Hell’s bells and buckets of blood

Cursing has its fashion moments. Some are good, some are the verbal equivalent of peasant-style smocks with frills. You look back and think – did anyone ever really say that?

My mum used the one in the title – I’m not sure I heard it spill forth form the lips of anyone else, but it’s colourful, you have to admit.

Much more common, though, was the ‘damn, blast and bugger’ combo.

As a child I had no idea what bugger meant and I’m not sure it would have made any difference if I did. I’d probably have reacted the same way that I did when I read the book my parents placed on my pillow to introduce me to sex. That left me feeling rather sick and hoping I would only have to do it once, like having an operation to cure a terrible affliction.

I kind of imagined that enduring one bout of sex enabled a woman to store up child-making capacity and babies would pop out later, like occasional eruptions of acne.

As it turned out I didn’t have to suffer the acne outbreaks. And sex turned out to be something altogether different from what the book led me to believe.

And sex leads me right back to cursing.

My in-house American went to a junior high school where one boy carried a case around full of knives and drugs and guns. Although most kids didn’t use the f-word, some, like the dealer, did.

A big, gutsy female teacher, tired of hearing it spoken, one morning shocked them all by writing F.U.C.K. on the board.

She then went on to spell out what it ‘meant’.

Felonious

Unlawful

Carnal

Knowledge.

Ha! I never heard that one.

She wanted the kids to know what they were saying. I doubt it changed many gun-toting drug-dealing kids’ behaviour.

But it’s interesting how people tend not to know what they’re saying when they curse. In the very old days, for example, when ‘God blind me’ was worthy of a detour to Hell, people corrupted it to ‘blimey’. How innocuous does that sound now?

And I always thought that tw-t where the ‘–’ is an ‘a’ was just a more expletive form of twit. Oh dear.

But some sheltered people in the days of my youth didn’t even know what word the ‘f’ stood for.

My mum, for example.

Although she worked in a school full of teenaged boys, the f-word was never uttered in her presence. Nor mine, as far as I can recall. In fact, I reckon I reached the age of 30 or so before hearing it spoken, in full, in real life.

Yes, people said, ‘eff-off’ – but that was about as close as it got.

So, anyway, back to my mum’s ignorance in the field of ‘f’.

It was my friend Maureen, my fount of all knowledge on all things forbidden (she had two gorgeous brothers for added insight) to whose lot it fell to explain it to my mum.

‘What does f-off actually mean?’ asked my innocent, well-brung up mum of my worldly-wise friend.

Maureen put on a nervous expression. She was good at this kind of thing.

‘Ooh, Mrs E, it means … er, it means … er, fly off!’

My mum just looked a tiny bit puzzled behind her grown-up, meant-to-look-knowing nod.

And I thought of that, yesterday. I was ranting (just a bit) about anachronisms in film and TV. About those happy, ignorant young script-writers who assume that everyone, from time immemorial, said f (and I don’t mean fly), in full, as often as some verbally challenged people do now.

Um – no. They just didn’t.

Hang on, hang on! Don’t get all ‘yeah, she went to a Catholic all-girls school run by nuns, what does she know?’ on me.

For a start, convents are notorious for producing badly-behaved girls. Marianne Faithfull – I rest my case.

And some people I knew, like my friend Maureen’s brothers, were definitely not angels. In fact Stephen – well, least said soonest mended. Gorgeous but a bit wild and very interested in sex. Snogged you at the drop of a hat. Hands like the proverbial octopus.

He smoked, too. Offered – what a vignette it was – my mum a cigarette in our kitchen once. I’ll never forget the look on her face. He must have been all of 17.

But I never heard a word worse than ‘shit’ pass the lips of those boys. And that was usually greeted with shock all round.

Because everyone else said sugar.

Like flip and heck, sugar was a safe alternative to the full fat ‘shit’. You knew the real word but were too polite – or scared – to use it.

So when I hear a nice, middle class girl, or boy, or woman, or man, in a film set in the fifties or sixties or even much of the seventies, eff-ing away like mad, I turn off, mentally. It breaks the spell for me.

Bugger. Yes.

Damn. Yes.

Blast. Yes.

Bloody hell. Yes.

Sugar, flippin-heck, hecketty thump (um, maybe that was just a local variation) – hello.

But, please, young writers, spare us the f-word. If only for the sake of authenticity.

And – don’t worry about the hell’s bells thing.  Just stick with ‘buggeration’ and you’ll be fine.

;-)

 

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Bombs, war and death-bringers. Another great day out.

Once upon a time, I worked for a magazine that spelt ‘defence’ ‘defense’.

It was one of three magazines in the stable of an American specialist publisher and I was, for a while, the nearest thing they had to a European editor. I edited press releases – but because they knew I knew nothing, I then sent them on to Boston, for checking, in a weekly package.

For real news, or features, I had to use the telex machine. Ye gods! All those little holes. Correcting a mistake on a ticker tape for a transatlantic telex – what a nightmare.

But anyway. Working for the Journal of Electronic Defense, I went on press trips. Visited places I would otherwise never have seen. Like Le Bourget, the big air show in Paris. There I goggled, awe-struck at the weapons on display.

Dealers in death and destruction, in suits and smiles, stood behind stands, plying their trade. How far? How much? How many?

Once, I drove a tank on a French army base. OK, so it was a tank simulator, but it was fun. Though a wrap-around-skirt and stockings wasn’t the ideal outfit to wear for climbing in and out.

