Thursday, August 27, 2015

You want silliness in this silly season? How about the silliness of denying the fruits of life to several more merely because we would have to put up with just a little less?

They call it the silly season, the month when ‘nothing happens’ and our newspapers are required to resort to printing all kinds of nonsensical rubbish just to fill their pages and justify the ad rates they charge. Well, from where I sit if the guiding criterion is being prepared to print all kinds of nonsensical rubbish, the newspaper silly season here in Britain runs from January 1 to December 31.

The month of August, at least not for the past ten years has been any sillier. It depends, of course, on which newspaper you read. Those here in Britain – I should say those self-regarding types here in Britain – who like to think they have a conscience and regard themselves as ‘thinkers’ head for the Guardian and the Independent. But neither could yield an inch to those papers popularly seen as being rather further down the food-chain when it comes to silliness.

In the Guardian, for instance – and I will grant that it does in part still cling on to being a newspaper of record rather than sensation – you’re as likely to find bizarre items in its lifestyle section on how to make the perfect something or other as you will find high-minded agonising about global warming (yes, that’s still around, although apparently temperatures have stopped creeping up now for the past 15 years).

The latest installment is How To Make The Perfect Porchetta and I don’t mind admitting that until I came across the piece for the purposes of digging up an example, I had no idea what porchetta was. Several weeks ago, I spoofed that uniquely Guardianista piece with How To Pour The Perfect Glass Of Water on Facebook (below) and got just one like. That probably says more about the limits to my

circle of Facebook friends than anything else, but I was surprised it got just one, especially as I had
gone to some trouble to spoor what looked like a bona fide link to the story in the Guardian.

As for real silliness, in season or out of it, you really can do no better than what is popularly known as the Mail Online’s Column Of Shame. These are ineffably fluffy pieces recording such important events such as Kim Kardashian appearing in public wearing the same dress for the second time or Orland Bloom popping into his nearest Starbucks for a coffee. I shan’t bother with a specific link as Mail Online manages to outdo itself in complete silliness every day, seven days a week the year round.

More intriguing in the silliness stakes is the story of how the once quite mighty Daily Telegraph is dying on its feet before our eyes. Ten years ago, that paper, regarded for decades as the voice of Conservatism in Britain, was still selling well over one and a half million copies a day, and no other of its British broadsheet competitors – the Guardian, the Independent and that most middlebrow of middlebrow pretensions, The Times, came anywhere close in terms of circulation. Now it is knocking along at the bottom along with its competitors, selling a great deal less than half a million copies a day and striving to stay afloat by indulging itself in the most futile of all futile survival strategies, laying off staff.

Where once it had a comparable editorial team to, well my gang, the Daily Mail, it has rid itself of anyone able to hold a pen and allows gangs of whoever it can scoop up for the day from the alleyways of Victoria to sub-edit its pages. And it shows. Christ does it show. These folk are given a bottle of stout and a pack of cheese and onion sandwiches plus ten Senior Service and told not to let any word longer than eight letters into the paper. Obviously, being the roughest of the rough and ill-educated to boot, they usually fail and quite substantial words of 12/13 letters or more are still creeping into the paper, though always used in an inappropriate way.

By way of being a ‘paper of record’, the Telegraph has espoused that most obvious of standbys, the list: the ten/twenty Premier League players managers most want to get rid of; the twenty best pubs in Britain; twenty comments you just can’t be without when you are at a cocktail party; twenty ways of definitely upsetting royalty. Anyone at all interested in that once mighty paper’s decline should consult Britain’s Private Eye (still described as a ‘satirical journal’, although I can’t for the life of me see why) which is taking a great delight in chronicling the abject decline into irrelevance of the Daily Telegraph.

. . .

Exactly how silly the season isn’t can be gauged by two stories in the headlines here in Britain (and Europe): there’s the desperate attempts by tens of thousands of migrants from various parts of North Africa to get into the EU in search of a better life; and there’s the unsettling decline of share prices on the Chinese stock market (though not the Hong Kong Stock Exchange which has so far avoided whatever virus is going aroung). As for the migrants, well despite the nasty traits of my character, they have my best wishes.

For decades we here in the West (the ‘civilised West) have been encouraged to make the most of ourselves, to strive to raise our standard of living, to ensure we take care of our families and the rest, yet when folk fleeing often certain death in Syria, Libya, Ethiopia and Eritrea try to do the same we clutch our skirts in horror. Why exactly?

