Saturday, December 31, 2011

The great parsnip shortage, & other Christmas tales

No butter, no parsnips.

The first was Norway’s problem this Christmas, the second afflicted at least some parts of England.

Although outright shortages have become rare in these past years of plenty, Christmas shopping has become something of a lottery, or a game of chicken. Should I buy presents in good time, or wait to see if desperate traders slash their prices without waiting for the January sales? Will fresh food – vegetables, cream, bread, meat – be available on the last shopping day before Christmas or will retailers not risk being left with unsold stock when they will then be closed for two days?

Decisions, decisions.

Although I am quite unreasonably proud of the fact that I have finally learned that you do not have to lay in as in for a siege (the close down lasts at most two days now), that there is a limit to how many treats one can stuff down, & that it really will not be a disaster without X or Y, the disappointment can be sharp & nobody likes to be forced into last minute changes to the menu.

And so Friday it had to be for fresh food, & best go to the big supermarket, which will be open on Boxing Day so will not be running down on everything.

Obviously just following the herd.

It is a long time since I have seen the place so crowded, so many trolleys loaded to the gunwales. The atmosphere was interesting: happy but not overexcited, more a sense of purpose than the wild abandonment of spend, spend, spend.

There was no-one else going through the self-checkout tills, though on leaving the store I noticed that the bank of docking stations for the hand-held self-scanners was empty, every last one in use by those well-laden trolley shoppers.

But – no parsnips! And there were only a few boxes of Basic eggs left, & of course no lemon/lime flavoured fizzy water. Probably other things had run out as well, but they were the only ones that I was looking for.

If memory serves, I have not cooked a turkey since I was twenty.

That was the year my mother had major surgery at the beginning of November. Even today one might be advised not to take on all that lifting of roasting tins in & out of the oven & large pans of sprouts off the top of the stove after only two months in which to recover, but in those days both surgery & anaesthesia were more brutal than they are now (or even when I underwent the same procedure twenty years later) & my mother was still spending much of her time in bed, & in pain, so I was summoned home to take charge of Christmas cooking & shopping. I think I coped – cannot remember any disasters, though if there had been any I suppose they would just be wiped from the memory bank by shame & embarrassment.

In truth I think turkey very overrated, certainly not worth it unless there are at least six (& preferably a lot more) of you sitting down to Christmas dinner. Small houses without larders also mean that it is much more difficult to know how to store, safely, the remains until finally there is only enough of the carcase left to make a big pan of reviving vegetable soup.

But years living in a country where turkey was just not on the menu, & then working in London, where you went to so many lunches, parties & do’s during December that you were sick of turkey by the time it got to Christmas, meant that we looked for alternatives. Especially as I was certain I could never reproduce turkey as deliciously moist & tender as it can be when cooked by experts, such as those in the carvery upstairs at The Albert on Victoria Street.

Over the years we have had duck, goose, standing ribs of beef & even, one year, bream, which was delicious but not really Christmassy in England. In truth though the favourite has always been roast chicken with all the trimmings – a good sized, well fed chicken (4lbs+) roasted according to the recipe in the Penguin Cordon Bleu, & deliciously thick creamy, clove scented bread sauce made from a recipe by Ruth Drew who, as the Happy Housewife, used to provide post-war listeners to Womans Hour with all sorts of tasty but economical ways of feeding a family.

Sadly this feast is no longer properly possible – giblet gravy is an absolute must & nobody, it seems, sells giblets any more.

This year we had decided lamb would be good. Yes, I know lamb is associated with Easter, but that is the very young membranous kind; at this time of year lamb is closer to mutton, real comfort food, especially if you can find it with enough fat left on. Half a shoulder, I thought, preferably a blade; I can cook that reliably.

I went first to inspect the chiller shelves to see what was on offer there, while really hoping that the butchery counter might have something better to offer. But there – on the shelves – was a fine display of really nice looking lamb shanks & I had a sudden vision of a good heavy pot full, slow roasting in the oven, filling the house with delicious smells until the meat fell off the bone & could be eaten with a teaspoon if you felt so inclined.

I could not resist.

But what to do for that necessary touch of sweetness, without parsnips?

It seems rather astonishing that these wrinkly roots, which in my childhood were regarded as cattle food, should have achieved such very great popularity. Although I have loved them for years, roasted or in a well curried soup, they do not really seem to fit in with today’s preference for everything ready prepared, since they have to be peeled close to the time of cooking. But popular they are, & seem to be one of the few items for which the market has underestimated demand this Christmas.

I could try again on Saturday, but definitely not count on finding parsnips so, with roast potatoes, gravy & sprouts also off the menu without them, Plan B was definitely needed.

An unorthodox inspiration – a variation of a Madhur Jaffrey recipe, basmati rice with dried apricots, plumped up sultanas & shaved almonds. Served with a mound of buttery lemon-scented green vegetables (leek, courgette, broccoli & fine beans).

Worked a treat.

Filling but not stuffing.

The reward for enduring a very trying week of dark & miserable weather, albeit one ending with a pretty successful shopping trip, was a live relay of a truly perfect Messiah on Radio 3.

As a northern lass I can still appreciate a performance of The Messiah which gives it some real wellie – massed choirs, massive pipe organ and a brass band too – but these days I tend to prefer a style of performance of Handel which can really make the music dance with fewer resources thrown at it. The playing of Polyphony & a fine organist under conductor Stephen Layton, the flawless acoustic of St John’s Smith Square; lights down low, cup of hot chocolate; what more could one ask for to start the holiday.

Friday, December 30, 2011


The truth is that 97% of the British population is squashed on to 9% of the land. Our cities are bursting, & their infrastructures are bust. They are like medieval graveyards: hundreds of bodies piles on top of each other. We must build more homes … That doesn’t mean desecrating beautiful landscapes. It does mean ignoring the nimby yelps
Richard Morrison Times 18 November 2011

The price of property is attracting lots of foreign investors just now.

Our home grown Nimbys are like the Indians who sold Manhattan for beads – they use the economic arguments about external costs to argue for their right not to lose the external benefit of their space & beautiful views.

Leaving the costs to be borne by those who must live in overcrowded conditions. Just so long as no mean little boxes spoil the area around my Georgian rectory – I might have to drive past them on my way to the motorway to get to town.

Or I might, horror of horrors – have to live near something as distasteful as a factory or industrial unit which will only destroy OUR green & pleasant land & reduce the rate at which the value of MY house keeps on rising.

