2004. You may remember that in those years George W. Bush, faithfully supported by Tony Blair, waged war upon Iraq. They said that there were Weapons of Mass Destruction but there weren't. It was a hoax, arguably a spiteful pretext for taking a twisted form of revenge upon the  Arabic speaking world for 9/11.

In south west England, near Cheltenham, you will find the beating heart of Great Britain's  leading intelligence organisation - Government Communications Headquarters or GCHQ. This secret service employs around 6000 people and behind the scenes they monitor international political issues and threats to our democracy.

Back in 2003 one of these minions was a bright young linguist called Katharine Gun. Most of her spying activity was quite humdrum but one day she came across a shocking message that she could not ignore. It concerned The United Nations and how America planned to bug the offices of Angola, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, and Pakistan in order to bring pressure upon these "swing" nations to get behind Bush and Blair's planned military invasion of Iraq.

Katharine Gun immediately foresaw the terrible implications of  that secret missive. It was at a time when there were mass demonstrations against a possible war. For example, London hosted the biggest anti-war protest march that  this country has ever seen.

Though she knew she was breaking The Official Secrets Act, Mrs Gun bravely passed the message on and before the invasion had properly commenced a shattering headline story appeared in "The Observer" newspaper - based upon her revelation: "Revealed: US Dirty Tricks to Win Vote on Iraq War" (March 3rd 2003).

She was arrested and eventually brought to court but the case was dropped by the British government as the trial would have incriminated several members of the political establishment. By this time the war in Iraq was in full swing. It was a war that killed far more than 100,000 Iraqi citizens and almost 5,000 invading military personnel from the so-called "coalition" - mostly Americans.

I found "Official Secrets" to be gripping and convincing. Keira Knightley played her role superbly and there were excellent support performances from Matt Smith as "Observer" reporter Martin Bright and Ralph Feinnes as defending lawyer Ben Emmerson.

This wasn't some spy story churned out of an over-fertile author's imagination. It was a portrait of something real that happened not so long ago, something quite chilling and disturbing. Bush and Blair have a lot to answer for though they are still free men, still clinging to their fakery. The bottom line is that there really were no WMD's. It was all a terrible lie that killed so many innocent people and for what? What did that tragic, pointless war achieve?

14 November 2019

Bunter

There's something about our illustrious prime minister that reminds me of Billy Bunter. Billy Bunter? Who on earth is he? I can hear some of you saying - especially North Americans and more youthful visitors to this blog.

He was an early star of children's television on the BBC. He attended posh Greyfriars School with other posh boys and he was a very greedy, idle boy who made viewers laugh with his antics. He liked nothing more than secretly chomping cream buns and he had many tricks up his sleeve to avoid hard work or punishment.

Like Eton School - Boris Johnson's alma mater, Greyfriars is a traditional fee-paying establishment for the sons of the moneyed middle classes. The boys live in a bubble, hardly aware of life in the real world. They have their own vocabulary - "Crumbs!", "Gosh!", "prep", "rugger", "tuck" and "beastly" for example.
As BoJo walked in his green wellingtons around the flooded South Yorkshire village of Fishlake yesterday, he seemed just like Billy Bunter - hardly able to relate to the lives of the ordinary people he met. Listening does not come easily to him. You just knew that he'd have much preferred to be scoffing another cream bun behind the cricket pavilion.

How on earth British people can have any faith in this bumbling self-obsessed buffoon is beyond me. The fact that he is likely to continue as our political leader after the forthcoming General Election fills me with both despair and shame. What is happening here in my beloved homeland? It never used to be like this...

"I say, keep that beast Coker off! I wasn't in his study when he found me there, the 
suspicious beast! I wasn't after his cake! There wasn't any cake, and I never touched it, 
and I had hardly a mouthful when the brute came in! I say, you fellows - ow! Oh crikey!"

13 November 2019

Judgement

You may remember that one of my photographs was the Week 43 Picture of the Week winner over at the geograph website. My reward was to pick the Week 44 winner from a shortlist of fifty images that were pre-selected from 3814 eligible submissions to the site.

