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[Entries are in reverse date order, latest at the top. Comments and contributions are welcome to the email address at the bottom.]
Monday 4th December
On we went to Cividale del Friuli. It's a jewel of a little mediæval town, steeped in a long history of settlement and occupation: inhabited in Palaeolithic and Neolithic times, settled by Veneti and Celts during the Iron Age, developed by the Romans (its name changed to Forum Iulii by Caesar), the first capital of the newly formed Lombard Kingdom, dubbed Civitas Austriae (Charlemagne's Italian "City of the East"), adopted by the patriarchs of Aquileia, annexed to the Republic of Venice, and finally ceded to the Kingdom of Italy in 1866.
We arrived exactly where I wanted to be, the car park in Piazza del Duomo. Just like Udine, I knew where I was, and where we should go.
Now, I've been wondering the last few days, as I've banged on at length about events of half-a-century ago revisited in a three-day trip, why I have this great sense of place and orientation in Friuli. Clearly, in part it must be to do with familiarity: time, frequency, repetition, even the maps on my office wall and on my computer. There are other places in which I know where I'm going: the Balagne region of Corsica, where we have stayed many times at my friend Ian's flat; London, after driving commercially there in the early 1970s; and, of course, the nooks and crannies of the Stroud valleys, where there are many routes to get to the same place, and I know the majority. But there is a particular sense of location in Friuli, and I've now decided why. Going there at the age of 23 was a blessed relief, a huge escape from an extended (hmm ... most of my life hitherto?) period of discomfort, being pulled out of shape: schools I detested, the unsuitability (for me) of Cambridge University, others' expectation and judgment. In short, baggage. I arrived in Udine where nobody knew me, almost nothing about my past. Everybody treated me afresh, at face value, without preconception. Abroad, away from a troubled Britain diminished by industrial strife, a different language. It was tough at first getting to grips with the work and Italian, but over three or four months, starting probably with a hilarious New Year's Eve in the then Yugoslavia, everything turned to fun, and more importantly, contentment. Each discovery was special. Even the earthquake the following May, a tragedy for the region, may have actually deepened the experience, the sense of connection, friendships. Friuli was a gift, a salvation.
So, I knew that first we should walk down the incline from the Duomo to the Ponte del Diavolo, before the bright sun began to sink in the west:
Ben took photos of houses and apartments (one of which is occupied by an old friend) by the bridge and of the Natisone river that flows down through the hills from Slovenia:
Then we walked through streets and alleys until reaching a spot where you look back down the river, then up into Piazza Paolo Diacono, the main square.
It was getting cool now, not many people about, few places open, but Ben still found a book on Friulan cuisine and the cakes that he'd promised himself even before we arrived in Italy, a boozy chocolate and pistachio truffle and a sfogliatella pastry:
Sunday 3rd December
I've hidden yesterday's post - temporarily perhaps - on COP28, because I don't want to interrupt the flow of my Italian trip report. It was pretty miserable stuff anyway.
After Artegna, we headed south-east to Cividale del Friuli, planning to lunch on the way. I've been to both towns many times, but I've never taken this road. It cuts along the foot of the mountains through rolling country to the edge of the Udine plain, passing villages whose names end with "-is": Nimis, Attimis, Faris, Faedis. My plan was to find a place to eat in the last of these. The interest is somehow all to the left of you, as the hills rise. Towards Slovenia, that promise of the east which I'd felt for the first time and so strongly back in 1975. Click to enlarge the map:
We parked in the main square of Faedis. Ben had suggested we just walk around until finding the first suitable eatery, but I followed my instinct of drawing on local knowledge - successful the day before in Vittorio Veneto - and collared a young woman who was walking her dog. She suggested the oxymoronically-named - because osteria is usually qualified by vecchia, implying an old traditional inn - Osteria Moderna. She took pains to warn me that it was "just an osteria". Perfect, I said.
It was a mile or so down the road so we moved the car and parked among builders' pick-up trucks. Some of their owners were taking a fag-break at the entrance. Inside it was buzzing. We had to wait at the bar for 15 minutes until a table was clear and were then seated in front of some dodgy erotic decor. We were served a menu fisso by two brassy women of a certain age with dyed hair, leather trousers and impressive busts. Ben chose sausage and polenta. Since returning home, I've found more photos on their Facebook page, with plentiful evidence of karaoke evenings and wild fancy-dress parties.
I've also since found out how close we were to the Slovenian border. Faedis to Robidišče is only 9 miles up a proper bendy road (click to enlarge).
Here's the border crossing:
It's really not Italy even on this side of the confine. Some of the names: Pecol, Subit, Stremiz, Reant, Tamoris. Next trip, and with more time, I'll make the journey. Because Robidišče looks like this:
Friday 1st December
The Wednesday of our trip took us up to the 1970s Friuli earthquake zone. I've written separately about the 6th May 1976 event and the weeks that followed in a memoir titled "O Ce Biel", the name taken from the most well-known Friulan song, almost a regional anthem. You can read my account here: 👉
After the earthquake a group of us used to go up on Sundays to the small town of Artegna, 24km north of Udine and close to the epicentre, to give what assistance we could. Here's a recent aerial photo of the town, long restored. I've labelled it with 4 red numbers which I reference below. Click to enlarge the image, to see the detail.
Mid-morning we parked in the open space (1) near the modern municipio and went in search of coffee in the main street. There was a bar (2) on the corner by the path up to the church, but it looked very closed. I saw a man sweeping the street 50 metres away and went to ask him for directions to another venue. "No, no", he said, "it IS open" - or something similar, because he spoke in Friulan which I didn't fully understand. It was, and we went in. Quiet, unpretentious, naff decor, a young girl serving, three men at the bar.
In June 1976 I had met a couple called Gustin and Maria, whose house had been badly damaged. Here's a picture I took of them then, in front of the makeshift hut they'd built. Maria is holding a dog called Scossute, meaning "Little Tremor" in the Friulan diminutive, as she was born the night of 6th May. The parish priest Angelo, who coordinated much of the recovery effort, is on the right. On the left is a young relative.
I approached the men at the bar, explained that I'd been there 47 years before and mentioned Gustin and Maria. "Yes", one said, "they're still alive. Gustin's 97, Maria 93. Ancora lucidi." And said that they lived in the same old - but rebuilt - house just down the main street. With some specific directions that, once again, I didn't fully understand in the Friulan.
We left the bar and went up to the church on the hill behind. I remember a makeshift graveyard for the fallen 35 of the town. Now there's a proper memorial (3). From the dates on each plaque, it's clear that many who died were the elderly who didn't make it out of their homes.
As we came back down, I asked Ben and Sarah to wait in the car, or rather in the bright, warm sunshine. I followed as best I could the directions I'd been given to Maria's house, but without success. I went into a pasticceria and asked again. The woman behind the counter said, "Of course, they're just here", took me by the arm and led me to the door of a house (4) two down from the shop. She rang the bell and left. The intercom crackled, I heard a voice, said my name - and then nothing. Three minutes later, a young woman opened the door. Behind her, Maria appeared down the stairs and came to meet me. I wish I'd taken a better photo.
She recognised me with a little help, and introduced granddaughter Paola, the child of her daughter Nelli, who had been 21 at the time of the earthquake, now a retired firefighter and on holiday in Pakistan! "Charlie", she said, "la mela." Eh? I hadn't a clue what she meant. "The apple"? It turned out that I had given her a little wooden bowl in the shape of a half-apple all those years ago. She uses it for sugar today.
I told Maria, ill-advisedly, that I'd heard in the bar that she was 93. "No, I'm not", she replied briskly with a smile, "I'm only 90." She apologised for not inviting me in as she felt too frail, but we had a hug. Paola asked if she could have a hug too.
Angelo is now an Archbishop.
Thursday 30th November
Day 3 of the Italy trip report. How long is this going to take? I've only covered the first 24 hours so far.
After lunch at Al Sole we headed east for Udine after cutting down to the original main road or Strada Statale SS13. We stopped briefly at the house where I lived for two years, Villa Verecondi Scortecci in Colle Umberto. It's now promoted on Tripadvisor and Booking.com (photos below nicked from them), all glammed up with swimming pool and hot tub, available for weddings, parties and individual stays. £95 a night for a double room ain't bad; we'd just paid more in Venice. My apartment was part of the summer wing, the left-hand portion in the first picture, entered through the arch in the far-right corner of the second. The Verecondi family - my landlords - were minor nobility. Great Anglophiles, to the extent that on the bookshelves in one of their rooms, in a hidden second row behind leather-bound Italian literature, the Count kept elderly green Penguin detective novels. The family name is still on the entrance doorbell. I rang, but there was no answer. The gate to the courtyard was locked and a very large dog came out to bark at me. I didn't go in.
I couldn't handle the old SS13, pulling off the road at one point when a large truck glued itself to our rear, "Duel"-style. Ben satnavved me on a longer but quicker and more restful southerly autostrada route. Within an hour we were at Chris's house for a long overdue reunion (more than 20 years), welcomed and shown to our delightful private quarters. An hour to settle and then into town.
Two bars before Daniela's dinner, al Cappello and Grappolo d'Oro, both frequented back in 1975/6, bustling and noisy, with classic Friulan wines and snacks of prosciutto and polpette. Sarah observed that you wouldn't find these places easily if you didn't know where they were. OK, it was a dark November evening, but most don't give much of themselves away on the outside. Inside however, it's all warmth, energy and animated discourse.
Indeed, one of the distinct renewed impressions I had during this visit was of Udine's northern-ness. Unsurprising, as the Austrian border is only 65 miles away. It's not a city of picture-postcard southern hilltop charm, more solidly built, robust, serious. The old Friulan culture is one of a hardworking mountain folk. There has always been an affinity with the Teutonic north. You only have to take a look at adverts for the famous once-local beer:
He's not Italian, is he?
Wednesday 29th November
On with the Italian trip report.
After picking up son Ben and the hire car from Marco Polo airport at 10am on the Tuesday, we had the whole day to make our way to Udine, aiming to arrive at Chris's house late afternoon. "What about Conegliano?", said Sarah, meaning Cividale (we did make it there, but the next day). So off we went, a short 50km hop north.
I was utterly bamboozled by the hugely expanded outskirts, but we made it up to the castle and its view.
I was a bit shocked by the splurge of building below (naïve of me, it happens in half a century) but remembered with fondness the hills and villages in the distance. I used to drive through them to visit a teaching outpost in Vittorio Veneto, 15km to the north. So we did the same, ending up in Piazza Duomo of Ceneda, the southernmost of the town's two old centres.
Conegliano and Vittorio were part of the second phase of my Italian stay, from 1977 to 1979, nothing to do with Friuli. My partner Sue and I had nowhere to live on our arrival to run the local language school, so we went cruising in search of a place. One afternoon we fetched up in Ceneda's Piazza Duomo and had a drink in the bar. We got talking. The landlady was a charming, friendly, large woman called Giuseppina, her husband a short, grey-haired, good-looking, silent man who went by the name of "Vento" ("Wind"), a nickname earned as a partisan in WWII, celebrated in the mosaic at the entrance door. After hearing of our homeless predicament, Pina said we could sleep upstairs until we found a place. So we did, for a month, behind those green shutters on the first floor.
On this visit, we'd just missed Pina. She died a year ago, Vento earlier. Their children still own the bar although others now run it. As local as ever, tourists entirely absent. School was just out, so students were milling around outside waiting for a bus home. Three carabinieri - military police - were drinking bright pink aperitivi at the counter. Sarah's and Ben's wine cost no more than 2 euros each, my mineral water 80 cents.
I went into the shop next door and fell into conversation with the tobacconist, asked where we might find a traditional local lunch. He drew a sketch of how to get to Al Sole. "It's been there for ever", he said. And also gave me the town map you can see on the table above.
We found the restaurant, with the parking recommended near a fountain opposite. Didn't look very promising, possibly not even open.
Inside it was packed, clearly a favourite dining room. We must have been the only visitors, the rest of the clientele on a standard Vittorio lunch break. Family run: father in the kitchen (although he came out to explain some of the dishes), two brisk and efficient women waiting, a forlorn young man clearing plates. I had delicious crab spaghetti, Ben chose linguine with squid ink.
Tuesday 28th November
I'm finally making a start on documenting the whistlestop jaunt to Venice and Friuli earlier in the month. It could take a while, certainly beyond today.
Here's the tour map (click to enlarge), with chronological red numbering:
First is the passing of time. I arrived in Friuli forty-eight years ago, the anniversary just gone, 25th November 1975. Chris Taylor - we stayed at his family home during this visit - had preceded me by a month or two. He remained and married Daniela. Big thanks to them for their great hospitality, comfort in the separate restored wing of their house, the organisation of evening trips to bars and restaurants.
Time has in many ways stood still, in other ways not. Wandering round Venice I had a curious sensation of not having left. I knew where I was. Nothing surprising about a calle here, a sottoportego there. OK, I still got lost, but my internal compass could point me in the right direction for San Marco, Rialto or Santa Lucia railway station.
Part of it is topographic memory. I have a mental map of Venice, the Veneto and Friuli right up to the Slovenian border - and indeed real ones on my office wall. The layout of Udine within the old ring road is imprinted on my mind. Of course, things have changed. I didn't recognise the outskirts of Conegliano (we went there by mistake at Sarah's suggestion, when she actually meant Cividale); the amount of housing development has been enormous. Outside Udine there are innumerable new roads and miles of fresh industrial or commercial sites.
The most physical example of this memory was on our visit to the village of Talmassons south-west of Udine. I drove down there every Tuesday and Thursday evening through the winter months of 1975/6 to teach English. I used to stop for a snifter in Lestizza; this time we paused for coffee. On continuing our journey we came to a junction. There was no sign, but my arm muscles palpably told me to go left. I had made that turn roughly 70 times back then. On entering Talmassons, I knew that my friend Carletto's house was hidden down an unmarked track off one of long roads leading to the centre. I found it at the first attempt.
Sunday 26th November
Saturday delights in Stroud. Middle-class morning, beggars banished.
My favourite bread from Sunshine. Yes, it had my name on it. The large sourdough rye flies off the shelf, so I reserve a loaf with an opening-time 'phone call. Eyewatering price. My privilege and good fortune.
The entertainment was a cut above yesterday. At least two of us were impressed. My friend Neil went for the bigger picture, the panoramic. I stuck to the detail. [Enlarge by clicking on the button (bottom right within the video player). Sound up.]
Saturday 18th November
Friday 17th November
Saturday 28th October
What can you do? The sabres rattle and the death toll mounts. We turned up outside Tory MP Siobhan Baillie's office for 15 minutes yesterday evening. The photos are courtesy of the Stroud Times (click to enlarge):
Siobhan wasn't there - no surprise - although the lights were on inside the building. As the quarter-hour drew to a close a police squad car pulled up. Two officers, clad in full battle gear, made their way through the crowd (hardly) to the front door. After much window-rapping and bell-pushing a young woman emerged and was escorted to the car. She must have called the cops.
What on earth was she afraid of? Fifty silent candle-bearing peaceniks, mostly of pensionable age? Perhaps these days the Tories see threat in a bowl of breakfast cereal.
Friday 27th October
Wednesday 25th October
64% of the population by last Friday.
Imagine if the same proportion had to leave their homes in England. That would be 36 million people. Forty-two Birminghams.
It's not much of an escape. Gaza is 25 miles long, from 3.7 to 7.5 miles wide and has a total area of 141 square miles. Gaza City to Khan Younis is 17 miles, 30 minutes by car on a good day.
Most people can't leave the Strip altogether. Into Israel, the sea, Egypt?
Ukrainian refugees were welcomed across borders:
Tuesday 24th October
How much news of Ukraine do you see on the front pages? World cartoonists had a different view a year ago:
Monday 23rd October
You know that I rely heavily on cartoons to illustrate the madness of the modern world, the often twisted nature of our politics - and sometimes for a bit of light relief. I feel uncomfortable doing so with Gaza. The conflict and its consequences are so beyond terrible.
It has provoked a wider debate within the cartoonist community, indeed journalism as a whole. This morning I went to my usual source on Twitter/X and Mastodon, the account of "Political Cartoon". For the first time, there was comment rather than just neutral posting:
Then I found an article by former editor of The Guardian Alan Rusbridger, both in Prospect and The Independent:
The stimulus for the piece is the recent sacking of an ex-employee: "One of the great cartoonists of our times, Steve Bell, just fell off the tightrope. His contract with The Guardian - his and my old paper - was abruptly terminated after he posted on X/Twitter a drawing of Bibi Netanyahu which had been rejected by the paper's editors."
Rusbridger looks at historical clashes between cartoonists and authority. His thesis is perhaps summarised in these paragraphs:
"'At stake here is the British tradition of satire,' wrote Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, who, while distant from Bell's own politics, nevertheless defended him. I wonder if he may be right about a tradition under threat.
"Are we now living in an age when the right not to be offended trumps the right to offend?
"I'm glad to have been alive in an age when satire thrived and mockery was cherished as well as, sometimes, denounced."
Here's the full article:
Sunday 22nd October
What a shame. Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. Spirited effort from England. A thrilling game for the rugby connoisseur (although not for any French who could be bothered to watch).
Arcane stuff (permission to skip granted). Won and lost through the dark arts of forward play, arguably in the front row. Props Marler and Cole bossed their South African counterparts for 55 minutes, then substitutes Genge and Sinckler (poor Kyle, knocked out in the 2019 final against the same opposition) fell foul of the referee. In reverse contrast to the triumph of 2003, when the elder statesman Jason Leonard came on and sorted out referee Andre Watson, who was threatening to derail England's march to glory. Leonard said to his captain, "Trust me, Johnno. We've got to stem the penalties and get the ref off our backs. Just trust me." Johnson did. Watson did, too (Leonard: "Andre, you know me, I won't go up and I won't go down so you won't get any penalties out of me." - Watson: "Thank you very much Jason, that's great."). The penalty count stalled, Jonny Wilkinson had his drop-goal moment and the Webb Ellis trophy was England's.
So, a southern hemisphere final, with a record fourth cup awaiting the victors. Not the party in Paris so desired by the hosts.
Saturday 21st October
This is better:
Tonight I shall watch this from behind the sofa:
Friday 20th October
Following on from the historical Arab-Israeli maps I posted yesterday, I discovered three I'd missed. OK, by cartoonists ...
It's as difficult as it's ever been to turn the pages of a newspaper. As I do so, I find myself wondering when the conflict coverage will move on to some other topic. And when it does, it seems trivial and irrelevant. The words - not only about Gaza - of Rafael Behr in The Guardian yesterday resonated:
"I sympathise with anyone who now reaches for the dial when the news comes on. I get the lure of avoidance, which is not the same as apathy. I know plenty of people who are deeply engaged in politics, not (yet) despairing of British democracy, determined to vote at the next election, but who are also finding contact with news media distressing to the point of physical repellence. Compassionate, well-informed, even-handed experts who are qualified to take a view on Israel-Palestine choose their words with painstaking care. Some I know have been left almost speechless by the scale of what is happening now."
Hope for the region is in short supply. And yet without it ...
Thursday 19th October
Since I both need to know more of the history of the region that dominates today's news and also love maps and charts, I've dug out a selection. As ever, you'll need in most cases to click/tap/zoom to see the detail. It's worth the effort. The names on their own are an education.
I add no commentary. There's too much complexity to cover. As we know, it's a story of change, conflict, invasion, survival. Compare it with England, which has not seen an invasion (of the military kind) in a thousand years. Yes, I mean England, as I don't include the experiences of the Irish, Welsh and Scots.
I start with a graphical overview of Palestine's historical sovereign powers.
1350 BC - Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East
830 BC - Kingdoms of the Levant
320 BC - Alexander the Great conquests
20 AD - Herodian tetrachy
210 AD - Roman provinces
476 AD - End of the Roman Empire
1135 AD - Between the First and Second Crusades
1700 AD - Ottoman Empire at its fullest extent
1916 AD - Sykes-Picot Agreement
1918 AD - End of the Ottoman Empire
1947 AD - UN Partition Plan
1949 AD - Armistice Lines
1967 AD - Before and after the Six Day War
1973 AD - Yom Kippur War - Sinai
1973 AD - Yom Kippur War - Golan Heights
1982 AD - Withdrawal from Sinai following the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty
2003 AD - Israeli and Palestinian settlements (2005 Israel withdrew from Gaza)
2016 AD - Growth of Israeli settlements
2023 AD - Israel's boundaries today
Tuesday 17th October
It's difficult to know how to write a blog against the background of the Israel-Gaza conflict.
These are two groups of humans that live under the same sun and sky, occupy the same landscape, overcome the odds to raise families, believe in a God. Yet they're at each others' throats. You'd have thought that a life of shared experience would bring people together. Yet it often does the opposite. Northern Ireland. The Balkans. Hutu and Tutsi. The closest of neighbours become the fiercest of enemies.
The conflict bleeds into our own politics and communities. An increased police presence in Jewish neighbourhoods. At the Frankfurt Book Fair the award ceremony for Palestinian author Adania Shibli is cancelled. The Guardian has sacked Steve Bell or at least decided not to renew his contract, allegedly for invoking the Shylock "pound of flesh" trope:
How can I possibly write about my enjoyment of the Rugby World Cup? Here's my attempt.
We're down to the last four. Disconsolate hosts France and much-fancied Ireland are out. A written-off England will face South Africa in a semi-final. Here is the latter's man-of-the-match Mbongeni Mbonambi on Sunday night:
A photo unthinkable fifty years ago. Mbongeni would not have been in the team, regardless of any physical or sporting prowess. He would not have been in France. His child wouldn't have travelled to witness the celebrations.
All changed by the belief and tenacity of these heroes (OK, Winnie lost the plot somewhat) and their followers:
After all the suffering, they came up with "truth and reconciliation".
On Sunday, Guardian Jerusalem correspondent Bethan McKernan wrote a piece titled "Examples of Jewish-Arab solidarity offer hope in Israel: volunteers of different ethnicities are working to help victims of the violence":
"Since the new wave of violence engulfing the region began on 7 October - when Hamas burst through the Gaza security fence and rampaged through dozens of Israeli communities, killing 1,400, leading Israel to declare a war on the strip that has killed 2,200 - some have found hope in the ability of Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel to band together. Thousands of volunteers of different ethnicities are working to help victims of the violence and clean up neglected bomb shelters, amid many other efforts at calming the heightened tensions around the country.
"'What is happening right now is fundamentally different to anything we have faced so far, and I think [the week's events] will probably set us back many years in terms of equality and ending racism,' said Sally Abed, a leader of Standing Together, the largest Arab-Jewish grassroots movement in Israel, from the northern city of Haifa. 'My friend lost her brother. We are also in mourning. It is very hard to be a Palestinian citizen of Israel right now, there is no room for our voices, but we are doing whatever we can to preserve a sense of Israeli-Palestinian solidarity and identify triggers for incitement and violence before they spiral.'
"The Negev's Bedouin (traditionally pastoral nomadic Arab) tribes were some of the first to organise volunteer teams, made up of 600 people, to search for missing Israelis. 'We saw that there was enormous chaos and realised we must do something,' said Sleman Shlebe from the village of Bir Hadaj. 'We heard about people missing from both the Arab and Jewish communities, and knew that thanks to our exceptional familiarity with the south we could help. We divided ourselves up in the cars so that there would be people responsible for different things: gathering information, rescuing and administering first aid.'"
Saturday 14th October
I said I wasn't going to write about Gaza, that I hadn't much to add. Still true. However, I have never seen before such a torrent of cartoonist output on one topic, not just from my favourite usual suspects but also from others round the world whom I've not previously encountered. They express much of what we must all be feeling, and more besides. Much better than I could. No jokes. There are twenty-seven cartoons posted here, without apology. Click to enlarge any.
If you're interested in more demographic detail, here is an extraordinary document from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, dated September 2023:
Some basic numbers:
The Gaza Strip is 25 miles long, from 3.7 to 7.5 miles wide and has a total area of 141 square miles. It has a 32-mile border with Israel and a 7-mile border with Egypt. With a population of 2 million, Gaza, if considered a top-level political unit, ranks as the third most densely populated in the world.
In a ranking by total fertility rate, Gaza is 34th of 224 world regions. This leads to the Gaza Strip having an unusually high proportion of children in the population, with 43.5% being 14 or younger and a median age in 2014 of 18, compared to a world average of 28.
Sunni Muslims make up 99.8 percent of the population, with an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 (0.2 percent) Arab Christians.
The world is watching and waiting for horror to unfold. The Israeli intent is in public view. The Israel Defence Forces spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus stated this morning:
"Our aim is very clear, the end stage of this war is that we will dismantle Hamas and its military capabilities, and fundamentally change the situation so that Hamas never again has the ability to inflict any damage on Israeli civilians or soldiers."
There are constant updates on the IDF Twitter/X account here:
2.1 million followers. Three named: political satirist Jonathan Pie, BBC Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg and Elon Musk's sometime-partner Grimes. What were the selection criteria for that trio?
Friday 13th October
I woke from a dream about peace gatherings outside Gaza, groups from both sides sitting down to break bread. Instead the Israel Defence Forces had issued a warning earlier this morning to over a million citizens in Gaza City, allegedly spurned by Hamas:
I don't think I've ever witnessed such a pre-announcement to killing and destruction. Where are the residents meant to go? South of the Wadi Gaza, apparently.
This is a war played out and propagandised across social media, so visible. The Israel Defence Forces (@IDF) are all over Twitter/X:
Thursday 12th October
As has happened frequently during the lifetime of this blog with similarly terrible events, it feels wrong to be writing about anything other than Gaza. But what can I add? I'm sure that you've watched or read sufficient in recent days. So I'll continue with what I had planned, even if it seems inappropriate.
The theme of hope at the Labour Party Conference lifted the spirits. (Hope? See what I mean when you place that word against Gaza?)
However, there was something missing, as pointed out in an email from the European Movement that analysed both Tory and Labour gatherings:
"Let's talk about the elephant in the room - Brexit.
"Beyond some unconvincing attempts to defend Brexit by Rishi Sunak, the main party leaders wanted to talk about anything but Europe.
"There was a focus on 'growth', but not the glaringly obvious solution that would massively boost British businesses and make our country an attractive place to invest again. Yes, you guessed it - rejoining the single market so we can once more trade freely with our neighbours.
"New polling suggests that just 18% of those who voted Leave in 2016 think Brexit is going well. Meanwhile, the UK is forecast to have the lowest growth across the G7 in 2024. Brexit is a sinking ship. Yet politicians are either still saying it was a good idea, or ignoring it altogether.
"The political silence on Brexit is still deafening."
The associated decline in international reputation was raised - in a mood of affection and concern - by Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in advance of meeting Sunak at the third European Political Community summit in Granada last week:
"The Britain and United Kingdom that I love and admire, it is the country of the Magna Carta, the country that founded parliamentary democracy and the country that helped to write the European Convention on Human Rights. It does bother me to see the United Kingdom disengaging from the world - whether it's reducing its budget for international aid, whether it's leaving the European Union and now even talking about withdrawing from the ECHR. That's not the Britain I know."
I suppose it's something that Sunak was even there. Plenty of Europeans would like to see the UK engaged in Europe once more. It would certainly be part of my understanding of "Britain will get its future back". Maybe Starmer just has to get this general election out of the way. The B-word is simply too toxic. Apart from anything else, it carries blame. If you tell 52% of your electorate that they were stupid, would they vote for you? Nobody likes to be called wrong.
In power, with a thumping majority, I hope that Starmer will embrace the elephant.
My friend Aidan sent me this cartoon, his borrowed take on hope and despair:
Against the odds, I'm still holding out for harmony. But where do you find it in the Middle East?
Thursday 11th October
It was always going to be difficult against the backdrop of horror in the Middle East ...
... then it got trickier ...
... and probably broke in his favour. He did well to stay calm, a promising attribute for a future PM. In fact, I thought it was quite a good look, miners' hands coated in black dust, working-man solidarity. Perhaps he didn't want to talk about coal.
Whatever you think of Starmer, his cleansing of the Labour Party, policy shifts, caution, lack of charisma ... there was one hugely welcome central feature of his speech. Hope. These pages are littered with my bemoaning of its loss, the self-inflicted decline brought on by Brexit and base Tory cronyism. Here are some snippets from the speech:
"I believe in this country. I believe in its spirit."
"Turn our backs on never-ending Tory decline, with a decade of national renewal."
"A Britain with its future back."
"People are looking to us because they want our wounds to heal. People are looking to us because they want to build a new Britain."
"We all need the ability to look forward - to move forward - free from anxiety. That's what getting our future back really means."
"Focused at all times and without exception on long-term national renewal."
"We will face down the age of insecurity. Together. Break the stranglehold of Tory decline. Together. Walk towards a decade of national renewal. Together."
"Britain will get its future back."
Clever. A genuine recognition of what many of us have felt over the last decade. Tapping into a desire to be hopeful again.
For the record, here's the transcript (23 pages, but with many line breaks to accommodate pause and emphasis):
Thursday 5th October
Electioneering. Contemplation of the party navel. Cheap shots at opponents. Comeback kids galore. Leadership plots. Ditch the green agenda. Government in the interests of people and planet? Fat chance.
Wednesday 4th October
This is our governing political party ...
... having the other kind of party ...
... while we look on in disbelief ...
Saturday 30th September
Hurrah! They're off to Manchester.
What a warm welcome Sunak can expect. Inside and outside the hall.
If it's not our unelected leader and his new directions, Cruella will be making friends.
The main landing page of the conference website is dominated by these security arrangements (click to enlarge):
Are they anticipating a bomb? Or an assassination? Brighton 1984? I sincerely hope I will not come to regret those words.
Friday 29th September
This blog started with coronavirus. The word's still in the second title strapline above. I thought I'd return to the topic, maybe just for a day. I suspect it may not be much of a story.
Covid is making a quiet comeback. I'm not even sure of the current predominant variant. Is it BA.2.86? I downloaded the latest official analysis of that strain and the case volume reported doesn't seem to tally with overall numbers (see below). So I haven't posted it here.
I have several friends who are presently infected. I woke yesterday with a streaming nose and a sore throat. Before going out into the wide world I did a lateral flow test. Thankfully it was negative; I have a cold and a cough. Then I wondered if my test kit, from a large box handed to me outside Boots at the height of the pandemic, was still valid. I couldn't find any date information until I discovered a tiny hour-glass symbol on the test strip packaging. Next to it were these digits: 202303. I assume therefore that the kit is past its sell-by date. Hmmm, should still be working, I hope.
I reported the test to the GOV.UK website as I have always done. Shouldn't I have received a warning message? Why else would you be asked to enter the test strip number, in this case LME34834897? The system ought to be checking validity, right? Or is the information ignored and deposited in the great digital waste bin of government data?
Here are some latest GOV.UK national (England) statistics:
Local to Stroud:
The numbers surprise me, the national much higher than I'd imagined (although local Stroud much lower, I must know them all), but that's probably because we don't often talk now about Covid cases and deaths, whereas at the pandemic height we were given the details every day on the news, probably knew them off by heart. It's also before we compare with 21 months ago, the winter before last. Cases in England for the last 7 days are 12,187. At the early January 2022 peak they were approximately 147,000, twelve times higher. Deaths are 144, back then they were ~1,130, eight times higher. Different days.
What are we meant to do? Not a great deal unless it's getting a jab. You can follow the familiar precautions.
Here's the email response from my lateral flow test:
Here's the GOV.UK guidance:
There is advice rather than instruction. "There are no COVID-19 restrictions in the UK. If you have COVID-19 you should try to stay at home." Try? Even Boris might have managed that. "You do not need to take a test or quarantine when you arrive in the UK." Remember needing up-to-date PCR tests, vaccine certificates, simply not travelling? We kept our children away at Christmas, much to the dismay of son Ben, back from Bilbao and staying with daughter Ellie in Bristol. The understanding was that Covid could mean death, particularly for the old and vulnerable.
According to the media the new booster vaccinations have been brought forward. At my age I'm eligible. In the past I've been notified, received an invitation. Not this time. I rang my GP surgery and asked the receptionist how the process was managed. She said, not answering my question, "While I've got you on the 'phone, let me book you in." I'm going to the clinic on Saturday week.
We'll see what happens as autumn deepens into winter.
Overnight change of subject ...
Skip this if you've had enough of my defence of Richard Osman. Particularly the long quote from a Miranda Sawyer review of an earlier bit of his work. I'm really just posting for my own records. In my defence, there is behind it all a debate to be had about what is good writing or broadcasting. I think that's what interests me most.
Nicholas Lezard of The New Statesman has responded to my protests at his dismissal of Osman:
Miranda Sawyer was less than fulsome in her praise (The Guardian, 4th September 2021, quoted in full because I couldn't edit and still remain faithful to the argument):
"Richard Osman is a lovely man, dedicated to what was once known as 'the gaiety of the nation': everything he works on, from Pointless to House of Games to The Thursday Murder Club, is clever, cheery and mainstream. (Disclaimer: I don't know Osman. He might be appalling behind closed doors. Perhaps we should ask his cat.) His best creations are instantly familiar, as though they've always been there, and Osman has simply given them a nice polish and brought them to our attention. Much harder than it looks.
"Which brings us to his new Radio 4 show, The Birthday Cake Game, in which a panel of three try to guess the age of a celebrity who's having a birthday this week. The premise is familiar in a couple of ways: first, it's a lazy weekend breakfast game for newspaper readers - 'Ooh, guess how old Peter Mandelson is today! What do you mean, who?' - and second, Osman first hosted it as a (non-BBC) podcast called The Birthday Game, which came out in late 2019. You can't hear it now; presumably it's been blocked for rights reasons.
"Anyway, that's it. That's the show. The panellists get three points for guessing the right year, one point for a year either side and nothing otherwise. On Tuesday's first episode, Osman was as engaging as ever, gently teasing TV presenter Jayne Sharp when she wasn't sure what sport Lennox Lewis was famous for. He also tried hard to involve the listeners - 'play along at home!' - and one got to phone in so that the panel could guess his age too. I did play along, and got five points (bang on for Fearne Cotton, a year out for Richard Gere and Antony Gormley, go me). But really, this is thin stuff.
"To be fair, the Radio 4 6.30pm 'funny' slot has long been a tricky one to conquer, and several excellent comedians and writers have wilted in its glare. But its most successful panel shows are far smarter than this: Just a Minute, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue and The Unbelievable Truth all require wit and ingenuity, for panellists to dazzle with the swiftness of their brains. There's not much room for biting repartee when all they have to play with is a celebrity's age or whether they actually know who's being discussed. The Birthday Cake Game seems like a daft, Ken Bruce-style feature given 20 minutes too long."
It doesn't sound like Osman's finest half-hour. "Thin" is right. Subject too narrow, quite a way the other side of trivial. This is definitely a highbrow/lowbrow debate. I've now read the judgments of three critics, journalists with two publications that I respect, who essentially don't find serious value in what Osman writes or presents. I get it. I myself am appalled by much of the "light entertainment" that fills our television screens. Not "broadsheet" stuff, but "tabloid". After four Thursday Murder Club volumes, I'm ready for a break - and Osman himself, clever as always, is taking one. However, I will not renounce the pleasure I got from the Coopers Chase retirement village gang. Clever, laugh-out-loud, heartwarmingly brave in the treatment of difficult subjects. Light but laudable. As I search for my next bed-time reading, I could do with something similar.
Thursday 28th September
What is it with The New Statesman critics and Richard Osman?
Nicholas Lezard, in his article of 17th September "My latest ailment is Mild Exasperation With Everything", referenced the Thursday Murder Club series as he outlined his newly discovered condition:
"I very much enjoyed Anna Leszkiewicz's takedown of Richard Osman in last week's magazine. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I posted a link to it on a social media platform; and all hell broke loose. I was accused of snobbery, of envy, and even, by extension, of taking the bread from up-and-coming writers' mouths (the reasoning: the millions made by Osman and other extremely popular writers means publishers can nurture new talent).