Criminal benefits

I have been trying to trace the source of a report which was all over the news yesterday: according to official statistics, 33 per cent of Britons claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance have a criminal record.

No luck with the Department for Work & Pensions Corporate [sic] web site.

In fact the source seems to have been the Daily Telegraph, whose political editor Robert Winnett wrote the article, quoting minsters who are said to describe the figures as “truly alarming.”

Well, given that one third of all men in this country are said to have acquired at least one criminal conviction by the age of 30 (& that for an indictable offence), it does not seem as if the results of this new research (made possible by another data sharing agreement between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Justice) should have come as all that much of a surprise.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Economic intelligence

Some pieces of intresting economic news or comment over the Christmas period.

Bank ratios
Under the headline ‘Why banks must think carefully before they shrink their assets’ Robert Jenkins (an external member of the interim Financial Policy Cttee of the Bank of England) provided (Times, 14 December) an admirably clear explanation of the potential dangers & difficulties posed by the new regulatory requirement that banks should increase their ‘capital ratios’. As he points out, a ratio involves both a numerator & a denominator; a ratio can therefore be increased by either shrinking the denominator or by making the numerator bigger (or by some combination of the two), with very different knock-on effects for the future health of the financial system.

And an apt quote: The technical phrase is ‘adverse feedback loop’. The less technical phrase is ‘shooting yourself in the foot’.

No link to online version available because of paywall

National wealth
On 20 December the Office for National Statistics published the latest report on the Wealth of Great Britain. Further investigation showed that this was solely about the real & physical property of private households only – the value of which has fallen because of the drop in house prices. The graph of House prices since 1953 on page 19 shows how much of an illusion the so-called increase in value must have been.

Does this include non-household wealth? - No

Or any details of financial holdings – including those of households? - No

Is there any indication of how much is owned by non-British nationals or non-residents? - No

We really do need GDW & GNW equivalents to the GDP/GNP in the national current accounts.

National debt
At the very end of an interview with Eddie Mair on the Christmas Day News Review of the Year on Radio 4, Robert Peston said that there is one thing at least for which we should all be very grateful to Gordon Brown, namely his decision to set up an independent debt management agency.

When considering questions of national solvency it is not enough just to look at the ratio of debt to GDP (or government revenues & expenditure); the repayment schedules matter a lot, & ours are a lot less onerous or immediately pressing than are those, for example, of Italy, thanks to the expertise of these agents. So perhaps that is one area where independence, even of democracy, is to be welcomed.

The magic of pricing
There are independent consultancies which specialise in advising companies on pricing strategy. One such is Simon-Kucher.

Sainsbury’s till receipts now carry the footnote: Based on price perception data, you can live well for less than you thought at Sainsbury’s. Those sound like good weasel words to me.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Hedgehog identity crisis

Hedgehog? Sea urchin? Or Plastic ball?

According to a news headline in The Times, giant hedgehogs are to be employed to protect fish from flying predators – not in some lush exotic rain forest populated by all sorts of strange forms of life, but in County Durham.

Weighted plastic balls, 1 metre in diameter, colour unspecified, are said, in the article below the headline, to resemble giant white sea urchins but are known as hedgehogs (grey/brown). They will be dropped into the River Wear in the hope that they will prevent herons or cormorants or other predators from catching fish.

How will the poor herons survive?

Can we look forward to seeing films of this made by the BBC Natural History Unit?

Tricks of memory

One of the books I am reading at the moment is DR Thorpe’s biography of Harold Macmillan.

In this year when so many heads of state or dictators have died or been toppled, one startling fact really jumped out at me – Roosevelt, Mussolini & Hitler died within less than three weeks of each other in April 1945.

I suppose I must have known – read, or been told - those dates sometime, somehow, somewhere, but I had never before put them together at all. In fact I think I thought that Mussolini had died earlier, sometime around the time of the Allied invasion & the Italian armistice; the image of his hanging body & the fate of his mistress are certainly lodged firmly in my memory bank.

But then I faced another uncomfortable moment – I could not confidently say who had taken over from FDR as President.

Anyone who has ever, like me, been a student of methods of scientific sampling (especially in human populations) will be very well aware of the disaster that befell opinion pollsters in the 1948 US Presidential election, when the New York Times ran with the front page headline that Dewey had beaten Truman. The error was put down to the fact that the poll on which this was based had been conducted solely by phone & thus among a biased sample of those from the more prosperous sections of society, not at all representative of the population as a whole.

So I could remember that that was Dewey v Truman, but which, if either, was the incumbent & indeed was Truman a Democrat?

On any other day I should probably have felt confident that I knew the answer to these last two questions; it was the new intelligence about the events of April 1945 which made me suddenly doubt other things I thought I knew about the chronology of all other events around that time.

Another fact I learned for the first time from Thorpe makes it easier to understand why the idea that Dewey had won seemed - through wishful thinking - to make sense to those eagerly awaiting the outcome of the election.

Stocks on the NYSE had surged in value on the news of FDR death – which, at a time when we are all (including the London Times) very cross about the behaviour of our financial services industries today, will cause sharp intakes of breath & suckings of teeth.

On which point there is another apt quote from Thorpe: The events of 1931 & its aftermath had confirmed Macmillan in his deep distrust of the City & the Treasury – he dubbed them ‘banksters’.

Which is wittier than our modern w...... epithet.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Intrusive Victorian interviews

It is strange to think that something which is now such a standard part of the journalistic repertoire was once regarded as foreign & therefore unBritish.

Towards the end of the C19th British journalists began to use impertinent & intrusive methods imported from America. They thought that prominent people, those in the public eye whose lives were of great interest to a mass readership, should make themselves willing & available to answer press enquiries. And if they happened to be out of town, why then reporters went importuning their families – even their elderly mothers - instead.

At least, I have come across one small piece of evidence for that assertion.

On 25 February 1874 (not yet Sir) Arthur Sullivan wrote to his mother from Manchester:
Dearest Mum: If you are bothered again by newspaper reporters, just say so far as I am concerned, I know nothing about the proposed knighthood beyond what I have seen in the newspapers. I don’t see why I should be ‘interviewed’ on everything that may be said about me. There is of course no foundation for such a thing & it only grows out of the good-natured fancy of the Hornet.
Arthur Sullivan 25 February 1874

To which quote Sullivan’s biographer Arthur Jacobs adds the gloss “‘Interview’ as a verb was in quotation marks as a foreign, ie American, usage.”