At the top you can see the image that I put in third place. It was taken from the coastal town of Bangor in Northern Ireland. The unusual vessel was specially designed to play a lead role in the construction of off-shore wind farms.

In second place I chose the following picture of a cock pheasant taken by an acquaintance of mine - Walter Baxter - who has snapped many wonderful photographs in The Scottish Borders:-
But the picture I chose as the overall winner was this lovely image of a woodland path near the village of Evanton in the Scottish Highland region. I admired the colours in this photograph and the fact that the path is on a ridge. You wonder where that path might be leading. 

12 November 2019

Quotations

The wisdom of the wise, and the experience of ages, 
may be preserved by quotation. Benjamin Disraeli

Of course there are dictionaries of quotations. They can be interesting to flick through. Sometimes you don't need to read an entire book or witness an entire play or film. Truth or wisdom may be contained in a kernel, a smidgeon, a line.

Considering quotations is a different way of reading, a different way of thinking.

In the mid-seventies when I was at university, I produced a series of well-honed essays. They were mostly for English Literature or Education courses. I worked conscientiously on all of them for I took my university studies seriously and I was intellectually engaged by the academic tasks I faced.

I don't know how it happened but I picked up the habit of choosing epigraphs to precede each essay I wrote. An epigraph is "a short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book or chapter, intended to suggest its theme." There is an epigraph at the beginning of this blogpost.

I remember one lecturer being irritated by my epigraphs but I persisted with them in spite of his grumpy reaction. Another lecturer told me he liked them for they were like musical notes that echoed through the essays that followed them. You cannot please everyone.
A watercolour portrait of Robert Owen
by Auguste Hervieu (1829)
National Portrait Gallery, London
I have several favourite quotations. There is one in the header of this blog. It has been there throughout the fourteen years of this blog's existence. And here's another that has always stuck in my mind:-

“All the world is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a little queer.”

It is attributed to Robert Owen (1771-1858). He was both a textile manufacturer and a social reformer during the early years of The Industrial Revolution. His life philosophy was about togetherness and social cohesion but in this quotation he appears to be saying that the bottom line is that the only human being you can depend upon is yourself. Everyone else's viewpoint and experience of life will be at odds with our own. At least that is how I interpret the quote.

I could ramble on and on with this blogpost, exploring quotation after quotation but I am going to cease my peregrination at this point and ask you if you have any "favourite" quotations that have for one reason or another stuck in your mind?

11 November 2019

Remembrance


The numbers are disputed but it is generally thought that 37 million people 
died in World War I and 60 million died in World War II.

At 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month...

"At the going down of the sun and in the 
morning - we will remember them..."

10 November 2019

Kindness

Being on the receiving end of acts of kindness is wonderful. Perhaps the only thing that might better it is dishing out acts of kindness yourself.

Let me tell you about two acts of kindness that I experienced last week.

First of all, going back to last Monday. Shirley and I had been to the Meadowhall Shopping Centre on the edge of the city. Afterwards, we stopped off at the Centretainment complex intending to find somewhere for lunch.

We decided upon Nando's. Previously, I had only experienced this restaurant chain twice. They have very confusing menus. Anyway we managed to place our order - two "mozamb" chicken wraps with sides of chips and mixed salad. Then Shirley went to find some sauce and came back with a delightful lemon and herb peri-peri sauce which was an excellent accompaniment to the meal.

We noticed that it is possible to buy bottles of sauce from Nando's but when we asked a waiter about that he said that our chosen sauce was quite a new one and they don't yet have any bottles to sell. Then he added, "But wait a minute, I will go and get some for you to take home!"

Five minutes later he returned with a paper bag containing ten little plastic pots with lids. He had decanted some of our favoured sauce into each one of them. There was no charge - it was just a simple act of kindness with no thought or expectation of reward.

Secondly, I was in Hull yesterday to watch my beloved football team being beaten by West Bromwich Albion. Stupidly, I went through my allotted turnstile without buying a programme from the sellers outside. 

