Wednesday, 4 May 2016

You are old, Father William, the young man said

(Thoughts prompted by a snippet in the Guardian today and written in an idle moment in the waiting room of the Royal Eye Infirmary in Plymouth).

I am approaching 69 (unbelievable, eh? Thank you, I know I look a lot younger. And I've still got all my own teeth and hair) and I retired from full-time work some 10 years ago. I do not miss work. I do not want to work. Indeed, to be completely honest, I know I no longer have the energy to hold down a 'proper' job. I know that, although I'm functioning at an adequate sort-of-good-for-my-age level, I'm no longer at the top of my game.

Think about what's happening on the other side of the Atlantic. Donald Trump will soon be 70. Hillary Clinton will soon be 69. Bernie Sanders is 74. Ted Cruz, now ex-candidate Cruz, was younger but seemed like to me that he was born sometime during the American Civil War. The question I have is: why do these people want to be President of the United States?

Why do people who are at an age when their peers grow more and more tired want to take on the most difficult job in the world? How are these people, who are at an age where others lose stamina, concentration, and strength, the only candidates for a job that requires more stamina, strength and concentration than probably any other job in the world? Why does anyone want this job? Why do senior citizens who have fame, money, and prestige want to suddenly take on the position of the most powerful person in the world?
It goes without saying that I would not want to be the most powerful person in the world. But I suppose that I/we must be glad there are some people who want the job, even if they are older than what I think the job demands. The President of the United States is a job that requires a person to be at the top of their game. No one, in my opinion, is at the top of their game at seventy. I don’t want a seventy year old drilling my teeth. I don’t want a seventy year old in the operating room. Yes, seventy year olds have experience. Yes, they offer great advice. Yes, they have a world of knowledge. But they are not at the top of their game.

If I were a voter in the USA (and I am ever so glad that I'm not), I would want a President who is at the top of his/her game; ideally someone with strength, stamina and concentration; someone in good health who can be expected to stay in good health for at least four years. I'm not sure that the three remaining in the race fit the bill. But what do I know?

Not a lot but I do know that I like this song by They Might Be Giants. It's called 'Older' and has a reassuring message for us all. And I'm older now than when I started composing this post. Singing 'Happy Birthday' will never be the same again.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Pachyderms revisited

Gawd, the news is pretty dismal at the moment. Time to escape into the land of the pachyderm for some solace. First a jolly tune by Henry Mancini - Baby Elephant Walk. Even if you don't recognise the name, you'll probably recognise the melody.

And now an elephant joke.
What do you get if you cross a parrot with an elephant? 
An animal that tells you everything that it remembers.
Here's a few pieces of elephant trivia to ponder upon.
* A group of elephants can be called a 'memory of elephants', although a herd is a more common collective noun. On a related theme, elephants follow cattle in that the females, males and offspring are called, cows, bulls and calves respectively.
* The elephant's memory is legendary, what is not so well known is that they have a special ceremony for greeting a long lost member of the herd. In this greeting ceremony both elephants flap their ears, trumpet and generally express joy. 
* It would be easy to be fooled into thinking that elephants drank through their trunks; in fact they use the trunk as a funnel to collect water, but then pour it into their mouth. Incidentally, there are no bones in an elephant's trunk.
* An elephant detective could track an elephant by following their footprints.  Such stalking is made easier by the elephant's habit of using the same paths as their ancestors.
* Elephants display 'right-handedness', not in their limbs, but in their tusks.  Close examination of these will reveal that one tusk has a blunter tip and is thicker than its less favored counterpart. The reason for this difference is that in their natural habitat elephants use their tusk(s) for gathering food, and digging for water. Consequently the tusk on their favoured side becomes more developed but blunter.
* Elephant's ivory is a wonderful and versatile material, but the fact that tusks are so valuable encourages poaching. It seems particularly obscene to think of such a noble, sensitive, joyous animal suffering at the hands of barbaric poachers. Don't buy anything made of ivory.
* The gestation period of mammals is in proportion to their size. Thus, pregnancy in mice lasts about 21 days, whereas in elephants it takes over 21 months.
* March 13th is National Thai Elephant Day, while September 22nd is Elephant Appreciation Day.

Finally, a couple of cartoons. Google 'elephant cartoons' and you'll come across lots.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

With friends like that....

