Saturday, 31 January 2015

Another coat, one for the chill winds of winter!

Today was one of those days when it looked really cold and uninviting outside, quite enough to put you off going anywhere if you really didn't have to. But I felt I needed some fresh air. And yet I didn't want to go for a seaside stroll - that would be too face-searing by far! The answer: walk around an enclosed shopping centre. The danger: you might be tempted to buy something! The inevitable result: I did! A black padded knee-length winter coat with a big, cosy, padded collar. From Monsoon in the County Mall at Crawley.

Well, I couldn't help noticing that most women in the Mall were wearing either one of these padded jackets, mostly in black (black looked very smart), or their furry-hooded equivalent, a parka (also mostly in black). I was clad in an ordinary short coat - smart enough, but hardy the thing to keep one totally snug on a relentlessly cold day in late January, with colder days forecast. (So far, we've only had the odd short, light fall of powdery snow here in Mid-Sussex - no 'proper winter' yet)

So my aimless don't-need-to-spend-a-penny-really window-shopping suddenly became more focussed, especially when another lady sharing a mirror with me in Debenhams drew my attention to a superior-looking black parka by Phase Eight on the adjacent sale rail. It might have been made by Burberry themselves. I tried it on. It was certainly stylish; and a much better fit than the 'size 14' label might suggest. Usually however I need size 16, and sometimes even size 18. Well - as this lady thought might be the case - I could easily zip up this so-called size 14, and it certainly looked flattering. But my boobs felt squashed! The lady and her daughter commiserated at this, because the parka was otherwise a real bargain. There wasn't a size 16 on the rail. Tsk.

My appetite whetted, I looked in some other shops, and eventually found what I (by now) very much wanted in Monsoon.

Another sale item. £40 off the marked price! I had an idea that it would still be expensive, but to be fair to the coat I averted my eyes from the price tag, and tried it on. Hmmm, nice quality. And shaped, to give me a waist...not like a padded black sack. Fabric seemed substantial. Duck feather and down filling (Really? A bit like wearing a sleeping bag, then?). Elasticated fabric draught-excluders at each wrist...easy-running zip...stud fasteners that popped together easily, stayed fastened, but didn't need a knife-blade to pop them apart...nice clip belt. The collar would be luxurious against any driving snow. No hood, but I already had a black fur hat from five years ago that hadn't seen regular use for much too long. It would go beautifully with this coat. I asked another lady shopper what she thought. She was thumbs-up on it.

The price? £129. Which would come down to £89.

Ninety pounds though...

Well, this purchase would fill a gap in my wardrobe. I had two long woollen coats by Windsmoor, but they were too posh for a beach walk. And they flapped open in a strong wind. I had nothing specifically for warding off howling gales and driving snow.

I thought of my Senior Railcard, and waiting for trains on bleak platforms. This coat would keep me snug.

I thought of many times to come, when I'd love to go for a cliff or beach or woodland walk on a sunny but bitterly cold day. This coat would keep me comfortable, and encourage me to take that exercise.

I thought of early-Spring caravanning, before the rising sun had done its work. Those early-morning forays to the water tap, or to the shower block. This coat would keep me warm and cheerful while out in the chill air.

So be it.

And here it is tonight, hung up on a spare hangar in my bedroom:

It's very hard to make an interesting photo out of a black padded coat! Not having an hourglass figure, I decided to fasten the belt behind my back, and not over my belly at the front. As the coat is shaped, I still get the suggestion of a waist, and of course big childbearing hips! Can't wait to test the coat out in a stiff breeze. Maybe tomorrow.