"I let the arguments spool out. Osman's only crime in my book, so to speak, is writing badly. I tried to give him a go once, I really did. I was feeling a bit under the weather, and thought a little cozy crime would fit the bill. But I felt I had read enough Agatha Christie (her output is wildly variable and there is always the risk of a racist remark) and I practically know all the Sherlock Holmes stories by heart. So why not a bestseller? There must be some merit to it. After all, Lee Child's Reacher books sell by the skipload and they're great.
"So I picked up the first Osman novel. I lasted about ten pages before giving up. It was the style: the kind of writing a clever ten-year-old might produce.
"Finding absolutely everything a mild pain in the bum is itself a pain in the bum. Never mind Richard Osman."
Now, both Lezard and Leszkiewicz - the "2Ls" hereafter - can write. Accomplished scribblers. It's the job to criticise. They're right not to shy away from bold exposure of shortcomings. But ... "Writing badly"? "Clever ten-year-old"? Too much in my view. There's something spiteful about those cuts. Delivered from a smug vantage point of self-conferred superiority.
I've just finished "The Last Devil to Die". I enjoyed it, although less unequivocally than the previous three in the series. Partly because the 2Ls had punctured my delight in the earlier books, which may be a tribute to their critical acumen, or a dented confidence in my own judgment. But I still laughed out loud, was moved by Osman's handling of dementia, love and death. Does every book have to measure up to "War and Peace"? In the last years I've read yards of print about Johnson, Braverman, Putin, Trump, Musk - must my life, my daily mood, be dominated by such people? I appreciate Osman's light touch, his affectionate take. After a lifetime of reading and study, can I be so wrong to enjoy his books? I absolutely refute the assertion that Osman can't write, or only like a young adolescent. Those remarks are closer to insult than analysis.
Still, plenty have voted in favour. As Lezard says, "He can dry his tears with money."
The numbers are reflected in other ways. Joyce, the ex-nurse of the mysteries, struggles with Instagram. Somebody - was it Osman himself? - has set up a spoof account. I logged in last night:
That's her dog, Alan. Joyce is always baking. 35,000 followers!
This will infuriate the 2Ls further:
For the first time ever I watched the show a couple of days ago. It's a trivia quiz. It's not highbrow. The contestants are not intellectuals. Yet the questions are challenging enough. How close can you get to Galileo's birth date? When was the first parking meter installed in London? None of it addresses the meaning of life, solves the world's critical issues. So? To win, you have to know far more than is initially apparent. I was surprised how I had to dig back in history, estimate, apply logic.
1pm: Stop Press
Wednesday 27th September
Brexit has made fools and cowards of them. Mugs of the rest of us. Victims of too many. Losers all.
Yet slowly but surely:
Tuesday 26th September
I once saw an interview with the late polymath Jonathan Miller - theatre and opera director, actor, author, television presenter, wit, medic, co-creator of the groundbreaking 1960s Beyond the Fringe with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett - in which he talked about his stammer. He described how he often felt that he was faced with a river or torrent of language flooding towards him. In the flow he could see the swirling approach of a triggering consonant and would have to devise a way to deal with it:
"It always got troublesome when I was on trains or buses, having to ask for my fare; and then there were all those circumlocutions that I had to go through. The awful thing about stammering is that you never know which consonants are going to be fatal ones. You think that you've got it all taped - avoid 'T's and 'D's today and it'll be alright. Then, suddenly, you find that you'd be tripping up over an 'N'."
As I prepare for our nostalgic visit to Venice and Friuli - son Ben bought the flights as a birthday present - at the beginning of November, I'm devoting some time to a refresh of my Italian. I attend a conversation group in Stroud, I dedicate a period most days to online Duolingo.
I've realised that I have my own version of Miller's impediment.
It's the subjunctive. Since the day I first went to Italy 48 years ago - maybe a little later, as the verb mood wasn't my initial priority - I have always feared (too strong a word, maybe felt a background unease) its impending use. As the moment approaches I've manufactured work-arounds, ways to circumnavigate the correct application.
Enough, I thought, this is silly. Time to confront the beast. I bought:
I've browsed the relevant chapter. There's plenty of explanation of when and why, but disappointingly no explicit instruction on how to form the mood. I'm having to trawl the internet. Is that the modern way? An old-fashioned book may not address your needs, you have to go online to be sure of finding the answer to a specific requirement. Still, there's a lot of other interesting material to keep me busy for the next month.
During those first years in Udine, 1975 through 1977, we English teachers, including Chris, my host for the upcoming trip, used to frequent a bar called Da Brando - sadly now closed down for reasons of poor hygiene and dilapidation - typically after our last class at the language school where we worked. I've written about it in a memoir here: 👉. I probably did my breakthrough learning of Italian there, often into the early hours, generously assisted by a group of regulars who tolerated my halting progress in the language. I remember telling - it must have been when I'd reached an appropriate level - one of their number about my difficulty with the subjunctive. During the next two hours, purely for my benefit, he managed to weave countless examples of its use into our conversation. Such extraordinary kindness. Some of it stuck, but I really shouldn't have waited this long to finish the job.
Monday 25th September
A call to action at the weekend:
Quite a turnout:
Disappointment in broadcasters:
But one was there:
Age shall not dim commitment:
Sunday 24th September
Brilliant and heart-warming from my favourite cartoonists.
Enraged by this ...
... they got together ...
... and produced:
You can read more about the Professional Cartoonists Organisation (PCO) here and at the 38Degrees website here , where you can also support and donate to the colouring book project, help fund distribution.
Saturday 23rd September
If you'd appreciate a concise assessment of Sunak's green row-back, listen to this Andrew Marr interview with Stroud's eco-entrepreneur - or "eco-zealot" - Dale Vince. It's all there (4 minutes 32 seconds): cars, house-building, boilers, meat tax.
I can think of no more cogent commentator, none as well-equipped to explain it all to us: successful energy business owner, has lived most of his life campaigning for environmental causes, command of the numbers, politically and media savvy, articulate, rich enough to say what needs saying. Mind you, our only Tory friend Ann doesn't like him. Thinks he's a scruff.
Most of us are faced with what feel like expensive decisions, against a backdrop of confused policy and messaging. How should we replace our elderly petrol car? (Shhh, mustn't let her hear, the old girl's just flown through the MOT.) The re-charging infrastructure for a Victorian terraced street in an old market town isn't there. The gas boiler's the same as when we moved here in 2009. What about solar? Again, difficult on a 3-storey 1873 house, and two panel providers at least have already turned us down. How should we insulate? The government needs to be serious, committed and clear in its plans and support. Scrambling for votes is a scandalous digression, wilful negligence. There should be no need to differentiate; all parties ought to pursue a common and coherent green agenda with unswerving vigour. How dare they quibble and posture over such an issue? The harsh truth, of course, is that we personally won't be around when the shit hits the fan - or the sea spills over, the forests are torched, the air chokes us. What use is 2050 to me? It's all about the next generations.
Talking of age, I could have cursed Anna Leszkiewicz for her review of Richard Osman's "The Last Devil to Die" (see my objections to her thesis here: 👉) as I read the first chapters. All I could see was her clever but heartless demolition of Osman's "formula" and style.
With relief I was pleased to find a rebuttal letter in the New Statesman from Paul Kirkley of Cambridge, under the header "Making Crime Pay":
"Anna Leszkiewicz's hatchet job on Richard Osman and his readers (The Critics, 15 September) showed contempt for ordinary people - many of them, like me, presumably also New Statesman readers - and our dull little lives, watching Inspector Morse, eating at Pizza Express and shopping at Robert Dyas. Personally, I find Osman's books funny and quietly wise on the human condition. What's more, I rather enjoy the success of this working-class, visually-impaired kid from Billericay who has made a career simply by being ferociously bright. More power to him, I say."
Thank-you, Paul. You'll be glad to know that I'm back on track by page 160, laughing out loud.
"Quietly wise on the human condition". One of the stand-out blessings so far of this latest mystery is Osman's exploration of dementia, brilliantly on occasion from inside the sufferer's head. Stephen, husband of the Murder Club's ex-MI6 agent Elizabeth, is fading fast. "Returning to the stars, an atom at a time." As she travels back to him one night after a visit to London, Elizabeth reflects on her marriage - and love:
"Had she really understood then that those were the best of times? That she was in heaven? She thinks she did understand, yes. Understood she had been given a great gift. Doing the crossword in a train carriage, Stephen with a can of beer ('I will only drink beer on trains, nowhere else, don't ask me why'), glasses halfway down his nose, reading out clues. The real secret was that when they looked at each other, they each thought they had the better deal."
Call Osman glib, call me soppy. I don't care.
Just picked up these ...
A tweeted response from Osman reviewer Anna Leszkiewicz:
OK, Anna, truce called.
Despite singing the praises of internet service provider Fasthosts, I'm not getting that jolly to a beach in the Phillippines:
Friday 22nd September
Yesterday I had a small go - with help from the cartoonists - at Keir Starmer and his overtures to Macron, his apology of a response to Brexit. My dig was lightweight stuff, I can now assure you. Last night I went to the Stroud Brewery for a showing - it's not on general release - of "Oh, Jeremy Corbyn - The Big Lie". It's a 2023 piece by Platform Films, directed by Chris Reeves, which examines the purging of Corbyn and many other members from the Labour Party. Here's the trailer (just under 2 minutes):
Starmer emerges as an absolute snake, "a dangerous, dishonest man". There's plenty that resonates with me, particularly after the rejection of Doina Cornell in Stroud as potential parliamentary candidate, which was followed by resignations of local Labour councillors. Pivotal to the analysis is that hugely difficult subject, the accusation of anti-semitism in the party and the way in which outrage at the behaviour of the state of Israel was conflated with hatred of the Jews.
I'm filled with dismay. Where do we find a worthy opposition to the Tories, who are so there for the taking? Where is the person who will genuinely do the RIGHT THING, not discard principle in pursuit of power for its own sake? Greens and LibDems will cry, "Look at me!". Which brings us to our schlerotic first-past-the-post system, the persistent impossibility of a proper representation that might bring new ideas, vital change.
Too much to say in today's short blog. Meanwhile, on the other side - how much is there to differentiate, one wonders - the little rich boy also puts winning a vote before tackling the big issue.
Thursday 21st September
Against the backdrop of "The Great Noticing", it appears that everybody is now trying to cosy up to Europe, particularly to France. Sunak pleads a migrant deal, Charles and Starmer beat a path to Macron. Yet none of them can bring himself to say that Brexit was wrong. Starmer could drive the proverbial coach-and-horses through the abject Tories on the subject, but he can neither bear nor dare to do so. Under the guise of respecting the democratic vote, terrified of alienating the red Leaver, he, like Sunak, tinkers sheepishly with European ties.
John Crace in The Guardian yesterday:
"Bonjour, Monsieur Macron," said Starmer.
"Vous pouvez call moi Emmanuel."
"I've got you un petit cadeau. An Arsenal shirt."
"That's un peu merde. What's avec le 'Visit Rwanda' logo? I bought you some cufflinks."
[Chat ... agreement that the Tories are toast ...]
"Let's call it un jour," said the president. "I've got choses a faire."
"I haven't," said Starmer. Before strolling off to a nice bistro with Rachel Reeves and David Lammy. Time to tuer before heading home on the Eurostar.
In a brutal switch of topic ... I tweeted my appreciation of Fasthosts (see yesterday):
Good, still providing employment in Gloucester. While also offshoring in a 168-island province of the Phillippines. I know which I'd pick as my base. Will they offer me a trip?
Wednesday 20th September
Honestly, skip today if computers aren't your thing. I mean it. It's all about technical issues with my websites that I needed to resolve. That said, it's also a welcome story of good customer service, with a bit of local history thrown in. I'm going to carry on because the experience made me happy.
I mentioned recently that I've been up against businesses who really don't seem to care about the satisfaction of their customers. We bought a van to support our daughter's dog business which broke down after five days; the situation is now resolved, Ellie has a working vehicle, but only after two months of exceptional stress. Our dining room ceiling collapsed three weeks ago; the insurance company has done nothing but attempt to wriggle out of any responsibility. So it was with some gratitude and amazement that I ran into somebody yesterday who found me a solution for which I hadn't even asked.
Now I have to explain. I have three main websites. The one you're looking at now is climateblog.uk. If you click on the little red "home" house at the top, you'll be taken to charlielewis.uk, an umbrella "portal" which then points to other ramblings, including o-ce-biel.com, my 1970s memoir of the Friuli region of northern Italy.
My concern has been one of security for visitors. I can assure everybody that there's nothing dodgy about my sites, they're clean as a whistle, but your browser may well not believe that. This site has been protected with what's called an SSL certificate. [Just a brief overview ... SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), or TLS (Transport Layer Security), is standard technology for securing an internet connection by encrypting data sent between a website and a browser (or between two servers); it prevents hackers from seeing or stealing any information transferred, including personal or financial data.] In short, it's a GOOD THING, reassurance for the user. When you access a safe site you see something like this in the address bar, a padlock and the https - s for secure - prefix:
OK, so I'd already bought an SSL for this site. But the other two, while perfectly safe, would have looked to you like this:
Right, I thought, buy two more SSLs. They cost £40+ a year each. Could I do better than that? I contacted my service provider. I've been using them for more than twenty years, both for customers and my own personal use.
Time for the local history. The company was started in 1997 by Cyprus-born Andrew Michael, then 17, originally as a part of his A-level IT project at St. Edward's School in Cheltenham. He needed a fast fibre-optic internet connection into his home in Charlton Kings which at the time involved digging up the road and resulted in a bill of £30,000 (I can't believe that figure, but it appears in every report) which he paid from his mother's credit card account without her knowledge. The company went public in 1999 and was sold to German service provider United Internet for £61.5 million in 2006, netting Michael £46 million for his 75% stake. By then he was 26. His mother had forgiven him.
They make the usual promises:
The difference is that it's true. I don't know where the support staff are these days - still headquartered in Gloucester, somewhere in your time zone, working nights in Bangalore? - but I've always managed to get through on the 'phone and had my problems resolved. I prefer to use their online chat service, as I get a transcript of the conversation.
Here is yesterday's interaction, verbatim. Remember, I was wondering how best I might purchase two SSL certificates priced at £40-ish each. I had an initial response within 10 seconds of opening the chat. There were pauses for thinking and typing before each bit of dialogue. Lots of checking and double-checking from me. I give permission once again: if this is all gobbledygook to you (it's pretty bonkers that I'm even posting such material), just skip it. All you need to know is that it ended with me a happy chappy.
Result! Whoopee! 35p! If I hadn't had this exchange with Lyn-Mae, in which she (I assume) offered a deal I didn't know existed, I would have spent £84 buying two SSLs. Not bank-breaking numbers, but satisfying nonetheless. All activated as we spoke/chatted. Confirmation and receipt (for the princely 35p) emails within minutes.
That's what I call service. Arguably Fasthosts lost one-off revenue here - I hope it doesn't count against Lyn-Mae, indeed I pray the opposite is true - but they renewed my customer loyalty, which will result in more jam tomorrow. I've already spread the word here.
If you now go to the websites I mentioned you shouldn't get any error messages. If you do, let me know.
Tuesday 19th September
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the shift in public and media response to the effect of Brexit on our lives. Some more on the subject yesterday in an article by Nesrine Malik in The Guardian - I know, we need to hear the acknowledgement from other sources too - titled "It's the 'great noticing', as right-wingers accept that 'Britain is broken'." (full text, 4 pages, here: )
Do I feel better that I'm not alone in my view? I think so. I'm very pleased to learn that the shift is called "The Great Noticing":
"The 'Great Noticing' is ... a new era when pointing out Britain's problems is no longer 'doing the country down', or 'sabotaging Brexit', but a fresh realisation that must be communicated with appalled urgency. There can be no admission that Britian's decline has a history - at a pinch that, if it does, it must be very short indeed, starting perhaps with the hopeless Rishi Sunak, who has had the bad fortune of being the last one standing when the music stopped. The collapsing concrete in our schools, the sewage in the water, the NHS waiting lists, the expensive trains and poor service, these all must have come about at 'breathtaking' speed. For it to have happened any more slowly than seemingly overnight would extend the decline's roots to, well, everything - to austerity, to privatisation, to deregulation, and of course, to the very people who bet the farm on Brexit and Johnson, and now must make it clear that the problem wasn't their poor judgment, but a sort of bad gambling streak that befell the nation."
Yes, now the Tory press is on board, or has come up with its shiny new discovery, all is valid criticism:
"Right-wing journalists and publications who have cheered on and defended the government's excesses and Brexit extremism for many calamitous years are now sorry to report, like Lucky Jim arising with a colossal hangover, that things are bad."
"The jig is up. If there's any solace to be gained from the wretched experience of the past decade or so, it is that the decline has been happening in plain sight for so long, so obviously to those who were willing to see it, that even the most rehearsed performance by those who refused to do so will fall flat."
A bonus of the online article is that link reference to "Lucky Jim" and hangovers, a jewel I'd forgotten for years, and in my abstinence a distant memory:
Sunday 17th September
I got my copy yesterday. Down to Waitrose - I am condemned for this, you'll see below - after breakfast to get the free Guardian, armed with scissors to cut out a coupon. I couldn't find one, so took the whole newspaper to WH Smith. I was surprised to see that the shop had already reduced the price from £22 RRP to £11. Discount now effectively not required I still went to the cashier, mentioned the Guardian offer and showed him the paper. He'd heard about the deal and searched for the coupon, without success. "No bother," he said, "I'll take off the extra pound manually." Which he did, and also gave me my complementary "The Sign of Four" by Arthur Conan Doyle.
In Wednesday's blog, I asserted that there is a mood abroad to diminish the success of Osman and The Thursday Mystery Club. Sure enough, in this week's New Statesman Anna Leszkiewicz has a review titled "Richard Osman's bland Britain" (6 pages: ), with the strapline question "How did the TV presenter's terminally twee stories of death and Waitrose become the bestselling novels in the UK?"
Ouch. The review is raspingly rude, comprehensively dismissive.
First, she outlines the money made. Do I detect envy, or an accusation of unworthiness? And we're all mugs to inflate Osman's wealth?
"The Thursday Murder Club series has sold over four-and-a-half million copies and earned Osman's publisher, Viking, more than £35m. The first novel in the series, The Thursday Murder Club, was the bestselling title of 2020, and is the only book to have sold a million copies in the year of its release. The follow-up, The Man Who Died Twice (2021), is one of the fastest-selling novels since records began, and in 2022 the third instalment, The Bullet That Missed became the fastest-selling adult fiction hardback from a British author since records began - though the latest instalment, The Last Devil to Die, could surpass it. The film rights to the series have been bought by Steven Spielberg, with, Osman reassures us, a very famous cast to be announced - so The Thursday Murder Club's multimillion-dollar film franchise, presumably starring anyone still receiving residual cheques from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, should be coming soon to a theatre near you."
Cheap dig at the thespian national treasures: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton and the rest. No recognition that they can act a bit.
There's a charge that Osman's output is nothing but an artificial construct:
"If his TV background has informed his novel-writing at all, it is in the supremacy of the formula: find something that works, and give it to your audience again and again.
"Like its predecessors, The Last Devil to Die is around 400 pages, broken into roughly 100 very short, dialogue-heavy chapters, each one ending on a punchline, revelation or cliffhanger. Osman alternates between the close third-person and diary entries by Joyce - an odd decision, as the two forms are almost indistinguishable in style, tone and humour: self-consciously British and intentionally bathetic, juxtaposing the banal, the quaint and the domestic with the implausible, or the gritty.
"Which is to say that Osman has one joke, repeated hundreds of times. Imagine: a little old woman, out to lunch with a drugs baron! A granny with a gun in her bag!"
It's all too low-brow for Leszkiewicz. The local chief constable of the story has written crime novels, tried by one of the Big Four characters:
"Joyce gives one a go. 'I only picked it up because there's a Hilary Mantel looming on my bedside table, and I didn't feel up to it yet.' Low effort, low stakes, low reward - for those times when you don't feel up to Hilary Mantel, there's always Richard Osman."
Miao! It looks to me like Anna is a fully paid-up member of the chattering classes, steeped in intellectual snobbery. A "TV presenter" can't be a proper writer, can he? Host of a "trivia show", a "background in puzzles and games" ... they're not acceptable qualifications, are they? Worst of all, "Osman is, by all reports, an extremely charming, nice man."
The article is well-written, the reviewer has a critical acuity that could unpick the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. From a range of perspectives her thesis is valid. And yet. Somehow her brain is super-engaged, but not her heart.
You'll know from my previous scribblings that one of the reasons I've so enjoyed the books is that I often don't "feel up to" reading anything serious, dark or hopeless, particularly before sleep. Events, and media reporting thereof, in the last seven years have battered us into a deep state of gloom. The news we read or watch has grown impossible to digest. A diet of climate threat, global strife, economic failure, racism and political corruption is not good for the health. And that's just the press coverage, let alone the actual lived experience of millions.
Leszkiewicz clearly feels we should only read the high-brow, grapple with the grim. One look at the cover of the New Statesman - BTW, a great organ of the Fourth Estate, otherwise we wouldn't have a subscription - issue in which her article appears indicates the problem.
Really, more Truss? I don't think so. Not today, thank-you.
Above all, there's one acknowledgement criminally absent from the review. That the books exude warmth, laughter and affection. We all need them, the world does. "Terminally twee"? Fine by me. It's the last thing that's likely to finish us off.
Wednesday 13th September
A bit rambling today, but anyway ... a couple of things, oddly connected.
On Monday we remembered 9/11 and all who died, the twenty-second anniversary.
Like Kennedy's assassination, most of us will remember where we were. I was going into an afternoon meeting at the Holiday Inn on the Bristol ring road. I walked into the entrance lounge where a large flat-screen TV showed images of a burning skyscraper. As so many others must have, I thought: "A disaster movie? Really? At tea-time?" I soon found out the truth.
Martin Amis wrote in The Guardian a week later, in an article titled "Fear and Loathing":
"For those thousands in the south tower, the second plane meant the end of everything. For us, its glint was the worldflash of a coming future."
He included the article, renamed as "The Second Plane", in a 2008 non-fiction collection of essays with a volume title of the same. The sixth article is "The Last Days of Muhammad Atta" from The New Yorker, April 2006. It imagines the event, until his death at 8:46am, from the perspective of Atta, who piloted the first 'plane, American Airlines Flight 11. The second was United Airlines Flight 175.
Late Monday night I watched a 2008 History channel documentary (available on YouTube) called "102 Minutes That Changed America", which depicts the attacks in near-real-time using primarily raw footage from amateur citizen journalists. Very powerful. Then I dug around some more. I found this comprehensive graphical timeline from the estimable visualcapitalist.com (click to enlarge):
I also found while digging through old photos a few days ago this pic I took in 1985:
Now for the other thing, and the connection.
Earlier this year I wrote how Martin Amis's death triggered an impulse to improve my reading habits, a determination not to waste time on lesser authors' work. The starting point, all I could find in the library, was "The Second Plane" and it was a success. I was dazzled by the writing, if uncertain about his post 9/11 take on Islam.
Since then I've been disappointed. I've attempted his "Money" and "London Fields", abandoned both after 70 pages. Intricate and horrid, clever and unpleasant. I can't cope with the content. When I read in bed at night I don't want my head to be filled before nodding off with ugliness. It does nothing for the quality of my sleep.
Not so the Thursday Murder Club. It is with delight that I anticipate publication tomorrow of the fourth in the series:
Is it great writing? I believe so. Intelligent, witty, effortless, playful, charming, smile-out-loud affectionate. Just the job. Sweeter dreams.
Jake Kerridge had this to say in The Telegraph on 30th August:
"Richard Osman's first three Thursday Murder Club mysteries are among the 10 bestselling hardback novels since UK records began; I suspect only nuclear Armageddon or an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant plague can prevent this fourth entry in the series from muscling onto the list. Clearly no other novelist working today can come up with anything to match the pleasure of spending time with Joyce, Elizabeth, Ibrahim and Ron as they pore over the details of unsolved murders in the Jigsaw room at Coopers Chase retirement village.
"Much of the books' success stems, I suspect, from the fact that we live at a time in which many enterprises, from banks to radio stations, prefer to lose customers by the shedload rather than acknowledge that the elderly exist and may have different requirements from younger people. Osman has taken the trouble to work out that many of us are old, and that many more of us are reluctantly aware that we will become old in the blink of an eye; his putting the elderly centre-stage is an obvious idea that seems, in today's climate, revolutionary."
Hmmm. It's just because I'm old, is it? I don't care. The RRP stated by publisher Viking is £22 for the hardback, but I shall be straight down to Waitrose on Saturday morning for my free copy of The Guardian, then on to WH Smith to redeem my voucher:
I sense there is an incipient urge spreading to take him down a peg or two. Osman-envy. The Brit is wary of success. Not me.
Tuesday 12th September
At whichever department you look, this is the wrong government. Count the failures, the misguided policies, the delusions, the stupidity ... count the useless Tory Ministries below:
How many did you identify?
Sunday 10th September
Wow. This cheered me up. And a million or two others, I'm sure. Spirit and determination from England. I needed it. What surprises me is how much. My sense of national shame has gone so deep in recent years.
On the face of it, George Ford 27 Argentina 10:
In fact, while he was outstanding, I've rarely seen a game won so clearly by the "front five", the big ugly men in the scrum whose work is often unsung and which we don't understand. They dismantled their opposite numbers. Or won by anger, at being written off by everybody - including me - before the tournament, at their mate Curry being red-carded. You could see the result in the eyes. Steely resolve in the English, shell-shock in the Argentinian. A victory sealed by a piano-player, engineered by the piano-shifters.
Trivial, I know, compared with the news from Morocco.
Saturday 9th September
It's becoming too much to bear. Front covers from different hues of political journal. Is this now a consensus?
Can't read any more. I'm off to watch cycling. The Tour of Britain comes through town today. Stage 7 Tewkesbury to Gloucester, a 106-mile loop that takes in Winchcombe, Cirencester, Minchinhampton, Tetbury, Yate, Wotton-under-Edge and Stroud. Here are detailed instructions and timings (variable, dependent on average speed): . And a map of the route:
Friday 8th September
At the risk of losing you altogether - you are of course free to go - I have to revisit the new Stones' single "Angry".
I am unsure about the video. Then yesterday I thought, "Maybe it's a distraction. Why not just listen to the song?"
So here it is. If you're interested, sound and bass up, the best big noise you can manage. If you listen only to a minute, you'll get the point.
'Angry' - The Rolling Stones
Keith Richards has always understood what's important. No frills, no needless showing off. It's the riff. The word came up often in the Hackney Empire interviews two nights ago.
Reviews have been mostly positive:
There has been criticism that his precision lacks the jazz-derived swing of Watts. Certainly not the simplicity. I stumbled upon a video of him performing alone to a rapt audience on Vic Firth's "Artist Spotlight" YouTube channel. You may not want to watch over 5 minutes of drumming, but try a bit. It's not a big-arena Roger Taylor, Ginger Baker or Carl Palmer virtuoso extravaganza. Instead, it's pure, sympathetic and fit-for-purpose. On a modest rig just like Charlie used.
Here are some comments from viewers of the clip:
"I seriously feel bad for people who do not realize how great this is."
"His groove can make the dead get up and shake a leg."
"It's a little known fact that metronomes practice time-keeping by playing along to Steve Jordan."
"Steve Jordan has pushed simplicity to its most complex edge."
"Timing, groove, fluidity, style, dynamics. Wow! This guy's got it all."
"Dang! He gets so many awesome tones out of a rather small set."
"Fills bring the thrills, but grooves pay the bills."
"Carry on for Charlie. Having Charlie's blessing speaks volumes."
What a fit with Richards. Committed not to self-promotional indulgence but to the overall feel and success of the music. Charlie was right.
Overnight thoughts: And I reckon I was right about the video. It gets in the way (maybe because it's admittedly very watchable, colourful, erotic), too much about the 50-year sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll mythology of the Stones, not enough about the music. As Sydney Sweeney writhes on the open-top red Merc through an LA landscape, the band appear, from their younger years, on billboards lining the route, not as their today's selves. The video is unbecoming of the now elderly men and their true quality. I'm being a killjoy, aren't I? But my point is that they can play, regardless of their age. At the heart of what they do and have done is love and respect for the music. It's the riff.
Thursday 7th September
I'm uncertain about today's topic. How much more do you really want to know beyond what you've already heard? I'm going ahead for one reason only: I find it extraordinary that three men would put out a rock n' roll studio album at their respective ages of 79, 76 and 80.
"Hackney Diamonds", named after the East End slang for broken glass, is to be released on 20th October. The single, first song on the album, is "Angry".
They're still up to their marketing tricks. They first posted an advert in the Hackney Gazette:
"Est. 1962". That's the point, isn't it? They've been with us for 51 years and are still doing it. Except for Charlie, although he's on two tracks that were recorded in 2019. Bill Wyman came in to help a bit too. But not Brian Jones.
Then there's the teaser website for the single at dontgetangrywithme.com. I couldn't resist video-capturing it (no audio). A little joke at the fans' expense. An age for the song to appear, with a slow-moving progress bar and messages of "STILL LOADING" and "EXPERIENCING HEAVY TRAFFIC", a "PLAY" button, a few seconds of the intro and then a system crash. I've shortened the recording to only the last 35 seconds before the site blows up. You can hear the clip in the second video underneath.
Peeking behind the scenes at the website code, I found that the author Matthew Govaere had inserted the iconic tongue in his notes. Why would he bother? I guess that getting involved with the Stones is special for anyone.
Here's the official video of "Angry". I'm interested to know what you think.
Is the raciness appropriate for these old boys? I suppose the Stones were always about the raunch from their earliest days. Indeed the video uses grinding performances from the past rather than anything from today. BTW, the woman is Sydney Sweeney, the American actress best known for her role in the HBO drama series Euphoria. There's an air of last hurrah about it all. A summation, historic outfits, iconic cover art. This could easily to be the final offering.
According to the interviews on stage at the Hackney Empire launch, Keith and Mick fiddled with the songs in Jamaica, met up with Ron in New York and finished the album off in Los Angeles. Ron said they'd be taking it on tour. Old school rock n' roll jet-setting. Where do they find the energy?
The Hackney event can be seen for the moment on the band's website:
Wednesday 6th September
When my fancy turned to the Rugby World Cup yesterday - yes, time to switch off for the uninterested - I immediately thought of my Irish friend Brian Walsh. We share a love of the game. I haven't seen him for quite a while and decided to rectify this neglect. Before I managed to pick up the 'phone, he rang me.
He explained why he'd been out of action. Some months ago he was diagnosed with colon cancer. Since then, he's spent a considerable amount of time in Gloucester Royal Hospital. They removed a large chunk of his gut and now he has been given the all-clear. Brian showed his customary dark humour in telling the tale. His consultant was called Jonathan Cutting, who in turn introduced the surgeon who performed the operation as "my knifeman".
Never has the Walsh family motto seemed more appropriate:
With great relief, we shall watch some rugby together.
Brian remembered that I usually have a bet on the opposition as a way of alleviating the pain if England do badly. This time, with England experiencing a bleak run-up to the tournament - Fiji? - he suggested that I might change my approach. His suspicion was that England may well do better than expected while recent performances must have improved odds at the bookies.
I checked. Here are the prices for all 20 participating countries at Bet365:
11/4 New Zealand; 3/1 France; 10/3 South Africa; 5/1 Ireland; 11/1 Australia; 18/1 England; 22/1 Argentina; 40/1 Wales; 50/1 Scotland; 90/1 Fiji; 500/1 Italy, Japan, Samoa, Tonga, Georgia; 2500/1 Portugal, Chile; 4000/1 Namibia, Uruguay, Romania
I have put a small wager on England at 18/1.
There is wisdom in Brian's assertion. Four of the teams above England in the pecking order are in the other half of the draw.
In the preliminary group stages, here is what England face:
England face a tough test in the Argentina game this Saturday. But two teams go through to the next stage, so the task looks surmountable - with due respect to Japan and Samoa. And then you're into the last eight.
Other analyst predictions look even rosier for Ireland:
I'm delighted for Brian.
And for me there's the release that comes with low expectation. England can only improve their current level 🙏 I can't recall a time when the team was so free of such a burden.
Tuesday 5th September
You may want to skip today if you're not a fan of rugby union. Although there's more to the game, for me anyway, than the sight of 30 broken-nosed men knocking lumps off each other in pursuit of a ball that doesn't bounce properly.
I would normally be super-excited by the prospect of the Rugby World Cup starting in France this Friday. Sadly, I shall be supporting a post-Brexit apology of an England team: forlorn, unfortunate, unimaginative, soulless, without direction. So far from the distant glory of Jonny and Johnson down in Australia twenty years ago. A deserved reflection of a nation that self-imploded in 2016. Oh, come on, I hear you say, that's a bit of a stretch. Not in my book. And it's a view you'd expect from me, isn't it?
There's still much to anticipate. Two front runners are of course members of the EU, a resurgent and joyful Ireland and proud hosts France. The player to watch is diminutive pocket battleship, magician and talismanic French leader, Antoine Dupont.
He has a heart-warming back-story, everything you would want to hear about local lad made good. From the rugby heartland of the south, the small town of Castelnau-Magnoac in the Hautes-Pyrénées.
That's the family hotel in the second picture, closed in 2012 but still bearing the name. I can feel Dupont's connection to his roots, the civic pride that will surely be on display this month in that square.
Here are the tournament schedule and daily planner (click to enlarge):
Here's a combined PDF of the same:
Monday 4th September
Is it my imagination or has there been an increase recently in Brexit reflection? Even re-assessment on the Leave side? Recognition of its miserable effect on the nation, our relationship with the rest of the world and the quality of our politics. It could be just the newspapers I read, the solidly Remainer pinko press.
It began with this Apple news feed forwarded by my friend Aidan:
What questions come into your head? Did this gardener think that Brexit was only about holidays? With a personal stake in Italy, why did he vote to turn his back on Europe? Now, with the country in a shambles part-generated by the referendum outcome, he's going to emigrate? I'm sure you have more astonishment to add.
I tracked down the original article by Silvia Marchetti in Saturday's newspaper (3 pages): . It turns out that his family roots are in Sicily and he's on a mission to recover his Italian legal status:
"I could kill myself for being so stupid, my pro-Brexit vote contributed to the mayhem the UK is now in. It never occurred me to that my holidays in Italy could be affected ... and I'm even half Italian.
"All the blah-blah from many pro-Brexit politicians and commentators made me believe that the UK, in its millenary history, had survived and turned into an 'economic giant' thanks to its isolation and independence, hailed as its greatest powers - as if we could thrive only by getting rid of Europe.
"I should have claimed my Italian passport when I was a teenager. Now I wouldn't be in such a mess."
You know from these pages that I consider Brexit a personal affront. Beyond the mindless separation from Europe, we have had to witness the moral decay of our nation since 2016, arguably long before. 13 years of Tory misrule.
Our challenge is to reverse the decline. So I'm pleased to see some serious journalism - yes, I know, all in my camp - that seeks to unravel a decade or more of misgovernment and hold those responsible to account. The first step is to understand and acknowledge the shitshow. Then we can do it differently. I can't believe that anybody truly wants to live in this country in its present state, to tolerate what we have witnessed since 2016. Naïve maybe, but that's the only way I can face the future.
I'll start with a piece by Luke Harding in The Observer yesterday titled "Insider portrait of a nation in decline", reviewing "Politics on the Edge: A Memoir from Within" by former Conservative MP Rory Stewart (4 pages: ).
