Sunday, 22 January 2017

And another coat

Valerie and myself were in Hurstpierpoint again, and we just happened to go into a shop called Tina Bucknall, where a sale was going on. It's a boutique with the clothes and accessories coming from Italy.

I've long noticed that small towns (and even villages) in the countryside often have a boutique or two, catering for clothes-conscious people with cars and an extra bob or two to spend, who don't want to traipse into the county town or city. Sussex has a big out-of-town population, and therefore little country towns with smart shops can flourish. They will offer goods that are that little bit more individual than you will see on the big town High Street or in the city Shopping Mall. And there are likely to be allied retailers, such as cookshops. Plus plenty of traditional shops like ironmongers and butchers, the kind that have been forced out elsewhere. And a plethora of places to get coffee and a snack.

I'm not saying that I won't ever visit a city for serious shopping. Of course I will, if that's the right place to go. But I prefer the smaller places.

I least like vast multi-level Retail Centres like Bluewater in Kent, which may have all the big-name shops but are bland and impersonal and completely lacking in character, and anything but relaxing to go to. They seem like machines to make you spend. And indeed, they make you feel that you have no proper business to be there unless you buy something. If you merely browse, and don't quickly acquire a couple of bags with 'Next' or 'Hobbs' emblazoned on them, it's possible to feel like a trespasser. Certainly, the high-profile security people give you a piercing stare, as if you are a vagrant or time-waster, there just to mooch around and get out of the cold. Or (as they hope) a terrorist, looking for likely places to set off a bomb. I'm sure they yearn for an excuse to make an 'arrest' - or even use their tasers. You need to be very careful, and watch how you move - what you look at, and who you look at. You are on camera and being tracked. These places are as friendly as a war zone.

But Hurstpierpoint is serene and civilised. As is Petworth and Midhurst.

Anyway, we were in Tina Bucknall, trying on this and that. And I saw a woollen coat. I liked it at once. Valerie endorsed what I liked about it. It was on the sale rack for £40. It would do nicely for the spring - my West Country Tour - when it would still be cool (though no longer really chilly) and I'd need an eye-catching casual outer garment that would keep me comfortable. So I bought it. Back at Valerie's, she took this picture of me in it:

It's not a thick, heavy garment. It's woven rather than knitted, with more than one kind of wool, so that there are several kinds of texture and pattern, primarily in grey, black, white, blue and brown. Its colour varies according to the light falling onto it. Warm bright afternoon sunlight tends to make it look more brown, as in these shots, taken later that day at home:

Jo drooled over it when we popped in to see her. Fortunately it's not a one-off. There are still several similar coats back at Tina Bucknall's. But once they are sold, that's it. So she had better get down there fast!

Friday, 20 January 2017

My new sheepskin coat

If you ever look at my Flickr site, you may have spotted this picture of me taken near Cuckmere Haven on 11th December - a very cold day:

And if you examined that shot, you might have wondered, 'Now what is she wearing? That's surely a new sheepskin coat?' And you would have been right.

Actually, not a brand-new coat. It used to belong to another lady. But then she went to this shop in Hurstpierpoint:

She mentioned that she had a nice sheepskin coat that she never wore nowadays because frankly it was too warm, and made her feel hot wearing it. A deal was struck. It would be offered in the window for £40, and if it sold - and surely a coat of this style and quality was bound to go quickly - the shop would keep £20 and she'd get £20 too. Worth the effort of asking and taking it in, then. And it did sell. I passed by on 9th December, admired it in the window, went inside, tried it on, liked it, got positive comments from fellow-customers, tentatively asked the price (because it surely must have cost £300 or so when new), and snapped it up on the spot when I heard I could have it for only £40.

I hadn't owned a sheepskin coat since the 1990s. That last one was pre-worn too, and very obviously not new. It was also that rather ghastly, yellowish, 'second-hand car dealer' colour. It didn't look right. It might have looked right in the proper situation - on a used car forecourt, with one's minder hovering nearby - but it wasn't smart nor impressive, and I wasn't sorry to let it go back to a charity shop.