Well, I’ll tell you why: if we did do the decent thing and give refuge to as many of them as we could it would – to be very blunt – cost us. The good folk of Western Europe might have to do without getting a new car every few years, taking a foreign holiday every year, eating out at some expense whenever they chose: it is one thing expressing apparently heartfelt fellow feeling, but quite another doing something about it. I know that I am about to sound like some dickhead socialist and that I am not – I might be a dickhead, but I am no lefty. But here goes: there is more than enough to go around here in Western Europe for several million additional folk. Yes, it would take some readjusting and, yes, it would be difficult, but it would be quite possible with thought and sense to re-organise life and for all of us already established here to make slight sacrifices.

Who says we are obliged to raise our standard of living in perpetuity? Why those flogging us stuff, of course. Here in Britain the average household has at least two TV sets and two cars. Today I went to the local council recycling facility to drop off a guitar amp which had long given up the ghost and was simply gathering dust. And what did I see: at least 40 or 50 perfectly reasonable TV sets, some of them of the new plasma flatscreen kind, tossed out to make way for a newer, more expensive model. (Incidentally, despite the fact that thousands of more TV sets are shifted every day, the crap on TV remains the same: does EastEnders (or whatever your soap is) improve simply because you are watching it one a 40/50in wide plasma TV?)

The wobble, and it could become far more than a wobble, of the Chinese stock exchange, is potentially more serious. Although I am advocating a restructuring of our Western economies to spread the goodies a little more with a lot more people, it is the kind of thing which has to be done slowly and carefully. But a worldwide collapse in stock markets and doubtlessly a resultant imploding of economies is not the way to do it. But the danger is the suddenness of it, not the fact that share prices are falling. So much for silliness.

. . .

Next week I am off to Spain again for what has become an annual trip. Four holidays in five months? And you preach to us about a fat living? Well, it’s a little less complicated than that (of course). I get 20 paid holiday days a year, but for the past few years I have ended up at the end of the holiday year with ‘days owed’ and was obliged to take a week of in October doing nothing just to take them.

Well, this year, possibly my last in work, I decided to organies myself a little more. Eh, that’s it. I am not taking more holiday, just ensuring what I take is spent in slightly warmer parts than were hereto fore. I am off to see one Seth Cardew, the potter, in his bolthole a few miles north of Els Inbarsos in Castellon, and I shall keep you posted. As always – I really can’t pass up any opportunity to pontificate.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A week on the German/Dutch border in the back of beyond in Ostfriesland. And I confess to a very, very silly cock-up

It’s that itch write again and sooner or later one of us is going to succumb. Quite how I can imagine. Either I give in and write, write, write with no thought or concern for what the reader might want, be interested in or even choose to avoid, or I don’t give in and suffer for ever - or until my death, whichever is sooner - the self-laceration that I am just one more of the several million of bullshitters who have not only walked this world but while doing so have bored to oblivion and beyond their fellow men and women. At the moment, it seems, pointless and inconsequential writing - as here - might seem to be winning the day. . . .

For once, I think, this entry won’t be about one thing but will be split into several short - shortish, for whenever was brevity my virtue? - sections just as and when they must occur. I have been at my sister’s ‘place’ in the more or less back of beyond in Ostfriesland in the North-west of Germany. I and my son, very lovable lad called Wesley, who is 16, have come here for a week as has my younger brother.

When I refer to this former farm, now putative retirement home of my brother-in-law, as her ‘place’, it is only to due it credit: she and my brother-in-law had an immense stroke of luck when, casting around for somewhere to move to when he retires, they happened upon 18, Heinitzpolder, Bunde. You might think that as the property as a number and what might seem to be a street name it is not remote. You would be wrong. It is quite remote, though surrounded by a farm here and a farm there. Whatever. As the crow flies we are less than a quarter of a mile from the Dutch frontier. In fact, you must drive seven miles to get to Holland because the road from Bunde, the nearest very small town to here, runs for six miles parallel to the frontier. And I love it.

. . .

It is now 10.30pm, but unlike at home where it tends to get clammy and thus chilly even in August, I can sit outside and compose this entry. Earlier we had a barbecue but one by one they all, the others, that is my brother-in-law and my son, retired to bed, until a short while ago it was just my younger brother, my younger sister and myself sitting outside and chewing the fat. We talked of our parents, our older brother, who died last December, and this, that and t’other. And not for the first time, and most certainly not the last, I was struck by how individual reminiscences of the same occurrence and event can vary a great deal. And obviously that means that mine, too, could very well be amiss. All of this was to the background of my choice of music on my iPhone.