The OED confirms that Interview in this sense, namely To have an interview with (a person); spec. on the part of a representative of the press: to talk with or question so as to elicit statements or facts for publication; similarly, to talk with or question (a person) for a programme broadcast on radio or television, did indeed come from America, where it finds the first recorded usage in the New York Nation of 28 January 1866: ‘Interviewing’ is confined to American journalism.

The OED does find much earlier record uses of ‘interview’ as a verb, but only in the senses of To meet together in person (all dating back to 1548) or To catch a glimpse or get a view of (last recorded in 1624).

Not of course that British journalism had no bad habits of its own before it adopted bad ones from America.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Playing Haydn

from Allegro

I play Haydn after a black day
and feel a simple warmth in my hands.

The keys are willing. Soft hammers strike.
The resonance green, lively, and calm.

The music says freedom exists
and someone doesn't pay the emperor tax.

I push down my hands in my Haydnpockets
and imitate a person looking on world calmly.
Tomas Transomer

A film by Pamela Robertson-Pearce and Neil Astley on the Blood Axe website includes footage of Tranströmer playing his piano.

The poem can be read in full here

Sunday, December 25, 2011

I want never gets

I was listening to an item on RTÉ Radio 1 in which Victor Bartlem was telling the tale of how a letter which his mother wrote to Santa Claus 100 years ago had been found up a chimney.

It has quite a long list of 'I wants' & Victor said ‘We’re all like that, as children.

And I suddenly remembered the standard adult riposte: I want never gets.

A sure way to introduce a foot stamping tantrum or a devastating retired hurt in the small child.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Moving joke

Werner Heisenberg was out, driving his car. He was stopped by the police.

Do you know how fast you were going, sir?’ asked the officer.

No. But I do know where I am.’

Answer too clever by half , but I hadn't realised what a clever question that is - until it happened (once & only once) to me.

In the days when such a thing was still possible I was enjoying a carefree drive down Maida Vale, the section with long curves, & tall trees to the right, just coming up to the turn for Lords cricket ground.

A Panda car overtook, signalled left. I assumed he (all police drivers were male in those days) was going to turn.

He was signalling me to stop - which I, fortunately, managed to do without crashing into him.

He addressed the Heisenberg question to the chastened young lady I had turned into.

Answer 'Yes' & you admit to speeding.

Answer 'No' & you admit to driving without due care & attention.

That the Heisenberg answer would not have occurred to me is not significant - I would not have dared to use it.

I decided it was preferable to admit to knowing what I was doing.

And the policeman let me off with a warning not to do it again.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Sent to try us

Weather foul – bursts of heavy rain, wind gusting & swirling unpredictably; it’s easier to get up a hill covered in ice & snow than to struggle against this.

The leaves stayed on the trees too long to be swept up & kept out of the drains by the regular autumn clearance programme, so surface water everywhere – even the bridge is flooded again.

And we had another power cut starting around noon. Fingers crossed it will be back on again when I get home.

Happy Christmas.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Shopping not dropped

Children clearly matter more than ever this year when it comes to Christmas shopping.

All those people out shopping on the day of the public sector pension strike were mainly doing it to keep the children occupied on their day off school.

The town shopping centre has been opening late every Wednesday during December. Although not by any means deserted, you could not have called it busy - until last night. School officially out now, & so were the crowds, respectably, though not staggeringly, laden with carrier bags.

A relatively small but very impressive a capella choir provided arrangements of Christmas songs whose harmonies & intricately intertwined voices were a joy. They did not seem to be collecting money for anything – at least I could not see any boxes when I went over.

Shops seem to have been much more discreet altogether this year with their Christmas music. When it has been playing at all it has been much more quiet, often real old fashioned songs which were around even before I was born, rather than the more raucous, bounce around & spend, spend, spend we had grown used to.

This noontime, for the first time in a long time, the bus was held up by a tail back of traffic trying to get into Sainsbury’s car park.

The one big decision left is whether to finish the food shopping tomorrow, or take the risk of finding bare shelves on Saturday in shops unrestocked because they are going to be closed for the next two days.

Related post
No jangle bells

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Abdication calypso

Thanks to LastFM for introducing me to The Caressser & his 1938 calypso about the abdication of Edward VIII

Wild etymology

I was listening to this morning’s episode of Radio 4’s Book of the Week – The Etymologicon, by Mark Forsyth.

This is wonderfully read by Hugh Dennis & right up my street but, like cassava pone, proves that you can have too much of a good thing.

It was during this morning's excursion into how the guinea pig got its name that I suddenly thought: Crikes! I think I’ve eaten guinea pig.

My brain, like so many others full of a heavy cotton wool cold right now, is unable to cope properly with sifting the information conveyed via Google one screen at a time to sort out whether or not this might be true.

Was it agouti or cavy? Or capybara?

But it makes me quite proud to find that, according to Kitchen Daily, I share my confusion with none other than Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin and his shipmates, in S. America in the course of their voyage round the world aboard the Beagle, ate agouti, which Darwin described in his journal as ‘the very best meat I ever tasted’. (However, he thought agouti and cavy were interchangeable names, so he may have meant a guinea pig.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

No more cutting

Radio 4 recently carried a programme about the decline of consented post mortem in Britain, which is ascribed in part to the scandals at Alder Hey.

According to a recent posting on The Economist Babbage blog however, the problem may be even worse in America, so we may have to look for explanations elsewhere.

Perhaps it is all those grisly serial killer post mortem porn books, tv & films which have put everybody off the idea.

Blame Patricia Cornwell & Val Mc Dermid.

Midnight robbery

The village newsagent was robbed last night – cigarettes of course.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Dry stone wall woman

Back in October I caught the end of an item on the Today programme which I was sorry to have missed. At long last I have followed the instruction in my notebook to follow it up by Googling ‘dry stone wall woman.’

Now I know what I want for Christmas.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

St Lucy

Time for more Donne, this one appropriate for the time of year.

by John Donne

'TIS the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ;
The world's whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring ;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness ;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have ;
I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
Of all, that's nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two ; oft did we grow,
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else ; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death—which word wrongs her—
Of the first nothing the elixir grown ;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know ; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means ; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love ; all, all some properties invest.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am none ; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night's festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's and the day's deep midnight is.

Number objects

Britain is not the only western country concerned about the ability of its population to handle mathematics.