This new coat was a quite different proposition. It was love at first sight. I couldn't wait to wear it on a bitterly cold day. And that day came on the 11th, two days afterwards. I can report that I remained warm and very comfortable. I didn't wear too much underneath. I'm guessing that the lady who took it to Audrey's and told the owner (Audrey) why she was selling it had either become menopausal (my sympathies to her then) or wore cardigans unnecessarily beneath her coats. Well, I was the proud new and caring owner!

Let's have a closer look at this coat. Here it is hung up in my bedroom at home:

Those strips of brown leather are quite a feature. I don't know why the shoulder parts have a slightly pinkish hue in the picture just above: it might just be colouration projected by the daylight from my curtains. It could however suggest - applying the methods of Sherlock Holmes - that the lady who used to own this coat had long hair, which she coloured red or auburn. That's not inconsistent with middle-age and the reported hot flushes. I also deduce that she had a build similar to mine, and weighed not less than twelve and a half stone. And she had good teeth, for there were no sweet wrappings in the pockets. Nor did she smoke, for there was no horrible stale smell. And we must take it for granted that either she (or her husband) had enough money and style to buy such a coat. And that neither she nor he sold second-hand cars. Nor employed a minder. And to have occasion to wear this coat, she lived in the countryside like I do, and almost certainly had a dog, which may have been - yes, by Jove, was - a curly-haired spaniel! Look for such a woman, Watson, and we will unite the previous owner with her coat! (Except that she has it back over my dead body)

Some people would prefer a bigger collar. Jo said so when she saw it, though otherwise liking my purchase very much. But I was happy to avoid a big, wide collar that would remind me of my previous sheepskin coat, the one I could sell cars with.

The fleece is dark, another thing that might not appeal to some. But again, on my previous rather flashy yellow sheepskin coat, the fleece had been white (well, to be honest, off-white), something that had simply encouraged me to say things like, 'Nice little runner, guv'nor - it's yours for a monkey.'

All is explained by looking at the labels.

There you are: 'Finest Icelandic Mountain Lamb'. 'A quality product from Samband of Iceland'. No doubt Icelandic sheep all have brown fleece. It's the volcanic soil, you know. The grass that grows from it is highly nutritious, but turns the sheeps' fleece brown.

The other label recorded the UK retailer, a local shop in Brighton which I can't remember seeing in recent times - perhaps it has closed. But it proves that the lady who owned it lived in mid-Sussex.

Looking at other detailing, such as the press-studs used instead of buttons or a zip, reveals some Italian influence:

It says 'Fiocchi - Italy' on those studs.

The coat goes beautifully with my Italian orange leather bag and my tan-and-brown Dubarry boots:

I've been wearing this new coat nearly every day, as much of December and January has been keenly chilly. I bought it just in time! How lucky I was to be passing by, and able to snap it up before anybody else made up their mind to.

Data limits

Gosh, nearly a week since my last post. People will be thinking that I've been ill, or snatched by a Security Organisation - CIA, MI6, take your pick - and whisked away to a Secret Location for interrogation. Perhaps on account of what I might have said somewhere in these annals about Donald Trump. Who knows.

But it's not so. I'm alive and well. Mundane issues have curbed my urge to go online and start typing posts. Among them the Terrible Fact that I've reached my monthly data limit with BT, which is 25GB. Indeed BT's phone app tells me that at the very moment of typing these words I have only 571MB remaining. I shall certainly use that up on this post or the next, both of which I intend to publish tonight.

BT keep tabs on my usage and say that normally I consume only 13.5 GB a month, so that a 25GB allowance is usually more than adequate. The 'normal' 13.5GB mostly represents BBC TV programmes watched on iPlayer. Data consumed by (a) composing and publishing blog posts and (b) uploading pictures to Flickr accounts for nearly all the rest.

Streaming an hour's worth of TV programming gobbles up about 600MB. So if we say that 20GB of this month's allowance has been iPlayer-watching, then that must represent 33 hours of TV. Which seems broadly correct. During my bad cold (that started soon after Christmas Day and extended into January) I got into the habit of watching an hour or half and hour of catch-up TV mid-evening or late at night. I can easily believe that, taken as a whole, it might come to as much as 33 hours' viewing. Hence the present 'crisis' with exceeding the limit.