'I felt increasingly exhausted and ashamed': Rory Stewart in London, June 2019.
Some snippets (of the review):
"[The book] is an excoriating account of a dysfunctional governing system. At every level - backbench MP, senior minister, permanent secretary - Stewart finds shallowness where there should be depth, vapidity instead of seriousness."
"Disillusionment was swift. MPs were uninterested in policy, he discovered. Instead, they were obsessed with scandal. He found 'impotence, suspicion, envy, resentment, claustrophobia and Schadenfreude'. Cameron made speeches about diversity. But he filled his private office with white shirted old Etonians, drawn 'from an unimaginably narrow social group'.
"Truss prized 'exaggerated simplicity' above 'critical thinking', 'power and manipulation' over 'truth and reason'. Stewart observes that this 'new politics' offered 'untethered hope' and 'vagueness' instead of accuracy. Truss was allergic to 'caution and detail'."
"Truss is weird, Michael Gove silkily duplicitous, and Boris Johnson an 'egotistical chancer'. Stewart recalls visiting Johnson in his foreign secretary's lair - a red-cheeked figure whose eyes radiated 'furtive cunning'."
Uplifting to hear this from a Tory, although we know he is now far from the current fold. As Harding comments:
"After a memoir of such blistering frankness, there is no way the Conservative party will have Stewart back. Westminster is poorer without him, a wanderer turned prime minister manqué. The world of ideas and letters is richer."
[9am STOP PRESS: I've just heard Stewart on the Today programme. He argues that the most important change required, central to what he is trying to say in the book, is reform of our "schlerotic" electoral system to make room for new parties and ideas. First-past-the-post is a killer. Now there's a challenge.]
Andrew Rawnsley, in the same Observer issue, extends the theme in a commentary titled "For all Rishi Sunak's desire to be a big world player, Brexit has ensured a walk-on part" (5 pages: ).
'Serious tensions': Sunak with Narendra Modi at the G7 Summit May 2023.
The discussion here is on the UK's position in the wider world ... post-Brexit. With self-exclusion from Europe, we see the cosying-up to emerging powers.
"As a cash-strapped, midsized power in a dangerously unpredictable and unstable world, the UK needs to be smart at making and keeping friends, especially with other liberal democracies with similar values. Which brings us to our nearest neighbours. Relations with EU countries have become less poisonous since Mr Sunak moved into Number 10. Yet there's still a distinct frost. Mr Sunak has been unrequited in his desperate desire to secure a returns agreement with the EU covering migrants crossing the Channel or using other unauthorised routes.
"Brexit has made Britain less relevant to the EU, and to all the other significant players of the world. There's no escaping that bitter truth, however many air miles Mr Sunak clocks up."
The final analytical piece that has caught my eye is coming up next Monday 11th September at 9pm on BBC2 and available on iPlayer, Laura Kuenssberg's three-part documentary series "State of Chaos".
Kuenssberg promotes the series:
"The referendum result triggered years of turbulence in our politics - chaos inside the Conservative Party and Parliament, with Prime Ministers coming and going in quick succession. I want to take viewers behind the scenes to show them what really happened, and ask whether after all the craziness, politics will ever be the same again?"
I shall watch with interest.
Sunday 3rd September
This time it's a gap of 60 years.
When I was ten, during the summer holidays I used to wake frequently at 6am, go round to the house of my near-neighbours Simon and Nigel, throw stones at their bedroom windows, then cycle down together to the banks of the River Severn in Worcester and fish until breakfast time. Rarely caught a thing, and when I did it was usually a tiny dace.
Yesterday we made our third visit to Harescombe Fisheries between Stroud and Gloucester, down narrow lanes off the Cotswold escarpment, a series of lakes packed mostly with carp.
I've had to re-learn all kinds of old tricks, and some new ones brought about by advances in angling technology. How to "snell" a hook to a line. Make a "perfection loop". Attach a rubber float stop. Made possible by YouTube videos, helped by the informed staff at the treasure trove of Lobby's Tackle in Stonehouse.
With a song in my head:
Now for some honesty. It's lovely up at Harescombe, a decent resemblance to an idyll, but there are frustrations for a 9-year-old with only one goal in mind. Curiously, when I was a kid I wasn't too bothered by the paucity of my catch. I just loved being by the river. Not Marlie. He wants fish. Particularly when the old boys at nearby pitches are pulling in 10lb carp by the rod- and net-load. You have to employ care and attention. If you don't, it all ends up with tangled lines and snagged hooks. Fixing these setbacks is part of the game. I suspect the sport is most popular among the anal retentive (albeit friendly and helpful) with a love of gadgetry. You wouldn't believe the amount of kit on display at Harescombe, nor the extraordinary range of equipment for sale in Lobby's. Perhaps I should include myself in the demographic. I am amused by the bits and pieces, and enjoy the expertise and passion of the devotee.
A couple of final admissions.
Sadly it was I who caught the fish pictured above. Oh well. At least Marlie netted it.
I'm also less keen on catching fish now. The cruelty aspect. And you're not providing for the table. It's all catch-and-release at the fisheries.
We'll see how we get on.
Saturday 2nd September
The boys have concluded their van trip. From Bizkaia into Asturias, south-west through Castilla y León, up into Galicia ... and back to Bilbao.
We have been treated to a WhatsApp photo diary. I am posting the full unexpurgated gallery. Click to enlarge any image.
Brief mention of some ravishing landscape, but the commentary is mostly an exhaustive celebration of the menú del día. I love a menú. It can be pretty basic fare, for example what below look like biscuits in custard. Sarah asked whether the biscuits came out of a packet. Ben replied: "It's a 3-course meal that costs €14, so yes, out of a packet. And 'natillas' sounds better than custard." 14 euros! And that included agua and vino tinto/blanco. The proof is in the picture of the menu board halfway down. What's more, there were some of my favourite dishes on offer: polbo á feira, traditional Galician octopus; navajas, razor clams; morro, pig snout; langostinos, prawns; merluza, hake. Could you even buy such ingredients to make your own equivalent meal at home for the same price?
I hesitate to say this, because Ben is emphatically his own man, but there are like-father-like-son things going on here. Living and working abroad in an independent-thinking proud region (for his Basque Country read my Friuli), speaking Spanish (Italian), chasing down local food, seeking out remote nooks and crannies, downing a quick café solo (espresso) at a stand-up outside bar, eating a morcilla sausage (biroldo) for breakfast. I've said it before: I need to get out there more. Ben's not going to live in England any time soon. What's to stop me, a long weekend every one to two months? OK, it's the dreaded Easyjet from Bristol to Bilbao, but then I can stay in my favourite pensión in the Casco Viejo, potter along the coast or into the hills, speak another language, be European ... and enjoy that menú del día.
Friday 1st September
Surely nobody can take this lot seriously?
What hold has he got over Rishi? Same club? Does he interview well? Is it the mastery of detail he has shown at Transport, the Home Office, Business and Energy?
Thursday 31st August
The British motorway service station is a dismal place, isn't it?
Your starting point is poor ... in a car, on a dull and crowded 3-lane road, probably in the middle of a long journey, tired, sore bum. You need a break and you'd prefer somewhere nice to stop, relaxing, decent grub. Well, you're not going to find it at a standard Moto, Roadchef or Welcome Break.
I base my observations on Reading Services. It's the one we've visited most in the last year, usually en route to/from Gatwick Airport to collect/deliver family members flying - a BAD THING in itself - from/to Vienna and Bilbao, or going on holiday ourselves.
First you need the toilet, right? You guessed, at Reading they're located as far from the front entrance as it's possible to go, thus ensuring that you have to pass all the convenience shops and food franchises. Names like Burger King, Costa Coffee, KFC, Krispy Kreme, Tango Ice Blast. Just where you want to buy a satisfying and healthy snack. Plastic furniture and plastic food.
It can be done another way.
Yes, you're at Gloucester Services, run by the Westmorland family in partnership with Gloucestershire Gateway Trust, a community development charity.
The toilets are within 30 yards of the entrance!
Here's what the website says:
"We are a family-owned motorway services business that celebrates the people and produce of Gloucestershire.
"We prize real food made with skill and integrity. In our Kitchen we cook food from scratch using real ingredients, just as you would cook it at home.
"We work with more than 130 producers within 30 miles.
"In our Farmshop we celebrate the wealth of creativity and talent in our locality and our region. We champion farmers, growers, butchers, bakers, potters, patisserie chefs, chocolatiers and cheesemakers who share our commitment to handmade and authentic produce.
"We have a dedicated fish counter, patisserie counter, cheese counter, deli counter and butchers' counter, where our trained whole-animal butchers take pride in preparing locally sourced native-breed meats."
OK, these are marketing weasel-words, but the place IS different. While returning from Tewkesbury yesterday, we popped in for hot chocolate and cake. Here's my smartphone photo gallery. I'd like the pics to be sharper, but you'll get the idea. Click to enlarge any.
A peaceful terrace out by the lake, the roar of M5 traffic almost masked by landscaping. An airy and spacious vaulted food hall, built in tasteful - and sustainable, I imagine - wood. It really is a "welcome break". The displays don't look like anything you'd find in an ordinary motorway services. They don't even resemble the shelves of a supermarket. How much packaging can you see? Any mainstream brands? Of course, you wouldn't want to do your weekly shop here; the prices are "premium". There again, to compare like-with-like, most services pile on a much higher margin than regular stores. I don't care. The cake was delicious.
For a closer look, here's the website:
If you're interested in more background, here's a video (2 minutes):
Westmorland have other sites: Cairn Lodge (Happendon) - M74 J11 and J12 via B7078; J38 Truckstop - M6 J38; Rheged Centre - A66, A592 roundabout; Tebay - M6 between J38 and J39.
One final observation ... on the demerit side, I'm afraid. Still too many cars, too many roads. You only get to visit the services if you're in the wrong form of transport. A silk purse out of a sow's ear?
Wednesday 30th August
Connections, memories. It only takes a name, or two in this case. Seems to happen more these days. A function of anno domini?
Sons Ben and Nikko have been on the road again, together in the van. Motoring west from Bilbao into Asturias, then south ... and west again towards Galicia.
Nikko sent this WhatsApp message last Sunday: "Just passed Ribadesella, heading inland away from the rain."
Here it is, at the mouth of the river Sella, hence the name.
The boys were back, or very close to, where we had a family holiday in 1995. Nikko was 14, Ellie 9, Ben 7. Nearly thirty years older now. We camped for a fortnight just off Playa de Vega, six miles west of Ribadesella, where we shopped.
Much as I love that landscape and treasure our time there, you can see from the sodden ground why Ben and Nikko were trying to escape the rain this last week. That 1995 holiday was wet more often than not. One day, in search of sunshine, we took off into the Picos de Europa, getting into a cable car in dense fog and rain, emerging to brilliant blue skies.
I had been in Ribadesella long before that, in the first week of August 1968. Aged 16, travelling with my boyhood friend John Rayer, I took the train to San Sebastian and then bussed or hitched into Asturias. When we got to the estuary town there was a full-blooded celebration in progress, La Fiesta de Les Piragües. At the same time there was the traditional 15-km canoe race, the Descenso Internacional del Sella. Here's a photo from the 2023 event:
Unbelievably, and completely unplanned, we bumped into friends from Worcester Canoe Club who were competing. Without success, I'm afraid, as they'd overdone it at the fiesta the night before.
Back to the recent road trip, Nikko's next WhatsApp update ... and the second name: "We camped in Castilla y León, on our way to southern Galicia."
In 1968, after a week in which John and I roamed along the coast, the plan was then to meet up with my first girlfriend, Helen, who had spent a month in León studying Spanish. I can't remember where we were re-united ... but we weren't. She informed me that we were no longer a couple - I don't deny my part in this split - as she had met a local lad called Alberto. Hmmm. This made for a very difficult remainder of the holiday, all the way back to London Victoria. Particularly for poor John, who had to put up with a pair of warring teenagers.
Ever since, I have wanted to burn León to the ground. As I've said, all I need is the name. OK, today's reflex is an infinitesimal fraction of my 16-year-old rage, but the word still provokes a murderous flicker. How can that be? Time to move on, eh?
Overnight thoughts. If memories are to be a thing, there must be some lessons to be learnt here, even if I risk rolling out self-evident platitudes. Cherish the good and seek to create more of the same. Learn from the bad and discard. Regret drags you down, reinforces a model that serves no useful purpose. Instead, bottle the experiences that brought joy and adopt them as a template for what to do next. Anyway, that's the plan.
Monday 28th August
I have SO enjoyed this:
Some cracking lines from her "Bye, Rishi" letter (5 pages, FFS):
"I have continued to work for my constituents faithfully and diligently to this day."
"You flashed your gleaming smile in your Prada shoes and Savile Row suit from behind a camera, but you just weren't listening."
"... Boris Johnson and then Liz Truss were taken down ..."
"Why is it that we have had five Conservative prime ministers since 2010, with not one of the previous four having left office as the result of losing a general election?"
"... the political assassination of Boris Johnson ..."
"... the democratic process at the heart of our party has been corrupted ..."
"Since you took office a year ago, the country is run by a zombie Parliament where nothing meaningful has happened. What exactly has been done or have you achieved? You hold the office of prime minister unelected, without a single vote, not even from your own MPs. You have no mandate from the people and the government is adrift."
"... you have completely failed in reducing illegal immigration or delivering on the benefits of Brexit ..."
"Bewildered, we look in vain for the grand political vision for the people of this great country to hold on to, that would make all this disruption and subsequent inertia worthwhile, and we find absolutely nothing."
"History will not judge you kindly."
Flippin' 'eck, who needs enemies?
It's not at the level of the Buffoon or Vlad, but this is our governing political party.
Sunday 27th August
Extending yesterday's world-gone-mad theme. No apologies for overload. Telling moments in history, whether democracy or autocracy. And so think the cartoonists. First, the Buffoon ...
... followed by Vlad ...
Saturday 26th August
It's a cartoonfest of utter lunacy out there.
In the West, the Orange Buffoon ...
To the East, Vlad the Mad ...
In the middle, they meet ...
But sanity is available down the road at the Hat & Stick ...
Friday 25th August
Local drama for the last 24 hours. The living room ceiling collapsed.
A lucky escape. Last weekend grandchildren Marlie and Ellie spent time on the sofa right underneath. Can't bear to imagine what the falling plaster chunks would have done to them.
The whole ceiling will have to come down. Other parts are already threatening to do so, so we can't sit in the room.
It looks like original lath and plaster, or at least the lath. 150 years old. A decent innings.
Thursday 24th August
Yep, been ignoring the political news. Thought I'd better check progress.
Nope. Same useless tossers.
Although you can always rely on the Daily Star:
Wednesday 23rd August
Looking back at my piece on Madrid in 1980, I'm left with the question: "How did we ...?"
Nine of us met for an early dinner at Café Napolita in St. Werburghs yesterday evening to say farewell to son Nikko and his daughter Ellie, who have been visiting from Vienna since Friday. Originating from Stroud and three other locations we all got there on time at 7pm, and the table had been booked. How? Obvious:
In Madrid, there were maybe 40 of us without these. We got to school every day, made it to group review meetings, met for drinks, went to the Prado, had Friday night dinners together in a restaurant and paid in pesetas (no Euro, no ATMs, no Google Pay), took the trip to Cuenca and found a pensión (no TripAdvisor), booked and bought flights and trains home. Again, how? We must have done it in person, used a public telephone, left written messages, cashed travellers' cheques at a bank, visited a travel agent. The old-fashioned idea of making a verbal arrangement, maybe noting it in a paper diary and then sticking to the agreed dates and times. Unimaginable now. And it's not only the young, but pensioners like me too. Unless you really haven't got a smartphone, in which case I have no idea how you get by.
Son Ben was the only family member missing from our Napolita meal. That's because he was at the Basque Aste Nagusia (Semana Grande in Spanish and "Big Week" in English) festival in Bilbao. Traditional music and dancing, rural sports such as wood chopping and stone carrying, the streets lined with food and drink tents.
Via smartphone video and WhatsApp, right?
Tuesday 22nd August
One word is all it takes.
Son Ben's partner Soph sent me a book for my birthday, the 2016 "El Silencio de la Ciudad Blanca" by Eva Garcia Sáenz de Urturi, although I'm reading it in translation, so "The Silence of the White City". It's a detective story set in Vitoria-Gasteiz, the seat of government and capital of the Basque Country and the province of Álava. The city is only an hour's drive south of Bilbao, so I visited on the last trip to see Ben and Soph.
On page 119 of my edition, chief protagonist Inspector Unai López de Ayala explains the insularity of Vitoria:
"Anyone born more than thirty miles away is what my grandmother used to call 'el forastero'. It's a word straight out of an old Western movie, but you can hear it in all the villages in Álava. If two pilgrims on their way to Santiago pass through, they're outsiders, even if they're only from Cuenca."
Cuenca. Off I go.
In autumn 1979 I returned from four-and-a-half years teaching English in Italy to embark on a 1-year Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) at the Institute of Education, now part of University College London, in English as a Foreign Language. That's right, having already earned my living in the field, I was now studying for a proper qualification. It seemed a bit after-the-event, but in fact experience was a pre-requisite of admission. This made for an interesting student cohort. Most of us had been to different parts of the world. We weren't callow youths just packed off to university by our parents. I was a member of what we called the "28 Club" - after, I presume, the doomed rock-and-roll "27 Club" - and several of our number were older.
In February 1980 we all headed off for a six-week teaching practice in Madrid. I was very fortunate. We were assigned to different schools or colleges. Most of my colleagues would teach in the mornings, but I only had a 2-hour class every day between 4 and 6pm. This meant that, while the others were busy preparing in the evening, I was free to roam around the centre of the city, enjoy a pleasant dinner. I used to finish with a café solo and fundador at an outdoor bar-kiosk on the edge of Plaza del Dos de Mayo. Next day a leisurely breakfast, preparation, maybe some lunch, off to school - and still free after 6:30pm. So privileged - and mostly at the taxpayers' expense.
We lived in basic but comfortable accommodation around the centre. I shared a small flat in the Edificio Tribunal apartment building off the bustling street of Fuencarral with an eccentric character called Michael Ivy. He had driven down to Madrid in his mother's metallic-brown Vauxhall Chevette. Unattractive and uncool, but a car nonetheless, and Michael was generous with its use. He suggested that four of us should spend a weekend in Cuenca, the charming mediaeval city two hours east of Madrid, perched on a limestone spur above the Júcar and Huécar rivers, famous for its well-preserved casas colgadas or "hanging houses".
The four of us - Michael, me, a woman called Juliette, and this blog's Irish correspondent - set off on the Saturday morning and enjoyed a memorable weekend: bright February/March days, classic squares, cobbled streets, dinner in a family restaurant, a stroll down by the rivers. Plus one amusing incident.
As part of our studies we followed a BBC Spanish language course called "¡Dígame!" - "Tell me!" It made sense: you're going to teach a language, experience what it's like to learn one.
The TV course was set in Cuenca and involved interactions with local people. One interview was with a priest at the Cathedral who revealed that some of his flock were less than devout.
Michael was keen to track him down - and succeeded. Unabashed, course book in hand, he confronted the priest: "Is it true what you say here, that many of your congregation fall short in their devoción?"
I can't remember his response. However, my Irish correspondent recalls that we asked a passerby if the priest was right about the lack of spiritual commitment in the city. He answered sarcastically: "¡Y él primero!" - words to the effect: "And he's the worst sinner of them all!"
He was blessed with an on-the-spectrum tenacious streak, our Mike. Another friend unkindly gave him the nickname of "Bindweed".
Monday 21st August
So, why did the Lionesses lose? Or, inversely, Spain win?
Here's a start:
To my untutored eye, Spain a) kept the ball better and b) knew what to do with it when they did.
Which takes us back to:
Tiki-taka, a style characterised by short passing, movement and maintaining possession, was central to the transformation of the Spanish men's national team that led to victory at the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. It was also evident in manager Pep Guardiola's Barcelona team of 2009 when winning six titles in a season, el séxtuple. Interestingly, Guardiola himself had broadly disavowed the tactic by 2014, when he had this rant:
"I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tiki-taka. It's so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition's goal. It's not about passing for the sake of it. Don't believe what people say. Barça didn't do tiki-taka! It's completely made up! Don't believe a word of it!"
What I think I saw yesterday was a legacy tiki-taka residue of which Guardiola would now approve. Yes, Spain did keep possession, there was some sharp passing ... and yet they had "clear intention ... of making it into the opposition's goal". It must have helped - OK, the maestro has long since moved on through Munich to Manchester - that seven of Spain's starting 11 play for Barcelona, where they'd know all about the evolved method.
We continue to search, a chance sadly missed, for the elusive goal:
Sunday 20th August
The greatest pleasure of the England women's progress to Euro 2022 victory and their world cup final today is the sheer delight they express in what they do, captured perhaps in that moment when Chloe Kelly stripped off to her sports bra - now framed at home, we understand - and windmilled away in celebration after scoring the winning goal last year.
The first part of the title to Emma John's article in The Guardian yesterday said, "England's Lionesses have restored joy to the beautiful game". John quoted Baroness Campbell, the FA's director of women's football: "People say to me, 'You've brought the beautiful game back', meaning this is like football used to be." There appear to be many admirable qualities behind the joy: passion, dedication, togetherness, respect, risk-taking, freedom and more.
The second part of John's title was: "But for how long?" Right now we need to bottle and hold on to the pleasure, even innocence, of the women's achievement, because the men's game demonstrates a horrid alternative outcome.
Brazilian Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior is moving to Al-Hilal of the Saudi Pro League. According to Barney Ronay of The Guardian, his contract includes: a £138m salary; three supercars (Bentley, Aston Martin, Lamborghini); four Mercedes G-Wagons; a luxury chauffeured van to be kept "available at all times"; a house with three saunas; a pool "at least 40 metres long"; seven full-time workers including a sous chef to work with Neymar's own head chef; a guaranteed supply of açaí juice and Guaraná drinks in his fridge; a private plane; and all expenses for his 30-strong entourage.
Saudi Arabian club football, funded by the state, is buying its way to the top, towards creating a league to rival the Premier, La Liga, the Bundesliga, Serie A, Ligue 1. The country's sovereign wealth fund, directed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, will take control of four of the kingdom's top football clubs; the Public Investment Fund (PIF) will own 75% of Al Ittihad, Al Ahli, Al Nassr and Al Hilal.
They need to consider alternative names for their competitions and awards, don't they? Fossil Fuel League? Petrodollar Cup? Black Gold Boot? Human Rights Watch Player of the Year?
"Small boys in the park, jumpers for goalposts?" Gimme a break.
This morning we should treasure a more rooted manifestation of the game.
See you on the other side.
Saturday 19th August
I skipped yesterday's blog because I was crunching numbers and ran out of time. After posting frivolous (no worse, I hope) remarks on Thursday about the place of the blonde ponytail in the Lioness line-up, I thought I'd better do some research.
I am not the first to be curious about the ethnic mix of the team. In July last year, English football coach and former player Anita Asante wrote an article in The Guardian titled "Lack of diversity in England Women squad will stop many girls from dreaming". In October 2020, the She Kicks women's football magazine ran an investigative piece: "Why are there so few Black England women footballers?"
I'd argue that the issue is visible to all. Here's a team photo from UEFA Women's EURO 2022:
Before I go on, a few words about terminology. It's an everchanging minefield and I'm almost certain not to get it right. But I've looked. I quote from GOV.UK's webpage, "Writing about ethnicity":
"In research, 'people from a black Caribbean background', 'the black ethnic group' and 'black people' were all acceptable phrases. 'Blacks' was not. We don't say 'mixed people' or 'mixed race people'. We usually say 'people with a mixed ethnic background' or 'people from the mixed ethnic group'.
"We do not use the terms BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) and BME (black and minority ethnic) because they emphasise certain ethnic minority groups (Asian and black) and exclude others (mixed, other and white ethnic minority groups). The terms can also mask disparities between different ethnic groups and create misleading interpretations of data. In March 2021, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities recommended that the government stop using the term BAME."
The obvious point here, echoed in the two articles mentioned above, is that the proportion of black players in the women's team is substantially lower than in the men's. My source is the official England Football website, where Gareth Southgate's and Sarina Wiegman's 23-member senior squads are listed.
In the men's 23, nine are black or "people with a mixed ethnic background". That's 39.1%. For the record, they are: Bukayo Saka, Callum Wilson, Eberechi Eze, Kalvin Phillips, Kyle Walker, Marcus Rashford, Mark Guehi, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Tyrone Mings. In the women's team, there are 2, or 8.6%. They are Lauren James and Jess Carter.
Why? In contrast, France reached the quarter-finals of Euro 2022 and their 23-woman squad contained 15 black or brown (Anita Asante's word) players. 65.2%, very close to two-thirds. It's an English thing. Repeated, I'm sure, in other countries.
Asante suggests there is a demography-and-geography factor. Most internationals come from the elite Women's Super League, the women's teams of the big Premier League clubs, and their exclusive training grounds have ...
"... moved mainly to leafy new suburban or semi-rural training facilities away from cities in places like Surrey, Hertfordshire and Cheshire. There's an awful lot less money in the women's game and many young black girls, who often live in inner cities, can struggle to reach out-of-town training grounds. Whereas a leading men's club might arrange for a male academy player to be transported from school to training and then back home, that option almost certainly won't be there for the girl whose parents are unable to ferry her back and forth."
She goes on to say that "there is the lack of understanding about cultural barriers in some black ... communities where there are often a lot of different pressures for girls to conform to gender norms." I'll stick my neck out and opine that until recently you would have seen black boys rather than girls enjoying a kick-about in the local park.
Time and history play a part. The English First Division was founded in 1888, superseded by the Premier League in 1992. The FA Women's Premier League National Division started in 1991, replaced by the Women's Super League in 2010. Yes, the men's game has been around for a lot longer, and the influence of black players has had the chance to grow. The England Football Online website has a full list of the 106 BME (EFO's term) players to have represented England up until 19th June 2023. Viv Anderson of Nottingham Forest in 1978 is deemed the first. It might have been Jack Leslie 53 years earlier. He was chosen for the England squad in 1925, but denied an appearance when the selectors discovered his heritage. The Football Association presented his family with a posthumous honorary cap, 98 years after he was called up, before England's Euro 2024 qualifier against Ukraine.
Viv Anderson and Nottingham Forest win the 1979 European Cup:
Jack Leslie playing for Plymouth Argyle in the 1920s:
[A bit of an aside. If you're interested in football, take a look at the EFO list with all its detail: (8 pages) . I am so grateful to all those people - where do they find the motivation and time? - out there who compile statistics for me to scrutinise, on any topic imaginable. On the other hand, I will never regain the lost hours I nerdishly spend manipulating their output to make it fit into a spreadsheet.]
Back to the present. I'm pretty sure that ethnic diversity in the women's game will catch up with the men's in time. In one inclusive respect it's already ahead, the proportions are inverted. Many more leading women footballers are open about their sexuality, that they are in same-sex relationships. Pink News stated on 12th July:
"Almost 12 per cent of the 736 players competing this year identify as lesbian, bisexual, queer or non-binary. So far, the known total of 88 LGBTQ+ players more than doubles the number who played in the 2019 tournament in France. The LGBTQ+ sports website noted that, while, during the past four years, the number of teams taking part has grown from 24 to 32, the number of out women more than doubling 'reflects the growth of acceptance' in the sport.
"Most of the out players are from countries that are more accepting of LGBTQ+ identities, including America, Europe and the host nations, with Brazil being the most publically LGBTQ+ team looking to lift the trophy. Nine out of 23 of Brazil's players identify as LGBTQ+, including the legendary Marta Vieira da Silva - best-known by just her first name - who is playing in her sixth World Cup. Australia and the Republic of Ireland both have eight out players, while Sweden has seven. England's team features four out players: Lauren Hemp, Jess Carter, Rachel Daly and Bethany England."
OK, I imagine we've had enough of numbers. It's only a game, right? To be enjoyed tomorrow. Go Lionesses!
Thursday 17th August
Splendid result. If you're a Pom. In their backyard. Best since Jonny in 2003.
I'm not a committed football fan, but I enjoyed this game. Some exquisite passing and four great goals. Passion, skill and determination by the bucketload.
The big pluses are how public acceptance and participation have grown, and the influence both the Lionesses and Matildas will have had on the young. Only a little while ago I might have said, "They're really quite good." I could hear my own condescension, and I'll bet that the majority of male football followers said something similar. Yesterday showcased the breakthrough, the distance travelled. 75,784 packed out Stadium Australia, 91.3% of the attendance at the classic men's rugby union world cup final between the two countries in the same arena 20 years ago. There wasn't a global women's soccer competition until 1991, sixty-one years after the inaugural men's event. FIFA was still reluctant to bestow their "World Cup" brand on that tournament, which was officially known as the "1st FIFA World Championship for Women's Football for the M&M's Cup", after the sponsor Mars's button-shaped chocolates.
OK, I have one further dodgy thought. Is the blonde ponytail a significant advantage for the England hopeful?
Does the coach, even subconsciously, favour the fashion?
No, of course I would never diss the estimable Sarina Wiegman. The plaudits have rained thick and fast:
Even the King tossed in his ha'p'orth:
I didn't have him down as a football man. And he's got to keep the Aussies onside, hasn't he?
This coming Sunday BBC1 from 10am UK time, kick-off 11am. I'll be there. Will Charles and Camilla be in front of the box at Highgrove?
Wednesday 16th August
Tough day ahead, arduous forward planning. Son Ben bought me a sweet birthday present in July, flights back to Venice and Friuli in early November with him and Sarah. He arranged it secretly with friend Chris Taylor in Udine. A chance to show Ben some old haunts, 47 years on. I've just got to pick out things I'd like to do, places to see, book a B&B in Venice. Maybe something like this ...
No. 1 vaporetto on the Grand Canal, Venice:
Campo Santa Maria Formosa, Venice:
Piazza delle Erbe, Udine:
Da Pozzo, Udine:
Cividale del Friuli:
Up the Natisone river:
Hills beyond Cividale, towards Slovenia:
OK, the sky may not be so blue and I won't be getting in the Natisone, but hey ... more time in Pozzo's.
First world challenges.
Tuesday 15th August
Even I, as I seek to protect myself from the grim news and politics of the day, have noticed the tragedy in Hawaii. One can only feel the deepest sympathy for those who have lost family and homes.
I allowed myself to look on Twitter ... I mean X ... for direct reports. I really wish I hadn't, as it only confirmed my friend Aidan's assertion of two days ago: "Objective truth lies dead on the killing floor of American politics." An overwhelming MAGA assault on Biden, condemned for relaxing on a beach in Delaware, for his careless response to the journalist's question, "Mr. President, any comment on the rising death toll in Maui?"
What do you expect from lordsofwar.life? "Inspired by veterans & patriots with a thirst to restore our country to greatness, the Lords Of War movement was born. For the People. By the People." Yes, Biden is prone to a gaffe, but no mention of the federal rescue package that he promptly authorised.
Monday 14th August
Suella ... Cruella ... Legionella.
It must have taken some training to reach this level of compassionless stupidity. Did they all go to an exclusive finishing school? The Anderson-Truss Academy of Wickedness and Ineptitude?
I've referred in recent days to the doldrum in which I've languished for a while. Yesterday I had a real sense of "it's not just me" - which came as a relief, albeit one tainted with dismay. I've come to the conclusion that many of us are close to breaking point in the face of this country's self-inflicted moral, economic and diplomatic decline. Both friends and public commentators.
It's been going on so long. Seven years since we turned our back on Europe. Did you see Will Hutton's article in The Observer yesterday, titled "Let's stop kidding ourselves we're a rich nation and get real ... the UK's gone bust"? A bleak finance-centred analysis of how far we have fallen: (4 pages)
In our continuing correspondence since Thursday's cricket, Graham Powell sent me the 127-page collection of letters he has written to The Independent since 2016, with these words:
"In lieu of a blog, I started in my political despair and indignation to write letters to the Independent - like you to get things off my chest. Now a compulsion - some might say obsession - it's now close on 50,000 words - about 70% of them have been printed. Butterflies wings I guess."
So, not alone.
All of us have been trying to rise above the misery and squalour. There's been a comprehensive debate on our old mates' WhatsApp group about the benefits/drawbacks of escapism, centred on the relative merits of the finest crime thriller writers. This was my post:
"My escapism goes even further. Alongside the distress with which I wake up to our venal and incompetent government, the shame that I feel living in the New Meanness of England, I can no longer face for my bedtime read the heavy-duty crime novel. Just too grim. And that's from someone who from his reading birth has been a devotee of Hammett, Chandler, the McDonalds, McBain and the rest. One of my releases has been a different sort of detective story."
And here they are (click to enlarge):
Have you read them? As the marketing spiel proclaims, millions have. For the last month they have tickled and transported me. Charming, clever, witty, silly, life-affirming. You fall in love with the characters - the author clearly already has - in and around the rest home setting inspired by Osman's mother's own. After finishing one section of the third book, I actually said out loud to myself, "That ... is the best chapter I have ever read." The books have sent me to sleep with a smile and a light heart.
Sunday 13th August
One of the things friend Graham Powell - see Worcester cricket and the Big Pink yesterday - and I, along with most of you I'm sure, agreed upon during our conversations last Thursday was the daily difficulty of dealing with the political background to our lives. He noted how I'd signalled the intent in New Year resolutions at the top of this year's blog to throttle back the attention, the mental houseroom I've afforded to the venal, incompetent and morally bankrupt scumbags that have blighted our nation for longer than I care to acknowledge, certainly since the 2016 aberration. To an extent I've done so, particularly in recent weeks, but, as Graham said, it's difficult to ignore the events of the day ... if we're going to change things. To take the battle to the enemy, you have to engage, for which you need to be informed. So I thought last night that I'd better renew my scrutiny of current affairs.
Perhaps I shouldn't have turned to cartoons to gauge the mood.
These people aren't fit to govern. It's they who shouldn't have the right to abode. As much human decency as a septic tank. They are a genuine threat to our mental health. I feel it every day.
You don't need to hear from me any more than you already know.
So I'm left to save myself once again and switch to another topic. Nothing that will improve the state of the nation, I'm afraid. Pure indulgence, personal amusement and pleasure. Feel free to skip.
Coincidence. Connection. I mentioned both yesterday. In the last fortnight I've had a number of experiences that have taken me back five decades. All about Cambridge University. To which I have returned only once in the last 45 years.
At the cricket Graham reminded me of one curiosity. We both read English at Cambridge, although he was at Clare College and I at St. John's, and graduated in 1973. We could/should have met at the English Faculty, a likelihood diminished by my rare attendance. We didn't. No, it's only through the trips to Worcester in recent years that we have come to know each other. Yet - Graham's main point - with my surname initial of L and his of P, we must have been within cheating distance as we sat our final exams in the same hall.
A self-evident reflection, I know, but you can't wind back the clock to do something different, can you? Like suggest to Graham that we go for a coffee after a lecture. Then we'd have been sitting at New Road this week saying, "Do you remember ...?".
Nearly two weeks ago my friend Mark Jarvis invited to me to dinner in Bath. He was also at St. John's. The occasion was to meet his then roommate Tony Llewelyn, who was visiting from Glasgow. Tony and I worked out that it was 50 years to the week since we had last met, at my 21st birthday party in Worcester held in late July 1973. He was still barefoot and wearing shorts. We agreed that we shouldn't wait an equivalent period before getting together again.