Being the only young woman in a coterie of mostly middle-aged men had its advantages and its disadvantages.

They were taken seriously. I wasn’t. And that was actually, as far as this role was concerned, a very big advantage, because I knew next to nothing about defense. Or attack, as I like to call it.

But soon I understood enough to be able to nod at talk of C3 (Command, Control, Communication) and could discuss military microwaves with reasonable – if false – assurance.

So this weekend brought it all back.

Young artist at work by the beach, oblivious to flying machines

Young artist at work by the beach, oblivious to flying machines

The Southport Air Show. A fun day out for all the family.

It was fantastic, I loved it.

Despite the grey skies. Despite the increasing chill seeping through the concrete sea wall and up through my behind. Despite the rain that finally fell as the Vulcan’s non-arrival was announced.

That is, Vulcan as in V-bomber.

Yes, a death-bringer, let’s not fence around the issue – I was disappointed not to see a death-bringer.

The day – while wonderful, was a salutary reminder of what war means.

We had small aircraft flying by ‘strafing’ and ‘bombing’ the beach. (I suspect there were charges on the beach – but who am I to spoil the illusion).

nyroks and airshow 043We had the glamorous Red Arrows tearing across the low clouds in their designed-for-inclement-weather display. Patriotic emissions of red white and blue trailing in pretty patterns to show how skilful their nyroks and airshow 052manoeuvres were.

And scary.

 

A yelp, synchronised with that of the young Polish woman next to me, burst from my lips as they passed each other, very close, low in the sky over the sea-less beach. Then we shared a laugh.

It was a convivial day. On one side of us were two Polish men and a woman, the other, a big family outing, three generations from north Wales. We missed them when they left.

But there were, for me, some very sombre moments.

nyroks and airshow 032The Huey means only one thing to people who lived through the sixties and seventies.

Vietnam.

The war that I hate to talk about as a waste of lives, in deference to those who gave them – or gave their young years. To the people who still have nightmares.

But perhaps, at its best, Vietnam helped to expose that ridiculous, seemingly never-ending, so-called Cold War.

How silly it seems.

Mutually Assured Destruction.

M.A.D.

Indeed.

nyroks and airshow 081 Much later, when we’d begun to fear they wouldn’t make it, two huge, slow, Lancaster bombers droned their sinister drone across the ever-more funereal sky.

Magnificent, but terrifying.nyroks and airshow 079nyroks and airshow 086

 

 

As I watched their grey forms vanish into the murk, I thought of the people who saw these all-too-real phantom-creature machines for what they were.

Like that old man who’s a charmer, dressed up in his finery, twirling his moustache. Turns out he’s been something evil – a sinister, predatory murderer. Or just a lecher, on a good day.

Well, you know what I mean.

The Typhoon, too, set my nerves rattling. There’s no adequate way of describing the noise it makes, the aural equivalent of a scorching, all the devils in hell screaming at once. As it vanishes straight up into the air, the fire, belching from its rear end in the sea mist, reminds you that it’s real.

It’s the Eurofighter.

It’s not a just a dark toy with a tempestuous name that flies fast, to defend us. It’s a machine designed to destroy.

Fire, I’ll take you to burn. As someone sang.

The music broadcast over the public address system at times made my heart swell with pride, with emotion. A reminder of how easy it is to whip us up into an irrational euphoria.

But it’s important to remember why these planes and helicopters exist.

Because modern, civilised, wealthy, well-fed man, chooses to turn on fellow man. And because we have invented the ultimate, nuclear, weapon, we cannot afford to sit back and be pacific.

Or can we?

I leave you with a picture from the Saxon Church in a poor village that I wrote about recently. A kneeler, embroidered by a woman, no doubt.north yorks etc 136

World peace.

I’ll drink to that – and pray for it.

 

 

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It’s a sign. But what does it mean?

Brown road signs usually point towards something interesting.

This one says, ‘Saxon church’.

We’re on holiday, not in a hurry. Tired – but intrigued enough to make the turn.

It’s been a day of surprises, beginning with this morning …

Mist lingers in the warm air of the Indian Summer. Cresting a hill we find ourselves driving through glorious, dramatic, English countryside – and this on a road from one major industrial city to another.

Not what we expected, in our ignorance.

We’re looking for the house where Thomas Bewick – eighteenth century artist and master engraver – lived.

A bridge we need to cross is closed and we’re soon lost in a mess of semi-industrial, semi-rural roads. I blame the map. It’s such a tiny scale that I can’t tell where we are half the time. But eventually we pull into a small car park – and into our second surprise of the day.

chillingham_bull

The Chillingham bull, from the Bewick Society website gallery

Because, as we step into the garden, time slips.

Gone are the noisy roads, the industrial estates and lorries. We’re in Bewick’s world. north yorks etc 080His trees, his fields, his ox. north yorks etc 082 north yorks etc 091

(Actually, two donkeys, now).

 

 

 

 

Bewick’s birds are famous, but his rural scenes are gems. Usually, something obvious is happening in the foreground – but look carefully and there’s often something odd going on in the background.

And so it is when, on our way back, we take that brown-signed detour.

As we follow the minor road it feels less and less like the kind of place we’re likely to find an ancient church.

Pretty countryside, mostly, but the villages are real, if you know what I mean. Not second-home charming.