What is playing was as shuffled collection of all the pieces I have collected in a playlist usefully names ‘Jazz’. It is an eclectic miscellany - aren’t all collections miscellaneous? Must look it up, but don’t be shy to rap me over the knuckles. Quite possibly they are - and for some one of a certain age, which unfortunately I have become, it is good listening: Roy Eldridge, Ella Fitzgerald, Chet Baker, Art Farmer, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Steely Dan (yes, iTunes also calls them ‘jazz’, and who am I to argue?), and many, many more. Stick it all on shuffle and you get a hell of a programme.

. . .

My German grandparents came this area (though they were Roman Catholics - Ostfriesland was divided into strict Lutherans and Calvinists, and Roman Catholics), she from Papenburg, a town created by an RC bishop who was non-too-happy at the dominance of the Protestants, and he from Str├╝cklingen in the Saterland, an area so remote until a century or two ago that (according to Wikipedia, the usual caveat) the people living there, the Saterfriesen, are recognised by the German government as a ‘minority’ and had their own language. It was remote because the Saterland was a strip of sandy land ten miles long and just under two miles wide completely surrounded by marshland, not the easiest of terrain to cross.

So people simply didn’t bother coming or going. I should think - though this is only speculation - that there was a fair number of the six-fingered folk you tend to come across in remote areas. Certainly there is a streak of mild lunacy in our family, though I suspect there’s a streak of mild lunacy in every family. We’ve been visiting ever since and as my brother-in-law is also from Papenburg there’s a lot of extended family. When I was young and we came to visit and stay, I was forever being introduced to folk and informed ‘this is your uncle/aunt/cousin’ and the tenuous relationship between us.

. . .

Later (three days later, as it happens, that first entry was curtailed after one beers on top of one too many gins and tonics) Went off to Winschoten today, just across the border in Holland (which I’m told I should call The Netherlands and that Holland is just one province, but . . .) looking for tourist tat for us to take home to Wez’s sister and my daughter, Elsie, and Wez’s mum and my wife.

There wasn’t a lot, mainly because Winschoten isn’t much of a tourist town and, however pleasant it is and but for the Dutchness of this, that and t’other, it is pretty much one of several thousand euro-towns which are evolving throughout the EU Empire. Everything is pleasant enough but half close your eyes you could be anywhere, even bloody Redditch (and anyone who has been to Redditch knows I don’t mean the comparison as much of a compliment.

We’re back off to Old Blighty tomorrow, leaving here at 8.30 in good time for me to fuck up the drive to Schiphol airport and our flight at 13.50. The drive should only take two and a half hours but on the fuck-up front I am rapidly gaining form. Yesterday, checking on this, that and t’other, I realized that when I first booked my flight - my son coming along was a later development - I made my return flight on August 19, today. But when I booked my son’s flight it was for August, 20, tomorrow. Sadly, because this cheapskate had booked the cheapest flights available, there was no way I could change the departure date for less than £133 - £73 for the new flight and a £60 ‘fee’. So then it was onto Skyscanner, which came up with a flight for just £72 on my son’s flight, though actually getting it to be booked proved impossible for some reason. Finally, I found one for £110.

It is stupidity like that which makes me feel doubly guilty because for many pensioners and unemployed people, £110 would be very welcome indeed and mean the difference between misery and abject misery when a bill falls due. Don’t carp, it’s true, and I am very lucky that, although I am by no means wealthy, I am able to drum up that kind of money without going into debt.

Pip, pip

The East Friesian Ponderosa

Saturday, August 8, 2015

That itch to write (Part 2): Again about dogs, but also diaries, emotional defecation, the ‘information superhighway’ (what’s that in Chinese?) and why I think dogs should be allowed to roam

When I started this blog five years and seven months ago it was to be some kind of hybrid between a diary, a commonplace book and what I can only describe as an exercise in writing. It had a precedent. From the late 1970s on, although I don’t remember when exactly I started, I kept a written diary, although that, too, was occasionally something of a commonplace book.

The 1970s were, as, of course, everyone reading this - online - a decade in pre-history: there was no internet and so no such blog as this could exist. I have little knowledge of the genesis of the internet and even less interest. It is now so much part of our lives that there not being an internet will be as alien to some - those, I assume of my daughter’s generation who are 19 and younger - as to many of the world’s population as there not being any cars or, to narrow that population down somewhat to the ‘civilised world’, there not being any hot water on tap and flushing lavatories.