The following Saturday I was in Waitrose and recognised a face. "Dave!", I called, but he didn't respond. "Dave Thackray!", I tried, and he turned round. I said, "Charlie Lewis, the St. John's Old Buttery Bar, probably late 1970". I knew he was in the area, as I'd seen in the local newspaper that he'd received an OBE for his role as Head of Archaeology at the National Trust (he retired in 2012) - but we'd never met since university. A pleasant chat about what we'd been doing for 52 years. He said he'd lost touch with a mutual friend, and I've since been able to track down the friend's address through my old roommate Ian ... owner of the flat in Corsica where we've just had our family holiday. Unfortunately, I can't pass it on. Dave and I agreed to meet, although not for the beer we'd once often enjoyed, as both of us have foresworn alchohol for some years. However, we forgot to exchange mobile numbers. And I still don't know where he lives, although I suspect Nailsworth.
Maybe ten days ago, I opened the front door and Sarah Dunant was getting into her car directly outside. Do you know her writing? Perhaps the novels featuring female private eye Hannah Wolfe, or those about women's lives in the Italian Renaissance? I heard her recently on Radio 4, and in the past she presented on The Late Show and Night Waves. We only rubbed occasional shoulders at Cambridge, mostly because our friendship groups intersected. I called out, "Hello, Sarah", she looked up and replied, "We've met". "Yes," I said, "51 years ago in a Footlights pantomime, it's Charlie." "My God, half a century ...", she winked, "... how's it gone?" She said that she's big mates with neighbours across the road. I revealed that two other local close friends rented her house nearby when they had to move out of their own property because of building work. "We must all get together ...", she suggested brightly and drove off. I suspect she may have forgotten the idea by the time she reached the bottom of Middle Street.
What's going on? I have an uneasy feeling that somebody is telling me to put my affairs in order. Or, less gloomily, that it's time to make the most of connections with other people, rather than letting the opportunities slip by.
Back to political cartoons briefly. Despite the often grim content, through them I frequently stumble on a nugget that would otherwise not have crossed my path. I've written before about how my favourite British cartoonists acknowledge their debt to predecessors (see my post of 27th March: 👉). At the top Steve Bell has the inscription "After William Dyce". Not a cartoonist, but a Scottish painter (1806-1864) associated with the Pre-Raphaelites and instrumental in the development of public art education in the UK. Bell takes as inspiration Dyce's piece "Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th 1858":
Saturday 12th August
Today ... more on The Band, with pers­onal input from friend Graham Powell. History, coincidence and connection.
Let's start here:
It's the Big Pink. The description below comes from the Camp Cripple Creek (more later) website. "Up on Cripple Creek" is the fifth song on The Band's second album.
"'Big Pink' is a house in West Saugerties, New York, located at 56 Parnassus Lane (formerly 2188 Stoll Road). The house was newly built when [Band bassist] Rick Danko, who was collaborating with Bob Dylan at the time, found it as a rental. It was to this house that Bob Dylan would eventually retreat to write songs, play them and experiment with other songs in its large basement. The 2-track recordings made by them, as a sort of audio sketch book, came to be known as 'The Basement Tapes'. These tapes were circulated among other musicians at the time and hits were made of 'Too Much of Nothing' and 'Mighty Quinn' as recordings by other artists, Peter, Paul and Mary and Manfred Mann respectively. The house became known locally as 'Big Pink' for its pink siding. Members of Dylan's band (with Dylan himself writing one and co-writing two) wrote most of the songs on 'Music from Big Pink' at or around the house, and the band then adopted the name The Band."
Jog any memory? Did you own the album (LP?), ever heard of it? I can't find mine. Bob Dylan did the painting on the front cover. I don't recall exactly how my copy looked, but these snapshots are of the front/back/centrefold of either the original or 1973 reissue. The colours may not be precisely as you remember them, if you do. Click to enlarge:
Graham was at the Worcestershire County Cricket New Road ground on Thursday. A group of us try to meet there every year. In truth, the day is never just about cricket. Shared food (delicious quiche, Graham, and I'm sorry I never moved on to the frittata) and drink. Discussions range widely, which is as it should be, for, in the words of Trinidadian Marxist intellectual C. L. R. James, "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" Graham and I exchanged thoughts about projects, politics, writing ... and he asked after this blog.
Having seen the piece on Robbie Robertson yesterday morning, he sent me these words:
"On visiting Andrew - elder son - who lives in NYC, he sprung a surprise - being a Dylan head like his father - by booking a weekend stay at 'Big Pink'. The property can be booked for short and long stays and provides sole accommodation with period accoutrements - combined with guided visits into the Basement to see where Bob and The Band foregathered for the laying down of the eponymous tapes. Wonderful location and a special experience for which I remain massively grateful."
Here are photos from their 2019 visit. Click to enlarge any:
You can read more about the Big Pink and Camp Cripple Creek here:
I love the idea of this stuff. When the memory of a sound that enthralled becomes something you can see and touch. The manual typewriter on the desk. The black dial telephone, each number associated with three letters. A 1966-67 directory. Did you see the words in the top left-hand corner of the "Music from Big Pink" back cover? "STEREO: PLAYABLE ON STEREO AND MONO PHONOGRAPHS". This is emotion and lived sensory experience made tangible. It's my history. In the years that The Band were active I grew from boy to man. Around the time I turned 18, I passed within a few miles of Big Pink, jeans and T-shirt, rucksack on my back, thumb out. That summer, as I hitch-hiked all round the USA and Canada, the music WAS me, the interior "I'm free!" soundtrack that accompanied me on my journey.
One last thing. A speech by Eric Clapton as he inducted The Band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. I'm not a big fan of Clapton despite his facility with a guitar, mainly because he's an unreconstructed Tory who once spouted racist filth on stage of an intensity that would have embarrassed Enoch Powell, of whom he was an admirer. However, in this instance he's surprisingly articulate, humble, respectful, self-deprecating. His words emphasise what an esteemed position The Band held in the music of that time and beyond, seminal in the emergence of what became known as Americana.
The Big Pink and West Saugerties are near Woodstock. That's where Clapton must have gone. The Crackers was the collective name given to the players on the Basement Tapes.
Friday 11th August
This is a bit spooky.
On Tuesday I posted on our old mates WhatsApp group, for no reason other than I love the song, a (not very good quality) video of "The Weight" by The Band, written by singer and guitarist Robbie Robertson and released 55 years ago on August 8, 1968 ... although I didn't know that when I posted. The song featured in Martin Scorsese's 1978 film "The Last Waltz", but the performance below is considered the definitive version, separately recorded in a sound studio around the same time as the farewell concert in the film, which was held on 25 November 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The legend Mavis Staples guests alongside her father Roebuck "Pops" Staples and two sisters. By the end you should be singing along to the chorus. Most of us have a go at the trailing harmonies too.
Did you catch Mavis's whispered comment right at the very end? You can just hear it with the volume up. I agree.
I got back from the cricket day out in Worcester yesterday evening and saw this headline:
The next day. Something in the air? I swear there was nothing that prompted me to find the song in my head and hunt down details on Tuesday. My friend Mark commented when I pointed this out: "I noticed that too. Better restrict your postings to les artistes déja morts, or young and fit ones."
Are you a fan of Playing For Change? The organisation is explained on its website :
"A WORLD UNITED THROUGH MUSIC - BREAKING DOWN BOUNDARIES
"Playing For Change was created to inspire and connect the world through music. The idea for this project came from a common belief that music has the power to break down boundaries and overcome distances between people.
"Traveling around the world inspired us to unite many of the greatest musicians we met throughout our journey. These musicians come from many different countries and cultures, but through music they speak the same language."
My friend Diana in Luxembourg sent me a link yesterday - I wondered if this were more spookiness, but it turns out that a friend who is the same age as Robertson and a devotee of The Band alerted her - to the 50-year celebratory PFC version of "The Weight". Robbie contributed.
Thursday 10th August
No time to blog today. Off to Worcester for the annual cricket trip. Tickets bought, hamper packed.
A couple of things to keep you amused, both sent to me by son Ben.
Wednesday 9th August
That's right, ain't much bloggin' goin' on.
There's just been too much crap around, driving me into what my Irish correspondent calls the doldrums. I didn't want to moan, so I stopped writing. Then yesterday my friend and loyal reader Alf Florio passed by the front door, we had a chat and I thought I'd better get back into gear. The blog sustains me, so why would I deny myself the pleasure and release? Maybe it'll help to break through the gloom. Apologies for the whinge. I'll try to add some smiley stuff afterwards.
It started with the personal.
More specifically, this:
Recognise it? Of course you do, it's a clogged Diesel Particulate Filter. DPFs are mandatory in our clean-air-zone world. Don't get me started on Uxbridge.
Have you ever fallen foul of one? We have now. I won't give you chapter-and-verse, maybe later, just a summary to be going on with. Aiming to support a major opportunity for daughter Ellie's dog-walking business, we invested in a new, much larger van. Went to a reputable dealer, not some dodgy Jack-the-Lad, 90% 5-star billing from Trustpilot. Money changed hands - all done electronically while in Corsica - and Ellie joyfully drove the van away nearly six weeks ago. Three days later DPF warning lights came on, with instructions not to drive. It's been in one of two garages, admittedly under warrantee, ever since. Still waiting. Ellie's had to fight the vendor at every stage to get things done, like for them to organise a replacement vehicle. All the while dealing with two children and clinging on to new customers. OK, I'll stop for now ... but oh, the stress, dismay, even despair. And heart-threatening rage.
To look beyond the personal, I thought I'd catch up with the cartoons. Despite the wit, there's scant relief. It's not a silly season. It's a shit-show. Talking of which, the weather hasn't helped ... or has it?
Nice link, Matt, precipitation to poo. Even better, biblical downpour to refugees:
Which brings us to Cruella and more excrement:
This really gets to me. Who wants to live in a mean country? By the way, I think the cartoon map incorrectly includes Scotland and Wales in its accusation.
What's more, the same government that fails to address properly the migrant question ignores the weather warnings everywhere and feeds the fat cats:
Do you see what I mean? Not a great backdrop to daily life. And I haven't even mentioned Trump.
Where to look for solace? Like many, I took some heart from an Ashes summer, even if the desired overall result was naturally scuppered by rain in Manchester. The series began in the Crown and Sceptre (or at Edgbaston for 25,000 ticket-holders) at 10:30am on Friday 16th June. On the first day of every home Ashes landlord Rodda and his cricket-loving mates start an assault on the Prosecco. I got there at 2:30pm ...
I was there at the end nine days ago, the breathtaking late afternoon conclusion of the 5th Test at the Oval, no, the Crown & Sceptre again. A dream finale, of a kind only made possible in the context of an old-fashioned game lovingly transformed by the bright new Bazball approach. Who would have thought that Stuart Broad's superstitious switch of the bails would be followed immediately by his taking of the last two Australian wickets? Earlier, he'd hit his final ball as a batter in Test cricket for six. The last ball he bowled took a wicket. Then he walked off with Moeen Ali (I've been a big fan, particularly during his time at Worcestershire), who had enjoyed a day of success in the closing hours of his "red ball" international career, redemptive after frequent disappointment. I nearly missed the final match-winning dismissal; I had to leave to visit a friend in Bath. As I passed the bar on my way out, someone said, "Is that your bag, Charlie?" I'd left it by my chair, so went back to fetch it and had to sit down again in order not to obscure others' views of the television. Next ball, Broad "nicked off" Australian wicketkeeper Alex Carey to his English counterpart Jonny Bairstow, another redemption after dropping catches all series. It was over ... and now I could really leave.
Captain Ben Stokes - another journey into the light from the Bristol nightclub affray of 2017 - was questioned about his team selections, notably the aforementioned keeper Jonny Bairstow, who couldn't catch a cold in previous games, but batted on occasions with startling effect. Stokes was unapologetic: "We pick people for what they can do on their good days." The thought takes my breath away. It changes entirely how a player may deal with the anxiety of competition. No wonder the team have played without fear.
Another moment that brought a smile. On Monday I had a hot chocolate at the popular Felt Café between the canal and River Frome while I waited for my car to be valeted - for the first time in my life.
Little chance of a fried egg sandwich in Stroud, eh?
Saturday 29th July
Following on from yesterday, the discussion of the Musk offspring X Æ A-12 went mini-viral on our old mates' WhatsApp group.
His mother, Canadian singer Grimes, aka Claire Elise Boucher, tweeted an explanation of the name two days after his birth:
If you prefer a more readable version, here is The Independent's summary:
"Grimes explained that the first 'X' is a reference to the unknown variable commonly used in mathematical sums. 'Æ', which comes next, is the Elven spelling of AI, which is shorthand for artificial intelligence and translates to 'love' in several languages such as Mandarin and Japanese. Next in the name is 'A-12', which Grimes explains is a precursor to the aircraft SR-71, which she and Musk love because it is 'great in battle but non-violent'. The A in 'A-12' is also short for Archangel, which Grimes says is her favourite song."
The article went on:
"Grimes has revealed that she and Elon Musk had to change the name of their baby to comply with Californian law. Names must be written on birth certificates 'using the 26 alphabetical letters of the English language', although apostrophes and dashes can be included."
The official name became X Æ A-Xii, apparently because the Roman representation "ii" is OK. Major revision, eh? Much more acceptable in the school playground.
Here's a photo of the little mite - called X for short:
Come on, own up, how many of you with children wrote on your baby's face with a felt tip pen?
Musk and Grimes had a second child in December 2021 via surrogate, Exa Dark Sideræl, nicknamed Y.
At least they used letters this time.
Perhaps we can expect a good parenting book soon.
Friday 28th July
It really is the Not-so-silly Season.
I can't decide which or whom I loathe more. The banks, specifically NatWest's Coutts with its elitist qualification criteria - or the prick who engineered the miserable aberration of Brexit ... and kept his MEP pension.
Here's the Coutts 40-page Farage dossier if you fancy a peek:
Then there's a man who doesn't know what to do with his wealth.
What kind of nutter would pay $44 billion just to re-brand from the iconic bird to his own obsession with a letter?
A bloke who called his son X Æ A-12, that's who.
No thought in the heads of these idiots that we might be working together for a fairer society and the wellbeing of the planet.
Thursday 27th July
Sunday 16th July
In defiance of the weather, Middle Streeters had their party. Sunny moments between heavy showers:
Almost a private event. It happened between our house and the pub (a clear winner):
Last dance below the bathroom window, embracing the rain:
Saturday 15th July
Not looking great for the street party. Pitch inspection at 12 noon. Could be moved under the roof in the pub.
Not a good precedent ...
Friday 14th July
Getting ready for this tomorrow:
We're going long this year. After the family stuff is done ...
Little chance of our missing the action. It's all happening outside our front door and in the pub opposite. The daytime DJs are drawing power from our house.
Not the best of weather predicted, so a call has gone out for gazebos. We haven't far to run for cover.
Wednesday 12th July
Tuesday 11th July
Why are there so many Eastern European tennis princesses playing at Wimbledon? Ryvitakina, Ribenatova ... I can't keep up. Oh dear, I know, not very PC.
Of course, I've had to take a closer look. First of all, I need to come clean about what I intend by Eastern European. My definition is a bit old-fashioned, jingoistic even, a touch Charge-of-the-Light-Brigade. A sort of any-nation-outside-NATO-before-enlargement or previously-associated-with-the-Soviet-bloc choice. Anywhere to the right of Germany and Italy on the map comes into contention.
Of the 128 women who played in this year's first round, by my ruling 51 were Eastern Europeans - 39.84%. OK, Western Europe wasn't far behind with 39 - 30.47%. I still think 51 is a lot, particularly when you consider representation from other regions: North America 23 (17.97%); Asia 8 (6.25%); South America 3 (2.34%); Africa 2 (1.56%); and Oceania 2 (1.56%).
Looking beyond the east-west division, for the women at least Wimbledon is a European event - 70.31% of the players. I wonder what the proportions are at the other slams.
I have no answer to my own initial question. Years ago, before the Berlin wall came down, I would have pointed at state support and cruel training regimes. Now I don't know.
Monday 10th July
I didn't see a single political cartoon for the duration of the Corsica trip. Would've been a bit sad if I had. Came back to the silly season.
There again, this isn't silly. Like those unaccompanied kids don't deserve cheering up?
I've caught up with recently discovered local Gloucestershire cartoonist Vilnissimo. Has he been away? Experienced something similar to my horrid return journey from Bastia discourtesy of Easyjet?
Sunday 9th July
Family all settled back in their far-flung homes. Ben sent photos of his wacky off-grid Bilbao farmhouse.
Saturday 8th July
Another thought about returning from holiday.
Like most people, I used to come back from a family summer trip and go into work the next day. On one occasion I even had to curtail the break and bring forward a ferry booking from northern Spain in order to attend a hastily arranged board meeting, you know, one of those fight-your-corner summits it was better not to miss. Perhaps I shouldn't have checked my email while away. As it turned out, it was the right thing to do. But the last days of the holiday were tainted, the memories soon faded.
I didn't have to go into the office yesterday. Nor today. Not ever again.
I still have the rest of summer to do whatever I want. Batteries recharged and no workplace trials to drain away the benefits.
Sometimes I wonder how I ever went to work.
Friday 7th July
I woke this morning with a start: "When must we leave to get to the airport on time?"
For the first time in weeks I haven't a pressing outcome to organise. The Corsica trip required different arrival and departure times for eight people from three countries. During the holiday I drove to or from Bastia Poretta airport four times, to Calvi the same. All the usual planning requirements: flights, hire car (and excess cover), personal insurance for the family, booking our B&B. Earlier last month the same with our mini-trip to Dieppe: ferry crossings, accommodation, places to eat. In the background sorting out the purchase of a van for daughter Ellie.
I feel some relief. Here I am near the beginning of an English summer with space to breathe. The sun is shining. A privilege, of course. First world challenges.
Thursday 6th July
Back home to a marked drop in temperature:
Holiday photo report. Kids and grandkids stayed in the Algajola flat belonging to friends Ian and Ali, the seniors in B&B U Castellu across the Place du Chateau. Click to enlarge any image.
Promenade and sea in front of the flat, mountains inland:
Breakfast terrace at our B&B U Castellu, view of Place du Chateau:
Family pizza on the front:
Frolics in the sea, R&R in the fig tree:
Up into the hills. Sheep on the way to Aregno, bar in the village square:
Surf and turf. Squid at Ile Rousse market, pig roast in Lumio:
Last night dinner at farm restaurant L'Aghjalle:
Monday 19th June
Intermittent posts for two weeks, maybe? Or none at all if I can resist. The advance guard is already in situ.
Second half of June and not overcrowded? Le Chariot is normally rammed. Looks promising.
Sunday 18th June
Joyful celebration of a life in Bristol yesterday for grandson Marlie's Dad:
I hope Marlie felt the love in the room. 200 people rooting for him.
Preparation intensifies for Tuesday's departure. Son Nikko and his daughter Ellie travel from Vienna today.
Martin came with us one year, before Marlie was born. This is his son's second visit.
Saturday 17th June
Little blogging time as priority goes this weekend to family commitments. Today we're going to a celebration-of-life memorial for a young relative who died during the pandemic and whose funeral was therefore restricted. Our attendance was only possible via Zoom. We're having a party now it's allowed.
I leave you with some reading material. At least there are some deserving cases in the King's Birthday Honours List (156 pages):
Friday 16th June
Thursday 15th June
Tomaso Montanari, rector of the Università per Stranieri di Siena, mourns:
"È vero che Berlusconi ha segnato la storia, ma lo ha fatto lasciando il mondo e l'Italia assai peggiori di come li aveva trovati."
"It is true that Berlusconi made history, but he did so by leaving the world and Italy much worse than he had found them."
Peter Brookes recalls his earlier portrayals of Il Cavaliere:
Berlusconi triggers the impulse in Brookes to stereotype Italians, non è vero? In a similar way to how Biden stimulated Irish tropes during his April visit to Ballina: 👉
Wednesday 14th June
Today's item does not appear on the home page of the BBC website, nor that of the online Guardian.
Yet the virus dominated our lives for at least a year and caused so many deaths. I used to post these charts from the Financial Times (in conjunction with Johns Hopkins University) almost every day. Here's the latest; display of new data stopped at the end of 2022. A cumulative total of 175,000 Covid-related fatalities in England.
I am bound to mark yesterday's opening of the Covid-19 Inquiry. Coronavirus is why I started this blog. I haven't any particular view or take on the process. I'll just post some relevant resources.
First, here is the official inquiry website - not GOV.UK pages because it is an independent public event established under the Inquiries Act (2005). There are timetables, transcripts, documents, videos, details of participants:
Next, there are the "Terms of Reference", stating the aims and scope of the inquiry. There are two versions: the standard formal text and an "easy read" alternative with graphics .
One part of the process is "Every Story Matters":
"The pandemic affected every single person in the UK and, in many cases, continues to have a lasting impact on lives. Every one of our experiences is unique and this is your opportunity to share the impact it had on you, and your life, with the Inquiry."
Inquiry Chair The Right Honourable Baroness Heather Hallett DBE explains (3 minutes 30 seconds):
You can have your say here:
I listened to the start of proceedings, titled "Module 1: Resilience and Preparedness", on Radio 5 Live as I drove up the M5 to Birmingham yesterday morning. A video was played; I of course only heard the audio. Moving, harrowing personal testimonies. Here's the video as published on the inquiry website (17 minutes 37 seconds):
We're told the inquiry could last for 3 years. I have no idea what it will achieve. Further discredit Boris Johnson? Or confirm him as vaccine saviour? I don't think the predetermined intention is to be punitive, to find fault and allocate blame. The language and tone used is all about balance and dispassionate scrutiny. However, there is an underlying acknowledgement that not everything went swimmingly. We were caught unawares, more so in the UK than in regions such as the Far East. The initial British government response was slow, even indecisive. Remember the contrasting plaudits received by Jacinda Ardern for her go-hard-go-early approach. Above all, there is a commitment to show respect for the dead, to all who suffered - hence "Every Story Matters". The final statement of the terms of reference is: "Identify the lessons to be learned ... to inform preparations for future." Let's hope so ... before something similar strikes.
Tuesday 13th June
Dramatic hailstorm in Stroud and Middle Street yesterday evening. Floods at the bottom of town. A river in the lane behind our house. Poor neighbour Kat's roof failed, the ground floor and cellar awash.
Hmmm. Extreme weather event?
Monday 12th June
Sunday 11th June
It's weird how something you notice one day comes up again very shortly afterwards, a quite specific reference or topic. I'll explain later.
Also, I'm going to be a bit of a killjoy.
Yes, Manchester City beat Inter Milan 1-0 to lift the UEFA Champions League urn in Istanbul's Atatürk Olympic Stadium last night, completing the classic season treble alongside the Premier League title and the FA Cup, only the second English club to do so, after their neighbour Manchester United in 1999. A triumph for their Catalan manager Pep Guardiola, already a serial winner with Barcelona and Bayern Munich, and the first manager ever to achieve the continental treble twice.
Congratulations all round. He's a great coach and has got the best out of a talented group of players.
However, with apologies to the blue side of Manchester, it doesn't come close to many other successes in much more unlikely circumstances. I think of the incomparable Brian Clough with Derby County and Nottingham Forest (the European Cup, precursor to the Champions League, twice).
It's the money. And here on cue is the link I mentioned at the top. Abu Dhabi. I wrote two days ago about the dodgy connections between ADNOC (Abu Dhabi National Oil Company) and the presidency of COP28. Manchester City are owned by UAE royal Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan through the Abu Dhabi United Group.
The injection of emirate cash has transformed City's slumbering fortunes. The Champions League win is a petrodollar victory, a fossil fuel trophy.
The club is not alone in its financial makeup, particularly the overseas investment. A close look at the funding of next season's Premiership reveals these primary sources of owner income at 17 of the 20 clubs, their geographical origin and business sector. I was startled by this:
Kroenke (Denver, Colorado), sports and entertainment - Arsenal; Fortress (New York City), investment management - Aston Villa; Fidelity National Financial (Jacksonville, Florida), real estate and mortgages - Bournemouth; ALK Capital (New York), investment - Burnley; Eldridge Industries (Greenwich, Connecticut) and Clearlake Capital (Santa Monica, California), equity investment - Chelsea; FuboTV (New York), streaming and digital media - Crystal Palace; USM (Monaco), Russian holding company, mining and telecomms - Everton; Flex-N-Gate (Urbana, Illinois), supplier of motor vehicle components - Fulham; Fenway (Boston, Massachusetts), multinational sports holding conglomerate - Liverpool; ADUG (Abu Dhabi, UAE), sovereign wealth investments - Manchester City; Glazer family, First Allied Corporation (Rochester, New York), commercial real estate - Manchester United; Public Investment Fund (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia), sovereign wealth - Newcastle United; Capital Maritime & Trading Corporation (Piraeus, Greece), shipping - Nottingham Forest; SPMC Group (Saudi Arabia), paper manufacturing - Sheffield United; Tavistock Group (Bahamas), investment - Tottenham Hotspur; Energetický (Prague, Czech Republic), energy - West Ham United (with David Sullivan, Welsh former pornographer); Fosun International (Shanghai, China), multinational conglomerate holding company - Wolverhampton Wanderers.
For me, this doesn't square with the old notion of supporting a local football team, the shared experience of and connection to a place. Work all week in a factory and then get behind the lads on Saturday. At least Forest Green Rovers is owned by a nearby entrepreneur. Dale Vince's home at Rodborough Castle is a handful of miles from the club ground above Nailsworth and his office is at the bottom of Stroud town. He goes to matches, tweets the results. Last night, Sheikh Mansour made only his second appearance in 15 years at a City game. I don't get it.
And, of course, FGR is funded by profits from green energy, not fossil fuels. In fact, my money. I'm an Ecotricity customer.
I can hear you ask, "What about the other three clubs?" Here are the owners:
Brentford - Matthew Benham, Smartodds and Matchbook gambling; Brighton and Hove Albion - Tony Bloom, sports better and poker player; Luton Town - Paul Ballantyne, formerly of Genesis Investment Management.
I should also add that Brian Clough spent a record £1 million for Trevor Francis to join Nottingham Forest. Francis scored the winner in the 1979 European Cup final against Malmo. It's rumoured that the actual amount was £999,999, so that Trevor wouldn't have to carry the tag of being a £1m player. Still, that would only be worth £7.34m today. Real Madrid have just agreed to pay Borussia Dortmund £88.5m for England's Jude Bellingham.
Saturday 10th June
Friday 9th June
Climate Blog. I haven't written much on the topic in recent months and yet it's still the URL for these pages. I changed from Coronavirus Blog when appropriate, so shouldn't I do that again? I think not, for two reasons. First, climate should be front and centre of our thoughts. Second, the earlier switch involved a huge technical effort which I don't have the time and inclination to repeat. I'm pleased therefore that today issues and news have popped up that require some attention.
The Sunak and Biden "Atlantic Declaration" contains some climate elements, such as UK access to US green funding. For what it's worth:
Green MP Caroline Lucas has announced that she's stepping down: "As the threats to our precious planet become ever more urgent, I want to concentrate fully on these accelerating crises. I have therefore decided not to stand for parliament again at the next election."
Stroud and Ecotricity "tycoon" Dale Vince has been on the Just Stop Oil slow march in Westminster. After that he went to talk to LBC's Andrew Marr. It's a well-worth-watching cogent and compelling exchange, but long, so I'm putting it at the bottom of today's post should you have time. Meanwhile, here's a short clip (1 minute 5 seconds) of Vince with the loudhailer:
Then there's the biggest joke of all, the presidency of COP28 to be held 30 November to 12 December 2023 at Expo City Dubai. The president-designate is His Excellency Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber. He's also chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). Here he is with his management team:
Looks inclusive, doesn't it?
How about these photos on the ADNOC website showcasing their work - a petrol station, the Shah gas plant expansion and a $245 million upgrade to their main oil lines:
They scream carbon-neutral, right? Still, Al Jaber is the UAE's special envoy for climate, so that's OK. There are really no links between ADNOC and COP28.
Back to Andrew Marr and Dale Vince in conversation. Although 9 minutes long and slightly affected by an annoying synchronisation glitch, it's a useful round-up watch, touching on Caroline Lucas's announcement, funding of Just Stop Oil and the Labour Party, the affordability of green energy and how our political system gets in the way.
Thursday 8th June
We went to see the angel, legend and mistress of her craft Bonnie Raitt in Oxford last night. So much to say. To give you the idea, here she is on Jools Holland's "Later Live" in 2016. Three minutes of total command. She's 73 now and grooves as yesteryear. The band can play too. Turn the sound up.
I only heard about the gig on Monday. A music WhatsApp group friend had posted a piece on Howlin' Wolf and Bonnie which set me scurrying around the Internet, and there were the tour dates. Here are her words from the February 1999 edition of Guitar World:
"If I had to pick one person who does everything I loved about the blues, it would be Howlin' Wolf. It would be the size of his voice, or just the size of him. When you're a little pre-teenage girl and you imagine what a naked man in full arousal is like, it's Howlin' Wolf. When I was a kid, I saw a horse in a field with an erection, and I went, 'Holy shit!'. That's how I feel when I hear Howlin' Wolf - and when I met him it was the same thing. He was the scariest, most deliciously frightening bit of male testosterone I've ever experienced in my life."
I spent much of Tuesday brushing up my Howlin' Wolf impersonation. Wore my loudest shirt. To no avail. Bonnie didn't see me.
If the above sounds a bit fruity, it's only part of the story. She can do raw, but she also comes across as kind and compassionate: a campaigner for social justice, supports poorer artists, treasures her friends, acknowledges her band and roadies, values other musicians. She must know everybody (the list of her collaborations never ends), and if they need a class singer or guitarist, they call for Bonnie. Effortlessly - or so it appears - at the top of her game. And I found out last night that she's very funny.
The audience comprised many of my age, inevitably. Conversation with those around me revealed that we'd all followed the same bands and players for 50 years. The man in front said: "We've been so lucky to live through this period of musical history." True. I'm grateful.
Wednesday 7th June
Back from the nostalgic visit to Newhaven in East Sussex and a 24-hour hop to Dieppe.
The weekend was planned for Sarah and her brother Kevin to return to the scene of their childhood holidays, spent in a caravan called Gracie on Farmer Bowles's field behind the Newhaven cliffs and on the pebble beach below. They and their mother Sheila spent six weeks there every summer, with father Jack coming down for the weekends after he'd finished work in the Wimbledon NatWest bank. Electricity supplied by an "accumulator", lighting by gas, washing in the sea except for a weekly visit to the public baths.
I then hijacked the adventure by suggesting a ferry trip to Dieppe for a fish dinner on the Saturday night. How much time do you need in Newhaven? More on that as we progress. I draw my conclusions at the end.
We've done some Internet digging. This is how the campsite and its shop looked (the second picture courtesy of Francis Frith, and others below) back in the day:
Did we find it? You know the answer. Farmer Lewis Bowles (born in Dorset in 1896, died 1986) had, I hope, a happy retirement. Meeching Court Farm is now a gated community of 156 dwellings called Newhaven Heights, run by nationwide Berkeleyparks ("located in 21 counties throughout England and Wales, developing park home living since 1955") for the over-50s. On a mid-afternoon tour of the estate on a hot sunny day, I counted one person outside.
The beach promenade and cafe drew crowds in the 1960s:
The promenade is still there ... as a car park. The sandy beach is shut. The cafes didn't do any trade last weekend.
Kevin has written:
"A bit of research has revealed that Newhaven's concrete seafront area is owned by a French company based in Rouen - Newhaven Port and Properties. They are the people who closed access to the sandy beach, much to the ire of locals. Neither the company nor the Town Council can afford to repare the steps, and anyway the sea in that area is said to be unsafe for swimming because of pollution from the ferry operations."
Before I move on, a couple of positives. The Hope Inn is still going at the seafront; we had a decent fish-and-chip lunch on Friday. At the other end of Fort Road is the excellent West Quay Cafe. It was bouncing shortly after 8.30am on Saturday morning as we tucked into a full-cooked before the next stage of our journey. We met a retired couple from nearby Seaford waiting like us before opening time; they breakfast there three times a week.
On we go to the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry, the Côte d'Albâtre.
Transmanche Ferries it says, so you'd think with that and the name of the ship it would be French. No, it's Danish: acquired, owned and operated now by logistics parent Det Forenede Dampskibs-Selskab (DFDS), translated as "The United Steamship Company", because it was founded in 1866 with the merger of the then three biggest Danish steamship firms. The Côte d'Albâtre was built in 2005 by De Hijos De J Barreras De Vigo, Spain. No English involvement at all.
I've not been on a ferry for over 20 years. It was a treat. Wonderful not to pass through an airport. I'd forgotten just how much I enjoy the experience, above all being on deck to witness departure and arrival manoeuvres at the ports. Comfortable seating, decent bar and restaurant (our visit slightly shadowed by a gaggle of vocal British lorry-drivers). Competent and friendly administration at both ends, free parking (we travelled as foot passengers) right outside the Newhaven terminal building.
I was amused by one sign. Pre- or post-Brexit? A kinder migration policy?
Dieppe has an active seafront. Not a tourist-trap jewel, but popular and well-used. Later, on Sunday, we walked along the promenade, shared with early morning joggers and cyclists, friends in conversation, concessionaires opening up their stalls. There's an international kite-flying festival: Dieppe Capitale du Cerf-Volant.
Back to our arrival. A short taxi ride to our large, airy and tasteful Airbnb apartment in the centre. Ablutions and out for early evening drinks at the half-timbered Café des Tribunaux in Place du Puits-Salé, "Salt Well Square".
Now to my one error of organisation. The fish dinner. I didn't realise until we got home how much this had represented the pinnacle of the visit to me, particularly as Kevin is a committed gourmet. I'd earmarked a couple of promising places: the reciprocally-named Le New Haven and Le Turbot (and other fish, I presume). However, I didn't book, partly in an attempt to back off from over-orchestrating what was not really my weekend, and also because Tripadvisor indicated an array of options; we could stroll and I could let the others make the decision.
When we got to Le New Haven, it looked great - and it was full, even shortly after 7pm. Never mind. The restaurant is in a parade of fish eateries on the harbourside Quai Henri IV and we ate acceptably at another.
I got up early the following morning and went in search of croissants. I found two boulangers open at 7am (queue already formed) - yes, on a Sunday. Delicious.
Conclusions. Uncomfortable. Newhaven and Dieppe are 75 miles apart. The same sea, the same white-cliff geology. Yet one town is sadly run-down, the other prosperous and charming. There's almost nowhere to dine in the former, an embarrassment of choice in the latter. Newhaven High Street offers poor retail opportunities; Grande Rue in Dieppe has many, most of them local independents, very few chain stores. I'm baffled. Why should this be? Regretfully, the old slur comes into my mind: "What's the best thing about Newhaven? The ferry to Dieppe."
I'll finish with one story in which the poor old English port has the edge.
Wikipedia has lists of "notable people" for both Dieppe - about 35 - and Newhaven - only 7. However, one of those associated with Newhaven is a famous pastry chef:
I leave the explanation to the Sussex Express of 22 May 2013:
"The Vietnamese Ambassador Vu Quang Minh presented Newhaven with a three foot high bronze statue of Ho Chi Minh last weekend.
"It celebrated the links between the town and Ho Chi Minh, who worked as a pastry chef on the Newhaven to Dieppe ferry, before his rise to power.
"Hopes are high this could mark the beginning of a closer relationship between the port town in East Sussex and Vietnam in South East Asia.
"The Mayor of Newhaven Julie Carr said: 'This lovely, enjoyable event marked the beginning of what we hope will be a long and fruitful friendship between Newhaven and Vietnam, resulting in exciting business, tourism, educational and cultural opportunities for the town. This could significantly contribute to the regeneration of Newhaven.'"
I've just had a thought. Three years ago none of this would have been possible. These pages were then titled "Coronavirus Blog". We'd reached the milestone of 40,000 UK Covid-related deaths. I had no confidence that we might escape the virus's clutches. The roll-out of vaccines lay six months ahead.