The French are looking to methods devised by an Iranian born woman who believes that the problems are down to the impenetrable language in which mathematics is taught, & insists on children being given a thorough grasp & understanding of the concept of number.

I am somewhat puzzled by the example of the teaching materials which I have seen. For example, in the lesson on ‘4’ children are asked whether that number can be applied to a picture of a table, & to give an explanation for their answer; both yes & no are acceptable, depending on whether that is because there is only one table, or because it has four legs. Similarly either answer is acceptable when asked of a picture of a dog. The four letters m-e-l-l also count as four.

But Yes is not an acceptable answer to the same question about a collection of 4 rubbers, pens & pencils because Mrs Baruk bans pupils from answering ‘four objects’.

The logic escapes me.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Doomy Christmas

Today might be the day that everyone has – finally – gone shopping; the library is remarkably quiet, though perhaps that is just because many people have not yet surfaced from what was supposed to be the biggest office party night of the year last night.

Thursday was a wash out for the shops. There were only six people on the 1 o’clock bus into town – something which hasn’t happened since bus passes went completely free. Coming home, the bus had to linger at timed bus stops at least twice, something else virtually unheard of these days, mostly because increasing congestion & growing numbers of passengers to load mean that buses are rarely running ahead of time.

Perhaps everybody had just decided to stay at home because of the dire warnings about the weather that were issued earlier in the week. Which means that the Met Office undid the good turn that the public sector strikers had done for the shopkeepers at the end of November.

It wouldn’t take very much to put people off & persuade them to hold their purses tight however. Yesterday evening I overheard one woman say to an acquaintance that ‘things are really dire’ in response to a question about her Christmas shopping.

Two new outlets have opened slap in the centre of town – one for Pay Day Loans, one offering to buy your gold.

The Pound Store is the only one which has queues all the time at the till.

And unsold Christmas Specials at bargain prices were piled high just inside the supermarket door last night.

Related posts
Who’d have thought it

Unreliable timetables

Friday, December 16, 2011

Star bosons

William Waldegrave wrote a column in Wednesday’s Times in which he reminisced about the day he issued a challenge to physicists to provide him with an explanation of the Higgs Boson which would fit on one side of a sheet of A4 paper.

One fact new to me was that he had promised a bottle of vintage champagne to the winner, & in the event found himself having to fork out for five bottles when the panel of eminent physicists, who judged the entries, decided that that number were equally outstanding.

Waldegrave regarded as ‘the most fun’ the explanation which used the analogy of the effect a certain female prime minister would have when she entered a crowded room, gaining mass as others gathered round her.

Not so very coincidentally, at about the same time as The Times was hitting the streets or the ether, Radio 5 Live’s Up All Night was talking to a physicist in America about the latest news from CERN. Asked if he could provide a simple explanation of the Higgs Boson the physicist said there was one – regretfully he was unable to say who had first come up with it – which clearly impressed presenter Giles Dilnot mightily.

It was of course the same as William Waldegrave’s ‘fun’ version, except that in the American adaptation the person capable of having such an effect is a female rock star.

Which reminded me in turn of a studio discussion I heard some years ago – also probably on 5 Live. The subject was Hugh Grant, then going through one of his less than happy periods.

Somebody stuck up for him: Whatever you think, he is one of those special people – when he’s in the room everybody else wants to be near him, they all move in his direction.

I wondered if, subconsciously at least, the speaker was thinking of particle physics as they said that?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Met Office Matilda

So what happened to this 20-year storm which was supposed to hit us today?

Newspaper meteorologists, the Met Office & climate change believers are way too fond of putting the wind up us.

Some of us have spent the days since Sunday in a state of very real anxiety.

When it doesn’t happen we just get cross & stop believing anything they tell us

Extract from Met Office forecast for today:
15 December 2011: dawn to dusk
Peak District mountain area forecast

Forecast issued: 0523 on Thursday, 15 December 2011
Overview for Thursday

Wintry showers early and late but some dry, bright weather in between. Lighter winds than recently but still a chilling breeze, especially later.

No risk of Blizzards; Storm force winds; Gales; Thunderstorms; Heavy persistent rain; Strong sunlight;

A cloudy start to the day, with showers, falling as snow above about 200 to 300m, but becoming mainly dry mid to late morning, with some bright or sunny intervals developing, before further cloud and showers arrive towards dusk, again wintry over the tops. Light winds at first but increasing somewhat later.

Maximum winds above 400m: Westerly to southwesterly 25 to 30mph during the afternoon.

Seeing the pattern

In 2009 James Crook, emeritus professor of mathematics from South Dakota, published on the website of the American Mathematical Society a formula for solving every Su Doku grid. It runs to 9 pages & involves concepts & techniques such as pre-emptive sets, completion chromatic polynomials & hidden tuples.

Spoil sport.

When Su Doku first hit The Times in 2004 I thought: How boring – no laughs there, unlike the cryptic crossword.

But when I could no longer see to do the crossword on the bus going home I tried the numbers thing – larger print, more white space & greater contrast; easier to read in the dim light.

It was OK, but I thought it might be more interesting to look at the mathematics of it – simple permutations or combinations of a mere 9 digits – even though I used to hate all those problems in Feller about the probability of husbands & wives sitting next to each other at dinner.

I soon gave up on that idea – no wonder really in the light of the illumination provided by Professor Crook.

I did however persevere with the puzzles & a strange thing happened – I found it much easier to do those at the higher levels of difficulty as these were introduced. In fact I sometimes find Super Fiendish laughably easy, & certainly less tedious than the Easy ones.

This must in part be a simple case of practice & familiarity, of knowing what to expect &, perhaps subconsciously, remembering techniques & tricks which have worked on earlier occasions.

The techniques are tremendously difficult to describe in words – as the introductory explanations & instructions provided in some of the books of collected puzzles show only too well. I can only describe the method as ‘seeing the pattern.’

There are physical factors which make it much easier for me to successfully complete one of these problems – notably lots of white space around the puzzle & smooth paper which does not get scuffed up by the eraser; I especially like those books with a spiral binding which you can open out flat, a single puzzle per page of smooth white paper. I do not like a grid much larger than the size normally adopted by newspapers.

I also find it essential to use a Paper Mate non-stop 0.7mm HB pencil.

I never enter possible alternatives in an empty square, except occasionally just two – never (like at least one previous winner of The Times National Championship) all possible candidates, to be eliminated & erased one by one - & is essentially Professor Crook’s method.