But, dear young ones, there was such a time, and although it might seem incredible to you who is apt and accustomed to recording his or her every thought, ‘life event’ and enthusiasm on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instathis and Instathat, there was such a time, and although admittedly it was on occasion a real struggle, we coped. In those days ‘a diary’ was handwritten. I wrote mine in A4 hardback ledgers (which I still have somewhere) and it was a laborious task. I am left-handed and my writing is pretty much illegible, though I must add not in a cramped, spidery, sinister way, but more in a grandiose, attractive way.

From afar my handwriting looks rather nice, artistic even in an undisciplined kind of way; but up close - and we tend to read unclose when we try to read a handwritten document - it is pretty much unintelligible. That doesn’t, of course, matter, because not only has no one else tried to read it, I haven’t even tried to read it. In a sense - scatological alert! - writing a diary is pretty much for most of us like having an emotional dump.

There are, of course, those, to my mind excessively self-important people who keep a diary ‘for posterity’: politicians, theatre directors, snobs, those kind of people. I regard them as excessively self-important because from the off they have persuaded themselves that their future lives will be of such brilliance and of such interest that at some time in the years to come the world and its poodles will be queuing up to by their diaries once published. (Which snob? Try James Lees-Milne.)

To date I have been not a politician, theatre director or, I hope, a snob, and I at my age I am unlikely to go down those paths, so the diaries I kept were personal, nominally ‘for my eyes only’. And there’s the rub: I could and can simply not get my head around the point of recording your thought, feelings and emotions by hand, in my case laboriously, if no budger will ever catch sight of what you have put down on paper. And I still can’t, so when along came the internet (in the very, very early days romantically dubbed ‘the world wide net’ and quite fatuously ‘the information superhighway’ - try telling that to those net users in totalitarian countries where access to the net is strictly controlled), it seemed a godsend: not only could I drivel on about whatever I liked at some length, I could do so in a blog and quite possibly it would be read! Well!

There, however is the second rub: by whom could and would it be read? I know that two friends occasionally drop in to give my blog a read and I know my sister once did regularly, and it is not at all unlikely, given colleague and other friends might happen by, so I would be better advised to be more circumspect in what I recorded in my blog than I had been obliged to be when I was still having that regular emotional dump by hand in several A4 hardback ledgers. And what would it be like if I let rip about this, that and t’other - which was the inspiration for this entry - and my wife happened upon this blog.

That would be pretty unlikely, but less unlikely would be my daughter now 19 - where did the years go?- and my son, 16, finding their way here to find out what Dad does when he’s tapping away. (I must reassure both friends and my sister that there is, in fact, nothing I want to record about them which I would not be quite happy to tell them to their faces. But if there were - well, you see the dilemma.)

. . .

My last entry was partly about our Jack Russell, Russell, and he again, and his position in the Powell household, has brought me to my keyboard again tonight. Here’s a question: who gets a dog and keeps it in a cage in the hall and, when the dog needs a dump, takes him out on a lead?

To put matters into context, we live as much of a rural environment as you could hope for in Britain, possibly even more so. We live in a granite cottage which, although it is not large and was renovated as much by my wife’s own hard work as by builders - a few years before we married - and which would be every Brit’s wet dream. To the front we have a large expanse of green as we do to the back. There is a second expanse of green in what might be called the ‘top garden’ and then there’s a piece of land on which my wife gardens.

We don’t live in a city, a town, a small town, a village or even a small village. There is a road nearby but it is not busy. So all that makes it my instinct to ‘let the dog out’. OK, he will roam, but why shouldn’t he. I mentioned as much to my son earlier today and he, the nominal ‘owner’ of the dog - my ever-so-slightly left-wing side, though admirably kept in check by my ever-so-slightly right-wing side, balks at the notion of animals being ‘owned’ and I hope you get my meaning - commented that Russell ‘could be run over’.

Well, yes, he could. But then so could I, so could he and so could the rest of the household. I have often, probably too often, commented to my wife that given her attitude to Russell, she should get herself a zoo if she enjoys, as she apparently does, seeing animals caged up. I don’t. When, as now (’cos I smoke cigars and have to do so outside) I am sitting outside (at present composing this latest entry to my blog), I want young Russell to be enjoying himself in the fresh air, sniffing this and sniffing that. And I know he shares my point of view: every time the front door is opened, he is out like a shot. What is a man to do? For the purpose of illuminating the spaces where young Russell might be able to roam were he allowed by others, here are a few photos.