It’s such a shame for those poor Tories and Ukippers who want the UK to leave the EU. There they were twenty two months or so ago, all happy that Barack Obama had intervened in the Scottish independence referendum to tell those uppity Jocks to get back into their shortbread tin and to close the lid behind them. It was a statesmanlike intervention on a matter of international security, they sagely nodded. Only now he’s intervened in the UK Brexit debate, and all of a sudden they’ve discovered that it’s really not on for a foreign head of state to interfere in an internal UK matter. To which any self-respecting supporter of Scottish independence can only say: "ha ha ha"

I’m just being honest, said Obama, in what was something of a departure for an American politician, as he slapped down Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Liam Fox and Nigel Farage. Obama hasn’t just intervened in the Brexit debate, he’s not just weighed in with a shovel. He’s weighed in with a JCB. He’s delivered a strong statement that if the UK wants to leave the EU then the USA will relegate it to the back of the queue when it comes to negotiating a trade deal. Only Americans don’t use the word queue, they stand in line. And a post-Brexit Britain will be standing in line with Bolivia, Belarus, and Bhutan waiting for the USA to get around to allowing us to import Hershey bars. Although why anyone would want to import Hershey bars is a bit of a mystery, because Americans don’t just not use the word queue, they also make some seriously awful chocolate. Be that as it may, there will be no Hershey bars, Oreos, Twinkies or Cheerios for a post-Brexit Britain. Well, yes there will, of course, but you got the man’s drift. Brexit is bad; very, very bad.

It’s unlikely that people are going to be swayed in their view on how to vote in June by what the American president says. But it’s still funny to watch the discomfort of Tories and neo-conservative Little Englanders who were quite happy for him to intervene when he was on the same side as them during the Scottish independence referendum but now they’re upset because he doesn’t share their opinion on Europe and are discovering that their so-called special relationship with America isn’t really that special after all. The USA only has a special relationship with the UK in as much as it's in the USA's interests, and the USA sees its interests being best served by a UK that’s a member of the EU.

The only people who ever speak about a special relationship between the USA and the UK are British politicians. I bet it doesn’t even figure on the radar of the average American, most of whom are not of British descent and have no particular emotional or historical ties to the UK. The idea that Britain can leave the EU and form some sort of close relationship to the USA is a fantasy. Few in America are interested. On the rare occasions that the UK impinges on the consciousness of the average American, they think of bad teeth, Princess Di and driving on the wrong side of the road.

For the USA the value of the UK is as a part of a strong and united Europe. That’s what they’re concerned about, and a UK which left the EU would result in a weaker Europe and a weaker UK. But they don’t care that much whether that united Europe consists of the current 28 member states, or if it increases to 29 with the addition of an independent Scotland, as long as it stays united.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Lemon Curd and Blueberry Loaf Cake

"Given up baking then?" was the taunt from afar. Nah, still at it with a cake every week, more or less, for our local Pop-up Café. Here's my latest offering: Lemon Curd and Blueberry loaf cake. It meets all my baking criteria: a simple recipe to follow, easy-to-get ingredients and just a little bit different. Although the quantities listed are for a single 2 lb loaf tin, I always double up and put one in the freezer for later. Blog readers are always welcome to come around for a slice or two - provided you can answer this simple question: who links Piblokto, The Battered Ornaments and Cream? Clue: it's not Eric Clapton. Now, to the recipe.
  • 175g softened butter
  • 100 g Greek yogurt
  • 3 tablespoons good quality lemon curd
  • 3 eggs
  • Zest and juice 1 1/2 lemons, plus extra zest for the topping
  • 200g self-raising flour
  • 175g golden caster sugar
  • 100g blueberries
  • 140g icing sugar
  • Heat oven to 160C fan.
  • Line a 2lb loaf tin with greaseproof paper.
  • Put yogurt, lemon curd, the softened butter, eggs, lemon zest, flour and caster sugar into a large mixing bowl. Quickly mix with an electric whisk until the batter just comes together. Scrape half into the prepared tin. Sprinkle half of the blueberries into the tin, scrape the rest of the batter on top, then scatter the other half of the berries on top. Bake for around an hour until golden and a skewer poked into the centre comes out clean.
  • Cool in the tin, then carefully lift onto a serving plate to ice. Sift the icing sugar into a bowl and stir in enough lemon juice to make a thick, smooth icing. Dribble over the top and sides of the cake and sprinkle some lemon zest over the icing on top.
Taste Test
I enjoyed the half slice that came my way. Feedback from the Pop-up Punters says that it tasted very good and is definitely in the 'one to do again' category. If I do, I'll try replacing the yoghurt with buttermilk and perhaps stir in a couple of tablespoons of lemon curd into the top before the final sprinkling of blueberries.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Me and my old college mate, Charlie Windsor

I can trace my interest in photography to when I started at Aberystwyth University in September 1966. I shared digs (Sunny Side, Sea View Place, just in case you were wondering) with, amongst others, a very keen photographer, Howard Bagshaw (currently chair of the Royal Photographic Society), who took me through the basics of do-it-yourself developing and printing. I honed my skills through hours spent in the Photography Club's darkroom buried deep in the cellars underneath the then Theology College on the seafront. Much of what I did is a lifetime away - a technological lifetime as well as a human lifetime. Apertures and shutter speeds, ASA ratings, hard and soft papers; it's all the stuff of museums today. For some reason in early 1969, I ended up taking a series of photographs of those who had put their names forward for election to the position of Lady Vice-President of the Students' Union. I suspect I was the only one they could find at the time who had a camera and who could process the films quickly. I've just come across one of the shots I took almost fifty years ago and, as a bit of portraiture, I don't think it's too bad. The hairstyle, dress and casual cigarette are all dated but have a nice retro appeal. Sadly, I can't remember the subject's name but I do remember that she wasn't the winner. That honour went to Jo somebody or other and all I can recall about her was that she had short-cropped blonde hair and wore an impressive Afghan coat. It's funny what sticks in the mind, isn't it?