We’re in County Durham, north-eastern England.

Rural beauty. Towns and cities brimming with historic interest. But also a place of industry. Where mining was maybe not king, but certainly a VIP.

And these villages speak of decline.

Mining, shipbuilding, steel. Dead – or dying.

Farming, still, of course, but increasingly mechanised.

So where do people work, now? Or do they? How many call-centres are there in the rural north east?

At last we reach the village.

We’re both feeling dubious. It’s tried its best, is almost pretty as we descend the house-lined hill. But it becomes visibly less affluent the further we go.

And there it is.

Darkened stone. Taller than expected. Set within a graveyard, a wall and a locked iron gate.north yorks etc 142

The church is on a kind of island – the road circles round it before returning up the hill.

A large, attractive pub, the Saxon Arms, stands on one corner, a little higher up in the world.

Round the back of the church, a strip of small, 1960s terraced houses lines the far side of the road.

A notice on the church gate tells us the key’s at number 28.

north yorks etc 139Within a few minutes the padlock’s off the gate. On the second attempt we manage to unlock the church door and we’re inside, with timed lights for illumination that project eerie stars on the walls.

It’s like no other Saxon church I’ve seen.

It’s not just the height – or the remains of wall painting, or the whitewash. It’s not the Roman stones or the engraving of the cross. I don’t know – it just feels different.north yorks etc 128north yorks etc 137

 

 

Possibly the oldest Saxon church in England, at around AD 675, it was nearly lost. The village had a new, Victorian church, up the hill. But one man rallied to the defence of the decaying Saxon edifice, managed to restore it, enlist locals in its maintenance – and the ‘modern’ upstart was demolished.north yorks etc 114

The village itself was ‘remodelled’ in the 1960s.north yorks etc 123

north yorks etc 115north yorks etc 122

 

 

I’ll leave the pictures from the church to speak for themselves – I’m just flummoxed by that remodelled village. Of which I take no pictures.

A woman and her dog, the key-holders, live at number 28. The dog, she says, likes to sit and watch the world go by.

Judging by the church guest book, she’s watched quite a few adventurous souls trek by. Most recently, from Scandinavia, Germany, Canada. And I wonder – what did they think of this place?

Accumulated experiences can, I know, coalesce and emerge as prejudices. And I do tend to assume things, despite finding out, time and again, that I’m wrong.

But I suspect some of the first people to live in that terrace of houses bought their homes off local councils in the boom times. And perhaps, more recently, lived to regret it.

One house, a couple of doors down from where the dog sits world-watching,  boasts a ‘sold’ sign. On my return I check it out on a property website.

Before I tell you what I discovered, there’s something important you need to know.

Average house prices in July 2014* were:

  • England £284,000
  • London £514,000.

The three-bedroomed house by the Saxon church, in north-east England, sold, this year, for

  • £29,950.

The average price in the village is about £69,000.

Yet in 2005 the village’s average house price was £140,600.**

I’d like to explain what’s happened since 2005. Why there’s such a shocking divide between this village and, especially, the south. (Of the English regions, the lowest average prices are all northern: North-East £156,000,  North-West £175,000,  Yorkshire/Humberside £174,000.)

But I don’t have the resources – or the expertise.

I could take a stab at it. Changing tides of employment, the banking crisis, mis-sold mortgages, legacy of Thatcher’s council house sell-off. A repossession.

But I don’t really know.

It’s all about value, I realise – but whose? And why such vast discrepancies?

Heritage is a powerful force in modern, western lives. One reason why we have brown signs, to direct us to the art, the architecture, the heritage we value.

We found a Saxon church. We found a case of shocking inequality. They’re everywhere. They are our heritage, too.

It’s time some politicians took the long trek north and noticed the signs. There are plenty.

 

* Source: UK Government Office for National Statistics
** Source: Rightmove

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In which we don’t travel on the Hogwarts express

‘I can’t see any smoke.’

‘But I just heard a whistle.’

‘Yes, but there’s no smoke.’

And there’s a very good reason why we can’t see any smoke.

One weekend a year – yes, just ONE weekend a year, this weekend, the one we are in – the North Yorkshire Moors Railway shunts away its steam engines and holds a diesel gala.

Aargh!

By this time I have bought the tickets.

And I am – to put it mildly – disappointed.

A minute ago I was lapping up the sights and sounds of a vanished world, waiting for our train to whisk us away, chuffing and huffing and puffing up the steep valleys.

Now, I’m dejected. We are dejected. And the poorer by £46.

‘Oh well. Let’s have a cup of tea.’

We are in England, after all.

The café is run by women of a certain age and – by ’eck – the scones look good.

They are. Hefty, lumpen wodges of currant and raisin and sultana, bound in a floury mixture – and fresh from a spell in the oven. Spread with butter and washed down with the perfect brew.

By the time the train arrives we’re both recovering nicely.

Amazing what a nice cup of tea and a sit-down will do.

nymr 012The diesel rushes in like a demon, exhaling poisonous vapours.

‘That’s an old British Rail one, sixties, I reckon,’ one of us says. Was it me? I don’t know.

nymr 006Before we know it we’re excited. Climb into a carriage of individual compartments, pull the door to and settle in, on well-sprung seats, for a ride back in time.

We’ve opted for tickets that take us one stop beyond our real goal.

We decided we should take a look at the place where the engines are tended and cared for, where the real contemporary railway meets the fantasy recreation of yesteryear.