These are the ‘top’ garden and the ‘back’ garden’. The ‘front’ garden picture was somehow to green, as in bloody awful viridian green, to use. Since taking these, it has occurred to me that 1) some folk might think that I am ‘showing off’; and 2) I am bloody well showing off. That second charge would be far more serious, so let me try to put things into context. Yes, I live in a very nice part of Britain, but it was a sheer stroke of luck which brought me what I regard as my good fortune (of which by far the main element it two children.)

Until I was 45, I was knocking around from newspaper to newspaper, growing older, growing more lined and getting more and more fed up. Then fate - and details of which might follow, or might not - took me into matrimony with a woman from North Cornwall whose family run a beef farm and, pertinently, was given this cottage by her father. It was until she renovated it - and did a great deal of the physical work herself - a ruin. It had not been inhabited for nigh-on 50 years and then most recently by cows. It was used as a cow shed.

That she took a fancy to me was a matter of sheer luck (though I suspect that fancy as rather dimmed over the years - again details, possibly, to follow. Whether they do depends upon whether this blog can revert in part to being ‘a diary’ and, crucially, whether I can be assure not she nor my children ever get to read what must under the circumstances be reasonably candid comments and thoughts. We’ll see. . . .

PS Most of what my wife tells me these days begins with ‘Don’t...’ Sorry to be cynical, but my advice to all young men in the throes of love is: get over it. They way that most women take after their mothers. In my wife’s case that isn’t true. Her mother, my mother-in-law, now dead and who I knew but briefly before illness rather curtailed her life was a darling and as open to the world as my wife is closed. Sadly (he says, risking his daughter happening upon this blog) I suspect it is true of her and my wife. Oh well. As for sons taking after fathers, it’s also partly true. And my son - what a charmer! (Elsie, dear heart, you do know my tongue is invariably in my cheek.) . . .

PPS On the CD notes of many recordings are listed the various and different piece of kit use by the recorded band. Capital idea, and in that spirit might I record that this blog was composed on a Macbook Pro (silver old school) using the very good Bean word processor and uploaded on Firefox.

More pertinently it this entry was facilitated by several tall glasses of Lidl Mojito cocktail (£3.99 for 70cl, bloody good value by anyone’s standard’s, and the Tesco and Asda equivalents are 51p more expensive) and latterly my third La Paz Wilde Cigarros. Think I’ve got more money than sense to be smoking those (admittedly only 13.99 euros if you buy them online rather than pay the cynically exorbitant prices demanded for the very same cigars in Britain).

If you want to have a reasonable whack to be spraying around to afford Lidl Mojito and La Pax cigars, my advice is to find yourself a job in the bullshit industry. If, as I have you can survive 41 years before the mast talking and writing bollocks, the pay ain’t half bad, even if, like me, you are still a casual amazed you have made it thus far.

Friday, August 7, 2015

That itch to write: Today, dogs, two weeks spent in Corfu almost 30 years ago, irate taxi drivers and how it might, I hope, all hang together, including the important revelation that I am not bisexual, despite what I now suspect were the hopes of one young man and one young woman, if possibly not another young woman (but who knows?)

When is a dog more than a dog? A fair enough question, of course, but don’t expect any grandiosely sentimental bull from me. A dog is always a dog. It’s never a cat or an ironing board or, heaven help us, a politician (though . . . )

Years ago, I had the misfortune to end up in some sort-of resort in the north of Corfu. It was the second week of my holiday and I had ended up there by pure chance. Wanting a break and not really knowing where to go, I had simply booked a flight to Corfu aboard I don’t know which budget airline and arrive at Corfu airport at about 9pm.

When I got my ticket - this was in the mid-eighties and nothing was done online - I was surprised to find that included in the price was one night’s stay at a hotel. At the time I had no idea why, but I later found out that Greece was getting so fed up with smelly hippy types - they did exist, you know - simply flying out to ‘the islands’, then dossing about here and there that it insisted every traveller should have at least one night’s accommodation booked. As usual the airlines found a way around that ‘difficulty’ without spending a penny.

So I arrived at the airport, picked up my luggage, found a taxi and asked him to take me to --- hotel. It turned out the hotel was miles and miles and miles away at the very south of the island and why didn’t he take me to a local bed and breakfast for the night.

‘But,’ I told him, ‘I already have a room booked there and [this was important to me] already paid for.’

‘Oh, never mind that,’ he said, ‘there are plenty of cheap places you can stay tonight and go there tomorrow.’

But I couldn’t see the point. A room had been booked for me and I had already paid for it. Why not got there? So we did.