The money side didn't work out too badly in the end. I was £35 ahead of my monthly budget - meaning I'd underspent so far by £35, and had this in hand. So the hit on my savings account was really only £50 - this for a new coat from Monsoon, that ought to last me for years. Standing back - taking a cosmic view in fact - it was surely a Good Buy.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

First-time experiences as a child

A human being may go through many important first-time experiences during their lifetime. Some of these occur in childhood, and thereafter the world is a different and more difficult place. In no particular order, these are some of the first-time events that happened to me:

# As a child, the first time one is told 'boys don't do that', or 'you can't go there with the girls', and you realise that children are not all the same, and that indeed you must be different from most of them.
# As a child, the first time you detect a lie said to you, which instantly undermines your trust in adults.
# As a child, the first time you are treated unfairly, with a similar result.
# As a child, the first time you meet kids who want to hurt you, or dominate you, which awakes your instinct for self-defence, and an ability to look very fierce if you have to.
# As a child, the first time you hear parents speaking roughly to each other, and wonder whether your own parents ever do.
# As a child, the first time you are urged to be top of the class, or first past the post, when you have no competitive feelings and can't see the point.
# As a child, the first time you realise that older children know things that you have never even heard about, which makes you feel small.
# As a child, the first time you visit a big city (London in my own case, at age twelve, on a school trip) and see that your own world has so far been very limited.
# As a child, the first time (in that same big city, in Hyde Park, by The Serpentine) that a strange male adult approaches you and asks you whether you'd like to come with them. (I politely refused, and escaped)
# As a child, the first time you get a glimpse of a pornographic magazine, and see what girls grow up to be.
# As a child, the first time you read about people in history being tortured and cruelly killed, which opens a window on human savagery and mass intolerance in the name of some belief, and how dangerous being different or principled might be.
# As a child, the first time you become aware of a world event that makes adults tremble.
# As a child, the first time you have a real-life encounter with the police, and you learn to respect implacable authority.
# As a child, the first time an aunt or uncle dies, and you realise that one day you will die too.
# As a child, the first time your parents send you away for a while, without explanation. (I didn't learn that my Mum suffered from post-natal depression, and had to send me away, until after she died in 2009)
# As a child, the first time you see another child in leg irons, or with a deformed face or limb. (This was no rarity in the 1950s)
# As a child, the first time you notice that disabled people are generally ignored, or considered figures of fun, and legitimate targets for pranks. (This was the 1950s, remember)
# As a child, the first time you notice that people who aren't white or English are treated differently, and generally badly. (Again, this was in the 1950s)
# As a child, the first time you notice that kids from poor backgrounds are usually fighters.
# As a child, the first time your father's BBC accent - your own accent - is mocked.
# As a child, the first time you enter the home of a child who has really well-off parents.
# As a child, the first time you understand what is means to be a town councillor, or any person of standing.
# As a child, the first time you feel so miserable at your own birthday party that you beg your parents never to arrange another. (This happened when I was eight. My next party was my fortieth)
# As a child, the first time you open a world atlas, and imagine what unlimited travel is like.
# As a child, the first time you feel the thrill of space exploration, and apprehend the immensity and mystery of the universe.
# As a child, the first time you master the skill of writing, and find you have lots of words at your command.
# As a child, the first time you pick up a camera and want to make it work.

So many 'firsts'. Some shattering, some just disturbing, some inspirational. I could easily mention more. All the ones mentioned above - experiences that occurred during my first thirteen years - had a permanent effect on me, shaping my view of how things were, how I should behave, and how I should face up to the world. It strikes me that, for any given individual, there are no simple and easily-discovered reasons for how they have turned out, and what they feel is true about life. Many, many different influences come to bear, and they can't be disentangled.

I know that there are things missing from the list above. My moment of first love? The first time I was applauded? These things did not happen. They could not happen. I was in my shell. I had to conceal so much. I could not reach out. I could not be a performer.

That's why I'm something of a show-off now. At last, in my sixties, I can catch up on some of the things I should have done, or been, as a child. I'll do them, get that 'first-time experience' out of my system, learn whatever lesson needs to learned, and then move on.  

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Black pudding

Black pudding is a traditional delicacy in certain parts of the country, typically Northern England. Here for example is a chalkboard I saw outside a delicatessen in the Peak District town of Ashbourne back in November 1996:

It made delicious reading:

The real thing, dry cured on the farm from free range pigs - you'll be back for more!!
From the same farm - terrific!!
This farmer is a busy man! El yummo sausages - plain pork or delicious flavours.
From happy hens in Whatstandwell. Size 2 for only 75p ½ doz - great value!
We do our own! It tastes and smells brilliant! Hurry up - we sell out quickly!!
Cut from the block - unsalted!!
Inc Stilton etc.
And large range of cheeses.
Whole poached salmon. Whole beef fillet en croute, etc.