Grosmont, it’s called.

This turns out to be a good move.

nymr 014 The station is prettily dressed: flowers, clean paint, benches, buckets, lamps.

 

nymr 008nymr 013nymr 021nymr 016

Men in smart caps wear suits with silver-buttoned waistcoats, white shirts and ties, wave coloured flags. Blow piercing bursts on their whistles as trains chug in – and then chug out again.

Within minutes of arriving we’re hooked.

A clutter of cameras is trained on a new diesel coming in. Mine included. Unlike everyone else I have no idea what vintage engine it is that I’m recording with my megapixels. But – shh – don’t tell – I am impressed by it.

We decide to pass on that Yorkshire speciality, pie and peas – and live to regret it. When we return to the next stop back down the line, a place called Goathland, we end up resorting to a ham sandwich.

nymr 051Goathland is meant to be a very special place. And though we try, we just don’t feel the magic. But maybe during term time this most elusive of stations has to put on an ordinary face. You see, this is the stop for Hogwarts School.nymr 032

nymr 042nymr 037

 

 

 

 

 
There’s one little giveaway, way above the kitchen. An owl.

But there’s not a wizard in sight.nymr 041

One more cup of muggle tea and our (really quite good) sandwiches later, we step out onto the platform hoping for a train pulling the wooden carriages we spied earlier.

We’re lucky.

nymr 070Heading back down the valley we’re ensconced in splendour in a 1930s coach. Built from wood, with solidly upholstered chairs and leather arms, it has oval mirrors on the walls and connecting doors that Hercule Poirot would have coveted.nymr 055

We decide to spend the last few minutes in the old wooden buffet car, decorated in an unusual shade of blue.

The tea urn stands resplendent – but out of service – over the counter.

nymr 060The chairs, free-standing silver and blue, speak of a very different time, when ‘health and safety’ was just three words.

When travelling was simply like sitting at home, or in a restaurant or hotel lounge, but moving. An experience.

Aye. It were a grand day out, after all.
nymr 074

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Where is Potto? And why am I bothered?

Is it a peculiarly British thing?

There’s trainspotting, which I could understand when there were gleaming Thomas-style tank engines huffing and puffing and spitting out sparks. It’s harder to see the fascination in a dirty diesel with a serial number. But still they stand, men and boys (mostly), at the ends of station platforms, notebooks in hand, butties in bags and a flask of tea to keep out the chill.

But now we have lorry spotting. Have had for a while, in fact.

[I refuse, by the way, to call them trucks. I mean, who can’t twist their tongue around red truck yellow truck red truck yellow truck? It has to be lorry.]

It began with the Stobbies (though I’m sure a nerd somewhere will disagree – there seem to be 750,000 of them visiting lorryspotting.com).

Gleaming green and red machines rolling along the motorways. Eddie Stobart in large letters blazoned on the side and – to those in the know – the name of a woman, in small letters, on the front.

The tradition started with Eddie, who called his first ones after famous women – Twiggy, Dolly (Parton), Tammy (Wynette) and Suzi (Quatro) – but soon lorry drivers’ wives and other names joined the fleet.

Today Stobart is big business – as in BIG – trains, planes and refrigeration and crikey who knows what – but I admit there was a time when I was a bit hooked.

I was doing a lot of driving around as part of my job. A team of us was on the road doing presentations and community PR as part of – well, you don’t need to know that – but we started spotting Stobbies.

Soon one thing led to another and we bought membership of the spotters’ club – and a Corgi model of a lorry – for one lucky team member.

We never got into Nobbies – Norbert Dentressangle – the continental European rival. Which suggests none of us would have made serious lorry nerds.

And many years have passed since I stopped cricking my neck to see whose name was on the front of a passing Stobby.

But it all came flooding back this week on our holiday. We’re in the far north of Yorkshire, staying in a quiet village not far from a place called Potto.

I’ll confess, when I saw the Potto signpost I was actually excited. Because for years I’ve noticed the super-smart gleaming red-and-gold vehicles that bore the words, ‘Prestons of Potto’ on their doors. And wondered – where on earth is Potto?

Well, now I know. I also know that the company started with steam engines – not the railway kind, the traction kind.

It began, in 1936, as an agricultural contracting business set up by Richard Preston Senior. He used steam engines for threshing and wood sawing.

The transport business took off when they began delivering bricks during the Suez crisis of the 1950s. Diesel was in short supply so a Prestons’ traction engine –  called Lightning II – hauled 20 tonnes of bricks between Darlington and Ampleforth, a distance of 28.6 miles, every day for 3 months. When diesel became readily available again Richard Preston bought a lorry so he could keep the contract – and thus the haulage company was founded.

north yorks etc 045

A special 50th anniversary of Anne & Richard Prston lorry – gold & red instead of red & gold

I know that Anne Preston MBE and Richard Preston are Chairman (both of them it seems from their website) and that their gleaming lorries gleam just as much when they’re asleep in Potto as they do on the road.

north yorks etc 044

Not a great picture but had to get the sign & the flowers in!

Not only that, but the company has taken part in ‘Yorkshire in bloom’. And their offices are in the former Potto railway station. Where steam engines used to huff and puff.

I’m dangerously close to becoming a Prestons of Potto nerd. A Prestons of Potto spotter. But that carries with it a serious linguistic dilemma.

Pottie spotting? No, no.