Thursday 1st June
Suspending the blog for a few days as I head off on a brief excursion, to include, I hope, a fish dinner in Dieppe. I was ready with all manner of gloomy observations to make today when I was surprised by the gentle humour of "Vilnissimo" cartoons. Based in Newent, Gloucestershire. A much better au revoir. Here's a selection (click to enlarge any):
Visit the website for many more:
Wednesday 31st May
On and on and on ...
Tuesday 30th May
A couple of local "fails".
First from the Green Party, the latest newsletter to drop on the doormat.
This was the second headline:
Hmmm. It can't be a big story, can it? Dead quiet. Or is this their voter demographic? Voices of support from the grave?
[OK, it's about a better future for the chapel in the graveyard at the top of town, a lovely spot with an unparalleled view of the hills, right across to the River Severn. Also "plans for cameras to monitor the cemetery's wide variety of wildlife".]
Meanwhile, Waitrose had a meltdown over the weekend. Little veg available due to a "distribution problem".
In fact, it wasn't local, but national. Not a shortage of supplies at depots, nor of lorry-drivers, but ... computer said no. A system update was delayed which prevented products from being picked for delivery in the warehouses.
Aha! An AI software module that shot itself in the foot? Stick to homo sapiens, Waitrose!
In the Stroud store's defence, they put a management person on the door to apologise for and explain what had happened. They also issued a voucher at the checkouts. I went in three times over the long weekend, mostly to get the free newspaper, so have these:
Beneath the large-print promise is the condition:
A bit cheap, I think. The idea of having to spend more - rarely do I reach £30 at a visit, maybe just at Christmas and Easter - to get the £5 seems counter to the spirit of an apology, their "little thank you from us to you".
One last thing and then I'm done (I can't believe I'm writing about shopping again). As I've said here before, my veg comes from Stancombe Beech Farm up the road (no supply glitches from field to shop, scant computer dependence) so I was unaffected by the Waitrose malfunction - and therefore undeserving of my £5 voucher, I suppose. When I first found out about the problem on Saturday morning I rang up the farm to suggest they put somebody in the Waitrose car park with a sign, a killing to be made. Farmer Ashley Dickenson said they were inundated - the thought had already got around.
Monday 29th May
More news from Europe, this time Austria. Nikko has been spending the weekend in Velden am Wörthersee, a popular lakeside holiday resort - in a sea-free country you have to get your water fix inland. A train ride down from Vienna towards the mountains and the Italian border. His girlfriend Ahoo had an art exhibition in the town, so they were put up in a hotel overlooking the lake. [Writer's note: verb tense uncertainty issue here, as I'm not sure whether they're still there or have already gone home.]
During a stroll on the front, they spotted this, "Sunday service on the water" as Nikko called it:
It's clearly a popular ministry. Kirchenschiff means "nave" or "transept". Here's the same 2023 publicity taken from the website, promoting Saturday Geistliche Abendmusik ("Spiritual Evening Music") and Sunday morning open air GottesDienst ("Church Service"), and worship in progress.
Nikko's WhatsApp messages and photos have pulled at the heart strings. As he said, "only an hour and half's drive to Udine!" Indeed, I often made the reverse trip in 1975/6/7, up the old Strada Statale SS13, also named the Pontebbana because the town of Pontebba is at the northern end before you cross the Austrian border.
Here's a Google Earth map (3-country junction, borders in yellow: Italy, Austria and Slovenia), with Udine at the bottom left and Velden am Wörthersee top right. It's littered with stamping-ground place names (you'll really have to click/zoom to see the detail): Cividale just east of Udine, scene of the splendid wine festival and one of my favourite places in the world; Kobarid (in Italian, Caporetto) over the border in Slovenia (then Yugoslavia), where I'd go on a Saturday for half-price meat; Bovec, the site of a memorable New Year's Eve in 1975 at the Hotel Kanin (the name taken from the mountain behind, also marked on the map); Tarvisio, from which I coined the expression "Tarvisio Bus-Driver's Foot", derived from the twitchy - yet persistent and rhythmic - accelerator control of the said early morning ski-coach driver; and Villach, minutes from Velden am Wörthersee and whose significance to me I will explain below.
Those white-marked peaks have a special place in my memory. On a clear day you can see them from Udine, indeed from further away to the south in the Bassa Friuli, even from Venice. I vividly recall the moment I first saw them in late November 1975, when the sun came out after the dispiritingly grey and dismal days following my arrival. I'd never lived anywhere near mountains. "Wow", I thought, "this will be interesting." And it was.
So ... Villach. One late Sunday evening, after a day spent with my friend Gowan in Venice, I caught the last train out of Mestre to get back to Udine. It was the "Romulus", the Rome to Vienna express, which incidentally passed right behind the tall embankment wall opposite my flat. As I was tired, I climbed into the overhead luggage rack to sleep. Of course, I slept right through Udine. The next thing I knew an Austrian border guard was prodding me with a rifle, demanding that I get down. I didn't have my passport with me - it wasn't in the plan to go to Vienna - so he was less than pleased. He put me on the Italy-bound platform - yes, it was Villach station - with instructions to get on the first train back to Udine. It didn't come for hours, probably the early morning milk train. I got home about 6am.
Should you be interested, I've written - with contributions from friends - about all this in a memoir titled O Ce Biel, the name taken from the first line of the unofficial Friuli region's anthem O Ce Biel Cjiscjel a Udin, "What a beautiful castle at Udine". The plan when writing it was to get all this old stuff out of my system so that I could stop boring people with the stories. Oh dear, it doesn't seem to have worked. One word from Nikko and I'm off again. Anyway, here's the memoir:
Sunday 28th May
I said yesterday in discussing AI that my concerns were not for me but for the next generations.
I'm not sure I should worry about son Ben. If you live substantially off-grid, how would AI ever get its mitts on you? His present home is a traditional Basque farmhouse on a hill outside Bilbao. It's squatted. Indeed it's not clear who and where the owners are, or even if it's owned. No rent. All the utilities are connected, but no billing takes place - at least, no demands ever reach Ben. Land to grow vegetables, chickens for eggs.
Yes, it looks scruffy - or shall we more generously say rustic? In mitigation, brother Nikko - whose hygiene standards are considerably higher than ours; on one visit to Stroud he went into town and returned with the gift of a new toilet brush (oh, the shame!) - has stayed there and given it a clean bill of health.
AI doesn't impinge on simple pleasures. Ben requested a cheese-making book for his birthday:
He sent pics yesterday of his first venture, making féta. Here are some of the steps.
AI is a threat created and delivered by technology. Steer clear of that and it ain't gonna get ya. There you are, problem solved.
Saturday 27th May
Conscious of growing public awareness of and concern about AI, I've been stashing away relevant cartoons in my when-I-have-a-moment folder. Here's a selection I've found so far. Not only by the familiar British cartoonists in response to our national news but also from further afield.
From what we see here, why are we scared?
It all surely starts with the old anxiety about people being replaced by robots, becoming redundant, not being required any more. It's a big thing in a world where we often define ourselves by our work, paid or unpaid; it underpins our sense of usefulness and worth.
This fear intensifies when we get to thought. Not just doing, a machine taking over a practical function, but thinking ... that we can be out-thought by a non-human device, or replaced as thinkers (cf. Rodin above). It gets worse - this was expressed by Geoff Hinton when he recently quit Google - if you consider the multiplier effect, that you can link and scale up limitless intelligent devices to achieve greater speed and complexity of thought than we mortals can possibly achieve. It's one thing to lose our physical preeminence - but to lose our minds as well?
Then there's the what-if-we-don't-know, that we can't see the activity of AI. Like the robot above telling you that it's not a robot. Or the optician who believes that he's in command by running the eye test when actually his client knows that it's the tester who's going to die.
Falsification. Lack of authenticity. The painting ascribed to an artist that is really an AI creation. The convincing student dissertation produced by a content generator, undetectable to the human examiner. As a slight diversion, while we're on this subject, and because today has involved cartoons, I noticed yesterday that the Cartoon Movement - an online platform bringing together professional editorial cartoonists from all over the world - has joined a campaign to demand that media outlets refrain from using AI-generated content in their publications. Here's the logo:
Things are not what they appear to be. We don't know if they are or they aren't. It's like solid ground crumbling beneath our feet. Or a descent into madness, an AI-induced dementia.
There's the force-for-good-or-evil debate - one that's as old as time. Have the motorcar and the computer given more than they've taken away? The human race has made some abject cock-ups; could AI do a better job? One of the cartoons I found suggested that it might:
The underlying disquiet is about loss of control. Our core human assumption has always been that we're in charge, for better or worse. Is that about to pass? Our evolutionary process - see the from-ape-to-robot cartoon above - will conclude as the artificial ousts the natural. Game over for us primates.
Am I bovvered? Possibly, but for future generations. I will almost certainly escape AI's grimmest manifestations - if that's what they turn out to be.
Friday 26th May
Yesterday I promised (threatened?) more of Tina. So here we go. There's a lot: photos, tweets, video. Pick what grabs you. At least you should be Tina-ed out by the end and will be able to let her rest in peace.
Tina Turner made everybody smile. The voice, the songs, the hair, the legs, the outfits, the stage presence, the survivor ... the radiance. She couldn't dance for toffee, but we loved her strut just the same. The volume and intense warmth of the tributes pouring in since Wednesday evening have left me in no doubt just how big a talent and phenomenon she was. "Global superstar" is a term tarnished by overuse, but it unequivocally applies to her. She packed out huge stadia from Amsterdam to Rio. Right now you could probably hear somebody humming a chorus from one of the hits anywhere in the world.
She kept illustrious musical company and was usually at the centre:
That's right, against all the odds Keith is the last one standing.
The Twittersphere has been the preferred forum for paying homage (aside: it still sadly remains THE vehicle, unlike Mastodon where I've seen nothing). Tributes above all from her peers: rock, soul and musicjourno royalty:
Going back to the early days, here's Janis Joplin rooting for Tina on the Dick Cavett (what a numpty ... you'll see why) show in 1969:
Time for performance action. Quite lengthy chunks, so you may want to dip in and out.
She could make an entrance. Here she is arriving at the Divas Live charity concert at New York's Beacon Theatre on April 13th, 1999. Out of the limo and on to the stage for "Simply the Best" (5 minutes 38 seconds):
This is the all-time showstopper at the Reunion Arena, Dallas, Texas on 28th October 2000. She invites devoted fan Donovan on stage to assist with "Proud Mary" (11 minutes 48 seconds):
I'll leave the final words to Tina, in a 2019 BBC interview with the then arts editor Will Gompertz (shortened version, 5 minutes 13 seconds):
"Thoroughly happy" ... "Death is not a problem for me, I really don't mind leaving."
Thursday 25th May
Where else can I start? This is a shock.
The tributes are pouring in. More to come from me, maybe tomorrow.
Meanwhile - no shock - this is what I originally wrote for today. It's a cruel contrast. We've lost the radiant, life-affirming Tina ... yet this scumbag just won't go away.
He was in Las Vegas yesterday at the SCALE Global Summit:
35 minutes, eh? For how much?
What's SCALE all about?
Money, right? Where rich people meet other rich people and make even more money.
Wednesday 24th May
The English novelist Martin Amis died last Friday.
This portrait by photographer Ulf Andersen stared out at me from Monday's article in The Guardian by Lisa Allardice titled "Damn, that fool can write!" - a quote from Irish writer and Amis fan Anne Enright.
It's an interesting face. Patrician, contrary, sensitive, sensual, a little seedy, dissolute? No wonder he's been called the Mick Jagger of literature. I was intrigued.
Since Monday I've ploughed through yards of tribute, obituary and review. A little explosion has gone off in my head, something hitherto buried or dormant. I've never been a great reader despite English and History being my strongest subjects at school and studying English Literature at Cambridge. In truth, I did almost anything but study English at Cambridge, burnt-out from intense study at school and mind-blown by a gap year spent roaming the USA just post-Woodstock. Amis was one of the "Class of '83", those honoured by the Cambridge-based Granta literary magazine in its inaugural "Best of Young British Novelists" list, alongside others such as William Boyd, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan. I was only dimly aware of Granta while an undergraduate; in my defence it languished in the doldrums during the early 1970s due to financial difficulties and student apathy - including my own. I was more familiar with the Granta pub on the River Cam near Coe Fen.
His first novel, The Rachel Papers, was published in 1973, the year of my graduation. It passed by me, then otherwise occupied. He was only three years my senior; he has been a contemporary, we shared 70 years of life. In that time I've been aware of his work, but no more. As my grandmother once said of Belgium (actually, I'd been talking about Bolton, but she misheard), "I don't know Belgium, Charles, but I know OF it."
I've never read an Amis book and now feel compelled to do so. Yesterday I logged on to the Gloucestershire Libraries website and reserved three of his works: Money (1984, based on Amis's experience as a script writer on the feature film Saturn 3), London Fields (1989 comic murder mystery) and The Second Plane (2008, on the subject of the 9/11 attacks, terrorism and Muslim radicalisation).
I'm excited. His friend Rushdie said Amis was unique; "it was unwise to try to imitate him." I've come to him late, indeed post mortem. Rushdie reassures me: "He used to say that what he wanted to do was leave behind a shelf of books - to be able to say: 'From here to here, it's me.'" I can look forward to working my way along the shelf.
The library website revealed that there was one novel available in Stroud, but it couldn't be reserved. I went down there and spoke to a librarian. She said it was in the "Fasttrack" section which contains books that can only be borrowed for a week. We went over there and couldn't find it. She suggested I look at the adjoining "Returns" shelf, as it can indicate popular choices. There was Klara and The Sun by Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro - who was also a member of the "Class of '83". "OK", I thought, "that'll do." And took it home.
Some proper reading after years of uncommitted dalliance. A new direction - or is it a re-awakening? - in my later years.
Amis said of writing: "It seems to me a hilariously enjoyable way of spending one's time." In a small and modest way, I recognise that. Although I'd incline towards "absorbing". As with riding Yellie the bike round town, it takes me out of myself.
Tuesday 23rd May
Warm weather, out and about in the sunshine, trips planned to northern France and Corsica ... and the Tories on the run? The mood is lighter. It's not just me, is it?
Witnessing the last seven years has been an oppressively long haul. Can we really see the electorate beginning - the local elections said yes - to reject the meanness, disdain for probity in public life, support of vested interests, rules-for-them-but-not-for-us, Brexit insanity ... of a rotten-to-the-core Conservative party?
The concern is whether an opposition can really stick it to the Tories. We have endured so many missed opportunities to bury them. Starmer is terrified of alienating any and every voter, dares not present bold early plans that would clearly lay out the path to a fairer, kinder, more decent Britain. The risk of such a lack of clarity and courage is that you squander this pivotal moment to put the big things right, at precisely the time when the public may really want to welcome change, a departure from sleaze and inequality.
At a local level I'm worried. Last year I was dismayed by Starmer's rejection of the then Stroud District Council leader Doina Cornell's application to stand as the next Labour general election candidate. Highly respected - and much written about in this blog last year (if you're interested, click on the "2022" heading at the top and search the page for "Doina"). A waste - although she's now very active as Stroud Migrant Champion.
Simon Opher was selected as the safe - unlikely to offend - choice. I wrote here 10 days ago about his first pre-election flyer and its bodged (QR code and web URL failure) invitation to take part in a survey: 👉
He did reply to my by-return-of-post email - I thought they might like to know right away that their IT was buggered - informing him of the error ... but over five days later:
"Sorry about all this. I think the initial qr code on the first outcard do not now connect. We have printed new ones now. Would you like a link to the survey by email."
Great. The card on which you spent campaign funds and carefully put through my door doesn't work. And ... ok, I guess email is meant to be quick and dirty, but I reckon communication to a prospective voter should be accurate and grammatical. Was he in a rush? No time to read through, even once, what he'd written? Case doesn't matter? Can't be bothered with a question mark? It bodes ill.
I confirmed twice (no answer in six days to the first attempt) that I'd like to receive the survey link by email. He responded:
"Sorry I'm still trying to get the link from regional office. I'll send as soon as I receive."
Saints preserve us. If he doesn't get his act together, the Greens hack off their usual chunk of the anti-Tory vote, the Lib Dems return to the fray - they withdrew in 2019 - and incumbent Siobhan Baillie successfully re-woos the young farmers down by the River Severn ... I can't bear to think about it.
Nationally, what might we get? Prevailing wisdom says:
Oh dear, I started out all positive. I suppose that the Tories are at least getting squeezed.
Monday 22nd May
Much as I applaud this weekend's Stroud food festival ... oh, to be in Bilbao. Son Ben has been making pintxos and of course sending us the pics (click to enlarge any).
Similar to tapas, Basque pintxos are traditionally served on a small slice of bread with a toothpick that pierces them through the middle. Pintxo means "spike" or "thorn". The Spanish verb pinchar means "puncture". The term has broadened out to refer to any small and tasty snack. The Casco Viejo or old town of Bilbao is crammed with bars serving them, as is the large Ribera market overlooking the river Nervión.
Octopus, potato purée and pimentón:
Octopus and prawn skewers:
Egg mayonnaise, prawn and olive skewers:
Deep fried chard stems stuffed with ham and cheese:
Tuna mayonnaise and red pepper tortilla:
Looking at these has made up my mind. Given that Ben is unlikely to return to this country any time soon and my heart lies in Europe, I'm going to have to visit much more often. The same goes for Nikko in Vienna and my friends in Friuli.
Sunday 21st May
Yesterday morning the food festival was in full flow in Stroud. Town closed to traffic, party atmosphere, warm sunshine, street food, at least one dodgy stall name. I did a tour on Yellie the electric bike.
In the afternoon to grandson Marlie's post-birthday party for friends, first at Dursley pool and then for pizza at the wacky "Ionian" Greek-Italian restaurant on the banks of the A38 south of Gossington; you can see more detail and photos from our visit last year here: 👉. I'm pleased that they're still going, as they were under threat from Stroud District Council. Maybe our petition helped?
It's weird that as soon as you feel the sun on your back you can't remember winter anymore.
Saturday 20th May
Reasons to be cheerful. The 52% is shrinking by the minute.
Sadly, if anyone could screw it up ...
Friday 19th May
It's here again.
Talks, demonstrations - not that kind, the Public Order Act will see them off 😡 - and, of course, food and drink everywhere. Outlets open at 4pm today, from 10am tomorrow and Sunday. The Farmers Market runs as normal on Saturday from 9am to 2pm.
Here's the map (click to enlarge):
It'll be busy - the weather is set fair - particularly in Fawkes Place to the side of the Subscription Rooms, where the street food vans are found. Here are two photos from last year:
Here's the full programme guide:
Granddaughter Lola and friend Ava went down to Fawkes Place in 2022 and bought the place up (see my report and more photos of last year's event here: 👉).
Thursday 18th May
Grandson Marlie was nine on Tuesday. We had a gathering of family and friends at his house in Bristol.
What do you organise for a boy who's captivated by world maps and flags? When he's with us in Stroud he draws them for hours. A whole lot better than a screen addiction, particularly as he loves the associated facts and figures. I've learnt masses from him.
The results end up covering the wall of the staircase up to the first floor:
His mother Ellie asked me to write a country quiz for the party. The participants would range in age from 9 to 79. Quite daunting to make it right for everybody.
Fancy a go? Here are the first 15 questions:
Here are the answers:
How did you get on?
Wednesday 17th May
Tuesday 16th May
A moment of quiet gratitude yesterday. Hot chocolate outside a café in town in peace and warmth. Not a car in sight, no oppressive bustle, sun on my face. It's not Tuscany, there was no Greek harbour-front promise of kalamári and retsina, but it's hard not to like a place where nobody bothers you, characters abound and you can see the hills from dead centre of the High Street.
Monday 15th May
I keep an odds-and-ends folder on my computer where I put nuggets of interest that are not going to appear immediately in this blog. The plan is to return there when I'm less exercised by other pressing matters of church and state. I rarely do. Today is an exception. Sooner than I expected.
This has been nagging at me for five days, a phenomenon thrown up by nature, yet other-worldly, miles away - literally and spiritually - from the woes of Westminster, a welcome counter-balance.
Last Wednesday The Guardian ran a short piece on sound expert Jeff Rice. He's been recording a tree. Or a group of trees:
"Known as Pando - Latin for 'I spread' - the 47,000 genetically identical quivering aspens in south-central Utah are considered to be a single organism, with the 'trees' actually branches thought to be connected by a shared root system. A vast living entity, thousands of years old, that covers 43 hectares (106 acres) with a dry weight of about 6m kg, making it, putatively, the Earth's heaviest living organism."
So, if you fancy a little diversion, look no further than the "Friends of Pando" (FoP) website - click on the emblem:
Or here are the FoP guide and map .
Sunday 14th May
It has a kind of symmetry, doesn't it? Sweden will host Eurovision next year, 50 years after Abba triumphed. Appropriate flag colours too.
Finland's second-placed Käärijä - Jere Pöyhönen at birth - deserved the top spot in my opinion by virtue of having eight dots above his stage name - more dots than letters - with a further four in his real one. It must be a record.
The first extraordinary thing about the contest is that an object of ridicule has become an international phenomenon and an expression of political solidarity. A royal even played the piano. Not content with last weekend, she had to get in on the act.
The second stand-out feature is that the competition is one of only two ways post-Brexit Britain can bear to collaborate with Europe. The other of course is war.
No tears shed for the UK's Mae Muller, I'm afraid. Dismal topic and lyrics.
When you said you were leaving
To work on your mental health
You didn't mention the cheating, yeah
You kept that one to yourself
I got so mad, was gonna
Cuss you out outside your house
For everyone to see
Wanted to trash your Benz, tell all your friends
How cruel you were to me, to me, to me
Nitpicking aside, it was a joyful hilarious event.
Saturday 13th May
Friday 12th May
This dropped on the doormat yesterday. Click to enlarge, also for the email further down.
Glad to see that an opposition to the Tories is already out on the streets. Decent sentiments, if tick-box obvious. I was sorry to miss the canvassers, because I had questions for them ... position on Brexit, Starmer U-turns, "Blair 2.0" ideological cleansing of the party. Luckily for them I wasn't there to answer the door.
I thought, "At least I can do the survey." It didn't go well, and I told him so:
Mind you, if they're struggling with IT comms, will he get the email?
Inauspicious start, eh?
Talking of surveys ...
Thursday 11th May
Just over three weeks ago on Wednesday 19th April, I wrote about the anger felt by the Irish world-wide community towards cartoonists, mostly from the UK, who employed stereotypes - leprechauns, stepdance, pints of Guiness, cod Irish accents - to mock Joe Biden's visit to Ireland, particularly to his ancestral home of Ballina. See my report here: 👉
Last Tuesday was Europe Day, the anniversary of the Schuman Declaration signed on 9th May 1950. The declaration, presented by French foreign minister Robert Schuman, proposed the creation of a European Coal and Steel Community, whose members would pool coal and steel production. The ECSC (founding members: France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) was the first of a series of supranational European institutions that would ultimately become today's Union.
Martyn Turner of The Irish Times took the opportunity to recognise Europe Day while taking a swipe at those offending cartoonists. Click to enlarge.
Here are the top two countries in the world in terms of GDP per head of population as stated by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the United Nations. Again, click to enlarge.
That's right, funny old Ireland pushing right up the league table to jostle with the über-Eurocrats. I can testify to the wealth dripping from Luxembourg; see the account of my recent visit here: 👉. Curiously, Robert Schuman was a Luxembourg native, born in the Clausen district of the city in 1886. He seems to have known which way the wind was blowing.
And unshackled, liberated Blighty?
How in 2016 did 52% (of a 72% turnout), in precise numbers 17,410,742 UK voters, manage to make such a great decision? It has transformed the country. Unlike poor Ireland, languishing in the EU.
My Irish correspondent's son took this photo in Dublin two nights ago:
Wednesday 10th May
I woke to a mild internal backlash against my own comments about the coronation, partly prompted by a note from my Irish correspondent, whose observations quoted in these pages on the treatment of Ireland by the English hardly demonstrate a flag-waving royalist devotion: "Whatever the pluses and minuses of the monarchy, I do hope that Charles will continue to speak out about concerns that we all share, e.g. Rwanda. After Johnson, Truss, Sunak and their demented supporters, Charles looks like one of the few safe pairs of hands around."
Stephen Fry, celebrity invitee to the Westminster ceremony, made related remarks on Saturday about the benefit of having a non-elected head of state. Its most likely alternative would be a political appointment, which - roughly - half the population might approve and the other half condemn. Charles will not be plotting personal advancement; he's made it to the top of his own tree. The only measure of his success, the inner sense of a job well done, will be one of which he is acutely aware: service to the nation. The monarch - yes, by an accident of birth, and there's nothing new in the argument - can stand above the putrid self-interest shown by too many of our recent elected representatives. He has already acknowledged that he cannot be so publicly vocal about major issues as he was when Prince of Wales, but it's improbable that he won't seek to influence.
He's going to be here for a while, so we'd better harness his undoubted desire to make a contribution for the good of all. His track record on climate, inter-faith harmony and support for the young is unchallengable. There's not a great deal we can do about him being a privileged toff. I stand by all my comments of yesterday. They come from my dislike of the imbalance and division in our society, of which the monarchy is a visible hereditary example. But there are other more dangerous offenders worthy of our protests.
Time to move on. A planet to save, a general election to be won. I like to think that there has been a brightening of the sky to dissipate the sleaze and incompetence of recent years. The local election results were a start. Trump got nailed yesterday.
The coronation cartoons have continued to dribble in, but they should stop now. I can do without Steve Bell's latest, exploiting the King's - presumably medical - condition of swollen fingers. A cheap shot.
Tuesday 9th May
It's over. You may have noticed that I've been less than reverent about the coronation. We've not watched any of the television coverage in this household except for unavoidable news pieces. There's been little evidence in the People's Republic of Stroud that anything out-of-the-ordinary has been going on. Just a minimal attempt at bunting outside the Bisley House pub opposite which wind and rain blew down in the first hours of Saturday. I have read analysis, although mostly in the left-leaning press. Part of me hasn't wanted to be that grump who doesn't celebrate the history, pageantry and good causes espoused by the monarchy. I have no particular desire to be at odds with friends who draw pleasure from the whole malarkey. But it has made me uncomfortable at best. I try to understand my reaction here.
I don't identify with the royals. I recognise that they live and breathe and experience emotions like the rest of us, but little that they do bears any resemblance to my family. All those big houses on which they've never struggled to pay the mortgage. A flunkey always at hand, even when you have a meltdown over a leaky pen. The Wales trio of children groomed to a honed perfection with wealth and privilege. The adults wear clothes we'd never consider, tweeds and footwear that remind me of what you can glimpse at Cheltenham races, peachy corduroys and hacking jackets. Then the voices and accents. I find it hard to listen to Charles's strangulated vowels.
There's much to admire in the support of good causes. However, it feels like a donation from on high, a guilty obligation of the haves to the have-nots. The royals are locked in a perpetual struggle to connect to the "people" - because their lives are so different, a product of inheritance across the centuries. Little was earned through merit, much more a result of feudal skulduggery. It all goes against my guiding principle of how our country should be run: "private sufficiency and public wealth".
I have difficulty with the echoes of Empire in these events. My lifetime - which matches almost exactly the reign of Charles's mother - has arguably seen a decline in Britain from its perceived position of major world influence. That's only if you see Empire as a touchstone of Britain's Great-ness, if you view strength as dominion over others. Did we have the right to plant a flag in countries round the world in order to realise economic and political advantage? I don't think hanging on to the trappings of the past helps Britain to grow in new directions. I always felt that pre-Brexit we might have lost the Empire but we had gained Europe. Then - I hazard a theory - the very people who cherished all that pink on the map decided to abandon our hard-won place in the union of European states.
The ceremonials were impressively executed, the sense of history to be envied around the world. Charles and Camilla have had their day in the spotlight and - 'though I cringe to look upon Their Weirdnesses - I don't begrudge them that. I'm sure he loves her just as much as the day he married Diana.
Monday 8th May
Top 4 Mastodon toots from my inbox this morning. No comment.
Sunday 7th May
Coronation (and local election) cartoon roundup. Click to enlarge any image (or chart below).
Plus comparative analysis of the cost of European royals from Danilo Supino of Italy's Corriere Della Sera. Detail of how the monarchy is funded in different countries. Published this week, dates of data collection uncertain - Queen Elizabeth II appears in the last list, as does Harry. But you get the idea. Thanks, Mike.
Royal salaries from the public purse:
What does the monarchy cost per citizen head? Assume per annum?
How much does the Buck House operation cost?
How much do the English royals work?
Read the full article - most browsers will offer translation - here: . You could find out why there's a zero against Liechstenstein in the first chart.
Saturday 6th May
Friday 5th May
Overheard in the estimable Cytek bike shop yesterday morning while I was having the brake pads on my Pedego replaced, another customer of my years said to owner Shane, "I don't want any trouble on Ventoux."
That's right. Next week he's leaving St. Malo to ride to Nice, roughly 850 miles (~1,370 kilometres), taking in the 6,263 feet (1,909 metres) provençale Tour de France summit along the way. As you can see, the peak is above the tree line.
Those of you of a certain age may remember the trail-blazing British cyclist Tom Simpson. He died on Ventoux during the thirteenth stage of the Tour on 13th July 1967.
Cycling Today has this account:
"Near the summit of Ventoux, the peloton began to fracture. Simpson was in the front group before slipping back to a group of chasers about a minute behind. He then began losing control of his bike, zig-zagging across the road.
"A kilometer from the summit, Simpson fell off his bike. Team manager Alec Taylor and mechanic Harry Hall arrived in the team car to help him. Hall tried to persuade Simpson to stop, saying: 'Come on Tom, that's it, that's your Tour finished', but Simpson said he wanted to continue. Taylor said, 'If Tom wants to go on, he goes'. Noticing his toe straps were still undone, Simpson said, 'Me straps, Harry, me straps!'
"They got him on his bike and pushed him off. Simpson's last words, as remembered by Hall, were 'On, on, on.' Hall estimated Simpson rode a further 500m before he began to wobble, and was held upright by spectators; he was unconscious, with his hands locked on the handlebars. Hall and a nurse from the Tour's medical team took turns giving Simpson mouth-to-mouth resuscitation before Tour doctor Pierre Dumas arrived with an oxygen mask.
"Simpson was declared dead later that afternoon after being airlifted to Avignon Hospital. According to the autopsy, Simpson had amphetamines and alcohol in his body, which, combined with diarrhoea, oppressive heat and the gradient of Ventoux, contributed to his death."
Shane told me that he's done Ventoux half-a-dozen times. From Sunday he's cycling in the Pyrenees, in June the Dolomites.
I was plotting the flattest route for my 2-mile (3.2 kilometre) journey home on an electric bicycle.
Tuesday 3rd May
So "Godfather of AI" Geoff Hinton - his great-grandfather George Boole invented the eponymous algebra, so he has previous - quit Google and can now speak freely. Some regret about aspects of his work on artificial neural networks, and anxiety that we've reached the tipping point where the computer genuinely becomes brainier than the human.
Hmmm. So anybot could produce this blog, right? In mild panic I thought I'd hunt down and test an online AI content generator. Top of my Google (sans Geoff) search was Toolbaz.com. I asked what it could do with four questions - and post the responses here verbatim. See what you think.
Question 1: "How do I get rid of the Tories?"
"If you're fed up with the Tories, there are a few steps you can take to make a difference. Firstly, you can get involved in local politics and attend rallies, marches, and protests. You can also reach out to your local MP and express your concerns with their voting record and policies. You can also get involved with local grassroots organisations and sign petitions and write letters to your local representatives. You can also join the Labour Party or Green Party and help to promote their policies and values. You can also speak out on social media and be vocal about the issues that matter to you. Finally, you can make sure you are registered to vote, and when the time comes, make sure to cast your ballot and use it as a way to make your voice heard. By taking these steps, you can make a difference and help to get rid of the Tories."
Not bad. A little anodyne, perhaps, all very well-behaved. What about the Molotov option? And the final sentence is childlike in its optimism.
Question 2: "How can I overturn Brexit and return the UK to the EU?"
"The UK's decision to withdraw from the European Union (EU) has left many people feeling disheartened and frustrated. However, the process is far from over and there is still a chance that Brexit can be overturned and the UK can return to the EU. To do this, a number of steps must be taken. First, a motion of no confidence must be passed in the UK Parliament. This motion would put the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, out of office and open the door for a new government to be formed. This new government would be more likely to overturn the decision to leave the EU and return the UK to its previous membership.
"Second, a referendum must be held where the British public can vote on whether or not they want to remain in the EU. This referendum should be open to all British citizens and should include the option to remain in the EU. If the majority of voters opt to remain in the EU, then the UK would be able to apply to rejoin the EU and the process of returning to the EU could begin.
"Finally, the UK government must negotiate a deal with the EU that would be acceptable to both sides. This deal would include the terms of the UK's return to the EU, such as whether or not the UK would be subject to certain EU regulations and laws. Once the deal is agreed upon, the UK government would need to pass legislation in order to officially rejoin the EU.
"These steps are the only way to overturn Brexit and return the UK to the EU. Though it may seem like a difficult and daunting task, with enough public support and political will, it is achievable."
Oh dear, Johnson is still Prime Minister. That's a serious blunder by the data and algorithm custodians. Two PMs later, there is no sign that the government is "more likely to overturn the decision to leave the EU and return the UK to its previous membership." Again, a conclusion of some naivety, although one about which I dream: "it is achievable".
Question 3: "How can I stop the coronation of King Charles III?"
"The coronation of King Charles III is not something that can be stopped. Once the coronation of a new monarch is set in motion, it is virtually impossible to reverse the process. This is because the coronation is a long-established ritual that has been practiced for centuries, and is a symbol of the power and authority of the monarch. However, there are some steps that can be taken to influence the outcome of the coronation. Firstly, it is important to understand the role of Parliament in the coronation process. Parliament has the power to approve or reject the nomination of the new monarch. If the majority of Parliament members do not support the nomination of King Charles III, then they can vote against his coronation. Furthermore, the public can also use their voice to influence the outcome of the coronation. By writing to their local representatives and voicing their opinion, citizens can make their views known and influence the decision-making process. Finally, citizens can also sign petitions, write letters to the media, and take part in protests to show their opposition to the coronation of King Charles III. While it may be impossible to stop the coronation of King Charles III, citizens can still make their voices heard and influence the outcome of the process."
This doesn't cut the mustard. Parliament to "reject the nomination of the new monarch"? That's not going to happen before Saturday, is it? The AI engine hasn't got a grip of timescales; it's just inserted "King Charles III" in the placeholder for "monarch". And people might write "to their local representatives"? To get shot of the royals? Really?
Question 4: "Is there cream in 'spaghetti alla carbonara'?"
"No, spaghetti alla carbonara does not traditionally include cream. This classic Italian dish is usually made with eggs, cheese, pepper, guanciale or pancetta, and either spaghetti or bucatini. The eggs provide a creamy texture to the dish, but cream is not typically used as an ingredient. The eggs are mixed with cheese and added to the pasta and guanciale mixture. The heat from the pasta cooks the eggs and creates a velvety sauce that coats the noodles. The pepper and guanciale add smoky and salty flavors to the dish, making it a favorite among pasta lovers. Although some chefs choose to add cream to the dish, it is not seen as a traditional part of the recipe."
The best of the bunch, although slightly equivocal; there really is no cream involved, period. I'm impressed by the mention of guanciale and pancetta, a cut above the packet of smoked bacon bits from your local supermarket.
Overall, rather plodding and prosaic. I think I can rest easy. My own brain will see me out, like my 70-something garageman Brian down the street is not bothering with EVs. It's the next generation and beyond that's threatened with redundancy.