Well! That's how it is Up North. Lucky, lucky people! I wanted to go in and buy, but we (Mum, Dad and M---) were staying at a hotel at Matlock Bath and couldn't have kept the goodies cold and fresh. Sigh. But I intend to take the caravan to the Peak District one day, maybe in 2016. Get ready, Ashbourne. I'm coming!

Black pudding is usually bought as a kind of sausage that you cut up and cook. It's made of various things, but beef blood is a major ingredient, and that single fact often puts people off, as if it oozes gore when being fried. It doesn't, of course, any more than cooking hearts or kidneys or livers involves a close encounter with the red stuff. I'm partial to any food like this. But I particularly enjoy black pudding.

However the best black pudding experience, the best flavour, the best makers, won't usually be found in high street supermarkets. Tasty and high-grade black pudding is mainly found in farm shops, or the specialist village or small-town shop that sell deli-type food. Still, even Sainsbury's has offered large flat North Country roundels of black pudding, which look good on the plate, and possess a decentish flavour. Here's a shot of mine from December 2008. Black pudding from Sainsbury's at Newhaven. It was a solitary winter lunch at Piddinghoe, just for myself, in the Cottage:

And here are some meals - at my present home now - made with black pudding, dating from May and October 2010:

As you can see, the pudding is all the same kind: a crumbly black cake with little bits of fat in it. It certainly cooks up well, and can be very tasty. It's the sort you'll generally get when having breakfast at a café. As I did, in this next shot, taken in 2012 at Debenhams in Brighton:

But now I've discovered a new type of black pudding. Irish Black Pudding!

If you remember I'd resolved not to buy fresh milk from Waitrose in Burgess Hill again, because its freshness was unreliable. I'd spoken to them about it, and had been brushed off with a smile. I was told that their milk-handling procedures were perfect, and followed to the letter, and I must be wrong when I suggested that perhaps things were not so well-managed at Burgess Hill, compared with other Waitroses around the country, where there was never any problem. I was politely fobbed off.

So, despite being a Waitrose fan, I'd made up my mind to not to buy my milk from their Burgess Hill store any more. I speculated on whether this might eventually mean transferring my loyalty to another shop.

And of course, it's started to happen. Silly, silly Waitrose! They're losing a very good customer, all because they wouldn't take me seriously on that sour milk issue. Oh, I dare say I'll still use them once a week for fresh fish and meat, and the particular olives I like. After all, I like to go to other shops in Burgess Hill, such as Boots, Bonmarché, Clarkes Stationers, and some others. But I may now do my main food shopping elsewhere.

In fact I've begun to frequent Budgens at another nearby small town. It means a fifteen-minute drive, as opposed to a seven-minute one, but it's a pleasant country drive with no traffic lights or other urban hold-ups - a clear run for the car - and in fact much kinder to Fiona's engine and battery on a cold day.

I did a full shop there two days ago. Budgens had everything on my list. And although Budgens is not a cut-price retailer, the bill wasn't as much as it would have been at Waitrose. I had intended to drive on to Waitrose, if I couldn't get all I wanted from Budgens. But there was no need. Sorry, Waitrose! You lost out there. And Budgens' milk is properly looked after.

There's no sentiment in business. There's also no sentiment in shopping. Either a shop has what you want, reliably, every time, or it fails - and of course you then go elsewhere.

Anyway, Budgens were selling this:

Clonakilty Black Pudding, 200g, apparently made at Clonakilty, which is a coastal town on the N71 south-west of Cork. In a part of Ireland I'd dearly like to go touring in, with my caravan, if ever I can afford the cost of the Fishguard-Rosslare ferry. Here's their website:

Not that I'm personally worried, but this is a gluten-free product. 100g of it contains 273 kcal. Ingredientwise it contains oatmeal, onions, Irish beef fat, water, dried blood, natural spices, and no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives. Stated differently, that's 5g of fibre, 11g of protein, 16g of fat, and 18g of carbohydrate. Sugar and salt content is 2g apiece.

