Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Books we read in March

We’ve read :

‘A Kentish Lad’
by Frank Muir, published by Penguin 1997

Kentish Lad2

You’ll need to be of a certain age to remember Frank Muir. I first remember him in a BBC radio comedy programme called ‘Take It From Here’, which ran from 1948 to 1960. I listened to the series with my parents, sitting round the solid fuel stove in the ‘living room’ and too young to understand the humour. I soon grew into it and, later, watched out for his name in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

The autobiography is a pleasant and easy read – not dramatic – but a chance for him to tell many funny stories and recount his experience of many fascinating people.

If you watched British TV comedy in the ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s, Frank Muir probably had a hand in your favourite programmes and this book will bring back fond memories.

Pat read it. Alan dipped in and out.

‘Monster Island’
by David Wellington, published by Snowbooks Ltd. 2007

Monster Island

This book was passed on to me by Tariq, a zombie mad grandson in a book swap for some Sci-fi.  To be honest, it is what we used to call pulp fiction, but, hey!, I gobbled up pulp fiction Sci-fi when I was his age and look how nice I turned out.

It is simply written, with the classic premise of zombies taking over the world and is set in New York. It rolls along very nicely, telling the story from two view points, and has some unlikely heroes in a group of girl warriors crossing the world from Somalia. Just over half way my ‘willing suspense of disbelief’ wasn’t quite strong enough to carry me through, but I was sufficiently interested to see how it ended that I did finish it.

There are 2 sequels - ‘Monster Nation’, which is really a prequel, and ‘Monster Planet’.  I will read them at some point as a bit of ‘light’ relief – but not at bedtime.

Pat read it.

‘Writing in an Age of Silence’
by Sarah Paretsky, published by Verso, 2007

writing in an age of silence

Sarah Paretsky is the creator of the doyen of feisty, independent female private eyes – V.I. Warshawski.  I knew nothing about Paretsky till I read this series of essays, though it is obvious from her novels that she is familiar with the poorer districts of Chicago and that she writes a real page turner – every time.

I learned that she grew up in Kansas in a town obsessed with the threat of Communism (this was the McCarthy era) and more than a little racist.  She went to Chicago to do community work and witnessed and was involved in the Civil Rights Movement when Martin Luther King was in the city.

This is by no means a fun book, in fact is it bleak in places as she shares her journey in politics and social justice but she writes with such dazzling clarity that it is not easy to put down. In fact, I read it in one sitting.

V.I. Warshawski, Kinsey Millhone, Kay Scarpetta and many other feisty heroines have changed the face of crime fiction forever. It’s nice to know that Paretski walked the walk as well as talking the talk.

Reading this book sent me off to her website and I discovered that I’ve missed some of her releases.  I will be rectifying that soon.

Pat read it.

‘Demelza’ and ‘Jeremy Poldark’
by Winston Graham, published by Pan

Demelza Jeremy

Ross Poldark’s woes continue. Demelza’s start. Alan read both of these.

9395_jpg_280x450_q85 Alan also read Churchill’s Wizards which was mentioned in February.

0671578642 Pat re-read The Honor of the Queen, the second in the Honorverse by David Weber. The series was outlined in February.

And finally NOT read was ‘Top 40 Bad books’ by the American Book Review .

I haven’t read their reviews because they want to charge me $35 for the privilege (only $24 if you are not ‘foreign’).

Quite frankly, from what the Guardian has to say about the reviews, they sound pompous and egotistical. I don’t necessarily revere ‘Great Literature’ just because I’m supposed to, but really – to say that ‘Women in Love reads "like someone put a gun to Nietzsche's head and made him write a Harlequin romance" is a bit much. Could the reviewer do better him or her self?

I’m inclined to agree with Alison Flood of The Guardian that “This is all a bit say-something-controversial-for-the-hell-of-it for my taste.”