I mentioned that they wanted the photographs of the candidates processed quickly and there was a good reason for this. In the spring of 1969 the future Prince of Wales spent a whole term at Aberystwyth as part of a plan by officials to make him seem more in touch with the people of Wales before his actual investiture. During his time in Aber, not only did he learn a bit of the Welsh language but he also managed to irritate a lot of people by the intrusive security that accompanied him. Granted that this wasn't down to him but we felt that he didn't have to go along with all of it. Come on, commandeering the entire beach at Borth so that he could enjoy a dip in peace? Moans aside, the interest in the Lady VP's came from the fact that the winner was going to be his official partner at formal college events. Lucky Jo, we all thought. Sometimes it's best not to be the winner. And, for historical interest, here's a clip of Charlie's arrival at Aber. How times have changed: the cars, the fashions, the students... Don't bother looking for me in the welcoming crowds, I was taking part in a protest sit-in at the time.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

A few comments about the Panama Papers

Cartoon 06.04.2016
You have been warned: immoderate rant alert. And before you ask, no, I haven't got any money tied up in an off-shore account. Never have and never will.

We’re supposed to believe that our government is going to be the most transparent ever, that it’s going to crack down on tax avoidance by big corporations and rich individuals, whilst the head of that government has himself been a beneficiary of tax avoidance schemes set up offshore by his dad, and most probably will be a beneficiary in the future. Asked a carefully worded question about whether his family had benefited in the past or will benefit in the future from his father’s offshore holdings, Posh Dave obfuscated and answered a different question that he wasn’t asked. He smiles and waves and tells reporters his father’s Panamanian dealings are a private family matter. And he’ll get away with it too, because this is Britain.

And because this is Britain, the ones who will be condemned, the ones who will be called haters and extremists, are those who point out the avarice and greed of the rich and the powerful. That’s because screwing over the little guy is central to the way that the UK works and the economy is structured. In the land of the robber the honest are despised.

None of this is new. None of this should surprise us. None of this should make us raise our hands in astonishment. We’ve all known for years that the powerful elite enrich themselves on the back of the poor and the marginalised.

British governments both Tory and Labour have bowed down before the might of the robber barons of the City of London and the Panama papers aren’t a story of the dirty dealings of foreigners, of bribery in far off places or of corruption in distant lands. They’re the story of how the British economy works, drawing in the ill-gotten gains of the corrupt and the dishonest and hiding it in British overseas territories that Whitehall doesn’t supervise. They’re the story of how Britain has become the money launderer to the world’s despoilers. They could be called the Square Mile Papers.

All over the UK people are as repulsed as the Icelanders about the rules for the rich that don’t apply to the poor, but unlike in Reykjavik there will be no political consequences for the British hypocrites who tell us that we’re all in this together. And there’s nothing we can do about it within the British state.
I don't want much. I just want to live in a land where the rich abide by the same rules as the rest of us. I just want to live in a country where politicians have to resign for hypocrisy and telling lies. I just want to live in a country where the voices of ordinary people are heard and the rich don't get even richer while blaming the poor for their poverty. I just want to live in a country where the super rich sheep are penned and shorn instead of the people getting fleeced.

That’s not going to happen in the UK, because the UK’s raison d’etre, as personified by Cameron and Osbourne, is robbing the poor to pay the rich. It’s only going to happen in a country where the government is close enough to the people so that it can be truly held to account. A country where, to repeat myself, it’s the sheep that get shorn and the people don’t allow themselves to get fleeced. Baa!
Cartoon 05.04.2016

Flitting around the pictures

In my last post, I mentioned the spectre of a visitation of pestilence when taking a book out of the library in the Workmen's Hall. But that wasn't the only place in the building where the first Horseman of the Apocalypse cast his shadow. To explain this, let's move upstairs to the cinema or, as it was better known to us, 'the pictures' or 'the flicks'.

I won't go into how often I went to the pictures but I will mention something that happened in almost every performance I sat through. In the interval, usherettes would walk up the aisles with their Flit guns, covering everyone in a sickly flowery spray. It was bad news if you were sitting next to the aisle as there was a very high probability of getting enveloped in a cloud of vapour that covered everything - ice cream, crisps, your body...The formulation used contained, in addition to some perfume, 5% DDT, at least until the mid to late 1950s, when the negative environmental impact of DDT became more widely understood and its use was phased out to be replaced with a 'normal' disinfectant.