Corfu is not a big island, but it took us an immensely long time to get there. Eventually we left the roads and drove ever further down this track and that, deeper and deeper into deepest Corfu until we found the hotel. I have no idea when we got there, but it was dark and empty and very much closed. I had no idea what was going on. But I paid my fare, the taxi took off again and I was left wondering what to do next.

Somehow, and at this point, at least 27 years later I really can’t remember all that much but I do remember banging on very door I could find did arouse someone. He was a caretaker and had no idea who I was. No room had been reserved for me, we established, but I could have one. The following morning, after an awful night plagued by mosquitoes, I came ‘down to breakfast’ to find out that this quite big hotel was not completely closed, despite what appeared to be the case halfway through the night before.

A woman ‘booked me in’ for a week and I discovered that the hotel had just one other guest. He, too, was English, I discovered over the next few days. He was what we Brits called ‘a twitcher’, a bird-watcher and had come to this most remote part of South Corfu to watch birds. He was also an alcoholic. I don’t mean that in any judgmental, and I most certainly am not being judgmental. I am merely describing him as the kind of person I had until then never really encountered.

The hotel was in woods not far up a hill and at the bottom of the hill was a bar/cafe. There might well have been one or two other houses around but I didn’t notice them. I must say that that spot was what I would now cherish, sheer peace and quiet and thus bliss. But for me then, a younger man with a desire for ‘action’ it really was a no-no.

For one week I fell into a certain pattern of sleeping late, getting up, trotting down the hill to the bar, staying there all day doing but reading - it was, I remember well, Richard Ellman’s biography of Oscar Wilde, drinking beer and otherise doing nothing (‘chilling’). I had lunch at the bar, then later in the afternoon the alcoholic twitcher turned up, we had supper together, drank more, he got a little drunk and bought himself - I remember this distinctly - a litre bottle of white Cinzano to be finished off later that night, then we both staggered up the hill again to our hotel.

In that week there was never one other guest although the hotel had at least 50 rooms. And this was in June. The twitcher, who had polished off his litre of white Cinzano throughout the night after polishing off as many cans of Carlsberg as I had, was always - or appeared to be always - as sober as a judge the following morning when we met up for a late breakfast. And one day we both went on a minor tourist trip on what was probably a small shrimp fishing boat, although in that matter - do they fish for shrimps off the coast of Corfu? - I am fully prepared to stand corrected.

But for this youngish card who desired ‘more action’ that spot was too quiet, and pissed off with the legerdemain of fictiously booking me into a hotel in the back of beyond I decided to return to Old Blighty (Britain) a week early. I checked out, paid up and got a taxi back to the airport.

There I discovered that I was booked on a flight due to leave the following week and that I couldn’t change that booking, so I headed back into town. (I had, by the way found out from some holiday rep or other at the airport what the usual price was for a taxi ride back into Corfu town, so when my driver tried to charge me four times as much I challenged him and said it should be a lot less. He became furious and in is proud fury declared OK, I would pay NOTHING. I took him by his word. That’s the Greeks for for you, fully prepared, it would seem to cut off their noses to spite their faces and anyone aware of the recent euro difficulties might care to bear his behaviour in mind.

So I had another week to spend in Corfu, and when I asked around where I might visit, I was given the name of a resort in the extreme north of the island. (I have been onto Google maps to try to find its name, but - literally - all the names are Greek to me so I can’t help you out. I went to the bus station, found the relevant bus and took it north. When I got there I asked around - in English, of course - and rented a room for a week, a bedroom with an adjacent shower.

Where to do dogs come into all this? Well, I shall tell you, but I’ve determined to take the long way around.

The resort was just that: it wasn’t a fishing village which had been expanded or anything like that, it was a purpose-built small resort. And small is the word. It had one main drag along which were the usual restaurants and bars and here and there were hotels, guest houses and apartments. I remember it stank of shit to the nth degree (as, by the way did Corfu Town; I should imagine that its sewerage system was designed and built in the late 19th century and completely unprepared for the masses of tourists which descended upon it from the second half of the 20th century on when those on lower pay were more able to afford foreign travel).

For that week I did very little but follow the pattern of my first week. There were several what we then called ‘discos’, and I remember hooking up with two Brit women, fancying one but being manouevred into bed at my place by the second. It must have been the worst shag of my life, but - I’m nothing if not honest - it was probably ten times as bad for her.