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The Rollright Stones and The Stones of Blood

P1000824 The Kings Men Stone Circle
Tom Baker as Dr Who, a screenshot from ‘The Stones of Blood’
The Kings Men is a nearly perfect circle,104 feet across, made up of 77 stones of heavily weathered, local, oolitic limestone. It is believed that there were once 105 stones with just one entry but, in the 3.500 - 4,500 years since it was constructed, some have been removed, possibly for local building use. Legend has it that you cannot count the same number of stones more than twice. We didn’t try!
P1000839 The tallest stone
The stones range in height from a few inches to 7 feet (see picture above) The circle is (roughly) the same age as the Stone Circle at Stonehenge, and considered the third most important stone circle in England after Stonehenge and Avebury, though an 18c visitor wrote that this is ‘but a molehill to a mountain’.
The circle lies on an exposed ridge towards the Eastern edge of the Cotswolds, alongside an ancient trackway (now a country lane) known as The Jurassic Way.
No one knows why it was built or what it was used for, though theories abound. Religious site, astronomical calendar, astrological calendar trading post – take your pick as many ‘experts’ have done through the years but something about it seems to bring out the mystic in some visitors.
P1000830 P1000837
Across the lane is The King Stone, believed to be of Bronze Age origin, so younger than the Kings Men.
P1000855The King Stone 
The irregular shape is not just the result of weathering but by the tradition of chipping off small pieces as good luck charms to keep the Devil away. It is believed that it was much bigger when it was erected.
As with the Kings Men, it is on the ridge and attracts some religious feelings.
P1000860 P1000856         Long Compton from the Ridge                A wreath left at the foot of the stone
The last in the series of megalithic monuments on the site is The Whispering Knights. The Knights are a group of 5 upright stones about 400 yards away from the Stone Circle.
These are the oldest stones and are a 5,000 year old burial chamber.
P1000848 P1000850 P1000851
As you would expect, there are several local legends associated with the stones. If you are a young village girl who wishes to see the image of the man you will marry then you must run naked round the stones at midnight on Midsummer’s Eve. It is also said that if a young woman fails to conceive she has only to visit the stones at midnight and give any one of the circle a hug. It has never been known to fail – or so they say.
One story concerns an ambitious king marching northwards with his army. At Rollright he met a witch who addressed him:
‘Seven long strides thou shalt take, and
If Long Compton thou canst see
King of England shalt thou be’
The king strode forward confidently, but on his seventh stride the ground rose up in a mound hiding his view of the village below. The witch then went on:
‘As Long Compton thou canst not see
King of England thou shalt not be
Rise up, stick, and stand still, stone,
For King of England thou shalt be none
Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be
And I myself an eldern tree.’
And so the petrified king stands rooted to the windswept hilltop with his circle of soldiers and the five knights, plotting treason, behind him.
Despite being ‘a molehill to a mountain’. the Rollright Stones are all the more remarkable for their setting and lack of intrusive tarmac and modern buildings. Managed by The Rollright Trust. great care has been taken to maintain the natural setting in which the stones have stood for so long. Neat and informative signs tell as much as the average visitor would want to know.
P1000854 P1000845 P1000847
Trees are being planted and a discrete path laid to allow wheelchair access.
P1000823 P1000822
We met other visitors, families, students and people from as far afield as China. Everyone was friendly, quiet and respectful of the site. There was NO litter. Entry is £1; just put the money in an ‘honesty’ box when the site is not manned.
The Stones of Blood was the 100th story in the series, Dr Who and the Rollright Stones were used as a setting – though transferred to Cornwall for the purpose. It was shown in 1978 and was in the series of stories ‘The Key to Time’. A good enough reason to visit even without the history.
More pictures at my Picasa Album

Monday, 29 March 2010

Caravan leveller – a nifty gadget

It’s actually a sop to Pat’s creaky joints!  A caravan has to be levelled when based on a site – the last thing you want is to roll out of bed or have a pan slide off the cooker.  It’s simple enough to do with an attachment to an electric drill to wind down the ‘steadies’ as the legs are called. You then check with a spirit level to be sure.
The problem for me is that you really need to kneel to get the drill under the caravan and see what you are doing. Now, I don’t do kneeling – or, more accurately, I don’t do getting up easily once I’m down.
The system we have had fitted is the Caralevel made and fitted by a very clever man, Peter Pearce, in Buckinghamshire. We stayed overnight in his land and left the caravan for the day while we visited Bletchley Park.
We also met two Gloucester Old Spot pigs – who left at the same time as we did to be turned into pork and bacon. Believe it or not, they are brothers though they look so different in size.
We are completely wowed by it. Just turn the key and a clever computer adjusts the steadies till the caravan is absolutely level in all directions. I suppose we will take it for granted eventually but, when we arrived at this site – Huntsmill Farm – we just stood and watched and gloated.
P1000816 P1000819  P1000820
Of course, my creaky joints are just an excuse for playing with another gadget, really.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Bletchley Park – Station X and more