Once inside the stadium I walked up and down the concourse hoping to buy a programme from somewhere else. Finally, I asked one of the yellow-coated stewards about my quest and he informed me that supporters could only buy match programmes outside.

"Tell you what though - if you give me the money - I'll go out to get you one."

He went down the concrete staircase and was let out of the stadium through one of the emergency exit doors. Three minute later, he returned with my programme.

I said to him, "Please may I shake your hand. That was such a lovely act of kindness. You did not have to do it but you did it all the same. Thank you!"

He blushed slightly. The fellow was around thirty years old. Though we lost the game by a solitary well-taken goal that steward's simple act of kindness almost made up for my disappointment. 

One of my favourite sayings is, "It's nice to be nice" and those two young men proved the veracity of that particular credo. In spite all of the badness and selfishness in this world there is a hell of a lot of kindness out there too.

9 November 2019

Juliet

At Oxfam on Wednesday, I heard another blast from the past - "Juliet" by The Four Pennies.
It took me right back to 1964 when I was an avid follower of the British pop charts. I would copy out the "Top Ten" in my red exercise book each weekend.

There was a love, I knew before
She broke my heart, left me unsure
Juliet, don't forget
The promise you made, 
I need never be afraid
Things you do, reminiscent of you
Juliet, when we, when we met
You gave me, sweet memories
Things you do reminiscent of you
There was a love I knew before
She broke my heart, left me unsure
Juliet, don't you, oh don't you let
My love go astray, in this way
Julie , Julie, Julie, oh Julie
Oh my Juliet, Julie oh Julie
Oh my Juliet...

Formed in Blackburn, Lancashire in 1963, The Four Pennies initially consisted of Lionel Morton (vocals, rhythm guitar), Fritz Fryer (lead guitar), Mike Wilshaw (bass, keyboards, backing vocals), and Alan Buck (drums) The group's name was chosen as a more commercial alternative to "The Lionel Morton Four", and was decided upon after a meeting above a Blackburn music shop, the shop being situated on "Penny Street".

In the mid sixties The Four Pennies were probably the most commercially successful English vocal/instrumental group that failed to chart in the United States, during the so-called British Invasion. 

In Britain, "Juliet" charted at Number 1 in May 1964, staying in the charts for fifteen weeks. It was The Four Pennies' only hit. The band broke up in 1966. Their sound engineer and lead roadie Fungus O'Toole later married Christina from Blackburn who sometimes  visits this blog.

8 November 2019

Newsworthiness

As a news junkie, my "go to" website is the BBC News. In my humble opinion, itt is brilliant. It gives up-to-date local news, national news, news from around the world, sports news, entertainment, comprehensive weather forecasts and much more. I have yet to find a better news website anywhere on the internet.

When you first click in, there will be a headline story. This often changes as each day progresses. Yesterday evening's headline might well have been, "Trump Misused Charity Fund" or "Johnson Keeps Russia Report From Public" or "Children Are Still Starving In Africa". But it was none of these. It was in fact "Biblical Rainfall Leaves Streets Flooded".
And what is more, that report was about my home city - Sheffield and its close neighbour - Rotherham. We had an absolute deluge of rain yesterday. To use a Yorkshire expression. "it pissed it down" all day. 

Like Rome, Sheffield is built on seven hills. Those of us who live on the hills are pretty much immune from flooding but those who live in the valleys, close to the rivers and brooks will occasionally experience floods. Back in 2007, I reported the last serious flooding episode to hit the city as The River Don burst its banks and young Ryan Parry drowned. Go here.

As far as I know, nobody drowned yesterday but many vehicles were abandoned and at The Meadowhall Shopping Centre on the edge of the city, more than a hundred shoppers simply could not get home. They had to sleep there.
I was like a caged beast - going stir crazy. I couldn't even get out to deposit items in our recycling bins. The rain flowed down our street like a stream. At ten o'clock in the evening I donned my raincoat and headed out to the local pub - just to escape from the house. My trews were soaked when I got there and outside a waterlogged double decker bus was receiving the attention of a mechanic dressed like a lifeboat man.