Half of that sausage - 100g - gives you three slices to cook, quite enough for one. The remaining half can be frozen for another day.

The major difference between this kind of black pudding, and what you might call the 'North of England kind', is the inclusion of the oatmeal. This toasts in the frying pan, and gives each slice a distinctive flavour that I'd not experienced before, and liked very much. Here's the endgame on my first breakfast made with this Clonakilty product:

It was yesterday morning. One fried egg, and three slices of this new type of black pudding. I'd dabbed some Heinz Tomato Ketchup onto my plate, but it wasn't really needed: the egg yolk and the pudding were already a perfect match, and the ketchup seemed like an unnecessary and tiresome interloper. But visually the black, yellow and red made a great photo. Let's have a close-up:

Now you can clearly see the toasted oatmeal. You might think the oatmeal would make the pudding too crumbly, but it fact it was never in danger of falling apart.

It was such a treat for the Melford tastebuds that I had the rest for this morning's breakfast, this time with two plum tomatoes out of a tin:

As they say in Ashbourne, fabbo!

And now it's time for some lunch! Just two Ryvita crackers, a few olives, a little cheese and an apple. But tonight it's fish - haddock fillet - with one small new potato and a sprig of broccoli. I generally alternate meat-fish-meat-fish for my main meals in the evening, or more specifically red meat-fish-white meat-fish. Tomorrow night, however, I'm up in Croydon, meeting up with former work colleagues, and I think it'll be tapas at a Spanish restaurant. It'll be interesting socially - watch out for the post!

Monday, 26 January 2015

Red telephone boxes

What could be more British than the red telephone box? And yet they have been disappearing for years. The mobile phone has been killing them off. BT has a yearning wish to be rid of nearly all of them. They may earn their keep in central London, or at city stations and important airports, but elsewhere they are generally so little used that they have fallen into decay, costing more to maintain than the money they bring in. You can see why BT would like to take them away.

In remote spots, far from a decent mobile phone signal, there remains a vital public service need. In an emergency, it really wouldn't do to have no reliable means of calling for help. So those telephone boxes are safe from removal - for now. But in a county like Sussex, where there is countryside aplenty but none of it desperately far from a mobile phone signal of some sort, the fate of its remaining public telephone boxes must be in the balance. It's becoming rare to see one.

On my way back from little Frensham Pond, I went by way of Gospel Green. This is a green with a cottage on it, and a farm and a few other buildings just up the road, but really nothing else. You could hardly call it a hamlet. But it has a red telephone box. It stands in splendid isolation, set back from the road along a short path. In the summer the foliage of the nearby trees must make it hard to spot, unless you already know it's there. I don't think it is lit at night. I stopped, and took some photos of what it presently looks like:

There are clear signs that somebody is keeping that path well-tended, and is wiping the red paintwork - otherwise one would scarcely expect this box to look so near-immaculate. Inside were the torn-away remains of a Closure Notice. A little research on the Internet established that in January 1999 the parish council made an application to get Listed Building status for this phone box. It was clearly an issue that rumbled on for a long time. You can imagine the box being a cherished local landmark, and a campaign being launched to save it - in the same spirit that local people once tried to save little-used rural railway branch lines.

But by May 2006, the application had been refused. Perhaps it was then that BT pasted up its Closure Notice.

Well, the phone box had survived. How, one wonders? Maybe the cottage-owner close by had made it a nightly duty to phone someone, anyone at all, to bump up the usage statistics. Maybe The Ramblers Association were roped in to encourage their members to make a call whenever walking past. Maybe ET phoned home from here. At any rate, there has been a stay of execution.

A payphone needs some way of paying, and this was a phone that took both cards and coins - 60p minimum. How the charge has gone up! I picked up the receiver - a big, rather heavy affair by modern standards, very twentieth century - and was almost shocked to hear a healthy dialling tone.

I didn't call anybody. It was enough to establish that this telephone box was still alive and kicking. A contender, defying BT for another year.