Pressie spotting? Doesn’t sound right.

Tonny spotting? Hmm.

Maybe I’ll stick to birds.

 

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Nature, contrary to mine

I don’t do poetry. I’ve tried before, look back on it and cringe. So why? Well, it was a challenge – and a form I’d never heard of – Tanka.

‘Does anyone not love Haiku,’ ran the intro. Um, I don’t. I felt like running for cover, hiding my head from battery by short-form-lit-lovers.

But I carried on reading. Tanka, it seems, is longer than Haiku, by two lines. Syllables: 5-7-5-7-7. Hmm.

Go on then. Nature notes in a most unnatural form. For me.

But just this once.

Honest.

No more. Ever.

(No that’s not a Haiku!)

GARDEN WATCHING

Squirrel

Sleek, dark, wine-red flash
Of tree-leaping, nut-hoarding
Squirrel, beware! Grey,
Who, innocent, carries death
– your fate? – trod this path today.

Bird

Splish splash, dirty bath
Lazy me, topped it up
Instead of cleaning.
Poor bird, still happy, bathing -
But drinking, too! How can you?

Pumpkins

Stretching in the sun
Gaudy, blowzy blooms, yellow
For a day or two
Fall off, unfertilised.
No All Souls pumpkin-ghouls, then?

Clouds

Stratospheric ice,
Fleeting strands of crystal white.
But real weather comes
In dark grey, rain-sown puffballs,
Near enough for birds to pierce.

Butterflies

Fragile, brown, dancing
In pairs, centre stage
Where once their showy cousins
The Peacocks fluttered by
To doze, drowsy with nectar.

Summer turning

Red berries. Dry leaves
Russet as the days shorten.
Seeds drop. Swallows wheel,
Soar, catch ants newly flying.
Tired summer sighs, ‘enough’.

Woodpecker

Red, white, black – and mad.
Hammering your head against
Next door’s pergola
– for what? That fat, white, lardy,
Grub? I see. Soft, sanity.

 

 

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Political websites – who cares?

I’ve been puzzling over politics. Does any party really stand for anything any more? Or have they all done the Indian rope trick and vanished up their own hot air?

Today I visited websites of British and American political parties. I restricted myself to the USA and UK partly because of the language, partly because I’m married to a man who is currently an American citizen, but considering …

I was looking for a clear signal from each party about what it stands for – a switch to turn on the potential voter – me, for instance.

Every major party’s website is set up so you land on a page that asks you to sign in, take part – or give money. Donate, if you prefer. I know the mention of money makes some people feel squeamish. But I persisted, trying to find what I wanted, while yet avoiding registering, joining or donating.

And I gave them all a good deal more than the eight seconds Generation Z* would give them to make an impact.
*(aged somewhere between 11 & 24)

I had in mind quite a factual exercise, perhaps devising a table of winners and losers, but I had to abandon that plan. Because out of all the parties, from the Grand Old Party to jolly old UKIP, there was no contest. The British Labour party won, hands down.

You may smirk, not surprised Labour won my contest, because you’ve read a few of my blog posts, nailed me for a bleeding-heart liberal.

Well, you might be right about me – but as to what contest Labour won – do not assume.

The Labour party won my prize for the least inspiring, motivating and enthusing political website. The one with the least heart, soul and vision.

This doesn’t mean that other old established parties, like the Conservatives, do it particularly well – they don’t.

In fact, it seems to me that the younger, less powerful your party is the harder it tries – and the better the job it does of encapsulating its values.

Parties are a bit like people. The younger ones, political toddlers, are itching to grow up, to sit in the big chairs at dinner. They don’t want to be old and boring like the big people, but they want to be able to boss us around and go to bed late.

Once a party leaves adolescence behind, its principles become fuzzy. Too much reality intrudes, along with the tough decisions. It’s no longer able to see the trees for the woods. It becomes establishment, not just established.

But I started my trawl with nice young kids – the Greens. If I was sold on their message, I thought, I might tag along – see if I could make a difference. My Machiavellian approach to PR has, after all, done some quite interesting things for people and organisations – who’s to say I couldn’t influence a whole party?

And the Green party – aside from its name (I suspect they wouldn’t have listened to me about changing that) – did a pretty good job of switching on my voting potential. But when I read the bit about ending factory farming – I sighed.

I mean, I like a bit of idealism but, frankly, how are we going to replace the flocks of barn-reared chickens living just to donate their skinless breasts, thighs and drumsticks to our supermarket shelves?

Or the legions of cows that endure pregnancy after pregnancy to squeeze out milk for our tea?

And what about all that Russian-owned Scottish farmed salmon flopping around the windswept northern coasts? Is it really possible to wave a magic wand and ban it?

Leaving the Greens to their fate, therefore, I assessed the rest of the offerings online.

I found that if I ONLY paid attention to what was easily accessible on the websites – and given I can’t be a Democrat because I’m not American (though ‘factivists’ – what a great idea) – I’d be obliged to offer my membership fee and a capacity for endless frustration with people ignoring my advice to …

to …

the Liberal Democrats.

Aaaaaaaargh!

Now, if you live outside the UK you probably won’t understand why that’s so scream-worthy. Let me illustrate.

The Lib Dems are the people who have kept the Conservatives in a coalition government. Who claim to have restrained them, kept the right wing in check.