BP Manor House
Bletchley Park is somewhere we have wanted to go for years. The tale of one of the most secret operations in Britain during World War 2 did not come out till the 1970s and the site was nearly lost in 1991 when there were plans to demolish the dilapidated mansion and redevelop the site.
Then, in 1992, Milton Keynes Borough Council stepped in and, thankfully, made it a Conservation Area. A few days later the Bletchley Park Trust was formed to maintain the site as a museum devoted to the codebreakers. The site opened to visitors in 1993 and we’ve been muttering “We must go there.” every time we travel South.
It was well worth the visit. The workers were housed in huts, the early ones of wood but the motley collection added to with brick buildings as the workforce increased.
Hut 8 Alan Turing Hut 12 Ian Fleming P1000812
In addition to the story of the code breakers, there is now a computer science museum, a Winston Churchill display and a lot of other exhibits about World War 2. It is all beautifully displayed, staffed by friendly volunteers and in a lovely setting.
It seems that something about the war which started in 1939 brought out the best of minds – Alan Turing, Ian Fleming and many more. I wonder if it was the last time that individualism and eccentricity were valued? Today, if a man was so absent minded that he threw his empty coffee cup into the lake because he couldn’t think what else to do with it, he would be ‘diagnosed’ with something and probably never reach his potential.
What is really fascinating is not just the achievements of the staff, but the sheer scale and successful secrecy of the establishment. By 1945, some 9,000 people worked there and, in the course of the war, over 12,000 people were employed (of whom 80% were women).
Churchill never shared the secrets of the code breakers with the Soviet Union and the story was not revealed till the 1970s. It seems that no one talked and they say that some are reluctant even now. There are stories of couples getting married who had both worked there and who never told one another what they had done in the war.
One woman told her story to the BBC WW2 Peoples War archives – which I recommend as a source of fascinating tales of ‘real’ Brits during the period. Joy Ettridge (1) wrote her story, as so many did, with an air of slight surprise that anyone would be interested.
“In 1942 I went to work at Bletchley Park, - Bletchley Park, BP, Station X, Ultra, Enigma - they were names which meant nothing to the world at large then, or for thirty years to come. National security and the Official Secrets Act saw to that.
In wartime no hint of what went on within the perimeter fence of Bletchley Park escaped to the world outside, and strict internal security meant there was virtually no contact between different ‘sections’, even between different rooms within a ‘section’, except at the highest level. That secrecy was maintained until the 1970s - and, indeed, some of my former colleagues still prefer to remain silent about the specific work which they once did, even amongst themselves.”
She goes on to tell how her husband was recruited.
“My husband, Hugh, whom I first met at the Park, received, literally out of the blue, a letter telling him to go to Bletchley station and ring a certain number.A car was sent to fetch him for interview. He was an Oxford M.A., had lived and studied in Germany and was fluent in the language. He had also just obtained his Yachtmaster’s certificate and had hoped that these qualifications would fit him to take part in secret landings on the coast of occupied Europe. Someone must have thought of another use for those qualifications: he found himself in Naval intelligence at Bletchley Park. Recently I’ve learned from other people that they were recruited in the same cloak-and-dagger way, via the summons to Bletchley station.”
There really is more to see than can be coped with in one visit but the entrance fee gives a year’s season ticket for as many visits as you like.  Will we go back?  You bet!
Acknowledgements(1) Copyright Joy Ettridge at WW2 People's War. The site is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at'

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Oddments from the past week 24th March 2010

The Staffordshire Hoard - not your average day with a metal detector.
For those who have not heard of this, it is a collection of Anglo-Saxon, gold and silver artifacts found last year in a field in Staffordshire (Alan’s home county).  1,500 objects have been found and have been valued at £3,285,000.The man who found it and the owner of the land will be paid the money as a reward – I should think they are happy bunnies!
What really caught our attention is that this same field has been swept with a metal detector several times before and never produced anything. It does make you wonder what else is lying beneath our feet.
A selection of the treasures will be on display at the British Museum in London till 17th April 2010.
The Russians are coming – or perhaps not
A news broadcast in Georgia (Europe, not the US) spread panic with a report that Russian tanks were in the capital and the President was dead.  They claimed that “the aim had been to show how events might unfold if the president were killed.”
The broadcaster apologised later!
The story reminded us of  the 1938 radio version of “The War of the Worlds” which caused panic in New Jersey for people who joined late and just caught the fake news item.