Two of Shirley's nurse colleagues were called back to their  homes during the day because of water inundation.

This morning, as I tap away at this keyboard, God's wrath has diminished and I can see some blue sky. It is no longer raining. Praise The Lord! I think we are going to survive but where was Noah when we needed him?

7 November 2019

Rain

This is not a pleasant week here in northern England. All wet and grey and as I sit in our front room at eight thirty on this Thursday morning, rain is teeming down outside. The weather people tell us that it has set in for the day and tomorrow doesn't look much better either.

The spongy moors between here and Manchester will be sodden and streams and rivers will be swollen as they cascade, trundle and gush towards the sea. Reservoirs will be brimming and the footpaths I often walk will be treacherous.

This is not a day for going out. Shirley went out half an hour ago - off to catch a public bus into the city centre. She'll be working all day at the Sheffield Hallam University health centre - vaccinating dozens of students. Many will be from China. The increasing presence of Chinese students in this city is clear to all and there are several  building projects associated with this influx.

Meanwhile, in  British news channels, all the talk is of the forthcoming general election. It will be held on December 12th and no doubt I will be invited to work as a poll clerk. It will be a busy day with perhaps a 75% turnout. The day's pay will be rubbishy but it's nice to  be engaged in the processes of our so-called democracy.

Brtitain's Trump
Last night Odious Johnson launched the Conservative Party's campaign in Birmingham. It was stage-managed for television just like an American primary event. Supporters waved pre-printed party placards as Odious Johnson stood on a raised dais with the faces of intoxicated supporters behind him. The blunt and misleading  slogan, "Get Brexit Done!" was everywhere. I would prefer "Get Johnson Done!"

The path to December 12th will be bitter and unpleasant with accusations, lies and false promises. Odious Johnson has suppressed a major intelligence report that sheds light upon Russian involvement in the European Union referendum of June 2016. And it is patently obvious why he does not want that information to come out before the election. An army of Russian bots and Facebook infiltrators were working overtime before that referendum to cunningly swing the country to "Leave". It was all good practice ahead of the last presidential election in America.

Calm down young man - I say to myself - calm down!

There are many things I might have blogged about this morning but as the rain continues to pour I will simply leave you with some annual rainfall figures that demonstrate that England is not as wet as outsiders and indeed insiders sometimes think:-

Sheffield, England - 29.4 inches
London, England - 22.9 inches
New York City - 45.2 inches
Tallahassee, Florida - 59 inches
Stuttgart, Germany - 28.5 inches
Florence, South Carolina - 45.0 inches
Bangkok, Thailand - 65.1 inches
Mumbai, India - 95.3 inches
Red Deer, Canada - 19.6 inches
Seattle, Washington State - 38.4 inches
Tamborine Mountain, Australia - 61.5 inches
Auckland, NZ - 50.5 inches

6 November 2019

Nowadays

The Turners
Weatherwise, yesterday was miserable so at midday I took myself off to the cinema, There were two films I would have liked to see but I plumped for "Sorry We Missed You" - directed by the legendary Ken Loach.

It was powerful stuff. Very English but not in a Downton Abbey or Dr Who kind of way. No - this was about the real England, gritty and true with all pretence stripped away. It is set in The North and focused upon one particular working family - the Turners. The plot follows their travails as the parents - Ricky (Kris Hitchen) and Abby (Debbie Honeywood) - try to forge a decent life within the current economic landscape of zero-hours contracts and diminished workers' rights.

He is a delivery man and she is a carer, visiting needful elderly "clients" in their homes. Abby says she hates that word. Ricky has no contract, just the illusion of self-employment. He is ruled by the hand-held tracking device that shadows his journeys and bleeps continuously.

Reviewer Beth Webb in "Empire" said this of the film: "Though relentless at times, this is a crucial, empathetic rally cry of a film that holds a mirror up to the swelling crisis of the gig economy with admirable intention."
The film contains many tender moments and the Turner family seem real and whole. They are not cardboard cutouts simply used to make a series of socio-political points. They laugh and they cry and they have hopes and dreams. That is why the audience is able to feel for them them as they fight their good fight.