To be fair, BT did give me timely warning by email at the 18GB point, and then more than once after that. It's only in the last week that I've begun to ration my Internet use at all seriously. I now of course regret some of my more casual and 'unnecessary' viewing earlier in January. I should have planned it all better, to stay within that 25GB allowance. Now BT will start charging £1.80 for each part-GB over my limit. It doesn't sound much, but I've still got twelve days to go before the meter is reset, and I don't see how I can avoid going at least 5GB over my limit in that time. That will earn me a 'fine' of 5 x £1.80 = £9.00. That's enough to be annoying!

BT will of course urge me to upgrade to Unlimited Broadband. An unlimited allowance would let me download stuff, or stream catch-up TV, to my heart's content - and not worry about limits. And it would only be another £5.00 a month.

Just another £5.00... It sounds like a very reasonable deal. But that would be £5.00 extra a month for evermore. And I'm trying to save money, not increase my outgoings.

There's more. An upgrade means a fresh contract, and I'd have to pay my annual landline rental (which is £205.08 for 2017/18) when the new contract starts - now - and not when it would otherwise have been up for payment in April. Paying it sooner than planned would create a cash-flow problem. Not insurmountable, but awkward.

Besides, I come back to the fact that, normally, I don't use a large amount of data each month. And certainly not from March to November, when I'm away from home for two or three weeks at a time and simply can't use up data at home. The winter months are the heavy-usage months, when there might be lots of things on TV that I want to watch, and l'lI need to see some of them on the iPlayer.

This January has been exceptional. It's not how things have become.

So I am going to ignore BT's warnings, and their 'advice' to upgrade. I'll pay that extra £9.00 with a smile on my face. And then resume data consumption at my normal rate from 1st February, staying with my current deal.

I dare say they will bombard me with upgrade-or-die messages. Let 'em. I don't care.      

Friday, 13 January 2017

The next achievement I wanted

There! At last! The Slimming World certificate to prove that I'd lost one stone - fourteen pounds - since joining on 3rd November. Of course, my ultimate aim is to lose two and a half stone, so I'm not yet even halfway through my personal weight-loss endeavour. But the next stage - one and a half stones lost - looks within reach now.

I got my little glow of success yesterday evening. I would never have thought that I would be so keen - so excited - to get this certificate. A flavour perhaps of what drives professional sportsmen and sportswomen to get their gold medals.

In fact I didn't merely get my weight down to the 13 stones 12 pounds needed to secure this award. I burst through the one-stone barrier with a convincing 13 stones 10 pounds recorded by the electronic scales, two pounds more than necessary. And two pounds now in hand for the next goal, the one-and-a-half-stones certificate.

The nicest thing is not however accumulating documents that evidence my adoption of better eating habits. It's the very real change in my body shape, and the kind of clothes that are once again going to be wearable. Also the sensation of being lighter, quicker on my feet, more lissom than I was. And, who knows, possibly more attractive. (Though to what end is open to question: whom might I want to attract? Like anybody, I appreciate mild attention, but I don't want to outshine my friends. I'd be content to know that I don't frighten the horses)

A reality check. I'm still pretty hefty, still overweight for my height. And as regards achievement, most other people at the Slimming World group are doing just as well, if not better. If you are a reasonable person, and not a self-centred obsessive, you don't mind other people's success. It actually becomes inspirational. If they can, so can you. The essential things are to keep your targets in mind, follow SW's advice, don't cheat, get the results, and increasingly revel in one's new-found confidence and self-esteem - and what having these things might make possible. When I do get down to 12 stones 5 pounds I intend to celebrate. And reward myself.

A new and better wok!

Men love their gadgets don't they? Things for their cars, woodworking and gardening tools, and leisure items like snooker cues. Indeed any item of equipment you can think of, from photo stuff to fishing.

And yet surely women are equipment-minded too - though the thing must have a definite practical use, such as a mobile phone has, or a sewing machine has. And of course the things we use in the kitchen. Would I really be exaggerating if I asserted that women who cook have a symbiotic relationship with their fridge and freezer, oven and hob, their favourite blender, and even their nicest-to-use knives, spoons and spatulas? Who doesn't get pleasure when the need arises to bring a certain saucepan, frying pan or serving dish into play?