In 1994, there was panic in Taiyuan, China, after a TV report of a deadly creature on the loose. It was a commercial for a new brand of liquor. On refreshing my memory by means of Google, I came across the Museum of Hoaxes and an hour slipped happily away.
Dan Dare is nearly 60
This is really for the two Daves (brother and son) and, of course, Alan who found out this shocking fact.  If you’ve never heard of Dan Dare, it’s time you did.  I can’t show pictures as they are all in copyright to ‘The Dan Dare Corporation Ltd’ – I kid you not. A google search on Dan Dare will give you 2,530,000 results including this.  Enjoy.
‘The Eagle’ was a comic, published 1950 - 1969, and ‘Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future’ was a lantern jawed, English space hero.  There was a sister comic called ‘Girl’ – which I thought was stupid and much preferred ‘The Eagle’.
A website on Frank Hampson (who drew the intrepid hero) and the website of ‘The Eagle Society’ will tell you more.
The Centurion
Last month, we both re-read ‘The Ninth Legion’ and discovered while googling round the subject that no less than two films are being made based on the book.  Now the trailer is out for the first one – looks good.  I did have the irreverent thought when the battle first started that perhaps the two film crews had got mixed up and it wasn’t really the Picts attacking.

I presume that is supposed to be woad on her face?  There is an old song about woad – it recounts the ancient British tradition of fighting naked and covered in woad dye.  I thought it was a Boy Scout song but found the words credited to the Royal Canadian Army Cadet Songbook, of all places.
Sing-along to the tune of ‘Men of Harlech’.
PS ‘Braces’ is English, English for ‘Suspenders’ in American English.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Solar Power for Freedom

Alan has dubbed us ‘The High-tech Hobos’ and we took another step along this route when we had a solar panel, extra battery and LED lights fitted to the caravan on Thursday.
To put this in context, we like using the 5 caravan maximum Certificated Location sites. They are inspected by the Caravan Club and are usually sited in quiet locations with plenty of room. They all offer fresh water and chemical disposal but the ones offering a mains electric hook-up for the caravan are dearer – understandably.
Sites that don’t have electric hook-ups are, on average, between £5 and £6 cheaper – and less likely to be booked up. We didn’t need much help from a calculator to realise that, if we spend 200 nights a year away, we could save £1,000 a year by using these sites.
Simple, fit a solar panel. Well, not really. Solar panels come in 3 types, umpteen sizes and we’re not electricians anyway. All we could get in the way of advice about the wattage we would need was “Well, it depends on how much electricity you use.”
This sounded like a task for a spreadsheet and there’s nothing (or not much) I like better than a spreadsheet, so I set to work.
Simple, again. Divide the wattage of the appliance by 12 = the approx amps per hour.
The maximum current of the solar panel is wattage divided by 17 – pause to reformat cells to show rounded numbers as 65/17= 3.8235294 is a bit too precise.
Now how many hours of light do we have at different times of the year?
What is the efficiency in cloudy weather?
How many hours TV do we want to watch per evening?
How long does it take to recharge a laptop?
We began to understand why everyone shrugged and said “It depends.”
In the end, we put ourselves in the hands of the experts. We found Leisure Power at a Caravan show in Manchester and they impressed us by their expertise and also the fact that they are caravanners themselves and so know what they are talking about. They came up with suggestions that would save us money on the initial investment as well. Those were the ‘hard’ reasons we went with them.
The ‘soft’ reasons were that they were friendly, didn’t talk down to the electrically illiterate Machins and didn’t push us into commitment.
On Thursday, we took the caravan over to their workshop in Warrington and left it over night to have the halogen lights replaced with LEDs, a 65w solar panel and extra battery fitted + all the technical gizmos that go with it.
solar and sattelite
The solar panel in place – on the right is the satellite dish.
We went back on Friday, detouring to Salford Quays on the way, and picked the van up, all jobs done and brought it home.
Even High-Tech Hobos have to clean the van occasionally – there’s even a gadget for that.
Watch this space!