"Sorry We Missed You" was spellbinding but I was not convinced about the ending. Where was Ricky Turner going to in his van? Back to work like a soldier - tying to "keep calm and carry on" - or was he instead seeking an edge to drive over?
____________________________________________________

Secondly, I wish to share news of a personal triumph. Some of you will remember that I contribute regularly to a geographical website that continues to illustrate every square kilometre of The British Isles with photographs. Every week there is a "Photo of the week" competition and for Week 43, one of my pictures was chosen as the overall winner - selected from three thousand eligible images. You saw it here first but here it is again:-
And here it is as it appears on the geograph website.

Whoopee-do!

5 November 2019

Guy

Guy Fawkes was a Yorkshireman and a rebel. Born in York in April 1570, he died from a broken neck after possibly tripping upon the gallows. Following his very public death in Westminster, London on January 31st 1606, he was "quartered". Afterwards, his body parts were distributed to "the four corners of the kingdom", to be displayed as a warning to other would-be traitors.

In the early hours of November 5th, 1605 Guy Fawkes was found in an "undercroft" beneath The House of Lords guarding some thirty six barrels of gunpowder. He and his fellow conspirators had placed them there - planning to blow up the parliament building above. Specifically they wished to assassinate the Protestant monarch - King James I and pave the way for a return to Catholic rule.

As I am not a religious historian, I find it difficult to fully understand the Catholic/Protestant tensions of those times but I do know that the animosities were not purely about religious belief. It was also about power, wealth, land ownership and relations with Rome where of course The Pope resided.

Guy Fawkes was acting on behalf of an entire movement. He didn't just wake up one day and think, "Oh, I'm going to blow up The Houses of Parliament". Underscoring his actions were years of intrigue and division as different political philosophies clashed or secretly  ate away at each other like bone diseases.

The Catholic/Protestant division was rife throughout Europe too and in his twenties Fawkes had fought for Catholic Spain in its Eighty Years War with the Protestant Dutch Republic. The bitterness went very deep.

On November 5th 1606, following The Gunpowder Plot, bonfires were lit all across the land and effigies of Guy Fawkes were burnt. All over England, that tradition has continued - for four hundred and thirteen years.

When I was a boy, Guy Fawkes Night - often called Bonfire Night - was one of the eagerly anticipated highlights of my year. It ranked alongside my birthday and Christmas Day. There were fireworks and toffee apples, baked potatoes and sparklers and of course "guys" stuffed with straw or old newspapers sitting atop our bonfires.

Every November 5th, I remember those old bonfires of yore. My father lighting rockets and shouting "Stand back!", my biscuit tin containing bangers and "traffic lights" or "volcano" fireworks, cinder toffee and Yorkshire parkin in the oven and the excited cheering when the lapping amber flames eventually reached the guy...
Remember, remember, the Fifth of November
Gunpowder treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot
Penny for The Guy - London in the nineteen sixties

4 November 2019

Congratulations!

On Saturday morning, English rugby union supporters left their beds with much expectation. We hoped to see our national rugby team beat South Africa in the final of The Rugby World Cup. England had beaten both Australia and New Zealand to reach the final in Yokohama, Japan. Surely, we could overcome South Africa too.

But it wasn't to be. South Africa were stronger and more determined in their forward play and, as the game went on, they ground England down. The final score was England  12 South Africa 32.  We were well-beaten and I believe that  all England rugby supporters will generously admit that on the day, the best team won.

In years gone by, the South African national rugby team was bleached entirely white even though 90% of the population of that country is non-white. But at this year's final their team was multi-racial, led by their very first black captain. That man was Siya Kolisi, pictured at the top of this blogpost. He grew up in poverty in the Eastern Cape region. To see him lead his country to a world cup victory was bigger than sport. His captaincy was a symbol of hope for for all township dwellers, for barefoot children skipping in the street, for hotel cleaners and agricultural workers, for the very prospect of equality.