Why was it done? Two reasons: firstly, to combat any unwanted creatures such as fleas and other pests (why do you think old picture houses were also known as 'flea pits'?) and secondly, to get over the odours of the auditorium. Think about it: a confined space packed with smoking clients who probably only bathed on a weekly basis, the pictures would not have been a place for lovers of fresh air.

And the Flit gun? It was an adaption of the traditional garden spray and pumping the handle blew out an aerosol containing the insecticide dust. 
This practice certainly wasn't unique to the Workmen's Hall (although Mrs P never came across it in the Palace Cinema in Risca just 7 miles over the mountain) and it was commonplace right across the UK. Linked, or so it would seem, by the fact that the cinemas were located in working class areas. I don't know when it ended but it was going on locally into the early 1960s but after that, I can't say. Looking back, it does seem to be a very strange piece of sociological history but is probably still happening around the world. Thinking about it, I have been on flights where the plane, and its contents, have been sprayed with something similar. Plus ca change.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Take a book out at your own risk

Before the advent of bar codes, RFI tags or whatever technology is brought to bear on the task nowadays, borrowing a book from a library was a simple affair. You chose your book, took it to the librarian who then took an identifying card from within the book, stamped the card with the return date and put it into your 'holder' in the filing system. They also put the return date, typically two weeks for fiction and a month for non-fiction, on a frontispiece like the one above. All very civilised and a process many of us of a certain age (aka oldies) will remember fondly. Self service scanners and their like just don't have the same romance, do they?. But there was a time when I felt a frisson of anxiety every time I visited our local lending library which was, if you'd like to know, on the ground floor of the Bedwas Workmans' Hall, of which more at another time.

The cause of my anxiety? This was down to the rather sinister notice that appeared opposite the frontispiece warning of the dire consequences that could result from coming into contact with an infected book. We are talking of the mid-1950s when I was 7 or 8-ish and had no way of putting disease into a rational context. I remember being petrified that the book I wanted to borrow had just been returned from one of the more feral families in the village. In fact, I remember asking the librarian if anyone of the *******s or the ******s had taken the book out. Of course they hadn't (they probably couldn't read) and I was never smitten by one of the notifiable diseases listed below. I'm not quite sure how long such notices appeared in library books but they were a sign of those times. Things move on and we no longer have to risk life and limb to read Enid Blyton. Did she ever write one called 'The Famous Five visit the Isolation Hospital'?
Section 155 of the Public Health Act 1936:
(1) A person who knows that he is suffering from a notifiable disease shall not take any book, or cause any book to be taken for his use, or use any book taken, from any public or circulating library.
(2) A person shall not permit any book which has been taken from a public or circulating library, and is under his control, to be used by any person whom he knows to be suffering from a notifiable disease.
(3) A person shall not return to any public or circulating library a book which he knows to have been exposed to infection from a notifiable disease, or permit any such book which is under his control to be so returned, but shall give notice to the local authority, or, in the case of a library provided by a county council, to that council, that the book has been so exposed to infection.
(4) A person who contravenes any of the foregoing provisions of this, section shall be liable to a fine not exceeding five pounds.
(5) A local authority or, as the case may be, a county council on receiving such a notice as aforesaid shall cause the book to be disinfected and returned to the library, or shall cause it to be destroyed.
(6) A notifiable disease means any of the following diseases, namely, small-pox, cholera, diphtheria, membranous croup, erysipelas, the disease known as scarlatina or scarlet fever, and the fevers known by any of the following names, typhus, typhoid, enteric or relapsing, and includes, as respects any particular district, any infectious disease to which Part V of this Act or any corresponding enactment repealed by this Act has been applied by the local authority of the district in manner provided by that Part or that enactment.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Begorrah - 'tis time for the Oirish.

Apparently there have been formal complaints about Ant and Dec mentioning Irish stereotypes on one of their recent Saturday night programmes. I've seen a clip of the offending item and, oh dear, if the complainants found that offensive, what would they make of Spike Milligan's entries in the Irish Stereotype Competition? I offer as evidence two items from his Q series (possibly the funniest programmes ever shown on UK television) - the Irish Astronaut and Irish O'lympic sketches. Hooray for non-PC times and a double, nay treble, nay quadruple, hooray for Spike.