Her friend, the one I had fancied, had instead copped off with a travel rep and, I can’t remember how, we all met the following day when he offered to take us on a tour of the island in his car. We stopped off at a taverna for lunch and at one point in a pretty wide-ranging conversation his woman suddenly asked us both - the male rep and me - whether we were bisexual. I can’t think why. I told her I wasn’t, he said nothing. And writing about it here, almost 30 years later, I’m wondering whether she and he and perhaps her friend with whom I had spent a rather boring night, had put two and two together, arrived at five and were hoping for a rather less conventional sexual encounter. I don’t know. I’ll leave that one with you. If they were, I will have disappointed them.

Anyway. As I say, my week there consisted of sleeping late, finding a bar for lunch, drinking beer and reading and writing letters describing it all. Bearing in mind that the whole of this small, rather dysfunctional resort smelled of shit, I remember opining that the reason the Brits were so keen on going to Greece was that they they felt unchallenged by the sanitation. (At one point exploring this bloody awful place, I came across a small stream by which quite a few Brits were sunbathing just yards away. The water of this stream was a quite awful opaque light grey and smelled overwhelmingly of shit. Yet none of those sunbathing nearby seem to notice and if they did notice, even worse, were wholly unconcerned.)

But now to dogs. Like most dead and alive places in the sun this resort had a rather large population of stray dogs. These were, without exception, mangy, thin and appeared disease-ridden. So I was very surprised one evening when sitting in the forecourt of one ‘restaurant’ along the main drag (with two women, that I remember, though I can’t remember who they were or whether they were the two from earlier) to be asked by a passing elderly Brit: ‘Have you seen a dog.’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked him. ‘I’ve seen loads.’

‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘but he’s a lovely dog, you must have seen him.’ He then explained that he and his wife, both dog lovers, had taken a shine to one of the what seemed like several hundreds of stray dog up and down that main drag and were in the habit of feeding it. This dog was, to them, special.

. . .

What brought me to the topic of dogs is our dog, a Jack Russell, rather unimaginatively named by our son Russell. I’ve mentioned him before. Briefly, I was against getting a dog, though not because I don’t like dogs, but because dogs are a responsibility and are, as they say, ‘for life’. My son, who is the nominal ‘owner’, was very enthusiastic and, up to a point, still is. But I dogs, especially Jack Russells, need daily exercise and attention and I wonder just how enthusiastic he will be come the cold, rainy winter days when the dog still needs a walk. That remains to be seen.

I was, as I say and for that reason against our household acquiring a dog, but as I was overruled and as we now have him, I do love him. He is, admittedly, not at all bright and is only interested in being cuddled, running for tennis balls and hanging around at your feet whenever you are eating, to be given whatever scraps might find their way to him, but I am now very fond of him. As is, no doubt, my wife. But she and I have very different views on how a dog should be treated and what freedoms he should have.

I subscribe to what I think is the mainstream view that dogs are outdoor animals who should be allowed out of doors whenever possible. She, on the other hand and to put it both ungallantly and bluntly, would have made a great jailer. We live in the depths of the North Cornwall countryside next to her brother’s beef farm and are surrounded by fields. More pertinently although we are by no means ‘rich’, we are lucky to live in a cottage with, on three sides, reasonably large areas of grassland. But when he is taken out be her ‘to relieve himself’, she always puts him on a lead. I can’t get my head around that.

When I go outside to sit and read and take Russell with me, every few minutes she is shouting out of the window: ‘Where’s Russell, what’s he doing? You’ve got to keep an eye on him!’

Why? He’s a bloody dog. He’s mooching around. That’s what dog’s do. He was born about seven months ago and so, in human terms, is now a young lad. And that would explain why every time the front door is opened he is out like a shot. He’s not some old fart like me, he’s young and wants to explore. But no, when I’m not around he is kept indoors and watched over. And I can’t stand it. I can’t stand zoos and I can’t stand any animal caged up, whether in fact or metaphorically.

Yes, I think that old codger looking for ‘his dog’ among several thousand mangy straw dogs was a tad twp, but part of me completely understands his affection. And it is that part which sighs every time our Russell is treated like the inmate of a concentration camp (though, as always, I exaggerate a little). But it seems I am waging a losing battle.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Cruise control? Who needs cruise control? Well, I don’t, but I got it anyway, for several long, boring miles. And arguing the toss with an 80-year-old Irishwoman while lost in France didn’t help much

I promised more ‘ironies’, but in fact what I am about to retail is not quite ‘an irony’, more a ridiculous situation which had me baffled for nigh-on half an hour.