Kolisi's father, Fezakele Kolisi, attended the final and witnessed his son lifting the golden cup. He had never been on an aeroplane before and had never previously left South Africa. It was quite a moment for him too.

I admit that I felt pretty blue at the end of Saturday's game. My facial muscles turned the corners of my mouth down for the rest of the day but when all is said and done it was just a rugby match. Congratulations to South Africa!
Fezakele Kolisi

3 November 2019

Marianne

On Friday night, I watched a documentary film called "Words of Love". It was all about the fifty six year long relationship between Leonatd Cohen and Marianne Ihlen. I found it tremendously moving but then I was always a Leonard Cohen fan - ever since I  heard his first album in the autumn of 1967. By the way, that record included a song called "So Long, Marianne".
They first met in their mid-twenties on the island of Hydra in Greece in 1960. Marianne had been living there since 1958 and had a baby son called Axel. She was in a village grocery store when Leonard appeared. She said this:-

I was standing in the shop with my basket waiting to pick up bottled water and milk. And he is standing in the doorway with the sun behind him. And then you don't see the face, you just see the contours. And so I hear his voice, saying: ”Would you like to join us, we’re sitting outside?”

At first, in the unearthly sunlight of Hydra, far from the hustle and bustle of the so-called"real" world, they were a devoted couple. He wrote his novel "Beautiful Losers" on Hydra and Marianne supported him through that process.

His first instinct was to be a successful, published writer but in the mid-sixties he was drawn to songwriting and with the encouragement of American folk artiste Judy Collins he transitioned to the stage.

Gradually, he spent less and less time with Marianne on Hydra and they were often estranged. It wasn't the life that Marianne wanted and at the end of the sixties she moved back to her native Norway where she found an oil engineer to marry while she worked in oil platform administration.

But her special bond with Leonard continued through the decades. They remained in touch and you might say that Marianne was the only woman that he ever truly loved. It certainly seemed that way. She had cast a spell over him, similar to the one that he had cast over her.

In the spring of 2016, Marianne was dying in an Oslo hospital. She asked a friend to send Leonard the news. He was also on the path to  lifelessness but he sent a heartfelt letter that was read out to Marianne on her deathbed:-

Well Marianne it's come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I've always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.

-  Your Leonard
The circle was almost complete. He was to die just three months later.

The documentary mapped a beautiful love story made all the more poignant because of the elements of tragedy that were part of it. For example, how could a singing poet truly settle down into a life of domesticity? This was not in his blood 

But the greatest tragedy of all surrounds Marianne's son - Axel Joachim Jensen. To me he seemed like a victim of instability and he ended up damaged by drugs, living in mental institutions in Norway. He must be sixty years old now. Leonard Cohen was very fond of him and what happened to Axel certainly wasn't his fault.

So long Marianne...
Marianne in old age

2 November 2019

Reminiscence

My late brother Paul was a brilliant fiddler. As a teenager, he played classical violin in orchestras but in his twenties, when living and working in north London, he happened upon the Irish pub scene. It was there that he first heard Irish jigs and reels in which of course the fiddle featured prominently.

He went home, took out his violin and practised - learning a different way of playing. It was a style that was filled with raw emotion and clever improvisation and was part of Ireland's great folk tradition. Before very long he was playing in London's Irish pubs and within a few months was asked to join a semi-professional band called Dingle Spike. 

One thing led to another. He divorced his first wife and because of his love affair with Irish music went to live in Ireland. There he fell in love with Josephine from Galway. They married and had two sons after buying a remote school residence in the middle of County Clare. 

He kept playing his fiddle, joining "sessions" all over the west of Ireland. He became greatly respected in the folk music community. His fingers danced upon the fingerboard and his bow sawed away at the strings in a blur. With eyes closed, he was part of the music, intoxicated by it.

I visited the house in County Clare many times. Paul had amassed a collection of L.P. records that he kept in cardboard boxes. As you can imagine, they reflected his obsession with traditional Irish music. One rainy afternoon, I was thumbing through the albums when I came across a most unexpected record. It stood out like a sore thumb - so different from the rest.