The irony, for those who did not know, was that Spike was an Irish citizen which came about in a typically Milliganesque fashion. In 1962, the British Government refused to renew Spike's passport because they did not consider him a British citizen. They told him he could apply for citizenship, but this required swearing an oath to the Queen, which Spike refused to do. By this stage, Prince Charles was one of Spike's biggest and probably most famous fan. Prince Charles even sent him a letter saying, ‘Come on, you know, I had to swear allegiance to the Queen and it's not that painful for God's sake' and Spike wrote back and said, ‘Well, it's okay for you, she's your mum'."
So Spike set out in search of a country that would have him as citizen without him having to grovel. Spike really felt he deserved British citizenship unconditionally, after serving for six years in the British Army during WW2. When it became apparent they wouldn't make it that easy, he went to the Irish Embassy and said, "Can I be Irish?". Spike's brother Desmond Milligan recalled that the Irish Ambassador, Eamon Kelly, spoke to Spike personally and said, "Oh, you're that bloke on the telly. Of course you can become an Irish citizen. We're terribly short of people". A bottle of whisky and the passport followed.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Glimpses of the past: it wouldn't happen today.

When I started at Bassaleg Grammar School in September 1959 (gulp! Was it really that long ago? Yes, unfortunately it was.) I went into Form 1 South and our Form Master was Mr Brian Selby. If memory serves me correctly, we arrived at the school at the same time and we were his first form. He was a very gentle, decent man who taught Biology and RE (Religious Education). He was a great lover of the outdoors and, a few years later, when we were in Form 3 and a little older, he organised a series of day hikes locally and longer 'expeditions' in the Brecon Beacons. It wouldn't happen today, of course: little paperwork (was there any?), no risk assessments, no set routes, no more than two members of staff for around 15 children and no parental contact from start to finish.

I loved going on them and have vivid memories of some of the things we got up to. Many of our exploits were recorded in 'The Log', of which I seem to be the current minder. I haven't looked at it for a few years now but I dipped into it today to try and check up on a detail of one trip. Here are just a few glimpses of a golden age that present day children probably will never get a chance to enjoy the freedoms of.
The title page of 'The Log', written by Mr Selby.
This one is from a day hike in June 1961. It started in Lower Machen and took in the ruins of Ruperra Castle before ending in Bassaleg. It must have been an impressive 7 to 8 miles. The photograph shows some of us on the old bridge over the River Rhymney at Draethen. I'm the gurning loon in the middle.
A more ambitious 5 day expedition to the Brecon Beacons in June 1963. Here we are outside of the Youth Hostel in Crickhowell. Note the stylish woollen bobble hat that I seemed to be attached to. I obviously thought it was cool: I was wrong. Memories of Crickhowell YHA? Cold dormitory, salty porridge but next to a café with a juke box with Cliff Richards and Elvis Presley records.
On the banks of the Newport to Brecon Canal at Llangynidr. You may be wondering what two of us have between our teeth? Knives, that's what. Every boy carried a single bladed knife as normal practice. Definitely not something that would be allowed today.
I can remember most of the names and it's interesting to recall what happened to some of them. We've got an opera singer/Celtic folk artist, a teacher, a solicitor, a scientist (me), a manufacturing executive, an airline steward and a graphic artist (who worked on Star Wars animations). One, after a spell in prison, ended up in a suicide pact with his girlfriend. And, not surprisingly, one of the two embracing in the foreground was gay and has a very long term same sex partner. 
Same location just before we were told off for throwing rocks in the canal. We thought splashing each other was great fun until an official came up and made some of us wade in and retrieve what we had thrown in. He said that the rocks were a hazard to canal traffic. We discovered much later that there had been no boats on this stretch for about 50 years and wouldn't be for at least another 20. How we laughed: how he laughed.
Seeing the photograph of me (still wearing the bobble hat) made me wonder what, if I had the opportunity now, would I say to my younger self. What words of advice would I offer? That's easy to answer: I'd say absolutely nothing. Nothing for fear of influencing what turns out to be a good life. I'm in a very happy place now and I wouldn't want him not to end up in the same spot.
On our way up Table Mountain near Abergavenny. Close inspection reveals my knife on my belt. And where's my bobble hat? Where has it gone? Is that why I'm looking a little bereft?
Ah, there it is. On the disused railway track running alongside the Talybont Reservoir. Wonderful countryside and countryside that I've relished eversince.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

More political postcard joy.

I think it is a great pity that we don't have political postcards any more. Back in the early days of the twentieth century, if you wanted to make a political point to your Uncle Sid or Aunty Flo, you could seek out an appropriate postcard, pen a suitable curt message on the back and consign it to the post. One hundred years ago, there were a whole range of postcards representing a wide range of political viewpoints: you just plucked your argument off the display stand, stamped it and sent it. Over the decades, sadly, the practice has fallen out of fashion and I suppose the modern equivalents are to post a YouTube video or post a blog entry rather than post a postcard. They just don't have the same colour or romance, do they?
I came across the postcard featured above during some research on the EU Referendum and it had some interesting modern resonances. It was used postally in 1904 and relates to the argument which, at the time, was destroying the Conservative Government led by Arthur Balfour. The Conservative Party was being torn apart by the clash between free trade and tariff reform (does this remind you of the current in or out of Europe debate?). Balfour tried to be clever by allowing the chief proponent of tariff reform in his Cabinet, Joseph Chamberlain, to tour the country speaking in favour of protectionism whilst he and the rest of the Cabinet sat on the fence and waited to see what the electoral response would be. The postcard shows Chamberlain in the water whilst Balfour and the rest look on undecided.