I find it much harder to complete puzzles where the numbers already inserted form a zig zag pattern; the first step on the way to a solution is to fill in the cells which will straighten up the layout. The pattern is at least as important as the individual numbers – something which was made startlingly clear in a post by David Speigelhalter on Randomness in Art: he asked us to spot the fake piece of random art from a set of 4 Su Dokus-type grids with colours rather than numbers – in that case it was the pattern formed by squares coloured in a particular shade of acid green which immediately gave the game away.

All this solipsism has a wider point. Ultimately we, each of us, have only our own experience & reflective cogitation to go on, even if we have the resources & ability to design & conduct psychological or neurological experiments on a wide variety of ‘subjects’ under laboratory conditions.

The older I get, the more faculties begin to fade, the more we hear how brain scans show up ‘real’ differences between the way different brains perceive or respond to the world, the more I realise that the old idea, that the world simply IS, with ‘I’ its flawed observer & interpreter, is not true.

Each one of us inhabits a different world, one described & limited by our own perceptive abilities – mine are different from yours; that world out there is different.

We overlap enough however. Like a kind of multi-dimensional stereo vision bringing the parts together to make a whole.

The world is a kaleidoscope.

And Su Doku is only a pastime.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Talking about music

I don’t know if Desert Island Discs was, in 1942, the original radio programme where an interview is disguised as a discussion of the guest’s favourite music - that friendly format which allows the interviewee to show off, sometimes unashamedly & without challenge, its genius in making them choose the only eight records they could listen to, possibly for the rest of their life – we all like to play that game.

Private Passions has been going on Radio 3 for a mere 15 years. There is more musicology in the interplay between Michael Berkeley & his guests (who do not necessarily have any musical training) & the format produces some interesting exchanges about how music produces its effects on non- experts who nevertheless have an ‘ear.’ I am intrigued to learn from the website that the programme is recorded in Michael Berkeley’s own London home. The musical choices are played at greater length – whole tracks, if not actually whole works.

Classic FM has the Classic FM Interview on Saturday evenings where the bonhomous Nick Ferrari talks to ‘some of today’s best known personalities’ about their lives & favourite pieces of classical music.

Now Radio 3’s weekday mid-morning Essential Classics adopts the same format between 10.30 and 11, with the same guest stripped across the week. One newspaper reviewer finds this a bit too much – said that by the end of the week the interviewee seemed like a house guest who had outstayed their welcome.

I had a different concern – trying to work out if the item goes out live every day, with the guest having to trek to the studio, or whether the chat is recorded all in one go & the programme put together later.

Certainly some of the earlier guests sounded surprised by the interviewer’s Hello! on Tuesday , Wednesday …, but recently it has sounded less forced. Since 5 mornings for a whole week would be quite some undertaking for a guest with plenty of other commitments I suspect it must be pre-recorded (by the same company which produces Private Passions) & not necessarily in the studio at all.

The website says gnomically that “Their choices are spread across the week’s programmes.

I recently heard a trail on RTÉ Radio 1 for a programme with what sounds like a very similar format, but unfortunately on one of their FM or digital stations which cannot be picked up over here by old-fashioned steam radio.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Making the best use of our time

This time it was BBC radio which managed to disorient me in the late night/small hours of the morning.

At about the time I have still not got used to not hearing Bridget Kendall’s Forum, up popped Melvyn Bragg & guests, discussing Shinto.

Have they moved In Our Time onto the World Service?

Not exactly.

Just thriftiness in the face of BBC budget cuts perhaps.

An edition of In Our Time broadcast on Radio 4 on 22 September 2011 was being broadcast as part of a series called Heart & Soul on World Service.

Bridget Kendall’s Forum has been moved to the early hours of Saturday/Sunday night.

Related post
Mal de mer

Cedric & Sid

Tell Sid, the advertising slogan for sales of shares in the newly privatised British Gas, was a Treasury in-joke.
‘Sid’ was Sidney Webb, one of the earliest members of the Fabian Society (& founder of LSE), who wrote the original Clause IV for the Labour Party which called for the nationalisation of the gas & water industries.
Ian King Times Business Diary 22 November 2011

It is also either ironic or salutary to remember the fuss that was made about the pay of Cedric Brown when he got a 75% pay rise as Chief Executive of the by then privatised British Gas. I was always convinced that his name*, nowadays considered old fashioned & effeminate, only added to the contempt in which he was held during that media storm & fit of morality.

If only we had known how much more inflation there would be in the pay of senior managers.

* According to Wikipedia Cedric is a male given name invented by Walter Scott in the 1819 novel Ivanhoe, possibly misread for Cerdic, the name of a Saxon king, anglicized from Welsh caredig (‘beloved’).

Monday, December 12, 2011

Eight thousand bucks

More evidence of what can happen when something is lurking at the front of your mind.

On BBC Radio 2 on Sunday night Russell Davies played a comedy song about a young man chasing girls.

The first verse ends with the line '$8000 bucks down the drain.'

Except that, because of the recent media preoccupation with when it may be permissible to swear in public, my mind completely misheard an F where there should be a B.

Of course it could not be an F - not on the BBC, not on Sunday evening.

Just to be sure, I checked the programme schedule on the website.

I wanted to get
Some new girlfriends,
So I went and bought
A Mercedes Benz.
A waste of money!
Eight thousand bucks down the drain.
Alan Sherman: A waste of money

Recorde of statistics

Richard Hamblyn’s collection, The Art of Science: A Natural History of Ideas, introduced me to this wonderfully spirited paean to Arithmetick, extracted from Robert Recorde’s The Grounde of Artes, Teachying the Worke & Practise of Arithmetike, much necessary for all States of Men, which was published in 1543 during the reign of Henry VIII.

Doctors gather so great mysteries out of number & so much do write of it. And if I should go about to write of all the commodities of Arithmetick in civil acts, as in governance of Common-weales in times of peace, & in due provision & order of Armies, in time of war, for numbering the Host, summing of their wages, provision of victuals, viewing of Artillery, with other Armour; beside the cunningest point of all, for casting of ground, for encamping of men, with such other like: And how many ways also Arithmetick is conducible for all private Weales, of Lords & all Possessioners, of Merchants, & all other occupiers, & generally for all estates of men, besides Auditors, Treasurers, Receivers, Stewards, Bailiffs, & such like, whose Offices without Arithmetick are nothing: if I should particularly repeat all such commodities of the noble Science of Arithmetick, it were enough to make a very great book.
Robert Recorde c1510-58

Britain is (finally?) to develop a cutting edge workforce in everything from medicine & science to car manufacturing & digital technologies with the aid of a dozen maths colleges for 16 to 18 year olds, one in each major city in England (Which they? Surely London needs more than one?) Since we do not have enough maths teachers in schools they will be linked to universities & will be totally free in matters of pupil selection & curriculum.