Who condoned the introduction of £9000 a year university tuition fees, to the horror of the students who helped vote them into power in the first place.

Who helped bring in changes that are ruining our envy-of-the-world National Health Service.

Yes, the Lib Dems may have wooed me well online, but I can’t ignore their ‘help’ for the current regime.

And, anyway, my heart was hoping to be charmed by another. By the party that, once upon a time, stood for the working classes.

Because I’d like to see a fairer world.

A world where money’s not rewarded with more – and more easily gained – money.

Where poverty – genuine, un-blameworthy poverty – is not treated with shame, scolding and an added dose of hardship.

A world where capitalism is morally rooted. Where the market Genie is back in a bottle, responsive to us, not free, wreaking havoc.

But while I found a succinct assessment of values, aims, ethos on almost every website there was one exception.

Labour.

What is your problem, Labour? Are your principles only available once I’ve registered?

Surely you’re the party that any soggy, soft-centred, bleeding-heart liberal might naturally gravitate towards. But, where is your heart? Do you have one any more?

Image snaffled from the Durham Red Labour Facebook page which reported this was very popular at the Durham Miners Gala in July 2014

Image snaffled from the Durham Red Labour Facebook page which reported this was very popular at the Durham Miners Gala in July 2014

What do you care about?

Did New Labour turn you inside out, did scavengers strip off your guts?

I’ve tried, really tried, to be patient. But you’re enough to try the patience of a saint.

It seems there isn’t one single party in this great country of ours that seems able to woo me to its side.

I may have to start my own.

I fancy the colour grey …

 

Posted in Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

You can’t have one without the other. Nature, damn it!

The trees are dancing but the day is bright, at last. It’s August, still, but the chill in the air has made itself at home, too soon for holidaying humans.

In the green world beyond our fences, though, nature continues as she would, regardless.

Blackberries ripen, too many for the foraging creatures out there. The glossy, purple plumpness of the fruits becomes desiccated and dull. Tough new seeds grow old, unmolested.

a brown butterflyInside the garden, pale brown butterflies still dance a double helix around the fading blossoms.

Birds still bathe away their itches.

The pumpkin blows out gaudy yellow flowers as it stretches across the paving, trying to reach some place it can never imagine, like America. One small, round ball of promising fecundity has formed. We’ll carve it in late October if wind and weather and wildlife let it be.

Yes, I’m thoroughly distracted.

It’s hard to sit, to feel this slow-motion pageant passing by and not pay attention.

I’ve learnt so much this summer that it’s almost an embarrassment. Me, with decades of life behind me, learning, at last, to observe.

Nature’s natural noticers won’t understand my excitement. But, glancing through one of the better-than-a-landscape painting windows I see a ruddy brown patch in the grass. A patch that moves, that lifts its bushy, glossy, white-tipped tail and trots away to hunt. And my heart sings.

Mr Fox, you’re a beauty, no urban, mangy fox, but a Bold Renard, a prince of your kind.

I stand, humming, ‘A hunting we will go, a hunting we will go, to catch a fox and put him in a box and never let him go.’

(I think my parents had the words a bit wrong – but that’s how they’ll always be for me.)

My senses seem to have sharpened with each hour I’ve spent staring out of these windows or lazing on the garden bench.

Breakfast on our tiny balcony, when the days are hot enough, is a rare treat and one fine morning I’m surveying the waking world when I hear a feeble, ‘Woo. W-oo’.

A tired, owlish call. Close by – and very subdued.

Wondering if the owl might still be there, sheltering from the brightness of early morning, I pick up the binocular (that’s correct, trust me) – which has been in almost daily use since we moved here.

I have no expectations, just feel like inspecting the trees. And there, on a branch messy with needles and twigs, near the trunk of the tatty, high-summer fir tree I think I see …

But is it?

Could it be?

It looks like ears.

I think I detect a movement, but can’t be sure. I pass the binocular to my partner in nature-gazing.

He watches. I see his expression change, he puts down the binocular and fetches the book.

A long-eared owl.

Later, I check the branch again to make sure it’s not a figment of my imagination.

No ears. I take it as proof.

It’s a carnival in miniature, at times, our small, herbaceous garden.

Peacock butterflies and tortoiseshells, silver washed fritillaries and Burnet moths, bumble bees and hover flies, dragon flies and wasps, thrushes and robins – and even a greater spotted woodpecker perches, for a few glorious moments, on our fence.

Then a monster invades our paradise. A grey squirrel.

Grey! The pox-bearing immigrant that threatens our lovely reds.

(I nearly wrote, ‘our lovely Squirrel Nutkins’ – but I never was into Beatrix Potter and had to look him up. He wasn’t a very nice squirrel, was he? But then, if our reds were a bit more like him then maybe the greys would not be wiping them out?)

My husband threatens to buy an air rifle. I don’t know if he can, here in our blessedly gun-unfriendly haven.

Days pass. Weeks. We see young grey again and again, making a habit of knocking down the seed feeder next door. The neighbours make a habit of putting it back.

He prances around on our fences and even – the cheek of it – sticks his little nose against the upstairs kitchen window of our topsy-turvy house.

We don’t see him for a while, then, just yesterday, observant-man sees a dark movement in a tree.

‘What’s that? It looked like a black tail.’

‘A magpie?’ quoth I.

‘No – look!!!! It’s a red squirrel!!!!!!’

It’s worth the exclamation marks.