And you don't need an especially large set of cooking pots and pans: only those you use most. A comprehensive set does look impressive, of course, but it isn't necessary to buy the whole kit unless it's essential for display. Which, considering how 'perfect' the modern kitchen needs to be, might be important. Fortunately my own kitchen is just as Mum and Dad had it back in the year 2000. I can get away with a period twentieth-century look, because the rest of the house is also stuck in the last century so far as decor and style-pretensions are concerned. Which saves me a lot of money, not having to buy the latest trendy things.

Of course, I do replace my kitchen equipment from time to time. But I do it because the item in question has broken, or has become too tatty through wear and tear. Not because the brand is wrong, or the colour isn't right for 2017.

Occasionally a new need arises. Since the autumn of 2016 I've started to have local friends around a little more than usual, so that I'm cooking for three or four more often than I used to. And joining Slimming World last November has made me experiment with home-made soups. With soup, it seems easiest to make a larger quantity than a smaller. If creating a vegetable soup, then a 500ml jug of stock, and a single large tin of chopped tomatoes, will form the basis for three servings - one to be had straight away, and the other two to go in the freezer, to be consumed later.

All of this - cooking for other people, not just myself, and making enough soup for three servings - exposed before Christmas a need for a suitably large multi-purpose cooking pan, in which I could fry and toss things, and then (in the case of soup) add fluid and simmer the part-cooked food on the hob until fully done.

A wok is the ideal kind of pan for this. I already had one, of course. Here it is, in action in the caravan last summer:

As you can see, the three-burner hob in the caravan isn't all that big, and this medium-sized wok (from John Lewis, by the way) is as large as will fit and still allow me to use the other burners. Back home, it seems a lot smaller:

In that shot above I was starting to make my second batch of home-made, Slimming-World-compliant soup. I was still experimenting with the ingredients. It went well, but I noticed how full the John Lewis wok became after adding stock and a tin of tomatoes. Although it coped with the volume, the wok had become rather heavy and could have done with two handles, not just one, just in case my grip weakened and wobbled. Nevertheless, it produced three reasonably-sized portions of soup:

As you can see, I like my soup chunky - as if it were halfway to a stew.

This second batch of home-made soup had lots of extra stuff in it, compared to the first batch, such as shredded cabbage. It had really required 750ml of stock, not just 500ml, and in fact when consuming it later on I did add some water. But 750ml of fluid would have made the wok too brimful for easy and secure handling. I really needed a bigger wok, and one with two handles! A bigger wok would also be much more suitable when cooking for meal guests.

Just before Christmas, I was out for the afternoon with friend Jo. We'd popped into a cookshop in Henfield, opposite my favourite butchers, and I'd noticed that they had an excellent range of woks. A large one with two handles, 14-inches (34cm) wide, caught my eye. And those handles weren't all-metal. All-metal - stainless steel for that 'professional chef' look - is the smart thing just now; but metal just gets terribly hot, and that leads to kitchen accidents if you have heat-sensitive fingers and are somewhat forgetful. You want bakelite, silicone rubber or wooden handles. This particular wok had wooden handles. Excellent.

Hmm, I thought: it definitely reminds me of the 'traditional' Chinese woks you can buy in Chinese grocers (if you can find one, that is - my nearest is in Worthing, some distance away). I say 'traditional', but the extra-large iron woks you see in far-eastern street-market cookeries generally have no handles at all, or mere iron loops, and need to be grasped with a thick rag to avoid burns. They are also the 'proper' wok shape, with a rounded bottom - and not the flattened bottom used on modern Western hobs. The Western wok you see in shops is meant for ceramic and electric hobs, and the hotplates of agas, and not intended for an open charcoal fire, or a fierce gas flame.

Be that as it may, this particular wok in the shop looked the business.

I didn't buy it just then, but a couple of days ago I went back, took a second look, and made up my mind.

Back home, it seemed huge!

But the larger size meant that the aluminium lid I had fitted almost perfectly:

After careful washing, I christened it with a new batch of soup-making:

It was a dream to use. I could do what I liked without anything bouncing out of the wok, or fluid splashing here and there. And the end result was surely better than ever before. Here's a bowl of that very batch of vegetable soup:

Very hearty indeed.

Next day it was put to another test: a veggie stir-fry for four, to go with wholemeal fusili. No problemo.