Which makes me wonder ... can AI yet do humour or irony?
Monday 1st May
Happy Birthday to son Nikko!
Early celebration picnic in Vienna yesterday:
Birthday greetings also to our friend Geraldine 🎂🌼🍾💝
Welcome home and congratulations to the returning peregrinos:
They completed an 85km north-eastern Spanish section of the Camino Francés, from Pamplona to Logroño:
Saturday 29th April
I got back from my Luxembourg trip late on Thursday evening. A delightful reunion with my friend Eddy, whom I met in the early 1970s when he stopped his bus to let me cross St. John's Street, Cambridge.
Over the years I've dropped by. Sarah and I cycled back to Ostende after a visit around 40 years ago. We stayed with Eddy and Diana (who was in Manchester this week supporting her sick brother) on the way to taking son Nikko to Berlin in 2007.
On those occasions I never really had the chance to see the city, but managed it this time. A stroll round the Haute Ville. Coffee and croissants. Elegant shops, many somewhat tokenistic as most people will shop in retail malls outside the centre. Prices to match. I spotted a greengrocer with asparagus at £30 a kilo; it's £9 in Asda. We went down into the Grund, the old quarter located in the deep valley that provided natural defences for the city through its history. Eddy insisted on a pilgrimage to the memorial in the central park for famous Luxembourgish cyclists, including Elsy Jacobs, who became the first ever women's Road World Champion when she won the inaugural race in 1958.
Now, if there's one thing I love when on a trip - if done well - it's public transport. In Luxembourg, it's FREE! Trains, buses and ... the utterly beautiful tram. That's if it's in service. Note the sign in the window. I assume that's not a general policy ;-)
We took some side trips, like out east to Wasserbillig on the Moselle river, the border with Germany. It's the birthplace of Jacques Santer, prime minister from 1984 to 1995 and president of the European Commission from 1995 to 1999. Plying their trade on the river are flat-bottomed cruise boats, like the ones you see in the advert breaks during TV re-runs of "Midsomer Murders", the slots purchased by the programme sponsors because the viewing demographic is old people with disposable income, time on their hands and limited mobility.
On Wednesday we went to Germany on the train, to the lovely Roman city of Trier. You only pay from the border as the train's free in Luxembourg, so we splashed out on first class, riding high on the top deck, lording it above the ordinary punters down below. The 2-hour round-trip ticket cost £10.
The big treat was our only lunch out, at the Oechsle Wein und Fischhaus frequented by Eddy and Diana for years. Very popular, busy even at the early time we chose. You select your meal from a blackboard behind a fresh fish counter (you could probably pick out a fish if you wanted), pay - reasonable; I paid £58 for 2 courses each - and sit down.
Now we come to more thorny matters. Across the big red bridge over the Grund valley from the old Haute Ville is the Euro-area.
These are now half-empty as work-from-home has continued after Covid. Despite their relative youth, these buildings are regularly demolished and replaced with new ones. You can just see the cranes in the lower picture.
Overall there is a building frenzy in progress. Everywhere you look something's going up, particularly new apartment blocks - and I truly mean blocks, square boxes. Eddy maintains that it is speculation against a background of government intent to grow a population of a million (from an estimate of 670,000 today) to service the country's transformation into a (the?) major European commercial and financial hub. Per capita, the country has the highest GDP in the world (grandson Marlie told me this), neck-and-neck with Ireland. Money is everywhere, international banks occupy vast amounts of office space.
You really wouldn't want to send Brexiteers to the city. It would pour fuel on the fire of their abhorrence of the EU, its wealth and bureaucracy. Mind you, Eddy tells me Nigel Farage is still taking his MEP pension.
I put this to my friend Chris in Udine when we had an email exchange yesterday. He worked until his retirement from the University of Trieste on European and worldwide projects concerning language and translation. He wrote:
"Years ago I was in Luxembourg for the university on an EU research project. At lunchtime I was amazed by the sheer numbers of Eurofolk crowding into the canteen (restaurant would be a more accurate term) for their free slap-up meal. I must admit, however, that through such EU funded research projects I travelled all over the continent all expenses paid. I like to think we did some good as we researched and promoted audio description for the blind, but there was also a holiday element in there. Not that any of this moves me an inch from 'remaining'; the overriding purpose of the EU in terms of solidarity and collaboration is what is important."
Yep, I go with that. You can't make an omelette ... and so on. Union comes at a price. Separation is costing the UK much more, and not just in cash.
Sunday 23rd April
Early morning alarms too for our brief European ventures this week. My trip to Luxembourg to see friend Eddy and cosy up to some corrupt Eurocrats, Sarah's to walk a stretch of the Camino from Pamplona with son Ben. Blog on hold.
Saturday 22nd April
Just for a change, some of the bad guys have had their comeuppance.
Dave Brown on Dominion v Fox:
Ella Baron and Ben Jennings on the bully:
Kostas Koufogiorgos: "He did the same with Twitter."
We need to nail this one next. Christian Adams:
Reasons to be cheerful? It's not just been the last week that has allowed us some schadenfreude. We've seen the departure - for the moment - of stand-out bogeymen who have cast an unwelcome shadow over public life during the three years of this blog: Trump, Johnson, Hancock, Bolsonaro to name four. There are doubtless others queuing up to replace them. Witness the substitution of Silvio Berlusconi with Giorgia Meloni. It would be good to nip them in the bud. Do we have the collective awareness, will and clout?
Wednesday 19th April
I reckon I was light in my comment on Sunday that the cartoonists were guilty of "well-worn cliché" in their depiction of Joe Biden in Ireland. My Irish correspondent has pointed me at responses from angered critics. First, from the US-based Irish Central website and Dublin's EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum:
Nathan Mannion, Head of Exhibitions and Programmes at EPIC, said to Irish Central:
"For some time the museum has campaigned to highlight the absurdity of the outdated and tired tropes so often associated with Ireland and its diaspora. Our rich cultural heritage cannot be reduced to a handful of common negative stereotypes and it is sad to see caricatures that would not look out of place in a 'Harper's Weekly' or 'Punch' cartoon in the 19th century still being propagated today."
Sinn Féin Seanad leader Niall Ó Donnghaile tweeted:
"The President of America doesn't even drink alcohol - but sure nothing beats lazy stereotypes & a bit of good aul paddywhackery eh @thetimes?"
Cambridge Labour Councillor Mairéad Healy, a native of Derry, tweeted:
"British broadsheet papers wheeling out their predictable racist Irish tropes. Ah well, it's better to be envied than to be pitied. #Specialrelationship."
The "trope" persists deeply to this day. Tomiwa Owolade, in an Observer article on 15th April titled "Racism in Britain is not a black and white issue", commented on the 2021 Evidence for Equality National Survey carried out by academics from the universities of St Andrews, Manchester and King's College London:
"The survey found that 40% of white Irish people reported experiencing some form of racist assault in their lives. This means that white Irish people are more likely to say they have experienced prejudice in Britain than ... all Asian ethnic groups."
Here's the accompanying graphic:
However, the last laugh lies firmly with Biden and Ireland. Here's the headline from Nick Ferris's New Statesman article of 14th April ...
... and comment from bagpiper and Burnley supporter Alastair Campbell:
Monday 17th April
Out of the blue this morning, a cartoon (click to enlarge) in Punch by Trevor Holder, who drew under the pseudonym of "Holte", from 1984:
Should I recommend this to the Royal College of Nursing?
Sunday 16th April
Cousin Joe has left now, Ballina drenched in Irish-American lurve. He certainly brought the cartoons out, often built round a well-worn cliché, sometimes a trademark gaffe. It's not difficult to spot Biden's allegiances and the satirists didn't miss. Not even $6 billion can convince the DUP. Obama - guilty of the geographical blunder at COP26 in Glasgow: "since we're in the Emerald Isles here" - warned the UK against Brexit. His vice-president has even more cause to distrust a post-referendum UK; Biden's beloved Republic is a valued member of the EU. Sunak and his europhobic mob don't fit the bill.
Saturday 15th April
Sardegna-envy off the scale with the latest photos (click to enlarge any) from Ben and Soph: visit to Canyon Gorropu, festival in Aggius, Bitti and its wall paintings, the coast at La Caldetta.
Friday 14th April
Joe Biden fever will reach its peak this evening in Ballina, Co. Mayo, as he addresses the faithful at St. Muredach's Cathedral:
Thursday 13th April
Notable absentees from the Easter clan gathering in Stroud - Nikko and daughter Ellie return to Vienna today - have been son Ben and partner Soph. Suffering in Sardegna. They took the Grimaldi Lines ferry from Barcelona to Porto Torres on Good Friday and are now touring the island in their van. Our family WhatsApp group is notified regularly with progress. Click any image to enlarge.
Off the boat and due south for a mooch round the west coast city of Alghero, where a variant of Catalan - Algherese - is spoken; see the bit on dialects at the bottom of today's post. The city has been ruled by many: Phoenicians, Genoese, the Crown of Aragon (the period when many Catalan families arrived and settled), Spanish Habsburgs, the House of Savoy.
Back north for an unusual stay in the abandoned mining town of Argentiera. The mines, noted predominantly for silver (hence the name, doh!) and zinc, were exploited as far back as Roman times, passed into Belgian hands in the 1870s, mini-boomed in the 1940s and closed in 1963.
Then quite a hike east to the inland hilltop comune of Aggius - only little, a population of just over 1,500 at the September 2014 census:
Following in family tradition, Ben has an interest in European languages. He has sent this fragment of a dizionario comparativo della lingua di Sardegna. Seven dialect equivalents of Italian. Of course, the Sardi say they're all distinct languages. In their defence, some of the variant words in the two-page spread below are strikingly different. But not many.
Jealous, moi? Well, living vicariously anyway 😉
Wednesday 12th April
Grandson Marlie has weathered the rain in the last two days here in Stroud by putting felt tip to paper. Definitely of their time. Check out the apps and their icons. A range of emoji emotions.
Tuesday 11th April
Today's video is a hangover from last week, sent to me by my friend Ian at the peak of the Trump indictment coverage. It's by American comedian Randy Rainbow, titled "The Grumpy Trumpy Felon from Jamaica in Queens". I held back from posting in deference to the Easter festival - too unsavoury a parallel to "risen from the dead". Now the holidays are over and I'm free to do so. It's too clever, witty and rude to waste. Enjoy.
Monday 10th April
How did you get on with the quiz? Here are family and friends results, in no particular order:
Not sure about the last two. Indeed, the top right of the picture is problematic:
Answers/disputes on a postcard, please.
Sunday 9th April
Here's a little quiz to try with family or friends to celebrate the occasion. My friend Doctor Ron sent this out to our old mates WhatsApp group yesterday morning and it kept us busy most of the day. The picture below contains 30 references to pop or rock bands. Can you name them?
Saturday 8th April
Putting the blog second is going quite well. Yesterday was a truly lovely spring day, the sun actually warm on your back. I managed to do some of those pre-Easter jobs in preparation for the family visit: shopping for festive recipes to feed nine today, clearing the shed, hanging out washed bathroom rugs in the sunshine.
The true indicator of re-prioritisation was ... a trip to the estimable Pyke Quarry tip beyond Horsley. That special purgative satisfaction from getting rid of stuff that's been hanging around for ages. Not a huge load - a bag of garden waste, end-of-life toaster, the rancid doormat chosen by the cats as an indoor toilet, that kind of thing - but enough for a mild sense of achievement. With a round trip through the hills against a backdrop of the first flush of green on the trees.
You still have to book a slot according to the Covid rules, but it'll only be a few hours ahead. The website suggests that you familiarise yourself prior to arrival with the published site plan. You may know from these pages that I like a map, or chart, or diagram ...
I feel confident that few other blogs today will showcase a rubbish dump.
Friday 7th April
My Irish correspondent has alerted me to the news that Joe Biden is taking a break from Trump madness to be celebrated by people who love him, at a healthy distance from the Orange Mussolini. He'll make a public address in front of St Muredach's Cathedral in Ballina, Co Mayo (my correspondent's ancestral home, shared with cousin Joe), at 6pm next Friday 14 April as part of his visit to Ireland. Biden's great-great-grandfather, Edward Blewitt, emigrated from the town to the USA over 160 years ago. The Blewitts are still very much part of the Ballina fabric. This year is the 300th anniversary of its foundation as a garrison town in 1723.
Michael Carr has a bar on Garden Street: "We're delighted Joe is coming and we've built this podium for him to make a speech. This is his native street where his family was born."
The Ballina Costume Company is working flat out with scissor, needle and thread in production of American flags to meet the demand from businesses, says Jane Crean: "We've had huge interest during previous visits by Joe Biden but now that he's President of the United States the buzz is off the charts."
Better than this MAGA April Fool's slur:
Thursday 6th April
Trump has brought the cartoonists out in numbers, several of whose work I've not seen before. It surely tells us that the USA is screwed. Not just the UK.
Tuesday 4th April
Sunday 2nd April
April, May, June - my favourite months of the year. I need to take advantage, so I think I'm going to throttle back on this blog. I've said it before, but this time I really do need to be doing other things. Less time at the keyboard, less time scrutinising the dismal antics of the Tory government. I started because of Covid, when we all headed indoors. Now I'd like to be outside more, both physically and spiritually. At the very least, blog after I've done everything else. A faint hope? I'll have to see.
I don't want to be an April Fool. Talking of which, here's my favourite cartoon from yesterday ...
... and a letter from the PM to Just Stop Oil (click to enlarge):
Saturday 1st April
Friday 31st March
Thursday 30th March
Not much to report today except the start of consultation on the local Gloucestershire County Council parking review.
Our street WhatsApp group has livened up. Good news or bad? Fees to be introduced: 1st permit £61.80 per year, 2nd permit £123.60, two permits per household (£30 and £60 for "eco" cars). Nelson Street below us to be one way downhill, not so good for cyclists coming from town. I will watch the debate with interest.
Wednesday 29th March
Dave Brown acknowledges his debt again: "After Goya". Namely to Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes and his painting "Saturno devorando a su hijo", (1819-1823). From the Greek myth of the Titan Cronus (known as Saturn in Roman mythology) eating one of his offspring. Fearing a prophecy from Gaia that predicted he would be overthrown by one of his children, Saturn ate each one at birth.
But with the roles reversed, right?
In 2015 Corbyn appointed Starmer as Shadow Minister for Immigration, a role from which he resigned as part of the wide June 2016 British shadow cabinet protests at Corbyn's leadership. Following Corbyn's win in the 2016 Labour Party leadership election, Starmer accepted the appointment as Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. They did a great job with Brexit, didn't they? What is it about Labour and open goals? Rather than pepper the Tory target staring them in the face, they'd rather have an internal ding-dong.
Tuesday 28th March
Pigs at the trough.
They were elected to govern in our interests. Then abused that privilege - within the "rules", good grief, they need to change - intent on a £10,000-per-day killing to go with the other fruity second/third/fourth job sinecures. Stupid too - that's what greed can do - as they were suckered by Led by Donkeys. The campaigners have made multiple variations of their porky South Korean exposé. I'm going to post just one here of Kwarteng at his interview with Hanseong Consulting, a "boutique advisory firm providing tailored and holistic consultancy services", the smug Chancellor who introduced with despatch-box triumphalism the brilliant mini-budget that tanked the economy for the rest of us. I could have chosen Hancock - too easy - or Sir Graham Brady - custodian of the Conservative Party's soul and integrity? - but Kwasi's unctuous self-promotion is simply too gobsmacking to ignore. The clip is just under ten minutes long but I can guarantee you'll have thrown up within three. Led by Donkeys set the scene first.
Hook, line and sinker. He's actually trying hard to get the job. Salivating at the cash, flattered to be approached? What he doesn't realise is that Sooyeon Lee, Vice President of External Affairs at Hanseong Consulting, is an order of magnitude smarter than him. A stellar performance, canny choice of language and terminology, so much so that Kwarteng pays compliment to her professionalism and manner.
The worry is that we may not see the back of these sleazeballs (I mean the Tories en masse, as neither Hancock nor Brady is seeking re-election). They should be a push-over, revealed in technicolour as corrupt, nest-feathering gold-diggers. Everybody must already have seen too much. But Starmer drops every catch as he tries to "Blair 2.0" sanitise the Labour Party, while Sunak - I always feared that he might have time to turn things around before the next general election - chalks up some wins.
Monday 27th March
Just over ten days ago I wrote about the debt that modern cartoonists owe to artists, illustrators and caricaturists of the past. The example I gave was how Dave Brown had mimicked a famous political cartoon by James Gillray (see here: 👉).
This practice of acknowledging predecessors has turned up a lot this last week, so I'm going to post pairs of artwork, celebrating the link between contemporary satire and its historical inspiration. Click/tap on any to enlarge.
As you might expect, Boris Johnson is the most popular subject. A gift from the cartoon gods. We start at the House of Commons Committee of Privileges, with Peter Brookes:
Got it? Of course you have. "After Yeames" ... the 1878 "And When Did You Last See Your Father?" by William Frederick Yeames, which depicts the son of a Royalist being questioned by Parliamentarians during the English Civil War.
What next for Boris? The evidence is that his followers are slipping away. The Windsor Framework rebellion involved just 22 Tories, including the notable has-beens. He'll be looking for the next gig. Dave Brown has suggestions:
That's right, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. Guessing the source for this is more difficult. It's "The Passing of Arthur" by Hawes Craven, an English theatre scene-painter, dated 1895. The picture title is shared with a piece by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in the narrative poem "Idylls of the King", first published in 1859.
Is Boris facing exile? Andy Davey thinks so:
The acknowledgement is clear at the bottom, Hippolyte(-Paul) Delaroche. The painting is called "Napoléon à Sainte-Hélène", site of his exile from 1815 to 1821.
Then we have Martin Rowson's take on tax, interest rates and the Tories:
Rowson salutes Jimmy Sime, whose photograph "Toffs and Toughs" was taken in 1937 outside the Grace Gates at Lord's Cricket Ground after the Eton vs Harrow cricket match. Very Boris, very Bullingdon.
Finally, we cross the Channel with Andy Davey to the scenes of Macron's pension strife:
"After Delacroix", he says. "La Liberté guidant le peuple" by Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix in 1830:
Karl Marx wrote in 1852: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." As we've finished here with a French event, there's also Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr's oft-quoted epithet from 1849: "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."
Sunday 26th March
I never thought I'd see the day when I'd be writing about a shop - and on the Sabbath. Retail therapy is my least likely choice of go-to activity for improving the quality of life. I hardly buy anything except what's needed for everyday requirements.
Yet here I am ready to devote today's blog to Waitrose. 40 years ago a woman came to dinner who dominated the conversation with supermarket comparisons. I archly nicknamed her "Tesco Mary". Chickens home to roost.
In my defence, Waitrose plays a significant part in daily life. It's our local grocery store (excluding the corner shop), under five minutes away on foot or by bike. I use nearby Stancombe Beech Farm for the mainly veg part of our diet, Sunshine bakery for bread, the estimable Loose in the High Street for dry goods, Broomhalls butcher in Stonehouse for bacon - but Waitrose for everything else. We get free copies of The Guardian and The Observer, which renders a saving of just over £1,000 a year, as we very rarely miss.
What's the story?
"Partner and Chairman" Sharon White - I'm a fan of the Leyton-girl-made-good - is under pressure.
The annual financial results just published for the John Lewis Partnership on 16th March are poor. It made a loss of £79m, against a profit of £181m last year. Waitrose sales were down 3%. It gets worse when you add in exceptional items due largely to property write downs; overall loss before tax was £234m. No bonus for partners.
Sharon White ascribes most of the hit to inflation, which added £179m to costs. The cost-of-living crisis was noted in these results: "As inflationary pressures grew, customers shopped carefully on a budget so basket size declined by 15% in branch against last year." Even the better-off, eh?
It's a jolt, more so when you consider that the business expanded rapidly between 2000 and 2015, going from 151 to 379 stores.
However, this is not the point that has grabbed the headlines and indeed captured my interest. It's the revelation that there are "early stage" discussions about diluting the partnership model though the sale of a minority stake to raise £1-2 billion of new investment.
It's the partner thing that most attracts me to Waitrose. I swear you can touch the vibe that the staff feel they belong, or indeed the other way round, that the shop belongs to them. In a distorted world of bloated capitalism where energy giants make windfall profits in billions while others are having to strike to keep their earnings in pace with inflation, the idea of a member of staff having a stake in the success of the business is heartwarming. The London Road Stroud branch has been my store for 14 years. I greet and maybe have a chat with partners who have been there since I first went. That retention tells a story. Which is why the potential changes hit hard.
Retail consultant Mary Portas wrote an open letter on Thursday to Sharon White and - first ever - CEO Nish Kankiwala:
"I'm writing to you on behalf of the British nation. Does that sound overwrought? Maybe. But I feel the need to speak for your customers up and down the land because we all know the problems facing John Lewis and Waitrose are huge. You see, you are not simply chair and chief exec. You are custodians of one of the most valued, loved, and trusted retail brands this country has. John Lewis and Waitrose are part of the fabric of everyday British life ... built on shared employee ownership and shared accountability."
Does she really mean "overwrought"? Or over-the-top? And she's speaking for a particular kind of customer. The current uncertainty surrounding the partnership is definitely a first-world issue, and more specifically a middle-class subset.
"Somehow, in recent years, you've let go of the soul. We've all felt the subtle, but powerful, erasure of what John Lewis is, a severing of what's always set your business apart.
"Right now though, all that is being slowly chipped away. From loud headlines to daily whispers.
"Every time I pop in, it's another little miss. The newspaper? Gone. The coffee? Gone. Now returned. (No doubt because of the uproar)."
She's wrong about the newspaper (it reads above like only the coffee has returned). You used to have to spend £10 (inclusive of the paper) to get one free. Now, with a Waitrose card, you don't have to buy anything else at all. I regularly do so and keep my receipt for £0.00. The self-service checkout is even bright enough not to ask you for your debit card.
I miss the point. She's really talking about the loss of the true partnership model, the ethos that underpins the daily operation of the store:
"This is about recommitting to the principles John Lewis was founded on: common ownership; the improvement of partners' lives; collective responsibility; and true enduring value. All this is what we used to feel pulsing through your brand every time we stepped onto your shop floor.
"So while you fight for the financial brain of your brand, never forget there's a battle for its heart and soul too."
A dramatic take from the "Queen of Shops", eh?
One small detail in contrast. Sharon White is showing no sign of abandoning the partners entirely. In her letter accompanying the financial results, she said:
"I know you're feeling the impact of higher inflation, and I hope the £500 (pro rata) cost of living payment and free food over the winter helped. We'll continue to help with the cost of living in other ways - the financial assistance fund will stay at £800,000 (a doubling) and there is support for travel, childcare and living costs."
Phew. Enough about shops. Particularly as the mooted change to the partner model hasn't happened yet. A rewrite of the John Lewis constitution would be required, to be ratified by the partnership council made up of around 60 staff.
Just the reference documents now. You know from these pages how I like source material:
Saturday 25th March
Friday lunch at the Trinity Rooms in Field Road around the corner from Middle Street is now the still point in a turning week. Local events have long been held there, in a building - when I last heard - owned by the church. Now it has gained greater prominence as the Trinity Rooms Community Hub. The Friday event - surplus food deliciously cooked by volunteers, all ages welcome, pay-as-you-can - has become very popular with residents and visitors.
Yesterday I was told by one of our number, Neil, that the Rooms served as a hospital in the First World War. I was obliged to go digging.
The "V.A." in the photo titles above stands for Voluntary Aid. Cheltenham-based local historian Rebsie Fairholm explains:
"During the First World War there was an urgent need for more hospitals to care for injured soldiers, and the existing infrastructure of military and civilian hospitals was not able to cope. The Red Cross set up a large number of Voluntary Aid (V.A.) hospitals across the UK, of which there were about 30 in Gloucestershire. Many of these were based in large residential houses loaned to the Red Cross by their owners. Others were set up in public buildings including church halls, community centres, schools, and even the grandstand at Cheltenham racecourse. Cash and trained medical staff were in short supply so the hospitals were run by Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), mostly unpaid local women.
"The first Red Cross hospitals in 1914 were set up to care for wounded Belgian soldiers who were then being sent for treatment in the UK. However they soon became flooded with British casualties, and in many cases had to take soldiers who had come straight from the front line, often in a terrible state having received no treatment other than a simple field dressing on the battlefield.
"The Stroud Red Cross Hospital at its commencement had provision for 30 beds, 20 in Trinity Parish Rooms, lent by the Vicar of the parish, and 10 in the General Hospital a few yards away. In 1916 60 further beds were provided, partly in Roxburgh House, kindly lent by the Stroud Board of Guardians, partly by giving up the room hitherto used as an office, and also by the setting aside of five further beds at the General Hospital, making a total accommodation of 90 beds."
In 1919 the Red Cross reported that for the period of the war there had been 1,015 admissions - and only 6 deaths.
Back to the present. Today all this is going on:
Friday 24th March
As we endured - I've heard from many that they couldn't muster the strength - Johnson's twists and turns, or were still in shock from Baroness Casey's report, the vote took place:
One of the qualifications for voting against the deal was being ex-something. Two ex-PMs, ex-leader of the Conservative Party, ex-Home Secretary, ex-Business and Brexit Opportunities Minister. Why won't they go away? Haven't they got the message? These discredited oafs hang like a malevolent cloud over the nation's public life.
Six DUP MPs voted against. The Guardian chart above shows eight, but two were tellers for the division and therefore not counted in the totals. The seven Sinn Féin MPs did not vote. One SDLP member voted for, one didn't vote. The Alliance Party member supported the motion.
The official parliamentary "Division List" varies slightly from the headline numbers. According to the parliament website, this discrepancy happens quite frequently for reasons that are not entirely clear. The list for this vote, the "Draft Windsor Framework (Democratic Scrutiny) Regulations 2023 Division 197", has a top-level result that matches the Guardian graphic, namely the "Ayes" at 515, the "Noes" at 29. However, the detail at the bottom of "members recorded" shows 512 for the motion, 3 less than the published outcome. Oh well. The total still adds up to 650. We aren't going to worry too much, are we? Here's the list for your perusal, how everybody voted or didn't vote, in alphabetical order by surname:
Thursday 23rd March
A bad few days for probity in public service. If there are key aspects of our society that you'd want to be squeaky-clean and fully functional, two at or near the top of the list would surely be the integrity of our elected representatives and the even-handed maintenance of law and order. The people entrusted with the government of the country and those employed to protect us.
I grew up with this image of the police:
At your service, that's what the salute says, doesn't it? The face is approachable, kind, trustworthy. The uniform and helmet - complete with the badge and crown of the monarch - imply structure and stability.
The Met has fallen a very, very long way.
OK, Dixon is seen through a rose-tinted rear-view mirror - no bad apples, no Masonic handshakes, no prejudice in the good ol' days, right? - but Baroness Casey's report is as damning as any review I've ever seen. If you can face 363 pages, here is the official version:
Fortunately, most of the 10 "Chapters" of the document have a synopsis. Up front, on pages 9-18, there are the overall "Summary and Conclusions". The eight headings give a flavour:
And back to that elected representative:
Will he really?
Wednesday 22nd March
A rather inward-looking day, but I'd like to celebrate it. The third anniversary of this blog, started on 22nd March 2020.
Five videos (out of 269 I've posted). There's quite a lot to watch. Pick and choose. Dip in, come back later.
Johnson interviewed by AC-12
Comedian Sarah Cooper tackles Trump and disinfectant
Honest Government advert explains net zero by 2050 (comes with bad language warning)
Sorrowful Moscow 'Queen of the Kiosk' Valentina
Patrick Stewart finds out about the ECHR
Ten cartoons (out of 363 - cripes!).
When it's not always raining, there'll be days like this
When there's no one complaining, there'll be days like this
When everything falls into place like the flick of a switch
Well my mama told me there'll be days like this
When you don't need to worry, there'll be days like this
When no one's in a hurry, there'll be days like this
When all the parts of the puzzle start to look like they fit
Then I must remember there'll be days like this
Thanks to all those who have contributed and commented. You know who you are.
Tuesday 21st March
The IPCC yesterday announced the final part of its Sixth Assessment Report, the "Synthesis Report", at the conclusion of the Panel's 58th Session held in Interlaken, Switzerland. Possibly the last such document before it's all too late, as there won't be another until 2030. The IPCC website says the full version is still unavailable, "coming soon", but I was able to download the press release (4 pages: ) and the "Summary for Policymakers" (36 pages: ).
At 36 pages of dense technical detail the Summary itself is a challenging read, so I've extracted a selection of diagrams to provide an overview. Even they require an effort of close scrutiny. You'll have to click/tap/zoom/rotate to inspect each chart, as the detail is difficult to see at the top-level display resolution I've had to use below. Sometimes the shape of the graph shading helps, and there's a useful rule-of-thumb colour gradation: blue is good, red is bad.
In struggling to digest (I tremble at the thought of the full report), I've realised that it all boils down to three points: 1) the situation has got pretty bad; 2) what we have to do to fix it; and 3) we'd better be quick. Please feel free to skip the rest of today's blog.
Let's start with where-are-we-now and where-are-we-heading:
This is the one that really gets to me. My 70-year-old lifetime - and with it the blame for where we are - is shown in the group of people at the bottom. My children broadly fit into the next line up. And my grandchildren into the third.
That's the doom-and-gloom. Then mercifully there's the what-we-can-do.
These legends apply to all the subsequent charts:
Land, water and food:
Settlements, infrastructure and health:
Society, livelihood and economy:
After I'd done this exercise, I asked myself: "What have I learnt?" My first response was "not much". Useful to be dealt a sharp smack of a reminder, but after that? We know all this stuff, have done for years. Then I looked at the charts again, particularly the last four, and was struck by the significance of the bars on the right. They remind us emphatically where to direct the bulk of our energy. Yes, the first priority is ... energy and its associated emissions. Hence the longest bars are next to solar and wind. They have a high proportion of blue, which means they are cheaper to implement, echoing Dale Vince's oft-repeated mantra that renewables are the way out of the financial madness of the gas markets and cost a fraction of nuclear, irrespective of their environmental benefit. So, not George Monbiot's "microconsumerist bollocks", organic drinking straws and their ilk, although we may as well adopt those while we're getting on with the important stuff. I have sympathy with the change-100-things-by-one-percent approach, but there are bigger levers to pull which demand the focus of our attention.
The growth of world population over my lifetime (trebled, 2.6bn to 8bn) and our acquisitive consumer lifestyles, ever greedier, have caused the mess. We have an individual duty to change. But it's government - so woefully feeble at COP27 - that has the critical role: to direct, enable and support a shift in action and attitude, above all to control powerful vested interests. That's why the UK leadership is so short-sighted and negligent in its continued investment in fossil fuels. It's a monetary sticking-plaster knee-jerk to Putin and energy insecurity rather than a sustainable long-term plan for humanity. And I won't even start on the Tories' refusal to address the energy company profits with windfall taxes. Rubbing each others' backs, noses in the trough.
UN secretary general António Guterres:
"This report is a clarion call to massively fast-track climate efforts by every country and every sector and on every timeframe. Our world needs climate action on all fronts: everything, everywhere, all at once."
Extinction Rebellion Global on Mastodon:
"The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report insists there are multiple, feasible, and effective options currently available to slow the pace of climate change. Focusing on climate resilient development, with an emphasis on renewable energy and low-carbon electrification. But we need to do that NOW."
Kaisa Kosonen, Greenpeace International:
"This report is definitely a final warning on 1.5C. If governments just stay on their current policies, the remaining carbon budget will be used up before the next IPCC report [due in 2030]."
Monday 20th March
You're accused of war crimes against children on Friday.
On Saturday night you visit a regenerated kids playground in the city you destroyed. Gleaming new apartments, a shiny SUV, pristine climbing frames.
This is proper Orwellian dystopia. A message to your own people that the "special military operation" has triumphed, an act of salvation, of renewal. In the land of Doublethink and Newspeak.
Sunday 19th March
Saturday 18th March
Stroudies, please join us this morning!
All you people in London, Glasgow and Cardiff ...
It's no wonder we all want to move to Ireland. Listen to president Michael D. Higgins talking on St. Patrick's Day about the link between the patron saint and migration (courtesy of national broadcaster Raidió Teilifís Éireann):
A compassionate statement from the head of state in support of migrants, delivered in the gentle language of empathy.
Ireland teaches us how to take a different direction to the approach of the Illegal Migration Bill. Going back as far as the ancient Brehon Laws, there is a spirit of kindness built into the culture. Having suffered oppression, displacement and discrimination themselves - "No Irish, no blacks" - the Irish can readily extend welcome to the stranger, the desperate and dispossessed. In practical terms, witness the country's rapid - in contrast to Westminster's laboured, delayed efforts - response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis, enabled by its much-valued membership of the EU and the built-in provision of the 2001 Temporary Protection Directive (see my 2022 report here: 👉). The Irish diaspora was subjected to abuse and denigration in its adopted homelands. Now the country sets an example in human rights. And its rugby team, number 1 in the world, is poised to win the 6 Nations Grand Slam - as it beats England in Dublin this afternoon.
Friday 17th March
An epilogue? Gary Lineker has changed his Twitter profile photo to one of him standing by the George Orwell statue and quotation at BBC Broadcasting House:
Orwell's words come from the proposed but never used preface to Animal Farm. British librarian and Orwellian scholar Ian Angus - he helped set up the Orwell Archive at UCL - found the original manuscript in 1972; it was eventually published in the Times Literary Supplement on 15 September that year with an introduction by political theorist and democratic socialist Sir Bernard Crick, with a title of "The Freedom of the Press".
The abandonment of the preface was all part of the struggle to get Animal Farm published. Orwell wrote the book between November 1943 and February 1944. The manuscript was initially rejected by several British and American publishers, including one of Orwell's own, Victor Gollancz, which delayed its publication until August 1945. Too hot to handle. Orwell, a democratic socialist himself, was a critic of Joseph Stalin - parodied in Napoleon the pig - and Stalinism, which he saw as a corruption of the original socialist ideals. Curiously, given the current conflict, in the preface of a 1947 Ukrainian edition he explained how escaping the communist purges in Spain taught him "how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries". The novella was politically uncomfortable for the powers-that-be at a time when WWII Britain and USA were allied to the Soviet Union.
Now, we don't want to get into trouble by replicating Lineker's 1930s Germany theme with comments on Stalin's atrocities, do we? Nor risk an "unpatriotic" reproof should we suggest that the Illegal Migration Bill smacks of totalitarianism. But, as Alastair Campbell said amidst the throes of #Garygate, there's more than a whiff of "creeping authoritarianism" in the air.
A cheeky snipe, Gary. I like it.
Meanwhile, Happy St. Patrick's Day! Joe Biden, of Mayo roots, gets this crystal bowl - made by master craftsman Seán Daly of Dingle Crystal - from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
All eyes on the 15:30 at Cheltenham 🏇🏇🏇
Thursday 16th March
"Schrödinger's Rabbit" is a bit of a challenge, isn't it?
I didn't watch the televised budget proceedings, but caught up with the Hansard transcripts. The Chancellor delivered the bulk of his address without interruption except for two brief jabs from Labour.
On the importance of getting over-50s back to work:
For too many, turning 50 is a moment of anxiety about the cliff edge of retirement rather than a moment of anticipation about another two decades of fulfilment. I know this myself. After I turned 50, I was relegated to the Back Benches and planned for a quiet life, but instead I decided to set an example by embarking on a new career in finance.
Sir Chris Bryant (Rhondda)(Lab):
How's it going?
It's going well, thank you.
On the extension of childcare provision:
From September 2025, every single working parent of under-fives will have access to 30 hours of free childcare per week.
Mr Toby Perkins (Chesterfield)(Lab):
You'll be gone by then.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing):
Order. Mr Perkins, stop it.