You’ve never seen such a beauty. Long, slender, graceful, it races along, jumping from tree to tree, tail outstretched, lithe body soaring in what seemed like flight.

All too soon he’s gone.

And then, today, he reappears, a longer visit. His coat and tail dark auburn rather than red, only his chest the orangey colour of cutesy illustrations.

We stand, watching him, revelling in his agility. But then I turn and see it, next door.

The grey one.

Pox bringer.

They say it’s only a matter of time. Fifteen days or so.

Let’s hope someone else has an air rifle. For once I really wouldn’t have a qualm.

I want that red squirrel to win. I’m becoming addicted to nature. I want it to play by my rules, but I don’t think it will.

There’s a partial mouse in the garden, what’s left of a wood mouse.

It’s yin and yang, I suppose.

I can’t have the owl without the dead mouse.

But I hope we can have red squirrel without the pox.

And fox without the box.

Posted in In Britain now - and then, Lancashire and the golf coast | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

My top tip. And how it leads to Mostar

‘Hiya babe, you all right?’

Ooh, love that man! Big grin, hard hat, hi-vis jacket – and he’s calling me babe.

(I know, I should be offended. Just cut me some slack here would you? I can’t always be right-on …)

‘Hi,’ I say with a big grin back, ‘great, thanks. Which way’s metal?’

I’m on my way to the kind of place that used to bring out the glums in me.

The car’s stuffed with metal and cardboard and old plastic flowerpots. A few dead shrubs thrown in for good measure. And an invisible cargo of spidery hitch-hikers.

Yes, I’m off to the tip.

‘Americans don’t call it a tip,’ says Tex.

I don’t think we call it a tip any more. Some places it’s still a ‘refuse disposal site’, or, more euphemistically, a ‘civic amenity site’ – which sounds like it ought to have a tennis court and a library. (Actually given what’s happening to libraries locally ours probably does. The books bit, anyway.)

But now it’s mostly ‘waste management’ or ‘recycling’.

The first one I encountered was in the genteel British county of Hampshire, a name that for me summons up retired major generals and gentlemen farmers. But even the county set generates rubbish.

And, so far, the Hampshire tip’s my favourite. Whoever ran the place selected the best of the cast-offs to make it a little spot of civic amenability.

Tatty deckchairs and umbrellas were placed for maximum exposure to the sun and least to wind and rain. Old plants were nurtured back to life in chipped and battered pots, garden gnomes winked over white picket fences as you tipped your old linoleum – well maybe they didn’t wink, but you get the general idea.

In our current local tip’s defence, the Hampshire one was way smaller.

Plus they didn’t have awesome giant Tonka toys rumbling around in the Hampshire tip.

And no-one there ever called me babe.

You might be interested – OK – surprised, to learn that I have something of a pedigree in things superfluous.

Landfill sites and recycling depots. Waste management shows, the vast acres teeming with gleaming front end loaders and imaginative solutions to those run-off problems.

I once helped saved a ‘moss’ from development as a rubbish dump. (‘Moss’ is a regional name for a bog or marsh – a rather rare habitat nowadays.)

One small achievement amid the trash.

But mainly, I was working in sewage. Sewage treatment works, hundreds of them – vast ones in cities, tiny ones up overgrown country tracks.

The last time I heard a cuckoo calling was at a rural sewage treatment works.

They brought out something down-to-earth in people, sewage works. I was never called babe at one – but I was once called ‘darling’ over the filter beds.

I was chatting to a worker in overalls. He was ignoring me completely. No doubt I was saying something pompous about communicating with the public.

He took off his heavy rubber gloves, took me by the hand and said, ‘Now, darling, can you help me?’

I was a little bit proud of my senior (hierarchically) status and that ‘darling’ took me aback a bit. Not to mention having my hand held. But once the shock wore off I realised I deserved a bit of peg-taking-down, always inclined, as I am, to pontificate (my sister’s word for it).

It seemed Mr Sewage Treatment Operative had read in the company newsletter that I liked writing. He wanted my advice on how his wife could go about getting more of her short stories published.

More of her stories.

And me with only landscape features and house-snooping pieces in glossy mags to my name. No fiction. Sewage in my eye!

But going back to the smelly stuff.

I liked sewage treatment works and the people who worked in them – something about the job, being outdoors a lot, dealing with stuff that was pretty vile and turning it into something innocuous and clean – it seemed to turn people into salt of the earth, too.

Not that I liked the smells.

Sewage got up my nose. Especially on a sunny day, then the smell always lurked in the nasal passages much, much longer than the visit. And if a manager tells you that a well-run sewage treatment works doesn’t smell – take that one with a large pinch of salt-of-the-earth.

Exposure to the actual sewage I always found a wee bit stressful. I’m a latter day miasmatic – you know, believing miasmas carry diseases as well as foul smells (they don’t). I’m also a hypochondriac.

I traipsed around a flooded works one day out in the country, eeeurgh. For weeks I refused to touch the black wellies dumped in the boot of my car.

And you really don’t ever want to be in a sewage well. No – don’t ask.

OK. Condoms, toilet paper, handrails. See? Enough?

But then, to make up for it, there was the clean stuff – drinking water.

The most bizarre arrangement I have ever been involved in – as far as business is concerned – came from the clean water side of that world. We did lots for the fantastic charity Wateraid, as you might expect, but then one day …

An old friend contacted me on behalf of another old friend. She, in her turn, was working on behalf of a lot of other people in a war-torn country far away.