We need them to ‘help make England an intellectual, cultural & economic leader in a field vital for our future’ said one official.

They will all be up & running by the time of the next election.

Fact: # of maths lessons currently taught by non-maths specialists??

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Construction statistics

I have belatedly become aware of the Statement of the UK Statistics Authority on the error in the estimates of Construction Output which were released to the press last August.

Oh dear, oh dear.

This is a short story which tells (rather elliptically), of yet another part of the civil service experiencing problems of management & morale – problems that have been afflicting much of the civil service for some time.

A simple clerical mistake in a spreadsheet formula (which apparently needs to be updated for each new quarter) was not spotted in time.

The report tells a story of staff under a great deal of pressure, following changes in responsibilities, extra work making revisions to previous series, & outdated computer technology. Reorganisations & budget cuts have clearly played their part.

But, even more alarmingly, the report suggests that all this ‘raises a question about the role of senior managers … managers may have to accept less freedom to define their own roles on the basis of their personal understanding of what is needed and the prevailing culture of the office.’

Whatever is meant by ‘senior management’ in this context, the comment suggests a disturbing lack of grip & sense of collegiate responsibility at the highest levels.

Strange sights

This is another heart wrenchng poem about love & old age from Thomas Hardy

She Saw Him, She Said

“Why, I saw you with the sexton, outside the church-door,
So I did not hurry me home,
Thinking you'd not be come,
Having something to him to say.—
Yes: 'twas you, Dear, though you seemed sad, heart-sore;
How fast you've got therefrom!”

“I've not been out. I've watched the moon through the birch,
And heard the bell toll. Yes,
Like a passing soul in distress!”
“—But no bell's tolled to-day?” . . .
His face looked strange, like the face of him seen by the church,
And she sank to musefulness.
Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy blog

Pronouncing Calcutta

It was only with the reports of the appalling fire in Calcutta that I noticed that BBC radio news readers were pronouncing the name of the city as if it were spelled more like Culcutta.

The information on the web does not make it clear when this change was adopted – one site suggests 2001. Did I fail to notice because Calcutta does not often make it on to the domestic news bulletins?

The official variant adopted by the current BBC news website is actually spelled Kolkata, just to add to the confusion.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The politics of economic integration

My gut instinct is that David Cameron was right to refuse to sign up to the latest woolly European proposals which could lead to heaven knows what. Signing up to yet more ‘Europe’ would probably have led to a political explosion at home, & one not led by,(contrary to what they like to think) gleeful told-you-so Euro sceptics.

It is unfortunate that Cameron should have done this to protect our so-called financial services ‘industry’, whose apparent size & importance is in large part an illusion & delusion, based on the continuing debt-fuelled inflation in asset prices.

Politics right, economics wrong.

A different kind of snow

It seemed that we had escaped the worst of the winter storms which were battering much of northern Britain last week. We had heavy squally showers, intermittent high (but not gale force) winds, & no snow to speak of.

Friday morning’s local weather forecast foretold of showers, possibly falling as snow on the highest ground but dying out during the afternoon, with little wind. A cold night though, with temperatures dropping below freezing.

We were in for an unpleasant surprise.

Just before I left home the presenter on local radio warned of ice on the road the bus takes, but five miles further up. Take care, he said, cars are sliding all over the place.

Getting up the hill was more of a challenge than I had expected – the latest shower had been of that wet sleety stuff, which was still lying on the surface. For once I was happy to think that the bus might be a little late.

By the time I reached the road the sky had turned black & heavy sleet was falling again. I stood in the bus shelter reviewing my options for when it stopped; on the whole best to go & do the planned shopping, or else the Christmas timetable will be out of kilter, but then come straight home. Traffic was still moving (some much too fast for the conditions), the sky was brightening, even showing some patches of blue, a shaft of sunlight silvering the bottoms of some of the clouds.

But no bus came.

The major problem seems to have been in Buxton. Though high up (1000 ft above sea level) the town centre lies in a bowl – if you want to get out the only way is up, & in such slippery conditions it is all too easy to slip & slide or, if you are very big & heavy, to gain the necessary traction. So everything grinds too easily to a halt.

There was also mention of one road being closed by the construction of the new Nestle pipeline, but that may just be locals too ready to blame everyhting on a controversial issue.

Thursday, December 08, 2011


After a long planning battle, Nestle is investing £35 million in a new bottling plant for Buxton water which will more than double the current capacity of 330 million bottles a year.

Increased demand has seen sales rise nearly 10% since 2007.

New technology will mean lighter bottles which use 25% less plastic.

There will be no significant increase in the number of jobs (currently 100). There will however be 300 new Nestle jobs in the south of the county, making posh coffee.

UK consumers drank over 2 billion litres of bottled water in 2010 – this is expected to rise to 2.3 billion by 2015 as mothers are expected to opt for water rather than sugary drinks for their children.

Nestle also owns Perrier, San Pellegrino & Vittel.

Buxton water is produced from 5,000 year old rainfall that has been forced up through 1,500 metres of bedrock before emerging at St Ann’s spring. It is possible to take your own bottles & fill them up for free at the Well in the centre of town – though you may have to join a long queue.

The taste of the bottled variety always puzzles me; I drank water from the well only once I think, when I was very young. It tasted sulphurous, but the grown ups said that meant it was doing you good.

There was also a petrifying well at Matlock so I think I was afraid I might be turned to stone if I ever drank well water again.

I liked the well dressing though

Noteworthy but unmomentous coincidence

I got one of those slightly spooky feelings when checking the radio listings yesterday evening to see if there was anything not to be missed.

The Radio 3 Essay at 10.45, the theme this week ‘Personal reflections on different aspects of the life, work and influence of WG Sebald.’ The translator’s view, to be given by – Andrea Bell. On the very day I had written my blog note.

Of course nothing really spooky, statistically significant, or even interesting to anyone but me, about that small co-incidence in time.

I may well have heard the name of such a distinguished translator, read of, even read, her work long before now, without the name lodging in the memory bank until I read that comment in the Bellos book.