Balfour's attempt to stand back whilst others tested the political water ended in one of the biggest ever landslide victories for the Liberals in the 1906 election. Perhaps the moral of the story is that it is better to be decisive and loose than to vacillate and be routed. We are seeing shades of both at the moment, proving, yet again that there  is nothing new in politics.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Mr Punch and a Prime Minister

Once upon a time I used to spend hours down on the Barbican in Plymouth happily browsing around that rarest of creatures, an old second-hand bookshop (the kind where books are stacked like firebricks and filed according to some long-forgotten system). One thing I particularly looked out for were old copies of Punch Magazine and I'd try to make sense of political cartoons (using cartoon in the sense of a drawing intended for satire, caricature or humour) which were so far past their sell-by dates that the meanings were obscured by the mists of time. This one from 1889, that I've just come across in a completely unrelated context, featuring William Ewart Gladstone is an excellent example of what occupied my time - and still would, if I had the, um, time. Who says I don't know how to have fun?

In June 1889 Gladstone, a Liberal, was Leader of the Opposition and a tireless political campaigner despite having reached the age of 79. Where others would take long summer holidays, Gladstone would fill his time delivering political speeches in all parts of the country and the cartoon shows Gladstone on a train heading for the West Country and another round of political meetings. At this stage in his life, he was becoming more and more radical in his views, flirting almost with an early version of democratic socialism.

One is tempted to look back across the political years and conclude that little has changed. People were making fun of politicians back then, and many of the events of 1889 - aristocrats involved in sex scandals, people demanding a decent living wage, Wales losing a rugby international - have a degree of familiarity.  Some things have changed, however, and not necessarily for the better. A politician prepared to face the people - without a carefully selected audience and a carefully placed autocue - would today be as rare as an empty railway carriage. A Leader of the Opposition who was entering his eighties and still destined to serve a further term as Prime Minister, would today be as unthinkable as a self-penned speech. And a politician who was getting more radical as he got older would today be as hard to find as a decent second-hand bookshop.

Footnote: Mrs P and I went to the same grammar school and we are of the generation who, when William Ewart Gladstone is mentioned, will have a Pavlovian response and come out with 'GOM/MOG - Grand Old Man/Murderer of Gordon'. A phrase from our History master, Mr Percival, that alludes to Gladstone's falling out of favour when General Gordon was killed at the Battle of Khartoum. Actually it should be 'Gwand Old Man/Murdewer of Gordon' as Mr Percival (nicknamed Pinky because of his fresh complexion and rosy cheeks which, with knowledge gained since, may have been due to his liking for drink) had a pronounced lisp (spelt L I S P but pronounced lisp).

It looks good, it tastes good...

After all the heavy work I've been doing in the garden recently, it's time I took a well earned break. And it's time for a glass of Mackeson's Milk Stout. You can still find tins of this if you search for it (I use it in a rather tasty recipe for spiced Hot Cross buns), but Mackeson from a tin somehow seems all wrong. It should be served in a bottle, in a dark Snug Bar, in an old back street pub. Like the Rovers' Return perhaps? With Ena and Minnie in the corner enjoying a glass of the black stuff.
In the words of Bernard Miles in the old adverts: "It looks good, it tastes good, and by golly it does you good".  I suppose such adverts these days would have to be accompanied by a statutory public health warning and some medical research to substantiate the claims of benefit.

For those unfamiliar with this type of beverage, "Milk Stout" is brewed with the addition of lactose (a sugar derived from milk) which is not converted into alcohol during the fermentation process, making the resulting brew both relatively weak and very sweet. It was the brew supposedly favoured by elderly ladies and nursing mothers. It was far too sweet for my palate but made for a passable tipple when mixed with a half of a decent bitter: a sort of Black and Tan. For some years now, apparently, Mackeson has been a 'ghost brand' in the UK: still produced and sold but without advertising or promotion. I'm not sure what the logic behind this is: perhaps the major markets are overseas?

Footnote: I could have called this post "Thoughts occasioned by the finding of an old Mackeson tin in the garden". Little did I know then that, in a split second, my mind would wander from the tin to Ena Sharples and Minnie Caldwell via Bernard Miles. I wonder how many other people remember them?


Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Three requiems and a graphic

A delightful time was recently spent enjoying a Music Day with the East Cornwall Bach Choir rehearsing Mozart's Requiem in D minor for a 'scratch' performance in the evening. What a wonderful work to get immersed in and a work with a fascinating history, which I'll come to shortly.