Did I think I could get them any standpipes?

Well, why not?

It was remarkably quick and relatively easy. Phone calls. Surprised replies and a happy discovery that the company had a stock of leftover standpipes from the 1970s drought. Within days they were ready to leave and on their way.

Mostar. Does that name mean anything to you? The historic bridge that was destroyed during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993?

To me it means, pause for thought. Do what you can. Make that phone call, ask that question.

How amazing the things we can do if only we connect. Even with rubbish.

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Rape, the gender pay gap and that other ‘f’ word

If you missed – or ignored – the recent bout of, ‘I’m not a feminist, I like looking pretty and having men hold doors open for me’ versus ‘you empty-headed idiot, someone died so you could have the vote,’ I’m about to give you two good reasons to pay attention.

Women Against Feminism is a gallery of pictures of women, mostly young, holding banners beginning, ‘I don’t need feminism because’.

I was disappointed, but not surprised, by much of what I saw, Then I read this:

The wage gap is a result of choice not sexism’

Even then, I was ready to sigh and move on, when, on the same banner, I spied this:

men get raped just as much as women’

Those are reasons she doesn’t need feminism?

I’m aghast.

I believe in the principle of human rights. I am, ipso facto, a feminist. So is anyone, male or female, who believes that human beings have inalienable rights (and responsibilities, if they live in society). Because women are not treated equally with men.

And I mean equally while allowing for our differences, not, exactly the same as, if not better, because we deserve it.

Most banners led with ‘I’m not a feminist because …’.

I’d be more inclined to ask whether ‘we’ need feminism, myself. But let’s run let’s with that egocentric approach and see where it takes one female – me, for example.

In one sense, I don’t need feminism. I understand how discrimination works against me even if I can’t change it on my own. I have a reasonable brain, a lot of experience – I can work with it, skirt (sorry) around it if necessary.

I can, if I wish, join unions or other organisations that will work for my right not to endure discrimination.

But there are battles I can’t win alone.

Pay, for example.

Women do not choose to earn less than men. The system is still, after years of trades unions (and feminists) going out to bat for us, biased.

Take the UK:

In 2013, the median pay for a woman was 19.7% less than the median for a man. The average hourly wage for women was £10.33 while men were paid £12.97.

Guardian, 13 August 2014

This article followed the revelation that of 200 companies which signed up merely to PUBLISH data on pay differences by gender, only four had done so.

Rape.

‘men get raped just as much as women’

I interpreted that to mean ‘as often as’, though you could read it as ‘the same unwanted penetration is forced on the victim’. But let’s go where my interpretation took me.

Men are raped, but nowhere near ‘as much’ as women.

It’s hard to be accurate, even here in Britain, because there are different ways of recording the statistics.

The Crime Survey for England and Wales 2013 figures – which differ from numbers of crimes reported to/recorded by the police – suggest there were around

85,000 female and 12,000 male rapes in the previous 12 months

Now, these may not be entirely accurate, but the fact that knowledgeable people have taken an educated stab at it and arrived at such figures is utterly shocking.

And, before you yelp, I’m not condoning a ‘we’re raped more than you are’ numbers game. As someone who’s twice been at the mercy of male strangers and saved by (a) a nice couple walking a dog, (b) a London taxi driver, I’m aware that sexual assault is no gaming matter.

Men rape men. But they more commonly – much more commonly, rape women. Full stop.

Some men – and women – blame raped women for being provocative, think females should wear conservative clothing – even long black robes and veils – to avoid exciting men.

No.

Every man should respect every person’s right not to be treated as a vehicle for his penis if she or he doesn’t want to be (and, yes, that’s a whole other matter).

These issues are ones on which all feminists would surely agree. But aren’t they ones on which all rational human beings would agree?

I can understand why a comfortable young woman might feel she doesn’t ‘need’ feminism. She has shiny skin, a good job, she can vote (or choose not to), takes holidays,dee- dah-dee-dah-dee-daaaah.

But.

One day she may discover that a man she manages earns more than she does.

One day she might want maternity leave – for her partner, too – so her baby has the best start in life.

One day she might discover a child down the road has been dragged off to some ancestral home and had her sexual organs seriously mutilated – and she might think that’s not acceptable.

One day she might find out how many baby girls are murdered in India because their parents want boys.

One day, she may visit a country where she can’t drive, walk down the street, or go to the doctor alone – because she’s female. Where she has to cover her hair or face prison and 90 lashes of a whip. Where she might be killed as an adultress if she’s raped by a married man.

Late, but better than never, she might find feminism is not such a dirty word.  Because it has nothing to do with burning bras or hating men, it has everything to do with striving for fairness, human dignity and rights.

But why concentrate on females? Discrimination happens on all sorts of fronts, why pick women?

Because half (or more) of the world’s population is female. If we can’t get it right for half, how do we expect minorities to fare?

Feminism is – was – a good thing, but thanks to some extremists and some ignoramuses, that’s not how it feels any more. So, perhaps we should change the word?

Me, I believe in fairism. I want fairness for everyone – though I know life’s not.

But it doesn’t feel like a rallying cry, does it?

What do we want? Fairness. When do we want it? Soon as possible please.

So, what’s to be done about that word, ‘feminism’?

Answers on a banner, in a selfie, anyone?

Posted in Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , | 16 Comments