And of course, cards to follow. I didn't play well. I was still much too thrilled with my new wok to concentrate. And besides, I'd just won an award that had eluded me for three weeks: next post. (Clue: surely that dress is slipping off me?)

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Blue is the colour

I have some 1,500 favourite songs stored on my phone. These represent the musical background to my life so far, from age twelve onward. With very, very few exceptions, they were the pop chart successes of their day, the only music I was ever exposed to, and some people have been rather sniffy about the fact that these songs were so popular, as if this damns them. But I don't care. My songs all stir a memory, or conjure up a state of excitement, or recreate an atmosphere, or in some way are personally important. And that's all that really matters. They are the soundtrack to my life, not anyone else's. So if anyone is disdainful about any of these 1,500 songs, and dismisses them as commercial fodder for the uncritical and easily-satisfied, it's not going to bother me.

My collection is not complete; I occasionally hear songs that I've long forgotten, and want to add them. I also hear the odd contemporary song that I want too. And one of the joys of living in 2017 is the ease with which you can buy the mp3 track from Amazon, and download it onto the phone, and then copy it to the laptop. I do prefer to buy and 'own' my music, in the form of files, rather than subscribe to a music-streaming service.

To be frank, I am not interested in most of the new music now available on subscription. I find a lot of it unappealing, lacking in originality, and (given lyrics that are audible and comprehensible) the 'message' or 'meaning' is often irrelevant to my developed personal view on what really matters in life. And I'm certainly not prepared to pay for a zillion songs, most of them mediocre.

There's no dross in my modest collection of 1,500-odd songs. They come mostly from the 1960s and 1970s; but the collection actually spans over a hundred years, from Scott Joplin's ragtime of around 1900 to the likes of Paloma Faith in 2015. Plus some classical and operatic.

It's very unfashionable to say so, but I need to emphasise that music isn't central to my life, not at all. It's only on the edge. I admire musicality in friends, and their skill if they can play a musical instrument well. I enjoy set-piece things like the Last Night of the Proms. But I'd never voluntarily go to a gig to hear some live rock band. So please don't ever ask me to.

I do listen to my own music collection every day - while I'm in the bathroom, say, or ironing - but on my phone. I don't do 'serious listening' with a full set of hi-tech equipment. Buying expensive audio equipment would be pointless, anyway: my hearing isn't the best. A phone with earbuds will do, or just the sound that comes out of the phone's little speaker.

Most of the time I prefer silence. I live in a quiet house. The sound meter installed on my phone sometimes registers only 15db in my lounge. That's pretty quiet. Bliss.

I was fortunate enough to begin taking an interest in popular music from age ten, from 1962. That was too late to know Rock and Roll, but Easy Listening was in full swing, and I was in time to catch the rise of the Beatles and the entire 1960s music explosion in the UK and the USA. What a privilege to live through all that, and not this present age of banality and endless remakes. I was, despite being deaf to anything cool, an avid follower of the charts right through to the early 1980s. After then, only whatever accidentally came to my attention.

The song lyrics of decades ago were not the same as they are now. For one thing, you could generally hear them very distinctly: they were properly sung. And they included words and concepts that you won't hear nowadays.

Consider the lyrics of The Teddy Bears' 1958 hit To Know Him Is To Love Him:

To know, know, know him is to love, love, love him
Just to see him smile, makes my life worthwhile
To know, know, know him is to love, love, love him
And I do (and I do, and I do...)

I'll be good to him, I'll bring love to him
Everyone says there'll come a day when I'll walk alongside of him
Yes, just to know him is to love, love, love him
And I do...

Why can't he see, how blind can he be
Someday he'll see that he was meant for me, oh yes...

To know, know, know him is to love, love, love him
Just to see him smile, makes my life worthwhile
To know, know, know him is to love, love, love him
And I do (and I do, and I) yes I do (and I do, and I) yes I do...

Hmm. Rather narrow ambitions here! To be fair, the late Amy Winehouse's 2007 version kept to the same lyrics. Although surely her prime concern was to re-create the sound of the song, rather than promote its 1958 attitude.