When things do suddenly lodge in the front part of your brain you are often amazed to find how ubiquitous they are – indeed this is far from being the first time that Anthea Bell’s work has appeared on Radio 3.

Such small coincidences happen all the time. The really interesting question is why do a very few sometimes spark a new hypothesis, a really Big Idea.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Yes - again

I forgot to note that we had another power cut last Tuesday – this one during the afternoon or early evening while I was out of the house.

In fact it took me a few moments to realise that the radio was making a funny noise, not because I had pressed the wrong button but because the whole thing needed to be reset.

The winds were high & blustery again all day, just like they were when we had the previous cut.

A trying day all round really. A group of three teenage girls arrived at the bus stop, very overexcited, very noisy, talking at the tops of their voices, screaming with laughter. They broke into a dance routine to You’re The One That I Want, threatening once or twice to knock me over (not meaning to).

The f-word was used more than once. I fell to pondering what might be the reaction if I rang the police to complain that I was thereby feeling harassed & distressed though not, in truth, really alarmed.


A family of words

'How has Anthea Bell made Asterix even funnier in English than in French?' asked David Bellos in his book about translation, Is That A Fish In Your Ear? Praise indeed. I wanted to know more.

Anthea Bell is the daughter of Adrian Bell, the first cryptic crossword setter for The Times, who was described in an article to celebrate the publication of the 25,000th such crossword as ‘a farmer who wrote with a quill pen.’ Oliver Kamm, The Times current resident pedant, is Anthea Bell's son.

Adrian Bell was also the father of BBC journalist Martin Bell who won a famous victory as independent MP for Tatton in the wake of the cash for questions scandal & was himself featured in Radio 4's Archive on 4 on Saturday, which looked at the subject of reporters who cross the line, with special reference to Bell’s reporting from Bosnia.

Is a facility with, & deep interest in, language & words due to nature or nurture, one wonders.

That Times article I referred to also told us that Adrian Bell remains the most prolific setter in the newspaper’s history with 5,000 puzzles to his name.

I wonder if the man who was recently described, by the current crossword editor, in an article about the recent national competition as his best current setter, will match Bell’s record. He it is, I think, who is changing the nature of crossword clues to make them encrypted rather than cryptic.

Tatton is now the constituency of George Osborn, our besieged Chancellor of the Exchequer, who may have to look for a new seat because of his government’s own boundary change.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011


Winter arrived yesterday. The high roads were closed or passable only with care. One was blocked by a gritter wagon which got stuck.

We didn’t have such problems down below, just dark skies in the middle of the morning & lots of blustery squally showers, some of which counted as hail, though fortunately just the sleety slush puppy kind, not the pelting frozen marbles that really sting the skin, create a terrible noise on the roof of the bus or make you fear for the glass roof of your conservatory.

This morning the radio told me that things were bad in Buxton, but things seemed much better at home. By the time I came out it was cold but the ground was clear of all signs of ice or snow, though it was very cold & the stream was in near full spate. But I got a shock up the hill – ice & snow still on the pavement.

Still the bus arrived on time; the driver told me that, although he was on time, the bus itself was the one that should have arrived an hour earlier.

John McCarthy

It is, I suppose, inevitable that 2011 should have seen the deaths of so many pioneers of computers & computing, since many would have been young men in the 1940s & 1950s. None of these has been met with the global outpouring of grief which we saw at the death of Steve Jobs.

One such was John McCarthy, who died on October 24. He invented the LISP programming language & is credited with coining the term Artificial Intelligence in 1955. He is said sometimes to have regretted not having come up instead with the term Computational Intelligence since AI came to be mixed up with the notion of making robots with human emotions – an idea which McCarthy rejected on the grounds that to simulate emotional behaviour is not at all the same thing as to experience it.

He also helped develop time-sharing, in the days when, rather than a kind of holiday home, the term referred to a way of making it possible for many users to have remote access to the same computer at the same time. Eventually this allowed users access via a phone line & a teletype machine &, with the development of satellite communications, regardless of the distance between them. For people of my generation this was every bit as exciting as the later developments of Apple & i; since few organisations could afford their own multimillion pound machine, pay-as you-go was our only hope of access.

But the benefits were considerable even if the machine was local. No longer did you have to write out your programs laboriously by hand on specially designed pads of green & white paper, deliver them to an office where someone had the equipment to transcribe them into a format which the computer could understand, then wait for a week to see if your program had worked. Now you could just type it in directly yourself & get the result straight away, printed out at the astonishing speed of 10 characters per second.

The Times obituarist described him as a rational humanist, optimistic about the role of science & technology in sustainable human development, an advocate of nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels, dismissive of the ‘superstitious’ belief in the benefits of organic food, despairing of media headlines about health & scientific research, & sceptical about the scale of the threat from global warming.

Sounds like a man I wish I had known.

Monday, December 05, 2011


As you grow old strength ebbs & even eating can start to become a bit of a trial, in subtle ways, long before you reach the stage of needing to be spoon fed like a baby.

Chewing becomes a chore, made worse if hand problems make it trickier to use a knife to cut things into bite size pieces.

Simple pleasures aren’t always so simple anymore.

Take apples. Maybe the idea of holding one in your hand while you take a bite through the skin & savour the wonderful scent & feel the juices run – well maybe best just leave it as a memory. Of course you can always cut it into slices, peel off that tricky skin – using a fruit knife was always the politely genteel way of eating an apple at table.

And you can still make apple sauce, apple pie, apple crumble, Eve’s pudding … Or buy a dish ready made.

On Saturday I had what I don’t suppose is an original idea, when the weather turned so cold, wet & blustery as to make the idea of crunching through crispy juicy apples for dessert less attractive than it had earlier seemed, but nor did I want to faff about cooking a pudding.

The brainwave was to cut the apples in slices, spread them on a sheet of foil & put them in the oven as the main course finished cooking, leaving them in there for about 15 minutes as the oven cooled.

It worked brilliantly; the slices were still juicy, but warm & just nicely soft (even the skins). And the perfume in the air just added to the pleasure.

Reminds me of another tip: should you ever need just a small amount of apple sauce, say to go with pork chops, visit the baby food shelf in the supermarket. Make sure you choose a pure apple puree, not something with added rice or thickener or flavour.

Woolf report

I spent part of my weekend reading the report of the Woolf Inquiry into the LSE’s links with Libya & lessons to be learned.