How old was it? If you know anything at all about phone box design, you will see that this is a 'K6 kiosk', the most ubiquitous type, found all over the British Isles, although not invariably painted red. But most are red. Once home, I consulted my impressive collection of old Ordnance Survey maps, and established from the survey dates that this box had been installed some time between 1932 and 1960. My guess would be during the war, when local soldiers in local pill boxes, guarding woods and fields and ditches against The Enemy, might need to ring up the local HQ to say that 'Private Timpson was sneezin' awful bad, an' could 'e cycle off to the village an' buy some aspirins?'

But the box could equally well date from the 1950s. The K6s were such a timeless, classic design that they were made, and installed, from the mid-1930s to the late-1960s. They were everywhere, over 70,000 of them eventually adorning towns and the countryside through the land - and on every Scottish island.

When I first became acquainted with them, as a user, I was only twelve. It was in 1965 on a Cornish holiday, at Treyarnon Bay near Padstow. In those days the call charge was 4d. You required four old pennies, those big copper coins with Britannia and a little lighthouse on them. If I remember this correctly, you picked up the receiver, fed the coins into a slot, pressed Button A (which was a large chromed button), and then dialled the number (assuming it was possible to dial direct, and not via an operator). Once connected - if you were connected - you pressed Button B (confusingly identical to Button A), the coins would make a loud dropping noise, and you could speak. 'Hello! Hello! Is that you?'

Why Dad had given me the money to make that call, I can't remember. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to phone anyone myself. Not at twelve, not even years later. The whole telephone business was intimidating. I was frightened of the phone. And I remained frightened of it for a long time. I did of course have to use it once I started work, but I never learned to regard it as a handy device that was the very first resort if you wanted to consult anybody. I always found - and I still do to this day - that speaking to a disembodied voice was odd and disturbing. So I have used the phone only with great reluctance. It has played very little part in my private life, and scarcely any part at all in my early attempts to make a connection with someone I thought I loved. I looked instead for face-to-face alternatives, so much easier to handle.

And nothing has ever changed. I still dislike 'chatting over the phone'. I vastly prefer to be in the actual presence of the other person, when expressions and body language can be seen and read, when the contact seems truly meaningful.

I digress. The Gospel Green phone is a good example of a locally-loved phone box that won't be lost without a fight. You can be sure of it. But there are some boxes around that are not much loved. They will be found gone one day, and nobody will mourn them. For example, this overgrown and subsiding box near Sampford Courtenay station in central Devon, with its door that won't shut, that I saw last year:

Oh dear! Peeling paint. Ivy taking hold. The glass all greenish with mildew. And an offputting 'Coins not accepted here' notice. Cards only, then. The station - not the original, which has been mostly demolished - is but a platform on a singled line that nowadays gets only a few trains on summer Sundays.

It cannot possibly provide business for this phone box. The adjacent letterbox gets more use. It will outlive the phone box for sure. Inside, the phone apparatus itself was clean enough, and working, but otherwise it was dirty and cobwebby.

Who, except hardened lorry-drivers, would want to spend any time in this? BT are letting it rot. It's doomed.

Back to Sussex. Some years ago, in 2004, I found a good-condition K6 at Ebernoe. Ebernoe is hard to find. It's vaguely halfway between Northchapel and Kirdford, on a narrow road deep in the well-wooded and remote-seeming West Sussex countryside.

That was my old car - the blue Honda CR-V - in the middle picture. Nothing else passed by. There were houses near this phone box, but they were hidden in the woods, and were for the well-heeled who didn't need a public phone box at all. This phone box was much sprucer than the one at Sampford Courtenay, but its lack of constant use was obvious. It was being encroached upon by the ferns and roadside weeds. Inside, it was still OK:

Ah, but that was 2004. What is it like now, in 2015? I feel very inclined to go back and see for myself. But I expect to find it either gone, or reduced to a sorry state of disreputableness. Sigh.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Little Frensham Pond

Surrey - next door to Sussex - is an odd county. Its north-eastern quarter is essentially an urban sprawl - just part of London. Its north-western and south-eastern quarters have a more rural feel, but it's not 'real' country really, just leafy commuter towns surrounded by golf courses and pony pastures, with the odd enclave for the seriously well-heeled.