It was "Tapestry" by Carole King. Later I asked Paul about it and he said it was "a masterpiece" and he had loved it from the first time he heard it back in  1971 - before his Irish odyssey began.

I still agree with him. "Tapestry" is indeed an iconic album that evidences a brilliant spell in Carole King's illustrious songwriting career. I have chosen this track to share with you. Like the lover that Carole King addresses in the song, my brother Paul is also now "So Far Away". He died unexpectedly in June 2010 at the tender age of sixty two...

1 November 2019

Togo

All my life I have been interested in geography. Though I might not know much about physics or engines, when a geographical question comes up in a pub or TV quiz I will generally know the answer. As longtime visitors to this blog may recall, I have occasionally revealed my geographical passion by blogging about obscure countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Today The Yorkshire Pudding spotlight of geographical curiosity illuminates an African country - namely, Togo. Now there are fifty four countries in Africa and in terms of population, Togo ranks thirty third. Eight million people live there. The country is squeezed between Ghana to the west and Benin to the east.

The map below shows the exact location of Togo in West Africa. As you can see, it is a long, thin country with a short Atlantic coastline. That coastline is only thirty two miles across but it's 320 miles from the Burkina Faso border to the north.
The birth of Togo as a distinct and independent country was a relatively recent occurrence. It achieved independence from France in 1960. Previously, in the late nineteenth century,  it had been a German protectorate and before that, like most West African countries its borders were quite fluid. The very idea of a "country" as we know that concept today is largely a western construct. Once Togo was part of what is sometimes known as "The Slave Coast" for it was from this part of Africa that the brutal slave trade began in the sixteenth century.
Miss Aïda Yombo wins Miss Togo 2019
Ethnically, culturally and religiously, Togo is a veritable bouillabaisse of diversity. A third of all nationals are unapologetic animists and there are some forty distinct ethic groups - each speaking their own language. It must be an exceedingly difficult country to pull together as one with various cultural tensions. The current elected leader is a wealthy fifty three year old fellow called Faure Gnassingbé who does not necessarily appreciate all of the guiding principles of democracy. He certainly has blood on his hands.
Early morning scene in Lomé
Agriculture is vital to the country's economy but mining of phosphates is also an important feature. It ranks 145th in the world in terms of its national wealth. According to Credit Suisse it has a national wealth of just five billion dollars - compared with say Denmark which has a much smaller population but a national wealth of  1,271 billion dollars.

The capital of Togo is the city of Lomé, developed by Europeans as a trading port. It now has an overall population of 1.5 million. Like many African cities, its population continues to grow at an alarming rate year by year. Back in 1950, only thirty thousand people lived there. The burgeoning growth puts enormous pressure on infrastructure and the natural environment.

Until researching this blogpost, the only Togolese person I had ever heard of was the footballer  Emmanuel Adebayor who played for Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur in The English Premier League. He became African Footballer of the Year in 2008 and this season, at the age of 35 he is still playing the beautiful game over  in Turkey.
Togo is famous for batik art

31 October 2019

Sharing

I know that some of you who live in foreign climes  enjoy looking at my pictures of this region of northern England. You live in faraway, exotic places like Alberta, Nova Scotia, Ludwigsburg, Missouri, Australia, Washington State, Florence SC, Florida, Harpenden, Colorado, West Hampstead, New Zealand, Brighton, Toronto and of course - Goole. Oh and I must remember all those Russians who regularly figure in this blog's audience statistics. To them I say: Привет, мои друзья!

All of this is just characteristic preambling as I choose some more pictures to share with you. On Monday, as I walked around Onecote in Staffordshire, I saw other things apart from cattle.
St Luke's in Onecote
One day, if I am lucky, I may be an old man - no longer capable of long country jaunts. When that time comes it will surely be a comfort to look back on posts like this one and remember the paths and byways I walked when I was younger - retracing and reliving my steps. And if that old man is reading this I say to him - Do as the carers tell you and stop dribbling soup down the front of your pyjamas! Nurse!...Nurse!
Redundant telephone kiosk in Ford

30 October 2019

Food

In general interest television interviews or chat shows, you will often hear people declaring that they "like their food". Huh? Isn't that amazing? People who like their food. Apart perhaps from folk with eating disorders, I would say that nearly everybody on the planet "likes their food". That has been my experience anyway.