As is my customary practice when doing a bit of note bashing, I take a look at what's on YouTube that might be useful. For such a well known work as the Requiem, there's a lot to view but one clip particularly grabbed my attention. It was the first movement performed by the Bezdin Ensemble, under the direction of Adina Spire, with a striking graphical score by a YouTuber called Smailin. I've always found that visuals enhance my understanding of musical ideas and structures and Smailin's does this in a way that really hits the spot for me. It's just a terrific device to depict a masterwork and has really added to my pleasure of experiencing Mozart. For any nerds reading this, try following the written score whilst watching Smailin's visuals and, well, just enjoy the ride.

To come back to the history of the piece is to come back to an intriguing tale, shrouded in uncertainty and not a little mystery. That it was Mozart's last work in not disputed but the facts have often been coloured and embroidered. Mozart wrote it in the last weeks of his life and it seems to have been an anonymous commission. The commissioner's envoy, in order to preserve anonymity, paid Mozart several unannounced visits, like a messenger from another world. One account describes Mozart as being possessed by a feverish desire to complete the Requiem, being conscious of his approaching demise. It was his own requiem - a musical composition for his death.

The association of the Requiem with Mozart's death brought to mind two contemporary pieces that could also be regarded as requiems. The first of these is David Bowie's 'parting gift' Lazarus. Both poignant and chilling, it was written and recorded when he knew he was dying of cancer. His own requiem - a musical composition for his death.

The above clip gives the lyrics but if you want to see the 'official' video, you'll have to link to it here.

And the second is Hurt sung by Johnny Cash. OK, I know he didn't write it (that honour belongs to Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails) but his is such a powerful rendition that, for me, he 'owns' the song. It was recorded when he also knew that he was dying of cancer. His own requiem - a musical composition for his death.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Man Of A Thousand Faces

I've mentioned my favourite podcast - The Best Radio You Have Never Heard - several times in the past and, as a service to all lovers of classic rock music, I thought I'd bring your attention to this tribute compilation to David Bowie. Just click on the link to get access to the download link on the top right. It's a goodie and, with my joss sticks perfuming the air, my companion in the wee small hours. Enjoy y'all - especially Julie.
Man Of A Thousand Faces - The Best Radio You Have Never Heard - Vol. 275 - Special Edition
Now playing a new roles as a heavenly voice. A tribute to David Bowie.

1. Ashes To Ashes (live) - David Bowie
2. Hurt (live) - David Bowie and Trent Reznor
3. Starman - David Bowie 

4. Life On Mars (live) - David Bowie 
5. Lady Stardust (early) - David Bowie
6. Lazarus - David Bowie 
7. Warzawa - David Bowie and Brian Eno 
8. Heroes (live unplugged) - David Bowie 
9. The Man Who Sold The World (live) - David Bowie w/ Lulu
10. Penny Lane - David Bowie
11. See Emily Play - David Bowie 

12. Shapes Of Things - David Bowie 
13. Hang On To Yourself (early) - David Bowie 
14. All The Young Dudes - David Bowie 

15. Aladdin Sane - David Bowie 
16. This Is Not America - David Bowie, Pat Metheny Group 
17. Rock 'n Roll Suicide - David Bowie 
18. Ziggy Stardust (live) - David Bowie

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Curing a case of earworms

Music has a way of invading your mind. For no reason, without any provocation, it can either mount a full-on assault or the sneakiest kind of covert infiltration. Tunes and lyrics can leach into your subconscious with osmotic determination and take you places you never thought of going. Once they are in your mind, they are difficult to ignore. Some people call them 'earworms' and I know what they mean.
An infection of earworms in someone else has prompted these ramblings. Someone who comes to our IT Club related a bad case: she'd been plagued with a snatch of lyrics that had been playing havoc with her mind for a while. She couldn't remember the song, which she associated with her mother, and could I help to track it down? With the lines she could recall, Mr Google soon came up with the rest. It was a George Gershwin number called 'But not for me'. I love the way he rhymes try it/riot and Pollyannas/bananas. The first verse goes:
   Old man sunshine listen you
Never tell me dreams come true
Just try it and I'll start a riot
Beatrice Fairfax don't you dare
Ever tell me he will care
I'm certain it's the final curtain
I never want to hear from any cheerful Pollyannas
Who tell you fate supplies a mate
It's all bananas
Just to show her what else we could find, we searched under the song title and came up with the following YouTube clip of the Judy Garland version. And, bingo, that was the version she remembers coming out of her mother's gramophone. Another satisfied customer thanks to Mr Google.