Here's the Hansard transcript of the Chancellor's "Financial Statement and Budget Report" (20 pages):
Wednesday 15th March
At last some respite from #Garygate. Just before the story broke I was about to elaborate on my love of cartoons, their place and importance in British satirical history, when a complete coincidence materialised in my Mastodon account. I'll explain.
While ruminating on the topic pre-#Garygate, I was of course led back to James Gillray. A caricaturist and printmaker born in Chelsea in 1756, he was a pioneer. Often called the "father of the political cartoon", he was noted for works satirising George III, Napoleon, prime ministers and generals.
Here, in what Martin Rowson - whose 'toons I have posted frequently here - speaking in the 2005 TV series "The Secret of Drawing" called "probably the most famous political cartoon of all time", is Gillray's 1805 "The Plumb-pudding in danger; or State Epicures taking un Petit Souper", subtitled "'the Great globe itself and all which it inherit' is too small to satisfy such insatiable appetites".
The compelling quality of cartoons for me is how they capture the essence of a situation, political or social, in visual form. OK, yes, they would, wouldn't they? They're pictures. Doh! Seriously 'though, when you're struggling for words to make sense of world events, cartoons can cut straight through the fog. "Aha, that's spot on!" At the same time, a grim or angering piece of news is alleviated by humour. Gallows perhaps, but it helps navigate the day.
Gillray's print is a satire on the overtures made by Napoleon in January 1805 for a reconciliation with Britain, which came to nothing; indeed, the Battle of Trafalgar took place later that year in October. Much of the fun is in the detail. British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, wielding a three-pronged-trident-like fork to symbolise maritime superiority, is carving a chunk of sea to the west of the British Isles marked "Ocean". Napoleon, the "little corporal", is slicing off the land mass of Europe with his military sword.
Martin Rowson went on to say that the piece "has been stolen over and over again by cartoonists ever since." Which is where we come to the theft that dropped in my inbox.
As #Garygate took hold, Sunak was cosying up to Macron in a "moment of reunion". Sculptor, political cartoonist and drummer Dave Brown produced this, "Le Danger des Petits Bateaux or Where's the Beef?":
The debt is acknowledged at the top left beneath Dave Brown's signature: "after Gillray".
I don't need to go on, do I? Petits bateaux and all that.
Tuesday 14th March
"Oh no, not another day of #Garygate?", I hear you say. You'd be right. But I'm bound to close it off with one more piece now that a deal, however interim, has been struck. I will, natch, illustrate with cartoons, of which there has been a huge number. To think that I ever said I'd give them up.
Yes, different perspectives.
It started here, although the card should be yellow:
I've posted material from the furore in the last three days. First thing yesterday morning Lineker published this quartet of tweets:
I'm disappointed. "Fight the good fight, together". Really? Thanks to Tim Davie? OK, Gary doesn't apologise, recognises the solidarity of his colleagues, repeats his concern for refugees. However, I'll admit to the hope that the BBC hierarchy and Tory influencers would get a right drubbing. Is there a chance that will come? I'm dubious. In the interview I posted yesterday, Lineker's mate John Barnes said:
"Well, of course a compromise will be had. They'll come back together. The profile of lots of people will be raised, the profile of the BBC will be raised, they'll do the right thing and the status quo will be resumed very shortly with everybody happy."
It's true that the BBC has had a shock. No broadcaster likes to see holes in the schedule:
Plenty of commentators have declared Lineker vindicated, to Gary the spoils. I suspect he's embarrassed by the episode; never intended to attract all this attention with his original offending - to the BBC - comment. And also broke one of his own three rules on tweeting, as he revealed in the 2021 interview I posted on Saturday 👉: "I don't tweet when I'm angry". There was at least serious emotion behind "immeasurably cruel policy". His 8.8 million followers, including the on-high-alert BBC thought police, will be watching closely to see how he abides by the guideline agreements, the degree to which he is muzzled.
On balance you'd probably say the BBC has come off worse. More criticised by the left, under greater threat from the right. Systemic and philosophical issues to resolve. Maybe an existential battle on its hands. If you suspend a favourite son for expressing his private opinions on a platform that has nothing to do with your organisation - he never implicated Auntie - you're gonna run into trouble. Dumb move. The BBC could have done without the last four days.
Storm in a teacup? Sound and fury about the utterances of an ex-footballer? The issues behind it all are much bigger that that and they may have come into sharper focus for many people through this face-off, although sadly not all. Refugees are dealing with lives that have been torn asunder and deserve the most humane consideration. They are demonised, and that is encouraged - even initiated - by inappropriate language. A point expressed by John Barnes in yesterday's interview, and what Lineker was actually saying in his reference to 1930s Germany.
Monday 13th March
After two full days of blogging #GaryGate it's probably time to move on. Looks like it'll all be over soon, according to the Mirror and other organs this morning:
I do hope he doesn't climb down too far. Yesterday's Observer headline held such promise:
Still, quite an impact for a lad who helped run his dad Barry's fruit and veg stall in Leicester Market and was told by a teacher that he would never make a living at football. I can think of few, if any, other people who have given such prominence to the refugee question in 47 words.
As my last lengthy related item, if you've got the time (5 minutes) and haven't already tired of the matter, listen to the astute observations by another ex-footballer, the wonderful John Barnes. Remember his heady days at Liverpool, the 1984 Maracana goal, the Anfield Rap? Hmmm ... probably not.
As Barnes says, "This should not be about Gary Lineker and the BBC pundits supporting him, this should be about the refugees."
Sunday 12th March
Saturday 11th March
Friday 10th March
Just a bit more on this.
Look at the first page of the Illegal Migration Bill 262 2022-23, "[AS INTRODUCED]" ... on Tuesday last. (If you can't see the detail at normal resolution, click/swipe/zoom/whatever to do so.) Here's the full text of the Bill (66 pages):
She knew she was on dodgy ground, didn't she?
The Bill's preamble starts:
Here's a flavour of the section headings:
In contrast (I posted the relevant documents yesterday) ...
Article 14.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
Article 32.1 of the UNHCR Convention says:
Contracting States shall not expel a refugee lawfully in their territory save on grounds of national security or public order.
These are about rights, protection and welcome.
There is no substantive emphasis in the Bill - it's no surprise, I know, arguably not even the right place for it - on the urgent support required by desperate people in small boats. It's mostly about the perceived threat they pose.
The government strategy is based on eliminating the people smugglers by dissuading their customers from the purchase of the cross-Channel service, because the help sought will not be available on arrival. But who suffers?
It's so back-to-front, inside-out, missing the point. I've been wrestling with a suitable analogy. My best stab is a trifle sinuous, but I'll give it a go.
Imagine a good old-fashioned milk round on a residential town street. A milk-snatcher has been at large, stealing bottles from the doorsteps. To combat the thief, the local bobby recommends that the dairy suspend delivery - there'll be nothing to take, no point in the snatcher trying any more. Who is worst affected by this action? Mostly the local townspeople; they now don't have any milk. Will the suspension inconvenience the baddie? Unlikely. He'll find something else to do, somewhere else to go, change his target to bread or children's sweets; the wrong 'uns will always find a way. What's needed is concerted focus on this offender, root him out and bring him to justice without further troubling the innocent. Meanwhile help the residents with their milk shortage.
I can't let this next pass without a mention. What have we come to when it takes an ex-England-footballer to make the front pages with his disapproval of government policy? Material courtesy of Lineker himself, cartoonist Peter Brookes and artist Cold War Steve.
Thursday 9th March
I'm not qualified to comment on the legality of the Migration Bill. Others are. Like Chris Daw, King's Counsel at Lincoln House Chambers. Listen to his take on Sky News yesterday (1 minute 37 seconds):
Everything he mentions came into being in the aftermath of WWII, at a time when nations were determined to provide for a safer and more just future. As I've frequently mentioned in these pages, Britain's Conservative war hero Winston Churchill was a leading participant in such initiatives, among them what later became the European Union.
I'm going to post some of the relevant documents. Not because you're going to read them all - although that would be a salutory experience - but because they exist. They emerged in black-and-white from that post-war era in which governments were driven to build a better world. Hard-won gains for humanity.
The UNHCR asked her to re-think immediately after Tuesday's parliamentary session: "We urge the Government, and all MPs and Peers, to reconsider the Bill and instead pursue more humane and practical policy solutions." See the full text of the UNHCR statement (2 pages):
Wednesday 8th March
There's a lot to digest from Braverman's House of Commons presentation of the Illegal Migration Bill yesterday. I built a PDF transcript from the Hansard website last night. Here it is, 42 pages covering the one-hour-50-minutes session of statement and questions: . If you have time, it's worth a browse. Braverman's bit occupies the first 3 pages, Yvette Cooper's response the subsequent two.
There were some very interesting contributions. I'm tempted to quote them, but I wouldn't know where to stop; you'd be better off reading the transcript yourself. So, just a few impressions. It was a very polarised debate. I guess that's the nature of adversarial politics, but this had extra bite and acrimony. An issue that divides the House and the country, fuelled by both ideology and emotion. Braverman did not hold back from pouring acid scorn on opposition naysayers. It's clear that the Tories are determined to "Stop The Boats" (a three-word slogan again) by whatever means fair or foul. Yes, it's one of their top five priorities. Put crudely, it reflects the Brexit split between keeping the outsider at bay and embracing the wider world of humanity.
As ever, the cartoonists capture some of the flavour that I haven't time to explore here:
Tuesday 7th March
Home Office statement on 31st January:
"The unacceptable number of people risking their lives by making these dangerous crossings is placing an unprecedented strain on our asylum system.
"Our priority is to stop this illegal trade, and our new Small Boats Operational Command - bolstered by hundreds of extra staff - is working alongside our French partners and other agencies to disrupt the people smugglers.
"The government is also going further by introducing legislation which will ensure that those people arriving in the UK illegally are detained and promptly removed to their country of origin or a safe third country."
From Care4Calais yesterday:
"Tomorrow [now today] the Government is expected to launch its most draconian anti-refugee legislation yet, as Rishi Sunak bids to make the UK off-limits to any refugees other than those his government hand-picks.
"It is anticipated that under the new laws, people arriving on small boats will:
"In recent weeks, we have seen an alarming rise in violence and intimidation organised by the far right against refugees and refugee accommodation.
"The government is complicit in these attacks. The Rwanda policy does not make sense as a means of stopping small boat crossings - and it is failing on its own terms - but it fits with a long-running campaign of rhetoric and demonisation.
"The people to blame are politicians, billionaires and big corporations, not migrant workers or refugees forced to live in temporary accommodation. The anti-refugee campaign offers no solutions to the real problems faced by the deprived communities they are often targeting. The answer is solidarity, not scapegoating.
"As trade unionists, we know whose side we are on when we see far right mobs attacking refugees and politicians playing the mood music. We send our solidarity to Care4Calais and all groups fighting for refugee rights, and we support the call for safe and legal routes into the UK. We call on workers and trade union members to show their solidarity and to mobilise against the far right."
Monday 6th March
I was pleased to see that I'm not alone in my dismay - and, I admit, amusement - at the deposed and disgraced refusing to go away.
I stumbled across some surprising back-story to Sue Gray. She's married to Northern Irish country-and-western singer Bill Conlon. In the 1980s they ran a pub called the Cove Bar outside Newry. There you are, a seamless link to the Windsor Framework. Here's a January 2022 piece written by David O'Dornan in the Belfast Telegraph:
"Friends of Ms Gray say she is unlikely to hold any fears about taking on the Prime Minister and other senior figures, given that she stood up to armed republican terrorists in the past.
"They revealed that when she was running a pub in Newry, Co Down during the Troubles in the 1980s, she was not frightened when confronted with what was a potentially life-threatening situation. They explained that she said that one night she had a very heavy cold and one of her staff wanted to get off early and she closed the bar down. She drove the person home - the person lived out in south Armagh - and she was coming back in the Camlough Road after having dropped her staff member off.
"She came across a light in the middle of the road and was ordered to stop. She thought initially it was the Army; she didn't realise the guy was a paramilitary.
"He said to her, 'We want the car, get out.' And she just bluntly refused and said, 'No.'
"Taken aback, he replied, 'What?' And then he turned round and said to her, 'Oh, you're f***ing English as well?'
"And just as the situation looked like it was set to escalate, a voice came out of the darkness and said, 'That's Sue Gray from The Cove, let her go on.'"
You're never going to watch it all but I have to post this anyway. Bill Conlon sings "Irish Rambling Man". He has a good voice.
Their son Liam is the current national chair of the Labour Party Irish Society. He is also an active member and vice chair of Lewisham West and Penge Labour Party. Aha, a link to Sue's new job if it runs in the family. A left-wing stitch-up indeed 😉
Sunday 5th March
Serious and silly today.
First, some further thoughts on the Windsor Framework. I posed the question of benefits for the EU to my Irish correspondent, who kindly wrote:
"I have no real idea what the EU is expecting to gain from the Windsor Framework. Perhaps the steadying of the Good Friday Agreement? Particularly since all Western European countries and the US need to be as stable and united as possible vis-à-vis the war in Ukraine. Could Biden and the US government have given Ursula von der Leyen and her team a gentle nudge in this direction? And the EU will have wanted to give its full support to the Republic of Ireland, now a much-valued member of the bloc. Or maybe it could be a first step in coaxing the UK to return to the EU fold? Especially given the disastrous free fall that the country appears to be in, what with 3 prime ministers, 4 chancellors, endless cabinet changes and an economy going down the tubes as a result of Brexit. Maybe it is more desirable for the European bloc to have a stable neighbour across the Channel.
"I found the 'Brake' part of the deal interesting because the DUP can only have a say in applying it on any new EU trade laws if they are actively participating in the Stormont government. And then only if a substantial number of other Stormont MPs agree to a need for applying the brake. The ingenious bit is obliging the DUP to be actively in government before they can call for the brake. If they try to carry on refusing to participate in the Stormont power sharing, they will be left out in the cold.
"This DUP business is making the Sinn Fein party in NI look angelic at the moment. They must be polishing their halos as we speak."
And later ...
"It has just occurred to me too that given the strong historic links between Ireland and the US, especially with the current President having deep Irish roots, Ursula and the EU team may see Ireland as the ideal go-between EU country for bolstering the European bloc's relationship with the US. Defence commitments apart, the Brexit mess has left the UK an untrustworthy, burnt-out shell of what it once was on the world stage. Perhaps a new special relationship could be emerging: US - Ireland - EU. With Ireland as the transatlantic stepping stone."
See my brief November 2020 coverage of Joe Biden's County Mayo connection here: 👉
Back to the trivia. Hancock keeps on coming:
Not quite so comical once you consider his position and the pain through which Jane and Joe Public were going.
Quarantine? For the Health Secretary and the Cabinet Secretary/Head of the Civil Service ... it was a laugh-a-minute:
Social distancing with Gina. For Hancock and his media adviser ... it was all about being caught:
It gets worse when you see the longer exchange:
The benefit of these revelations is that we are reminded - like we needed our memories jogging, right? - of the true nature of Johnson and his mob: arrogant, contemptuous, self-serving, above-the-law, venal, incompetent ... a criminal waste of space. Lest we forget.
Saturday 4th March
All-of-a-sudden it's Silly Season again. What's triggered the recent refusal of deposed leaders and their disgraced cronies to go away? A kind of Trump-follow-my-lead trend.
After Boris, none more so than the snogger.
No hint of apology. Such wounded umbrage. Betrayed by Isabel. Oh how they deserve each other.
Then the once irreproachably independent Sue Gray gets a new job.
And the royals are at it too.
For Stroudies ... on a completely different note ... Stroud Valleys Artspace (4 John Street) is holding a party from 3pm this afternoon, a fundraiser in aid of victims of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria:
Friday 3rd March
I said I'd finish off yesterday's ruminations on the Windsor Framework. It feels like other news has already pushed it down the agenda - MI5 and Manchester, Hancock and WhatsApp, racism and Yorkshire cricket - but for the sake of completeness ...
I left it with Sunak's feverish sales pitch in Lisburn:
"Northern Ireland is in the unbelievably special position, a unique position in the entire world, European continent ... privileged access, not just to the UK home market, which is enormous, but also the EU single market ... nobody else has that. No one. Only you guys - only here, and that is the prize."
Greeted by mockery in some quarters ...
Labour MP Chris Bryant:
"Sunak says how wonderful it is that Northern Ireland gets privileged access to the single market. I'd like that for the rest of the UK."
Anti-Brexit campaigner Femi Oluwole:
"Rishi Sunak just spent 2 minutes boasting about how Northern Ireland is the 'most exciting investment zone on the planet' because it has full access to the UK and EU market. You know ... like we did before Brexit!"
Oxford foreign policy expert Dr. Jennifer Cassidy:
"You mean the 'extraordinary opportunity' that was available to the ENTIRE UK before Brexit. That opportunity?"
My final thought on this - for now - may well show ignorance. Why did Ursula von der Leyen shake hands on the deal? What's in it for the EU? Northern Ireland, Stormont Brake and all, gets to block EU laws it doesn't like. Does any signed-up member state of the European Union have that privilege? Is it just an act of generosity, to assist with peace in Ireland, to tolerate the absence of a "hard border"? In the interests of the Republic? I still have to find an answer. Help me if you can.
We wait to see how much objection the DUP can raise, the "odious flat-earthers" in the words of my Irish correspondent.
Thursday 2nd March
So, will they? I took a look at their April 2022 document "Our 5 Point Plan for Northern Ireland: Remove the NI Protocol". Here it is for reference (8 pages, three of significant text):
Its primary stated ambition was: "See the Protocol replaced by arrangements that restore our place within the United Kingdom." These must meet their 7 tests:
The DUP now scrutinise, taking their time I'm sure.
There's complexity, as ever with Northern Ireland, still to grasp - particularly for me. To my shame, I've realised that my understanding of the situation since Brexit has been thin. It probably shows. I've not been watching closely, my attention taken by all those other issues that have dominated these pages - Covid, climate, Trump, #Partygate and more. I have some catching up to do. And it's not just NI-centric matters, but also implications for the rest of the Union.
Let's start with Sunak's excited post-Windsor proclamations at the Lisburn Coca-Cola factory (27 seconds):
As my Irish correspondent has commented, "Scotland, and maybe Wales too, will be fuming at their own exclusion from the EU."
[Work in progress ... more to come, probably tomorrow]
Wednesday 1st March
Tuesday 28th February
They've been digging up the bottom of our street for over a year. Currently it's major sewage works. I've successfully negotiated my way past them on my bike all that time. Yesterday they finally got me. Came a purler on loose gravel. Some operator error involved, braking hard downhill as I hit the loose stuff. Nothing broken thankfully, bruises and grazing.
Sunak and von der Leyen shook hands on a Northern Ireland deal. There's still a twixt-cup-and-lip way to go. Convince the DUP.
We have to be pleased that the promise of the Windsor Framework (here you are - 29 pages: ) will make life better for Northern Ireland and hopeful that it will protect the Good Friday Agreement (another original document for your reference - 36 pages: ). To its credit Labour has said there'll be no playing politics with approval of the deal.
However, fanatically unrepentant "Remoaner" that I am, as far as I'm concerned it misses the point. None of this negotiation, none of the six years of disagreement would have been necessary had we stayed in the EU. Even with the trumpeted resolution THERE'S STILL A BLOODY RED CHANNEL.
Ireland to the south has already taken advantage of the UK's EU departure, responded to the unworkable shortcomings of the "land bridge". Just over two years ago (on 3rd January 2021: 👉) I wrote about the launch of a new Rosslare-Dunkirk ferry service providing a direct freight route between Ireland and France. Since then the ferries have multiplied. Journalists Jon Henley and Rory Carroll picked up the theme in last Sunday's Observer in a piece titled "'Brits are suffering but for us it's boom time': how Brexit boosted French and Irish ports". The article states:
"Rosslare Europort was an underused facility with just six sailings a week to the continent, all into Cherbourg. Now it has 30-plus, to Cherbourg, Le Havre, Bilbao, Dunkirk and Zeebrugge - a fivefold increase that has led to record overall freight traffic. Weekly sailings from Cherbourg to Irish ports, meanwhile, will by this summer have more than doubled to a round dozen, with Irish Ferries sailing four times a week to Dublin, Stena Line six times a week to Rosslare, and Brittany Ferries also returning to the Rosslare route after a long absence.
Retired Irish customs officer Colm Lambert said from his bench overlooking Rosslare port:
"They're coming in from France, Spain, Belgium, Holland - it's great to see. Brexit has made an awful difference to here. Boris Johnson did Rosslare a favour."
That's right. England bypassed, grayed-out. The Brexit opportunity was meant to be the UK's. It turned out to belong to Ireland ... and good luck to her.
This may be over the top, but I feel it strongly. Brexit didn't come with the warning that it was bad for your mental health. The last six years have filled me with a background sense of loss, of waste, of being ripped from the rest of Europe. My hope is that such gloom will lift as more and more people recognise the folly of wishing to be separate. One odd plus from the Windsor glad-handing was the apparent warmth between Sunak and von der Leyen. "Dear Rishi", she gushed. If it brings us all closer, I won't diss the sentiment.
Monday 27th February
I like the new Banksy Ukraine stamp. Except that it has only appeared because of a war and hardly cools the conflict. According to the Huffington Post, the exclamation at the bottom left is a contracted expletive which translates into English as "FCK PTN!" Hmmm ... has a postage stamp ever been issued before with such a message?
(I need help to validate this. The initial letter of each three-letter word is the same in Ukrainian, but not in translation. "PTN" is right according to Google Translate.)
Here are some other Banksy works around Ukraine. Each has a detail photo and an accompanying one of its setting. Click to enlarge any:
Sunday 26th February
Visit of Vienna-based son Nikko to see brother Ben in Bilbao going well:
Saturday 25th February
Friday 24th February
Went to this event yesterday evening:
A heart-warming experience. A great turn-out, the Boston Tea Party café taken over completely for the quiz, maybe 70 people, all ages. There was bound to be a positive atmosphere, wasn't there? You wouldn't get naysayers turning up. No fans of Suella Braverman.
It was my first ever quiz. Not the point, but our team - I'd never met the others before - did OK. 70% right, a B+. The winners managed 80%. We had a clean sweep of British Prime Ministers 1945-1999. Couldn't name any popular music after 1980. The biggest frustration is half-knowing an answer. The winning jockey of the 2022 Cheltenham Gold Cup was Rachel ... yes ... Blackmore ... no. And I'd even won a few quid on her victory.
I must get out more. Cheltenham is only 40 minutes away, yet it felt - at least the grand Regency bits - like a different world.
Thursday 23rd February
I taught IT to young adults at Stroud College some years ago. By mistake. When the new build was proposed I contacted the college to enquire whether I could offer consultancy help with the design and implementation of the computer network. As the IT director was extremely competent - I found this out later - he didn't need my assistance. However, the next week I got a call from an academic member of staff asking if I wanted to teach. It wasn't what I really wanted to do, but I still went to see the head of department and ended up teaching a bunch of young adults the next Monday - for three years. Just one morning a week. It turned out to be a privilege, to find out what was happening in the heads of an age group I wouldn't otherwise meet. They were also very kind to me, the old git, which took me by surprise.
We used to start the class with what I called "Small Triumphs". These kids were in a kind of last chance saloon after the school system had failed them - the old further education rescue mission - and didn't have a great sense of achievement, at least not in their studies. So, the idea was to drag something positive out of them, however small, of whatever description, from their experiences of the preceding week. What stories they had to tell.
In the midst of the UK's political madness and the woes of the wider world, I reckon we need to acknowledge these mini-wins more than ever. I had one yesterday.
Do you ever fall foul of auto-renewals? You know, like when your car insurance company automatically takes the next year's premium (increased of course) before you've made the effort to review - good old comparethemarket.com - whether you should stay with them. My electronic diary is densely and obsessively populated with reminders not to let renewal and contract dates sail by. Well, I allowed one past me two days ago. My website hosting provider took next year's domain name fee for coronavirusblog.uk, which I don't use any more. Dammit.
I emailed them to ask if I might revoke the renewal immediately and claim a refund. They'd obliged once before. This time I got a flat refusal, precisely because they'd already done it on that other occasion - as a courtesy, they said. I wasn't pleased, given the amount of business I have put their way. Time to get on my high horse, assume my most aggrieved and pompous tone. I wrote:
"I am seriously disappointed. I have used your domain and hosting services for my personal websites for around 15 years. Not only that, I have fulfilled all my customer website needs through you - which will not show on my account. This must amount to thousands of pounds/dollars. I have recommended your company to many other people and organisations. I think your refusal to accede to my £14.39 request is petty in the extreme, poor reward for my loyalty."
I expected another brush-off. But no. Result!
A minor victory ... so, OK, a minor celebration is in order. Sadly, I'm not convinced. I know I'm going against the point of our classroom strategy, but I really need to concentrate on bigger fish. Trivial fixes, no problem. The larger stuff ... why can I put those off? Beats me.
Wednesday 22nd February
Perhaps I ought to concentrate on the sabre-rattling and truth-spin ...
... but not today; it's all too mad and I'm sure you've seen enough. So instead I give you four minutes of laughter and joyful brilliance. [Best to watch full-screen by clicking on the button (bottom right within the video player) once you've started. Or any other way you normally do this on a device with other than a desktop-sized display.]
He's Polish mime artist Ireneusz Krosny:
Tuesday 21st February
Two weeks ago I posted publicity 👉 about the Stroud festival showing of the remarkable film about a remarkable woman, "The Seeds of Vandana Shiva". We went on Saturday. Everybody seated at the pre-screening meal was given this flyer (click to enlarge):
All about "The Big One", a change of direction for Extinction Rebellion, as explained on the XRUK website:
"XRUK has changed its approach to meet this moment. The Big One - in April in Westminster - is different from anything XRUK has ever done before; this time it's about attendance, not arrests.
"What is The Big One? Politicians would rather take fossil fuel donations than prevent climate chaos. It's time for us to let them know how we feel about this and that 2023 is the year for drastic climate action. In April in Westminster, thousands of people will gather peacefully around the House of Parliament to tell the Government that we can't afford this anymore. Thousands have already gathered at picket lines and demonstrations this year to demand fairer working conditions. Multiple world crises all linked by the crisis in governance. There are no fair conditions on a planet wrecked by climate and ecological disasters. It's time to demand an end to the fossil fuel era and for a citizen-led transformation towards a fair society that includes reparations."
Visit the XR Big One website here:
While we're talking about a change of approach - in this instance it's more a shift in sentiment - did you read the sentencing remarks of District Judge Wilkinson to Just Stop Oil Birmingham Esso Fuel Terminal protestors at Wolverhampton Magistrates Court last week?
"It's abundantly clear that you are all good people. You are intelligent, articulate and a pleasure to deal with. It's unarguable that man-made global warming is real and we are facing a climate emergency. Your aims are admirable and it is accepted by me and the Crown Prosecution Service that your views are reasonable and genuinely held. Your fears are ably and genuinely articulated and are supported by the science.
"When the United Nations Secretary General gives a speech saying that the activity of fossil fuel companies is incompatible with human survival, we should all be very aware of the need for change. Millions of people, and I do not dispute that it may be as many as 1 billion people, will be displaced as a result of climate change.
"No-one can criticise your motivations. You all gave evidence that was deeply moving. I certainly was moved. The tragedy is that good people have felt so much, without hope, that you feel you have to come into conflict with the criminal justice system.
"Thank you for opening my eyes to certain things. Most I was acutely and depressingly aware of, but there were certain things [I wasn't].
"I say this and I mean this sadly, I have to convict you. You are good people and I will not issue a punitive sentence. Your arrests and loss of good character are sufficient. Good people doing the wrong thing cannot make the wrong thing right. I don't say this, ever, but it has been a pleasure dealing with you.
"You should feel guilty for nothing. You should feel proud that you care, have concern for the future. I urge you not to break the law again. Good luck to all of you."
The defendants were convicted of trespass, given a 12-month conditional discharge and ordered to pay costs of between £250 and £500.
Monday 20th February
The NI Protocol idiocy rumbles on. Years of self-inflicted impasse, needless economic damage, discomfort and chaos for the northern Irish.
Listen to Michael Heseltine on the bigger picture in a Channel 4 interview from some years back (2 minutes):
From the mouth of a Tory grandee. Following in the tradition of Winston Churchill, co-architect of a united Europe.
The generational point makes my blood boil. You will know from these pages that I consider Brexit a personal affront. My family is European. Fortunately, our sons live that experience. This week Nikko from Vienna is visiting Ben in Bilbao. You can't stop them, Little Englander.
Heseltine's view is statesmanlike, isn't it? A sense of history, standing above petty insular concerns. I dream that one day Brexit will be seen for what it is, a mindless aberration. I certainly intend to behave as if it never happened.
Sunday 19th February
I've written before how I semi-abandoned Twitter in favour of Mastodon. No regrets, particularly as I retained my Twitter account so that I could still hear from the bad guys. The best thing is the quality of "toots" that reach me from previously unknown sources. I don't yet know how the algorithms work, but they reliably pick up on my interests, say, in social justice and climate. Intelligent stuff, often well-written, a far cry from the plague of Twitter dross I used to endure. The content moderation is strong - I get nothing grossly offensive, no hate rants.
Here's an example that dropped on my e-mat yesterday from Canadian teacher Sylvia Duckworth, her take on a have-versus-have-not world:
It's not a perfect summary. You might disagree with some of the categories and examples. But it reminds me of how we need always to pay attention to the imbalances and inequities of our world, how they have an impact across all aspects of life.
Marginalisation. That's where the help is needed. OK, here's a leap that may be a bit of a stretch, also perhaps a little trivial. On Saturday morning at 10am we had a litter-pick to clean up the street - and a chance to rub shoulders with neighbours. I've never understood litter. Why would you go to an attractive place and then drop rubbish so that it was no longer pretty? If I watch what happens in Middle Street, the litter comes from those who don't have a connection, in most cases ... the marginalised. Buy a cheap portion of chips in the Big Fish in Nelson Street, eat them walking up the road towards the top of town, chuck away the styrofoam box as you pass our door. No connection to the comfortable residential area through which you're passing. Why should you care when you have little stake in society?
Back to the little pleasures of Mastodon. The daily poems of Brian Bilston. Light, quirky. They raise a quiet smile.
7am. An England victory early in the fourth day:
An extraordinary transformation under positive leadership. Not since 2010 have England won six Tests in a row. For Ben Stokes, this was his 10th victory in 12 Tests as captain. Only Lindsay Hassett, who succeeded Don Bradman as Australia captain in 1949, can match Stokes's speed to 10 Test wins.
Saturday 18th February
08:00am. Cheerful news for this cricket lover from the other side of the world:
My only disappointment is that I'd hoped to ease into the day with Test Match Special and an early cup of tea. Instead ...
What can they be thinking?
Friday 17th February
I've missed a few blog days through weariness of news. National leaders are cracking under the strain too, it would appear: first Ardern, then Sturgeon. If politicians - they chose to make it their business - find the profession unpalatable, what chance have we got?
Reporting of world events reaches even the very young. Grandson Marlie drew this diagram of the Ukraine-Russia war yesterday, off his own bat (click to enlarge). A conflict blend of flags in the middle, Ukrainian features on the left, Russian on the right, result at the bottom.
Congratulations to Christian Adams on managing to get two departures into one cartoon:
Sunday 12th February
Still no time for proper blogging, so I'll have to borrow again from the estimable Peter Brookes.
Saturday 11th February
Bit of a blog hiatus. First, I've found it difficult to comment on anything as we witness the tragedy in Turkey and Syria. Second, we're in the middle of a visit from brother-in-law Kevin, which demands maximum commitment to meal production. One seafood risotto successfully delivered, on with the next creation.
So much excellent material in the Zelensky visit. Time for just one cartoon:
One tiny detail in the above. Sunak's shoelaces are tied in neat little bows. Johnson's are undone.
Thursday 9th February
I was ready with jokey topics today. Not after watching the news:
Wednesday 8th February
Tuesday 7th February
Time for some forward-planning. Stroudies, have you booked your tickets?
The official dates are March 3rd-19th, with some early "preview" events starting on 17th February (I know, why not make that the opening day?). The programme is spread around venues: Lansdown Hall, Long Table, Wotton-under-Edge Electric Picture House, Trinity Rooms, Hawkwood, Stroud Brewery, Subscription Rooms, Goods Shed, Museum in the Park, Stroud Valley Arts.
To give a flavour, here are three of my choices. I already mentioned the first a week ago, but it's worth repeating.
Woman faces up to might of food corporations. No-brainer:
"The Seeds of Vandana Shiva"
Saturday 18 February 5:00pm to 9:30pm
The Long Table Brimscombe Mill GL5 2QN
"Just who is Vandana Shiva? How has one woman managed to have such a profound impact on the debate around agriculture, food, farming and bio-engineering? How did she become Monsanto's worst nightmare? The Seeds of Vandana Shiva explores the story of this extraordinary woman: agriculturalist, quantum physicist, activist and social justice icon, how she stood up to the corporate Goliaths of industrial agriculture, rose to prominence in the seed saving and organic food movements, and now is inspiring an international movement for change.
"This event is being held in partnership with THE LONG TABLE who will be offering a pre-screening delicious meal, Long Table style. Introduced by Cllr Robin Drury-Layfield, the evening will include a panel discussion with special guests chaired by visual artist Ritu Sood."
Anything with Mark Rylance:
Friday 24 February 7:30pm to 9:30pm
Electric Picture House Cinema Market Street Wotton-under-Edge GL12 7AE
"A special preview of the new film starring Mark Rylance and Rory Alexander, set and filmed around Gloucester. Inland is a modern folktale that explores the fractured identity of a young man after the mysterious disappearance of his mother. Guided by a father figure and old friends who care deeply, his journey through the dreamlike spaces of rural England bring him face to face with the loss that haunts him in ways he could never have expected.
"Afterwards writer/director Fridtjof Ryder and producer Henry Richmond talk about their stylish and enigmatic new drama, which received its world premiere at the 2022 London Film Festival."
Because it was made by my neighbour Holly Antrum:
"Yes to the work!" - Women's Art Library documentary
Saturday 11 March 3:00pm to 5:00pm
Museum in the Park Stratford Park GL5 4AF
"The Women's Art Library presents insights into the feminist links between art and education. Commissioned by Art360 Foundation. 30 minutes. The screening is followed by a conversation led by two locals - writer and curator Jean Boyd with the film's director, artist and filmmaker Holly Antrum."
For the full programme and tickets visit the festival website:
Monday 6th February
Mostly random-ish follow-up today to bits I've posted recently.
The bid by John Lydon - aka Johnny Rotten - to represent Ireland at the Eurovision song contest has come to an end. He announced last month the hope to perform with his band Public Image Ltd a new song, "Hawaii", which is dedicated to Lydon's wife Nora who is living with Alzheimer's disease. Dublin's four-piece band Wild Youth won the vote on Friday night. I never thought 45 years ago that I would one day be writing this word sequence: Johnny Rotten ... carer ... wife Nora ... Alzheimer's. Sad. None of it part of the punk story.
The Shell profit scandal inevitably featured in Dale Vince's latest Zerocarbonista. It's always worth a listen. I've posted the full audio here (27 minutes) ... for when you're doing the washing up ... taking a break for a cup of tea ...
"We're a bit sweary today in this bumper episode as the world's gone bonkers. We review what's going on with the UK's latest Prime Minister and consider how the government became anti-wind at the same time as offering £600m to steel producers. Shell have made £32bn of profit when we're in an energy crisis - what the hell is going on? Then Bristol Airport got permission to expand this week too."