Food can be a comfort, a happy distraction from mental strains, a pleasant and familiar ritual and a focus for family or celebratory events.  At weddings there is food and funerals finish with food and American Thanksgiving Days - for example - would be nothing without the feast upon the dining table. Food glorious food!

Putting aside the politics of food and healthy eating guilt trips, I just want to share with you a list of my naughty pleasures when it comes to food:-

1. A chip sandwich  or "chip buttie". By this I mean homemade fried potatoes. Two slices of fresh bread slathered liberally with salted butter. Put the hot chips inside and enjoy as the butter melts. Beautiful.

2. Salted peanuts. Most times I visit the supermarket, I have to force myself not to pile the trolley up with salted peanuts. Realising how fattening they are, I have to ration myself to an occasional packet. Savoury, crunchy and salty you cannot beat a handful of salted peanuts or even a full packet. They are so "moreish".

3. Custard cream biscuits. We never have them at home because I would devour a packet in a couple of days. Their small sandwich appearance and surface design has not changed since I was a child. There are usually a few custard creams in the biscuit tin at my Oxfam shop but when I arrive half of them mysteriously disappear.

4. A ripe banana. Not over-ripe and not green and hard. Just in the middle. How wonderful that Mother Nature has pre-packaged them for us. Hardly a day goes by without me eating at least one banana and I usually take bananas on my country walks. When hunger rumbles, a banana will usually send that beast back into its cave.

5. A sausage and tomato sandwich. Again you need fresh bread or a fresh roll. Good quality grilled pork sausages sliced down the middle. Then a large spoonful of tinned chopped tomatoes layered on top. When I pass through Sheffield's Moor Market, I often pause at one of the food stalls to order this culinary delight with a mug of tea.
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Well I could go on and on with this list - apples, bacon sandwiches, sausage rolls, pork pies, peanut butter and strawberry jam on toast, Welsh rarebit... As you can see, I have kept away from proper meals like Sunday roasts, spaghetti, curries, stir fries, salads, meat pies with mashed potato and peas, fish and chips etcetera... or indeed vegan meal recipes from "Bosh!" books.

Sticking with food, what are your guilty pleasures?
A chip buttie

29 October 2019

Cattle

The Peak District National Park straddles four counties - Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Cheshire and Staffordshire. Yesterday, Clint kindly transported me right through Derbyshire into Staffordshire via Bakewell and Hartington. There were a couple of hold-ups because of road resurfacing and market traffic in Bakewell so I didn't reach the distant village of Onecote until twelve thirty.
It was so good to be walking in a corner of the national park that I had not explored before. The sun was out, my boots were on and all was well with the world. I didn't get back to Clint till 4.30pm and by then, largely because of putting the clocks back on Sunday, the light was already failing.

Along the way I saw many things, including a junction of farm tracks that looked fine to walk across until I discovered that the mud and cow shit there was about six inches deep. But once in, I had to keep going, emerging from the junction with boots that were now thick with brown gunge and twice as heavy. Up ahead there were some clear puddles that I splashed around in to remove most of the milk chocolate coloured coating. Fortunately, the boots are waterproof.

On my rambles, I am often observed by members of the cattle family. And yesterday was no different. Cattle will often look at me as if I am the first human being they have ever seen. In fields they will frequently move towards me. I have heard of horse whisperers and worm charmers, perhaps my relationship with cattle is similar.
As I walked along the track to the long disused copper mine at Mixon, there was a young bull on guard straddling the track. If he had been elsewhere in the field, I  would have walked quietly past but standing there he obliged me to hop over the fence into an adjacent field.  He continued to watch me as I moved by while  I wondered what was going on inside his bullish head. His harem was grazing close by. Perhaps he saw me as a challenger...(See the top picture).

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