I don’t expect that this particular sad & sorry chapter will earn much more than a footnote or passing reference when (not in my lifetime) the full & authoritative history of the West’s links with Libya, in the context of the need, or lust for, & dependence upon oil, & of the wars, violence & compromises (shabby or noble) which that entailed, comes to be written.

What the report did succeed in doing for me was to set into very sharp relief some of the consequences of British policies on higher education & the seemingly laudable aim of providing higher education for at least 50% of the population – an aim which was possibly necessary as a disguised way of coping with our inability to provide jobs for all those young people.

But without concomitant increases in public funding (or student fees), universities have been forced to seek alternative sources of finance from international students, donations & consultancy, competing in what is now a global business.

And in the particular case of LSE, declaring its independence from the federal University of London.

As such it had become a growing global business, but one which had not completely appreciated or understood the risks that that involved, nor taken care to make sure appropriate governance & management procedures were in place to cope with all those challenges.

Just keeping track of, & managing the learning of ‘ordinary’ students must be challenge enough; their number has grown from some 4,000 in 1980 to over 10,000 in 2010. (I think it was more like 3,000 in the 1960s), & in 1976 the entire University of London had only 40,000 internal students.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Nifty bin

Last week I became the proud owner of a Nifty Bin.

It is about the size of a household waste paper bin – the sort you might have by your desk if you have one of those (not gone all wifi), & still work with paper.

But the one I bought has a well fitting lid & a foot pedal to open it with. Inside there is a sturdy rubberised plastic bucket with a wire handle to make it easy to empty the waste from inside.

I think it was the scarlet colour which caught my eye. There was a big display of these bins just next to the lift in TKMAXX – some silver, some brushed steel, some black, but the scarlet was an exact match for one I already have in my kitchen.

Most discombobulatingly, I realise that that one must be 25 years old now. Bought in Peter Jones kitchen department, Italian, stylish, a perfect match for the small amount of red in the handmade tiles we had splashed out on for the surrounds to the counter tops in the new kitchen.

If I saw it outside now on a sunny day it might look sad & tired - like its owner, looking its age - but to my eye it is not showing any signs of wear; not on the outside at least, the bucket is a bit battered. Regular wipe downs to keep the outside looking pristine & hot soapy bleach to swish out the bucket are all it has needed to keep it in good nick.

The Nifty Bin is not quite a match for its bigger, older sibling – it has a domed silver top (bit like a baby dalek) rather than a flat red one, but otherwise seems identical in quality.

Just what I need to solve the problem of food waste now we can no longer mix it with cardboard or newspaper. I have been trying a large plastic bowl with a well-fitting lid, but that needs two hands to open, not good when you're trying to get rid of egg shells.

I saw the Nifty Bin on Friday but couldn’t carry it then; got around to going back on Tuesday – just as well because by then there were only three left, only one of them red, & one of the silver ones had a dent in its dome.

It cost £5.99. Can’t remember how much the bigger one cost but it must have been quite a lot more than that even in 1986 £s; it seemed extravagant for such a mundane item – couldn’t you just make do with plastic?

I was surprised to see from the label that this one was made in China.

A Google search for “Nifty Bin” failed to produce any information about the manufacturer. It did however produce a lovely photo of what Linzie Hunter calls a nifty bin – a 1950s design by Lucienne Day which her mother found in a charity shop, bringing another little wallow in nostalgia.

And the Peter Jones/John Lewis site offers a bigger (20 litre) version of my domed bin for £30. Doesn't say where it was made.

In its way, a parable & a paradigm for our time.

Train travel

This poem by Edna St Vincent Millay (how I used to envy that name!) has certainly changed its meaning for me since I was a child; then I thought it was just a poem about lovely lovely train journeys, written by someone who knew all about itchy feet.


The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn't a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn't a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing;
Yet there isn't a train I'd rather take,
No matter where it's going.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

*!*!*! Limerick

I suspected some kind of wind up PR stunt when I heard on BBC World Service (no less) last night that residents of an Irish village had been banned from a social media site on the grounds of taste & decency.

Well there might be some exaggeration & misunderstanding, but there really is a place called Effin

And there are Effin Songs & a well known character called Effin Eddie.

All from Limerick.

You couldn’t make it up

According to the OED an effiner is a rare & obsolete word for a refiner of silver or gold.

Normal service

No posts yesterday – there was a fire alarm in the library before I got round to publishing anything. I didn’t hang around – it was much too cold to wait outside.

The fire engine was here for quite a while – I could see it from the bus stop, still there when the bus came.

Fortunately it turned out to be a false alarm.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Just 14

In Our Time did Christina Rossetti this week.

I was rather startled to hear that she wrote Remember when she was just 14.

No wonder it so affected me when I was about that age!

Of course I had misheard. Listening more closely on the BBC iPlayer, I realise that Melvyn actually said that she achieved so much ‘in just 14 lines’.

Who’d have thought it

My heart sank when I got off the bus in town yesterday – teenagers all over the place. Just like half term all over again.

It was the newsagent who gave me a different slant on things.

We’ve got so used to only “hearing” the bad news, we don’t stop to think there might be a good side to it.

He had mentally prepared for a bad day: during the week most of his custom comes from those who work in the government & council offices & facilities in the surrounding streets.

What he got was lots of people coming into town for the day.

Not so good of course for those who get most of their custom from a nearby school or college. Winners & losers.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when I went down to the shopping centre, but I was. Lots of younger children, mostly with just one adult rather than en famille as tends to be the case at weekends. Christmas shopping, with no sense of the frenzy of recent years, a more sober sense of purpose you might say – but the children were clearly happy. I don't think all the shoppers were strikers - just people who needed to find a way to keep the children amused on their unexpected holiday.

It was all hands to the till in Primark. McDonalds was having a bonanza.

Sometimes Dad or granddad in sole charge; one group – the two young adults in charge surely not old enough to be the parents - who were off to see a film after their meal; another which put me more in mind of a school group & made me think that perhaps those who were on strike might be providing supervision for the children of those who were not.

I haven’t overheard any negative comments about the strike (apart from those on the radio) – but then I would expect more of a sense of solidarity & fair treatment here oop north.

I wouldn’t expect yesterday’s spending to be in any way an addition to what people were planning to spend, more just making best use of the time available for doing all the extra work of Christmas. And, most important of all, to keep the children happy & not spread the anxiety on to them.

Even so retailers are probably grateful for the cash flow benefits.

The BBC did not seem to have heard of this good news.