Although Forest Green Rovers have yet to win under their new manager, he can be pleased that the liberal chattering classes are now taking him to their hearts. If you read The Guardian you will have seen the Journal interview on Friday ( - 5 pages). The article reveals that we can reasonably expect a visit here in Gloucestershire from Real Madrid and their manager Carlo Ancelotti, 4-times winner of the Champions League:
"One of those Champions League winners was Carlo Ancelotti, who respected Ferguson's opinion. The two remain close and Ferguson recently visited his former boss at Real Madrid. 'I saw all my exercises on the training ground. Him and his son [assistant coach Davide] are like magpies - they've taken all my exercises,' Ferguson jokes. 'I've worked with Carlo a great deal.'
"Ferguson is not the only one at Forest Green with close links to Real. Vince has been advising the club on sustainability and use of pesticides. Could this lead to a friendly at The New Lawn? 'I would love that - it would be absolutely fabulous,' Ferguson says. 'Why not do it over in Stroud? If there is a gap in the calendar, I am sure Carlo would facilitate that.'"
So, no vegan burger yet. He needs to concentrate on that before working on a Real Madrid game.
Truss has started the process of justifying the actions that brought the country to its knees. This weekend saw her first major outing as self-apologist:
Blames everybody else. Claims she had the right idea. Fortunately, the rest of us know that she is a dim, incompetent, self-seeking and arrogant twerp.
One last thing today. On Saturday, I pondered if the Green New Deal and Labour's Great British Energy were "pie in the sky" ideas. Now, we know what the expression means - but where does it come from? The most common explanation I've heard is that it appeared in a 1911 song by Joe Hill, Swedish-American labour activist, songwriter and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, familiarly named the "Wobblies"). Called "The Preacher and the Slave", the song was written as a parody of the hymn "In the Sweet By-and-By", a dig at the Salvation Army's promise of reward in heaven rather than on earth. The "pie" reference is in the chorus:
Long-haired preachers come out every night
Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right
But when asked how 'bout something to eat
They will answer in voices so sweet
You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land in the sky
Work and pray, live on hay
You'll get pie in the sky when you die
If you fancy listening to the song, here's a live 2005 version by Utah Phillips. He introduces it with charming and informative bits of background - and rehearsal for the audience:
Holding a message for Sunak, right? Plus ça change.
Sunday 5th February
Poor sporting outcomes for this household yesterday:
Except that I did my usual trick of placing a small wager on the opposition to ease the pain of an unwelcome result:
Saturday 4th February
Campaigners Green New Deal (GND) must have known that I was raging against Shell yesterday because they sent me an email:
"Sickeningly, Shell has just reported its highest profits in its 115 year history. That's £32 billion made from fuelling the climate crisis and destroying people's lives.
"This display of corporate greed at a time when people can't afford their bills or to pay their rent shows that this Government has no interest in protecting us. Rishi Sunak and his pals are actively inflaming the crisis by green-lighting more fossil fuel projects and handing out tax breaks to polluters.
"It's hard news to digest. But we think this is the time to be speaking about solutions to fix this crisis, like bringing in a sustained windfall tax and democratising energy.
"We know these solutions are the antidote to the current profit-driven and climate-wrecking energy system. Because when communities have control, they can distribute energy in the interest of people and the planet."
Labour MP and GND Champion Clive Lewis explains why we should bring energy into public hands (1 minute 15 seconds):
Pie in the sky? Yet Labour has moulded its hopes around Great British Energy. "Nationalisation" is a difficult word in a Britain still shaped by Thatcher, a nation derailed by Brexit.
Friday 3rd February
Apologies for gloom today, folks, but I'm oppressed by the overwhelming evidence that the wrong people are in charge. Fat cats, warmongers, xenophobes. Why do we let them? There are billions more of us.
Does it have to be this way?
As Elvis Costello sang (and Nick Lowe wrote), "What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding?"
Alternatively - and with belligerence - I'll borrow from the words of Glen Matlock's new song that I posted on Wednesday 👉: "Ain't gonna let this go until there's someone's head on a stick."
Thursday 2nd February
It's the conversation at the bottom-right that gets me:
"Who would have thought?"
"Anyone with a brain?"
It's one of the uncomfortable background effects of Brexit that I'm obliged to believe that more than 50% of my compatriots (maybe less now) are ... stupid. Everywhere I go in England I run the risk of half the people I meet not sharing a view of Britain that would make me proud. Not a good foundation for daily life.
I am however pleased that cartoonist David Squires of The Guardian finally caught up with us local folk (see the news here:👉) as he considered Everton's new choice of manager:
And this is a great drone (I presume) shot of the New Lawn in Forest Green with Amberley on the right hillside beyond and Stroud in the distance:
Wednesday 1st February
There's no easy way to spin a positive escape from this. Unless you're Jacob Rees-Mogg: "When was the IMF forecast last right?"
Here's the published document, "World Economic Outlook Update January 2023", (11 pages):
Brexit is not mentioned. But this contrast is made:
"Growth in the euro area is projected to bottom out at 0.7 percent in 2023 before rising to 1.6 percent in 2024."
"Growth in the United Kingdom is projected to be -0.6 percent in 2023, a 0.9 percentage point downward revision from October."
Is that October comment an acknowledgement of the Truss meltdown and subsequent Hunt measures/U-turns, what the IMF calls "tighter fiscal and monetary policies"?
More entertaining and certainly more outspoken was Glen Matlock, original bass player with the Sex Pistols, interviewed early yesterday on BBC Breakfast. He has a new album coming out, "Consequences Coming", which carries the comments below:
"The album was written and recorded in Britain over the last 18 months or so with a posse of seasoned but on point performers. All done during the debacle that is Brexit and the rise and fall of the turgid Trump episode in the US. These songs reflect my take on the whole sorry mess that has ensued.
"Now the wheels of the music business can sometimes move at a lugubrious, glacial pace, and sometimes the moment might be lost but seeing no break in the clouds or clear light at the end of the tunnel, surely the only demand on people's lips should be that there are 'Consequences Coming' for the fat headed oafs who have foisted their asinine warped sensibilities on us."
He was on the programme to talk about the new single, "Head On A Stick". The BBC red sofa presenters desperately wanted to get him off politics, but he wasn't playing. Here's the official video, with some further words from Glen:
"Peeved at the predictable but ultimately pointless political lurch to the right that has happened in the West over the past few years, one which has been aided and abetted by the vested interests of a client press, I put pen to paper and plectrum to guitar to compose a song that's a call to arms, a wake up alarm and primal open your eyes scream.
"It might be easy to be wise after the event but some saw where we were headed and in the words of Pete Seeger attempted to hammer out a warning. We always thought it can't happen here but it sadly most definitely has and heads should justifiably roll ..."
He also reminded us during the interview that Johnny Rotten was/is a Brexiteer ... and, having become a U.S. citizen in 2013, voted for Trump.
Punk largely passed me by, as its heyday coincided with my residence in Italy. The Italians weren't a natural fit with the music and movement. What, dress badly, hold no views on food and pay little attention to good wine? It wasn't going to happen. I did however once cause a minor stir by going to an elegant and delicious Veneto fancy dress dinner as Sid Vicious. Who replaced Matlock as bass player when Glen and Johnny fell out.
Stop Press: My Irish correspondent has reminded me that it is St. Brigid's Day. Celebrate. From GOV.IE ...
"In Ireland, the first of February marks the beginning of Spring and the celebration of Lá Fhéile Bríde, St Brigid's Day. Like many of other feast days of the Irish calendar, Brigid predates Christianity - her roots lie in the Celtic festival of Imbolc, the feast of the goddess Brigid, celebrated at least five millennia ago. In old Irish, Imbolc means 'in the belly', a reference to lambing and the renewal Spring promises."
Tuesday 31st January
This is uplifting, a beacon of light amidst the challenging gloom of climate threat and food poverty, a welcome counterpoint to the rotten antics of the government. We've just been invited by friends to an evening at The Long Table, as worthy a Stroud institution as you can get.
Stroud Film Festival
The Seeds of Vandana Shiva
Saturday, 18 February 2023 5:00pm-9:00pm
"How did the wilful daughter of a Himalayan forest conservator become Monsanto's worst nightmare? The Seeds of Vandana Shiva tells the remarkable life story of Gandhian eco-activist Dr. Vandana Shiva, how she stood up to the corporate Goliaths of industrial agriculture, rose to prominence in the seed saving and organic food movements and is inspiring an international crusade for change. The Long Table are delighted to be partnering with Stroud Film Festival to host this screening of The Seeds of Vandana Shiva, a film which resonates so strongly with our aim of increasing local food resilience and putting food at the centre of the community.
"Pre- screening, we will be serving a delicious meal, Long Table style, which will of course be pay-as-you-can."
Here's some more blurb from the Long Table website:
"The Long Table was founded by Tom Herbert and Will Mansell in an old Brimscombe warehouse in 2018. This happened after Tom met with Will Mansell of The Grace Network, of which The Long Table is now a key part. They shared a mutual dismay of how society is doing food badly, leaving people unwell and lonely. Shamefully, one third of all food grown and produced is never eaten. And so a new kind of Community Interest Company was born, with a team from a variety of social roots that shared one vision. Our aim is to make locally sourced and lovingly prepared food available to everyone, regardless of their social or financial background. Something we now call Food Equality."
Visit the website here:
Monday 30th January
How telling that the number one story yesterday should have been about the sacking of the chairman of the Conservative Party. Not news of economic progress, a break-through scientific development nor justice achieved for a deserving ordinary person. Nope. Just self-seeking Tory sleaze and dishonesty.
What a shame that I should have been scouring the GOV.UK website not for useful guidance or explanation but for the official #taxgate letters sent by Sir Laurie Magnus, Rishi Sunak and Nadhim Zahawi. Yes, they are there ... but what a waste of time and money, documenting the transgressions of our leadership rather than their achievements. I'm sure you've seen them but for the record here they are: Magnus to Sunak , Sunak to Zahawi and Zahawi to Sunak .
"It is also with pride that I, and previous Prime Ministers, have been able to draw upon the services of a Kurdish-born Iraqi refugee at the highest levels of the UK Government."
Zahawi commented in reply:
"I arrived in this country fleeing persecution and speaking no English. Here, I built a successful business and served in some of the highest offices in government."
Which privilege he then abused.
This is the government hell-bent on making more difficult the lives of the desperate seeking sanctuary.
Sunday 29th January
The joke's (almost) over now. No first match fairy tale victory, cruelly denied in extra time:
I reckon Big Dunc told the lads to get stuck in:
Meanwhile, I have the answer to my vegan question of two days ago:
"The earth is warming up, isn't it?" No shit, Dunc.
Would this have helped tired FGR legs in the dying moments of the game? Son Ben sent a photo of Thursday's birthday lunch in Bilbao:
Saturday 28th January
Friday 27th January
Football and Forest Green Rovers again today. Apologies to those not interested - but it's quite a story.
A bit of background for the uninitiated. "Big Dunc" - 6' 4" - was in his playing days a robust No. 9 for Scotland and most prominently for Everton. Good with his head, both on the pitch and ...
... off. Here's a chunk of his Wikipedia entry:
"Ferguson has had four convictions for assault - two arising from taxi rank scuffles, one an altercation with a fisherman in an Anstruther pub, and one for his on-field headbutt on Raith Rovers defender John McStay in 1994 while playing for Rangers, which resulted in a rare conviction for an on-the-field incident. The first incident led to a £100 fine for headbutting a policeman and a £25 fine for a Breach of the Peace, while the second resulted in a £200 fine for punching and kicking a supporter on crutches. He was sentenced to a year's probation for the third offence. For the 1994 on-the-field headbutting, he received and served a three-month jail term for assault."
Ferguson was burgled in 2001 and 2003. On both occasions the robbers were hospitalised. They clearly hadn't done their homework.
Sounds ideal. It's going to be a scrap to avoid relegation from League One, so we need a bit of a brawler. I like his second nickname even more: "Duncan Disorderly".
It gets better. According to ClassicFM and other sources, little-known Finnish composer Osmo Tapio Räihälä dedicated one of his works to the centre-forward. It's called "Barlinnie Nine", presumably a reference to HM Prison Barlinnie where Ferguson served time and his Everton shirt number. The orchestral piece was premiered on the same day in 2005 that Ferguson scored the only goal in a game against Manchester United, Everton's first win over ManU in 10 years.
It's true. Räihälä said:
"I got the idea for it when he was facing jail and had just become something of a cult figure for Everton. It takes into account the contradictions in him: he has an aggressive side but there is a lyrical undertone, as the fact that he keeps pigeons shows."
I don't expect you to listen to all 12 minutes of the premiere performance, but for the record here it is, on 20th April 2005 at the Finlandia Hall, Helsinki, played by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo:
The appointment has gone down well with the FGR faithful on the Twittersphere. Announced the day after Burchnall departed, Dale Vince must have had this in the pipeline. A canny move? I'm off to the bookies to find out what odds I can get on FGR escaping the drop. I should have gone two days ago.
Has anyone told him he's a vegan from now on?
Thursday 26th January
Oh dear. Forest Green Rovers hit the buffers.
Manager pays customary price.
Too much red:
It didn't stop Dale making a trip to Vienna last week (OK, he went by train) to give Arnie some diamonds.
Maybe that's why FGR are bottom of the league. Distracted by bling.
Chris Taylor writes from Udine:
"Meanwhile Udinese have refound their winning ways (Sampdoria 0 Udinese 1) and are respectably well above halfway in the Serie A table. I and my son-in-law will be at the Stadio Friuli on Monday night to see what they can do against Verona. Watch this space."
Happy Birthday to son Ben in Bilbao!
Wednesday 25th January
This poster went up in a Middle Street window two days ago:
As you can see at the bottom right, the Stroud Red Band will be playing. Their website explains:
"We are an extension of the London Big Red Band, which has been in existence since the 1980s. Like them we play music from the heritage of the labour, socialist and international solidarity movements. We play at demonstrations, marches and benefits when we can."
"Tunes in the repertoire: Di Shvue ('The Oath', the song of the Jewish Workers' Bund), Zog Nit Keynmol (WW2 Jewish Partisans' Song), The White Cockade (for which the words of the Red Flag were originally written), I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free, One Love ..."
Here we come, sadly, to some evidence of conflict in Stroud. I wrote in December last year about opposition to the peddling of The Light newspaper in the High Street 👉. You will have noticed in the poster at the top that certain groups are not invited to the memorial event on Sunday: "Everyone is welcome - except for Holocaust deniers, antisemites and their apologists". I saw on YouTube these placards displayed by supporters of the Stroud Red Band as they busked in town:
It will be deeply regrettable if the Stroud (Mis)InfoHub go large on this over the weekend (the official memorial day is 27th January, this Friday). They wouldn't show up on Sunday, would they? Please no.
To read more about this weekend's events you can visit the website of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT), a charity established and funded by the UK Government, by clicking below:
The HMDT has a theme for 2023 of "ordinary people". It's a provocative thought:
"Genocide is facilitated by ordinary people. Ordinary people turn a blind eye, believe propaganda, join murderous regimes. And those who are persecuted, oppressed and murdered in genocide aren't persecuted because of crimes they've committed - they are persecuted simply because they are ordinary people who belong to a particular group (eg, Roma, Jewish community, Tutsi). Ordinary people were involved in all aspects of the Holocaust, Nazi persecution of other groups, and in the genocides that took place in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Ordinary people were perpetrators, bystanders, rescuers, witnesses - and ordinary people were victims."
Here is the full text of the theme document (6 pages):
It contains a beautiful comic-strip image from the graphic novel "Irmina" by Munich-based Barbara Yelin, which I highlight here (click to enlarge):
Tuesday 24th January
I've been trawling the international output of the political cartoonists on the topic of Jacinda Ardern's resignation. There has been plenty of criticism directed at her in words - jump-before-push, economic crisis, rising violence - but I can't find any from the cartoonists, apart from the two below (the first repeated from Friday), both of which are comments on other world leaders rather than an attack on her. The sketches of her are not very flattering, but the joke and disdain are firmly aimed at the rest. Very unusual. Normally - look at the stuff above targetting Sunak and cronies - any weakness, any whiff of hypocrisy, any incompetence is exposed with merciless glee. The absence of such scrutiny speaks positive volumes about her.
Sadly, we are left with the sleazeballs.
Sunday 22nd January
My dreams get odder every night.
This time I was an airline pilot. On my first flight from somewhere in the Middle East I was forced to crash land. Also on the second. Before the third - there seemed to be no move to ground me pending investigation, I was straight back into the pilot's seat - I felt obliged to give the passengers a choice. "This is your captain speaking. I cannot reliably assure you that you will arrive at your destination in the normal fashion. All of you who would prefer to take another flight, please feel free to leave the aircraft now." On this occasion I landed in a New York suburb, the nose of the 'plane nestling in an apartment belonging to a large Italian family tucking into pasta and meatballs. They welcomed me with a generous portion. "Vieni, mangia!" No casualties at any stage, no drama.
I can't begin to find an explanation.
Saturday 21st January
They don't get any better, do they? New crap every day.
The seatbelt error is just dim, isn't it? Broadcast a jolly levelling-up video that shows my mistake, why ever not? Zahawi and tax - we expect this kind of Tory slime. The car battery fiasco is, however, the long-term outcome of wilful, systemic and idealogical incompetence. Thatcherite destruction of our motor-manufacturing capability had already left Britishvolt with no national customers. Given the barriers to trade and logistics raised by Brexit, which European car maker would choose to buy from go-it-alone Blighty?
Friday 20th January
Tuesday 17th January
Absence from the blogosphere for a few days. I've had a lurgy. Not Covid, nor 'flu, just the common cold. Still reasonably debilitating. Unhelpfully, I've not been able to keep awake in the day, nor manage to sleep at night - connected, of course. Friends and neighbours have said that their dose went on for weeks. Mine's still here, but I hope it's fading now.
Grandson Marlie put up with me for the weekend. I barely went out. Fortunately his current passion is suitable for indoor activity:
He came up with all kinds of "extension" activities: guess-the-flag, draw-the-flag, how-many-flags-do-you-know-with-stripes. There's a whole lot of story and detail behind each flag, like date adopted or who invented it. What's behind the selection of colours and shapes?
Half of Marlie's ancestry is Jamaican:
The flag was adopted on 6 August 1962, Jamaican Independence Day. 60 years to celebrate this summer. There'll be a party, won't there? The 1962 interpretation of the colours - "hardships there are but the land is green and the sun shineth" - was updated in 1996 after a review initiated by then prime minister P. J. Patterson to (courtesy of Wikipedia): "Black representing the strength and creativity of the people which has allowed them to overcome difficulties, gold for the wealth of the country and the golden sunshine, and green for the lush vegetation of the island, as well as hope."
I thought I'd got Marlie with one question, but he knew the answer! It is currently the only national flag that does not contain a shade of the colours red, white, or blue. Hmmm, shade of white?
Here's a quiz question for you, the answer to which is contained in previous pages of this blog. What are the only two national flags that display the country's map?
Friday 13th January
At the Goodwill evening before Christmas Stroud District Together with Refugees (SDTwR) ran a stall in Lansdown Hall. Visitors were invited to write a message of support to refugees and hang it on a tree. Ninety-one people did so. Here are two pictures, the first in the hall, the second after the tree was moved to the Christmas tree festival in the parish church of St. Lawrence (click to enlarge):
Jude Emmet of SDTwR has recently drawn this to the attention of Stroud Conservative MP Siobhan Baillie:
Firstly, may I wish you and your family a happy new year.
At the Goodwill Evening held in Stroud on 2nd December, our group Stroud District Together with Refugees (SDTWR) displayed a Christmas Tree and invited passers by and shoppers to write a message of welcome to refugees and asylum seekers who have overcome appalling hardship and difficulties to reach what ought to be the safety of this country. We set up our stall and tree in the Lansdown Hall and waited to see what the reaction would be from Stroud residents. We were there for about two hours.
During that time, just about everyone we approached wanted to write a message, and we were heartened to see that every single message was a positive message of welcome. By the end of our time, 91 messages were hung on the tree and we would like to share them with you (below).
I hope you will celebrate with us the kindness and outpouring of love that the messages show. We are proud that Stroud is so solidly supportive of the refugees and asylum seekers who arrive on our shores. We therefore urge you to commit to working towards safe routes to reduce the need for anyone to make these perilous journeys.
(Stroud District Together with Refugees)
These are the messages that were hung on the tree:
1. Welcome to England. 2. Welcome to Stroud. Hope you feel safe and happy xx. 3. You are so welcome here; I hope you settle in well x. 4. Welcome to everyone who needs a home! 5. Assume good will / Judge others by the content of their character. 6. You are so welcome here in Stroud. 7. Dear refugees, wherever you come from you are welcome here. 8. I hope you find warmth and kindness. 9. You are welcome here. 10. Refugees always welcome here! 11. Welcome to Stroud💖. 12. Welcome to everyone seeking sanctuary in Glos! 13. Wishing you love and peace. 14. My heart goes out to you all, much love xxx 15. Warm welcome, may you always feel at home. We need you xx. 16. Welcome all. The people of this country are not the government. 17. You have been through so much - we are here to welcome you and support you. 18. We are all migrants💖! 19. We welcome refugees. 20. Welcome! Wishing you a warm and welcoming time💖. 21. We'll enjoy a colourful Stroud with contributions from lots of different backgrounds. 22. Hope you feel happy soon. 23. Rest in peace in Stroud. 24. Thinking of you all💖. 25. You are all WELCOME here x. 26. I love and I will look after you. 27. You are so loved x. 28. Thinking of you all with love and welcome arms. 29. Welcome and good luck! 30. Welcome in Gloucestershire! 31. Refugees, we don't care where you're from everyone is welcome here! 32. Love💖. 33. The warmest of welcomes to you xxx. 34. Make yourselves a home here! 35. A warm Stroud welcome to you all x. 36. Welcome home💖love💖. 37. Hello, you are safe here. 38. Welcome! We hope you enjoy your Christmas in Stroud. 39. You are welcome everywhere, be brave. 40. Thinking of you for a better 2023, welcome. 41. We welcome you with love and warmth xxx. 42. Love knows no borders / everyone always welcome x. 43. Our very best wishes to all refugees. 44. You're welcome to stay. 45. Welcome to Stroud x. 46. Welcome. 47. Hope Hope Hope and Love. 48. Warm wishes and welcome. 49. Good you are here. Welcome. May the new year bring better times. 50. Come on in💖! 51. We welcome you all into our hearts xx. 52. The warmest of warm welcomes to one and all with love x. 53. Refugees one and all we welcome you! We welcome your experience, skills, culture, language. You enrich us all! 54. Welcome to Stroud xx. 55. Love and peace this Christmas in Stroud🌠. 56. May Stroud be a place of safety, welcome and support. 57. Wishing all new lives filled with peace and happiness! 58. You are very welcome here - as a child of refugees I hope you feel safe and at home. 59. Welcome. 60. Welcome to this part of the world. 61. Welcome/Hello! A warm welcome to you. I truly wish you a bright day and joyous future. You are always welcome. 62. Welcome to the UK! Hope you find all the things you need here! Welcome. 63. Welcome to the UK, hope you like it. 64. Welcome and safe haven here. 65. We are all migrants. We welcome you with love x💖. 66. May all the luck and kindness come to you. 67. Hope you find safety and peace here. 68. Wishing you good luck and success. 69. Welcome to Gloucestershire. I hope you're made to feel welcome. 70. We love you xxx/💖💖💖. 71. Hope you find peace here. Lots of love xx. 72. We welcome refugees here! 73. May the rainbow appear for your thoughts x. 74. We wish you well you are welcome here! 75. Welcome to Stroud!💖Hope you will find peace and happiness xx. 76. All are welcome because we are all one - karibuni! 77. My arms are open to welcome you xx. 78. You are safe, you are welcome, you are loved. 79. Welcome to Stroud. 80. Goodwill to all refugees. 81. So many people welcome you here💖. 82. You are welcome to Stroud. I hope you stay safe and happy this Christmas. 83. Merry Christmas! Sending lots of love and care xxx. 84. Welcome to UK - may you find a good life here! 85. Season's greetings and welcome to all. 86. You enrich our country / peace and love x. 87.🌞There is always beauty around us🌱. 88. Welcome refugees, we love you all. 89. Refugees, good luck. I hope you find peace and happiness. 90. Selamat Datang [Malay/Indonesian: "Welcome"]. 91. You are so loved.
Stroudies, be proud. Refugees, welcome.
Thursday 12th January
RIP Jeff Beck (24 June 1944 - 10 January 2023, aged 78). Remember the Yardbirds? Guitarist's guitarist: made an art of distortion, picked with his thumb, master of the whammy bar (aka grooving stick), tone to die for (and now he has). Here he is with another old diva performing one of my favourite songs, Curtis Mayfield's 1965 "People Get Ready":
People get ready, there's a train a-coming
You don't need no baggage, you just get on board
All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming
You don't need no ticket, you just thank the Lord
People get ready for the train to Jordan
Picking up passengers from coast to coast
Faith is the key, open the doors and board them
There's room for all among those loved the most
Now there ain't no room for the hopeless sinner
Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own
Have pity on those whose chances are thinner
'Cause there's no hiding place from the Kingdom's throne
So people get ready for the train a-coming
You don't need no baggage, you just get on board
All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming
You don't need no ticket, you just thank the Lord
It's always the "diesels" that get me.
Wednesday 11th January
Eleven days into the New Year and I'm going to abandon my self-imposed moratorium on cartoons. I admit defeat. A few have leaked into the blog in the last days, but here's a whole lot more. The cartoonists say it for me, save me wrestling with prose - and most of all make me laugh. That's a gift I can't spurn, a smile rather than despair or anger.
I wonder at how the English press busies itself with the really important issues. Harry, do we need to know? (With apologies to my Irish correspondent, who commented: "Good to see that the blog is a Harry-free zone.")
Then this charade bled across into ... the Virgin Orbit fiasco ... and threats to Sunak's authority:
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world the usual nutters are at large:
Tuesday 10th January
I haven't written about Covid for a long time, except in a historical sense. But it's still around. We're "living with" the virus at a different level. Anecdotal Middle Street intelligence tells me that it's rife in Gloucester Royal and even in Stroud Hospital round the corner. After a lunch with 20-odd people from our walking group last Saturday, a friend tested positive, so others have done a lateral flow. I've got a mild cough and cold, but have had a negative result two mornings in a row. It's a while since I reported one of these:
Looking back through this blog, I counted occurrences of the words "coronavirus" and "Covid". In reverse order:
2023 - 3 (we've only just started);
2022 - 80;
2021 - 380;
2020 - 315 (I began the blog on 22nd March).
Consider this ONS report of causes of death in England published at the end of November last year:
Covid is in eighth place. Other conditions demand greater concern.
Contrast the above with three charts - not a like-for-like comparison, but indicative of the change - I posted two years ago in the first two weeks of January 2021:
At the time we were in deep shock. Very frightened. I didn't know how we'd get out of it all. Except the vaccines were just about to roll out. NHS staff were working round the clock at considerable personal risk. Baroness Mone had made £millions out of PPE contracts. Check out the red numbers below:
Monday 9th January
Some minor reflections on social media, specifically related to the debate about the Twitter-monolith-owned-by-evil-Musk versus Mastodon-or-any-other-egalitarian-decentralised-uncorporate-platform.
I'm enjoying Mastodon. I like being part of the right-on sandal-wearing free-open-source-software community. However, as I've explained before, I've kept my Twitter account open for one passive reason alone - so that I can hear from or about people I don't like, horse's-mouth from the other side. I only actively "toot" on Mastodon.
For example, I learnt yesterday that you can buy this calendar, for £13.95 via Amazon. Don't worry, I definitely won't be making a purchase. Far too much for a relatively small joke, and Amazon? ... no thanks.
It was JR-M himself who alerted me to its publication through his Twitter account:
Beyond this, I benefit from direct unfiltered access to his views. Here's a selection tweeted in the last two months:
Sunday 8th January
I'm allowing myself one cartoon today:
There's a reason for this choice which you can't possibly guess.
Before going to university in 1970 I spent six months at a "prep" Ivy-League-feeder school - Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, New Hampshire, USA - as an exchange student. Not an altogether comfortable experience, as I bridled at its smug sense of privilege, and shouldn't really have still been at school (you can read my account here: 👉). However, I made some great friends. One was a lovely young man, kind, caring, laughing, easy to be with. He had a dramatic mane of thick long black hair, a heavy black stubble on his chin. His name was Harry Cocaine.
Why "Cocaine"? His antecedents had migrated from Greece in the early 20th century. The story goes that the immigration official on Ellis Island looked at the family name Kokkinis, thought it wouldn't do and renamed them Cocaine. He must have had a good laugh with his wife when he went home.
Harry has since reclaimed the original name. In 2003 he - I don't know where he was in the intervening years, apart from studying at Amherst - joined the family firm founded in 1924, Table Talk Pies ("America's Favourite Pie"), in Worcester, Massachusetts. Yes, we shared the same home town name. He became chief executive in 2015 when his father Christo died. The company website suggests that he is still in charge.
Here's a Boston TV station report on a new factory they opened up:
I envy him - or I would have done in the 1970s when I was lorry-mad - the fleet of semi-trucks:
So here's the plan. Harry and I said an emotional farewell 52 years ago and haven't been in touch since. I have no idea why I failed to maintain such a friendship. Tomorrow I'm going to send him an email at Table Talk and follow that up with a 'phone call a couple of days later. There's a risk. If I manage to connect, will he still remember me? What the hell, I'm going to try anyway. Nothing ventured ...
Saturday 7th January
No great desire to comment on anything today. Harry? Oh, pur-lease. Nope, it's time for the first Mapfest of 2023. In descending order, from serious to silly, informative to downright foolish. Click/tap to enlarge any.
Alasdair Rae - Map of global population density
Strategic Forecasting Inc - Population density map of China and Asia
Amazing Maps - Countries surrounding Poland pre-1990 and post-1993 - all change!
Amazing Maps - Parts of the Republic of Ireland are further north than Northern Ireland
Amazing Maps - Map of the Internet in 1969
Amazing Maps - Map Kiwi - Nobody lives here
Amazing Maps - Straight 13,500km line from Liberia to China without crossing an ocean
Terrible Maps - What pedestrians look like across Europe
Terrible Maps - Iceland to Ireland
Terrible Maps - Railway map of Antarctica
Terrible Maps - Roman air bases in 2nd Century AD
Friday 6th January
Whoopee! The Iron Maiden postage stamps have been announced, available from 12th January. You can pre-order now - hurry! rush! - at the Royal Mail shop: . Click/tap to enlarge all images below.
Hmmm ... still with the head of Queen Liz II. Planned for some time, then? A whiff of hoax? Apparently not. Iron Maiden manager Rod Smallwood said: "It's incredible to think that Her Majesty, may she rest in peace, saw these and lent her iconic silhouette to them."
This is my kind of news, perfect for a lighter 2023. Not only snaps of band gigs over the years, but also a selection honouring "mascot" Eddie:
The Maiden website explains the four above:
I have never wittingly heard an Iron Maiden song, nor watched a video, let alone been to a gig. BUT ... I have been flown to Corsica by lead singer Bruce Dickinson, who used to moonlight as a pilot for charter airline Astraeus in his music downtime. I discovered yesterday that we attended the same school; he was six years my junior ... and sensibly got expelled.
Maiden commissioned an Astraeus 757 as transport for their "Somewhere Back in Time" tour in 2008 and nicknamed it Ed Force One ... driven of course by Captain Dickinson:
Thursday 5th January
Some days you need a little something to get going. Oliver Reed called his first drink a "heart-starter". I've listened to this the last two mornings:
"Don't ask me what I think of you,
I might not give the answer that you want me to"
RIP (25th July 2020) Peter Allen Greenbaum. Off his head, bless 'im. Danny Kirwan - typical of Green, the greatest English blues guitarist, that he let other people play the lead solos on songs that he had written - is also sadly no more. But I still have a copy of the "dustbin" album:
Jeremy Cedric Spencer - maracas in the video above - is still playing:
Wednesday 4th January
Please indulge me today as I go personal and reflect on the family visit at Christmas ... and beyond ...
What pleases me as much as anything is how the children thoroughly reject in thought and action the mean-spirited concept of Brexit ... and embrace Europe, indeed the world. The boys also seem to have adopted my liking for offal (warning for those who are not fans of seriously anatomical food, see below).
Nikko was back from Vienna with his daughter, who is half Serbian Viennese. He returned to Austria in time to celebrate New Year in the wilds of Slovakia with his girlfriend, who is Iranian. The food included meze and Basque haggis, a present from Ben.
Ben and partner Soph are heading back to Bilbao today. They managed a trip while over here to remote Powys, staying near Machynlleth in the house belonging to our friends Liz and Martin Whiteside. To date there is no "hard border" at Chepstow.
Meanwhile, I'm still here in Stroud. But about to put my Christmas gift from Ben in the slow cooker ... morcilla and alubias de Tolosa:
To hell with the 2016 referendum 🖕
Tuesday 3rd January
Just one map today. In 2022 the planet's (human) population passed 8 billion. Where are we all? Click/tap to enlarge this chart (courtesy of Visual Capitalist) - then zoom-and-scroll or whatever you usually do:
Monday 2nd January
This new year I've decided not to do a summary of the previous twelve months. We all know too much about it already. Instead - the only looking back I'll do - I'm posting a charming and ingenious Sgt. Pepper "in memoriam" tribute by graphic artist Chris Barker to many (187) of those we lost in 2022. A picture, numbered key and list of names. You will have to "click to enlarge" to see the detail, preferably on the largest screen you own.
Sunday 1st January
I hope you all had a good Twixmas.
Resolutions, eh? I've decided that I have only one, which I will apply to all of those others I have carried forward from previous years with consummate procrastination. "Do it differently". This means that when I falter, for example when tempted to break the promise I've made to go to the gym, I'll seek a way to get round my objections or substitute an equally beneficial alternative.
The Christmas break has been marked in this house by a notable absence of news consumption, with consequent lifting of the spirits. Kids, cooking, eating, visits to the local, breezy outings on the common. Precious little "doomscrolling". Although I've spoken in these pages about the effect of digesting grim media output in recent years, I'm late in coming to this term, which Mark Barabak of The Times defined as "an excessive amount of screen time devoted to the absorption of dystopian news." Odd, because it grew out of lockdown-induced Covid pandemic distress, which is where this blog started. It was one of the "words of the year" chosen by the Oxford Dictionary in 2020. Merriam-Webster had this at the time:
"Doomscrolling and doomsurfing are new terms referring to the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing. During times of crisis and uncertainty, some of us pay more attention to the news, looking for answers. And this might not surprise you, but we have to say it: a lot of the news is bad. And yet we keep scrolling, keep reading article after article, unable to turn away from information that depresses us."
Guilty as charged. So ... do it differently.
I can't ignore world events, nor should I. That would be "news avoidance", another phenomenon I've missed that has grown in the nearly three years of this blog. It's a natural reaction for many - I've been tempted - but not necessarily a good thing, as evidenced in the title of a September 2022 paper I spotted - "How News Feels: Anticipated Anxiety as a Factor in News Avoidance and a Barrier to Political Engagement", by Benjamin Toffa, University of Minnesota, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, University of Oxford (19 pages): . No need to read this rather turgid bit of research, I've only posted it for completeness - it was the idea and title that caught my attention.
I don't want to be politically disengaged but I need balance this year. Concentrate on useful action rather than moodily over-observing, like giving support to Stroud's refugee campaign group, anything that will remove the Tories from office, mitigation of Brexit damage.
I may throttle back my love affair with political cartoons. Here's just one for the New Year, courtesy of Kevin "Kal" Kallaugher, cartoonist for The Economist and the Baltimore Sun. I intend to give less mental house room to these people (click to enlarge):