Another example. Susan Maugham's 1962 hit Bobby's Girl, which had lyrics that went like this:

I wanna be Bobby's girl 
I wanna be Bobby's girl 
That's the most important thing to me-ee
And if I was Bobby's girl 
If I was Bobby's girl 
What a faithful, thankful girl I'd be 

When people ask of me
What would you like to be 
Now that your not a kid anymore-ore
(You're not a kid any more)
I know just what to say
I answer right away 
There's just one thing I've been wishin' for-or

I wanna be Bobby's girl 
I wanna be Bobby's girl 
That's the most important thing to me-ee
And if I was Bobby's girl 
If I was Bobby's girl 
What a faithful, thankful girl I'd be 

Each day I stay at home
Hopin' that he will phone 
But I think Bobby has someone e-else 
(You're not a kid any more)
Still in my heart I pray
There soon will come a day 
When I will have him all to myse-elf 

I wanna be Bobby's girl 
I wanna be Bobby's girl 
That's the most important thing to me-ee
And if I was Bobby's girl 
If I was Bobby's girl 
What a faithful, thankful girl I'd be 
What a faithful, thankful girl I'd be-ee

Staying at home? By the telephone? And this boy is all she wants from life? Really?

Perhaps I am missing something - something called Being Young. But it remains my impression that girls have much more choice nowadays, and although securing a man may be among their ambitions, it's not the only or overriding one, and certainly not being his eternal devoted emotional slave.

Songs featuring 'girl wants boy' or 'boy wants girl' lyrics took a long time to shuffle off the stage. Many of these songs included a word that I have never heard anyone say in real life: 'blue'. Meaning 'sad' or 'despondent' or 'heart-broken'. Perhaps it was always too much of a cliché to say to someone 'I'm feeling blue' when feeling unloved or rejected. So, face-to-face, lovers suffering emotional shipwreck said something else.

Why 'blue' anyway? It's true that colours are often used to describe emotional states, as in:

Black with thunderous bad temper
White with anger
Purple with rage
Red with embarrassment
Green with envy

So why is blue the colour for lovelorn sadness? Why not yellow? Or orange? Or grey? Somehow an irrational convention must have got established. Songwriters would of course be pleased to use 'blue' in lyrics, as it rhymed with 'do', 'who', 'new', 'too', 'two', 'woo', and of course 'you'. But it was an easy, empty formula word, acceptable in 1960 but not so by 1980. I was surprised that the lyrics of many ABBA songs of the 1970s continued to use it. And it seems a very dated word now. If I asked an upset friend nowadays, 'Are you feeling blue?' they would surely give me a strange look, and wonder whether I was really making a serious attempt to empathise and comfort them, or just taking the mickey.

I don't want this post to become a general discussion of long-abandoned words and expressions, but there have been many words used in songs that will puzzle future generations, not just 'blue'. Take, for instance, 'gas', as in the phrase 'it's a gas'. This was current slang around the late 1960s, just as 'sock it to me' was, and by the time 'it's a gas' had been taken up for general use (by my generation, not my parents') it was already dead among its originators. I came across it the other day, when listening to The Rolling Stones singing these words from their 1969 hit Jumpin' Jack Flash:

I was born in a cross-fire hurricane
And I howled at my ma in the driving rain,
But it's all right now, in fact, it's a gas!
But it's all right. I'm jumpin jack flash,
Its a gas! Gas! Gas!

I was raised by a toothless, bearded hag,
I was schooled with a strap right across my back,
But it's all right now, in fact, it's a gas!
But it's all right, I'm jumpin jack flash,
Its a gas! Gas! Gas!

I was drowned, I was washed up and left for dead.
I fell down to my feet and I saw they bled.
I frowned at the crumbs of a crust of bread.
Yeah, yeah, yeah
I was crowned with a spike right thru my head.
But it's all right now, in fact, it's a gas!
But it's all right, I'm jumpin jack flash,
Its a gas! Gas! Gas!

Jumping jack flash, it's a gas
Jumping jack flash, it's a gas
Jumping jack flash, it's a gas
Jumping jack flash, it's a gas
Jumping jack flash

Something being a 'gas' sounds as if it might be a Good Thing, but at this remove it's hard to know what that goodness actually consisted of. I'm guessing it was 'good' in the druggy 'good trip' sense, but I'm probably wrong. Future historians may have no idea at all. I hope they won't feel blue about it.