We were on our way back from a concert at a chateau we had not visited before but which coincidentally was very close to a convalescent home in the country south of Bordeaux where my aunt had stayed for a few weeks after having a knee operation. This made her think she was a little familiar with the area and knew how to get back home again. She didn’t.

Instead of following the way we had come, which would have involved turning left at the chateau entrance, we turned right and - of this I’m quite certain - we were heading south and in the right direction. Then several minutes later something very odd happened: the car seemed to lose power and try as I might I could not get it to go faster than 25mph (the speedometer showed just under 45kph).

I thought there was some kind of blockage in the petrol system, so slowed down, changed down and accelerated into something rather like what is called an ‘Italian tune-up’. That seem to do the trick because in second from about 10mph acceleration was fine. Then at around 25mph everything just seemed to shut down and I just couldn’t go any faster.

My aunt who knows as much about cars as I do about the finer points of French grammar was for reconciling us to travelling that slowly. I wasn’t and got more and more frustrated by not knowing what was going on.

‘Does this car have some kind of cruise control?’ I asked her.

‘What’s cruise control?’ she replied.

‘It’s a way of setting your car to travel no more than a certain speed.’

‘Why would you want to do that?’ she asked.

‘Well, in some ways it can be a useful facility, if, for example, you don’t want to break the speed limit and are afraid of being caught by a speed camera.

‘All you have to do is stick to the speed limit,’ she pointed out.

‘But sometimes you go over it a little by accident.’

‘Well, you should just be more careful.’

‘Of course, you should,’ I agreed (trying to keep the frustration with the turn of conversation out of my voice. She is 81 and I was her guest, after all, and I couldn’t very well tell her to get a grip). ‘But it does sometimes happen. You don’t mean to, but you are driving a little too fast and you are caught speeding.’

‘Well, then you’ve got no excuse, you should just be more careful.’

‘But even though some people are more careful, it can happen, so setting a cruise control to a certain speed to ensure you don’t go over that speed can be very useful.’

‘I don’t think it’s at all useful and I can’t see why anyone would need one.’

I tried a different tack. ‘OK, but aside from that, have you heard Pierre [her husband] mention that this car has cruise control?’

‘Why would it have cruise control?’

‘I don’t know, but if it did, have you heard him refer to it?’

‘But I can’t see the point?’

And so on. And on and on and on for many more minutes and, as we were tootling along at just 25mph, for many more miles. In all this time I was touching this, pressing that, pulling this to see if I could find where the cruise control - if indeed the car had one - was located.

The road was very straight (Napoleon had many very straight roads built along which he could march his armies) and we passed several signposts, including one for Saucats, which prompted my aunt to inform me we were on the right road. But we weren’t, and soon we had no idea where we were which frustrated me as much as tootling along at a snail’s pace.

Then, for no very good reason could think of I took out my iPhone and launched the compass to find that instead of travelling south as we should have been doing, we were travelling due north. I told my aunt and suggested we about-turn.

‘We’ll get somewhere soon,’ she told me.

‘But we’re driving in the wrong direction.’

‘But we’ll get somewhere soon.’

‘Yes, but somewhere in the opposite direction we want to go. If we turn around, we’ll also get somewhere soon, but at least we know we are heading in the right direction.’

She was having none of it, and knowing myself well and knowing that, frustrated I am apt to be a little more direct than some people can handle, I decided to keep schtumm and do what she asked. And it was at this point that I discovered - I had been fiddling around discovering what I could while we proceeded - that the car did indeed have cruise control and, even better, how to switch it off. So finally we were able to get up to a reasonable speed but by this point we were on the outskirts of Bordeaux, about 20 miles due north from where we wanted to be.

We carried on, still due north, until we spotted a sign for the Arcachon to Bordeaux motorway. (Arcachon is on the Atlantic coast due west of where we were, Bordeaux was due east. Where ideally we wanted to be was due south. And that be at least 45 minutes ago.) We eventually arrived home about an hour later than we should have done but at least I had established that that particular model of Peugeot did have cruise control even though my elderly Irish aunt considered it a facitilty worse than useless.

. . .

It wasn’t that night, but the following night at somewhere called the Chateau de France that I came across Les Tromano, made up of brothers Yorrick and Daniel Troman, on violin and accordion, and double bass player Yann Dubost, and boy were they a find. They play everything from Prokoviev, Shostakovich and Stravinsky to kletzmer and if you like that kind of musis - I DO - you would like Les Tromano. I’ve bought a CD and upload some tracks in the next few days.