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Salford Quays – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Salford Quays is on the site of the old Manchester Docks – I see some people rushing to an atlas as they were sure that Manchester (UK) is not on the coast. Come to that, neither of the two Manchesters I know of in the US are either.
This one is definitely the one in England and is on The Manchester Ship Canal, which was once the third busiest port in England, after London and Liverpool.
Manchester_Dock_No_9Manchester Docks c1900 
Times change. The growth of container ships, the change to sourcing grain from Europe instead of America and, most of all, the decline of the cotton trade in England caused a catastrophic decline in trade and in 1982 they were closed.
In 1983, Salford City Council purchased the site and planned to develop them to allow ships up to 12,500 tons to come close to Manchester centre.
What do we have now?
Let’s start with the good.
A derelict area has been given a new purpose.
There are some beautiful buildings in a lovely setting.
P1000726 It has given a sense of purpose to many people. There is an elegant footbridge (named ‘The Lowry Footbridge’ – more of that later).
 Lowry Footbridge P1000703 P1000675
As I approached, lo and behold – the bridge started to open.

P1000657Alas, no ship was in sight.greasing the cableAfter I had crossed the bridge and the workmen had descended, I asked them what they were doing.  They were greasing the cables and the evidence was spattered all over their overalls and faces. Their obvious delight in being asked spilled over into the information that they had worked on the building of the bridge and pointing out where two new swing bridges are being built. They were so pleased to be asked and their beams as I thanked them for opening the bridge for me, made up for a lot of other faults in the area.
The Bad
NO signposting – we stumbled across the Lowry Centre and the Imperial War Museum – supposedly the top tourist attractions.
NO obvious help for the disabled – we (first time visitors) advised a couple in the car park on disabled access!
A sterile, soulless feel to the place. All trees and plants were regimented and confined, vast stretches of paving, looking empty and forlorn.
Hard Landscape P1000695
Why didn’t they do more to stress the heritage of the docks. They have a Lowry Centre which is an Art Gallery/Theatre. A Lowry footbridge and – they have this

P1000652A discount shopping centre with all the charm, inside and out, of any out of town Mall – located opposite the Lowry Centre on Lowry Plaza. 
The Ugly
OK, so call me a philistine if you like but the Lowry Centre is an eyesore.
P1000681Yes, it really does lean like that. The structure in front is ‘a nod to a tidal barrier. It is clad in metal shingles and, in my opinion, is Post Soviet Brutal architecture.
It was Friday morning and all the rubbish bins were overflowing. Worse still was this floating in the corner of an attractive stretch of water.
P1000725 I know that the people who have dropped the stuff in the water are to blame but it hardly gives a good impression to leave it there.
To sum up.
Did we enjoy our visit?  Yes, though two hours was probably enough.
Would we go back? Yes, to go inside the Lowry Centre – but only because it is nearby (around 35 miles).
More pictures on Picasa

Friday, 19 March 2010

La Boqueria Mercat, Barcelona

La Boqueria – Food, glorious food

Walking into La Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria (to give it the official name) in Barcelona is overwhelming. It is noisy and colourful; the aromas of the food assault your senses. It’s foody heaven.
IMG_1923 IMG_1935 DSCN0057
Depending on where you get your information, there are between 20,000 and 40,000 different products on sale in La Boqueria – all food or drink - and it is big enough to support vendors selling just one product like bananas or eggs. Locals with shopping baskets mingle with tourists with plastic carrier bags and it is almost painful to have to pass up on the fresh fish, but can you imagine carrying fish in your carry on luggage?  Each time we go, we do make a special trip to the market on the day we leave and the Manchego cheese is to die for.

Make sure you go right to the back of the market where the kioskos staff are busy cooking some of the freshest food you can get. Sit on a high stool at the counter with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) and a plate of tapas and watch the world go by. You know the food is good because the stall holders eat at the kioskos!

You’ll be eating cuina de mercat which is now served in all the high class restaurants in Barcelona at many times the price – and if you do eat in a restaurant, chances are that the fish you are served was bought, still wriggling, from one of the stalls that morning.

Barcelona is my favourite city in Europe. That’s a major claim because I like it better than Paris or Rome. What it comes down to is that I could live in Barcelona and I have never wanted to live in a large city. It’s bustling and noisy but welcoming and on a human scale. And it has what is probably the best food market in the world.

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