And this is where my OCD curiosity kicked in. Once I had solved the mystery of which song it came from, I began to delve more deeply into the question that started to drive me crazy: who was the Beatrice Fairfax mentioned?
This, of course, is the kind of query which must have occupied a fair amount of your spare time before the internet age. The Great God Google, however, allows you to wander through the poppy fields of trivia with comparative ease.
Beatrice Fairfax was the brainchild of the American author Marie Manning, who invented the name when she initiated America's very first personal advice newspaper column. Readers were invited to address their most intimate problems to "Dear Beatrice Fairfax" protected by nothing but some anonymous initials. Marie Manning started a trend that has been a central feature of journalism ever since. 
I suppose the twenty-first century equivalent of Beatrice Fairfax is, in fact, Mr Google himself. Whether we want to know the exchange rate for the Yen, whether or not to tell our nearest and dearest of our proclivity for leather underwear (joke!) or to discover who the hell was Beatrice Fairfax, what we do is to write to "Dear Mr Google".

Friday, 4 March 2016

A nice March afternoon

What a nice way to spend an afternoon with friends in early March. Lunch on a cliff top restaurant with great food and views (Check it out: The View overlooking Whitesands Bay), followed by a church visit and a drive around. One to be repeated, especially as it will be our turn to pay.
The view from just in front of the restaurant looking out to sea over Whitesands Bay. Just to the left Rame Head is visible and those with very keen eyes might just spot the Eddystone Lighthouse just under the horizon in the middle. At this point it's about 8 miles off-shore.
St Germanus church at Rame, commonly known as Rame Church. It dates from the 13th century, probably with earlier foundations, and is one of the few in Cornwall with a spire on its tower. It is perched on a cliff and has been used as a visible navigation marker for centuries by ships heading to Plymouth and Devonport. 
Another unusual feature of Rame church is that it has no electricity and is lit by candles, hence the forest of wooden candle holders.
An interior view showing the main altar, rood screen and yet more candle holders.
I liked the sunlight on these slate gravestones.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Keeping an eye on the dial.

Here are some thoughts prompted by some human interactions I observed at an event recently. The event will remain anonymous so that any regular readers won't be able to make any guesses as to identities.

Probably only people of my vintage would remember what a rheostat was. It's what we used to control the volume on our superhetrodyne receivers. And those are ....radios. Many of these volume controls were actually numbered.

More often than not, they were accompanied by another control.

Can you guess where I'm going with this? I'm going to ...People!

There are those who control their emotions much like the numbered knob above controls volume, very seldom ever reaching the highest output. Sometimes they can be quite frustrating because their reaction can be very difficult to gauge. Then there are those whose volume control is always set at ten and just turn emotions on and off.

Me? I am a firm believer in holding something in reserve and try to keep my volume set at around 1. I'm leaving 10 for the hopefully never to come 'big one'. Unlike Donald Trump who is another who seems to operate with the dial on maximum.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Cinderella comes to town.

Our village pantomime is always heads above all others in the locality, so here are some heads... 
Waiting for his sister to appear on stage.
The Fairy Godmother (aka Fairy Nuff).
Ugly Sister Chardonnay.
Ugly Sister Rioja.
A special mouse.
Baddy Prime Minister (boo, hiss!).
A mouse and a horse.
Baron Hardup.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Hooray, a dry day for a walk.

Out for a walk today from Princetown. Just under 6 miles of easy and dry walking. It was good to be back on the moor after what seems a long time.
A straightforward out and back route from the centre of Princetown across the moor to Nun's Cross Farm. A good footpath for most of the way which, or so I learnt, was the old road to Ivybridge, that lies some 10 miles to the south. Not the sort of route to take at night in bad weather.
No birds, no flowers but good weather and lots of big skies.
No, not one of our group but a soldier out on a timed 25 mile 'yomp, back to the barracks in Stonehouse. We were passed by quite a few and, it has to be said, some looked as if they wouldn't make it.
More sky. But look, no rain.
Nun's Cross Farm, not worked since the 1950s and now used as an outdoor centre for schools and youth groups. Apparently, the rangers were installing a composting toilet for the residents. It seemed a lot of effort when an earth closet could do the same job.
Looking south westwards to Plymouth Sound in the distance, about 10 miles away. The visibility was excellent and we could make out the Eddystone Lighthouse.
With a little cropping and enlargement, we get a better view of the two structures on the rocks, more of which below with a close-up downloaded from the internet.
The Eddystone Lighthouse is on the Eddystone Rocks, 13 miles south west of Plymouth. The current structure is the fourth lighthouse to be built on the site. The first and second were destroyed by gales. The third, also known as Smeaton's Tower (completed in 1759),  is the stump on the right. Its upper portions have been re-erected on Plymouth Hoe.The fourth and largest of the Eddystone lighthouses was completed in May 1882 and is on the left, with its helicopter landing pad giving it a nice flat top. It is, of course, fully automated now and is powered by solar panels.

This shot looks as if it's of the inmates heading back to Dartmoor Prison after an afternoon in the quarry. It's not, of course, it's the group winding its way back to the Fox Tor Café for refreshments.