But in the south-western quarter things are quite different. Here Surrey is astonishingly hilly and beautiful, and although it is too well-visited to feel 'remote', and you can never quite get away from people, it is spacious and 'wild' in places, in a managed, National-Trusty sort of way. I know this area quite well. My parents moved to close-by Liphook in early 1981. Dad had just retired, aged sixty - gosh, he was younger then than I am now! - and besides the amenities of pleasant local towns like Haslemere, Petersfield, and of course Liphook itself, there were picturesque country villages all around, full of decent pubs for decent lunches. Watching Mum and Dad live there gave me a taste of the sweetness of retired life when you have an adequate income, and illness is under control.

Their lifestyle, and the way they made it come about, told me that a successful retirement was like a successful business - you constantly looked about for new ideas, you made plans, you built up your capital, and you organised your schedule so that you could enjoy a succession of good times, one event after another. You diary was a vital tool. Days were full of meetups, people to contact, and places to be. Mum and Dad were active: they both bowled at the local club; a social life came with that club, including bowling holidays in sunny places; there were household projects galore; and plenty of holidays, including cruises. Sunny days indeed.

In 1987 or so, my parents took part in a BBC television documentary about retirement. I think it was called O'Donnell investigates...Age. Dad was approached and asked whether a camera crew could shadow my parents (and other couples) on one of those bowling holidays to the West Country. It would have been somewhere like Exmouth, Teignmouth or Sidmouth. So for a week they were filmed doing whatever they did, from breakfast to bedtime. Everyone was encouraged to do 'noddies', apparently a term meaning 'just talk to your friends, but exaggerate things slightly, so that your nods and smiles and lip movements and gestures are obvious, and will show up nicely in the camera lens'. A few club members, and Dad was one, were properly interviewed. Dad looked the epitome of a comfortably-off Retired Civil Servant: clearly in great health, bronzed, relaxed, thoroughly enjoying life. And Dad was a good talker, making clear and concise points with his quite posh voice, encapsulating the essence of what was so nice about a sunny retirement on a decent, index-linked pension.

Of course, when we eventually saw the programme, it became obvious that the BBC had had a secret agenda! Yes, there was Dad, and the rest of the bowling club, having a fantastic time. Dad's footage was not messed around with, and he came across very well indeed. Then cut to...some other pensioners, the ones trying to live on a meagre company pension...or poor souls on the poverty-line, surviving on the Old Age Pension provided by the State. Oops! The contrast was painful. The morals: by hook or by crook, get some money together for retirement; and don't trust TV production companies.

I took on board two big things from that episode:

1. A golden retirement was precious, and worth bringing about. I began to regard my Revenue job not as a career, but as an investment for the future, worth taking very seriously, so that I built up salary and years of service, the keys to a pension worth having.

2. There were plenty of people around who - through bad choices, or sheer lack of choice - would be stuck with a substandard pension. They deserved my understanding. It wouldn't do to feel in any way smug.

This said, I continued to admire Mum and Dad's lifestyle, especially when you considered that they'd built it up from almost nothing. Both came from ordinary families. Dad, for instance, had had a moneyless upbringing in rural Devon (see what I said about that in the eulogy I composed and read out at his funeral in the post My address at Dad's Funeral on Wednesday 3rd June 2009, dated 2 June 2009). Mum and Dad struggled financially until Dad got his promotion to Inspector of Taxes in 1963. Then things took off. New houses followed, first in Southampton (1963), then South London (1979), then Liphook (1981), with a final move in 2000 to the house I now live in.

While they lived at Liphook - a long period of about twenty years - I visited them often. Nearly always, it seemed, on sunny days. If I came over on a Sunday, Mum would cook a delicious lunch, and then we'd go for an afternoon walk. One favourite place would be Little Frensham Pond.

Actually the official name is 'Frensham Little Pond', and there is a 'Frensham Great Pond' nearby. Both are on Frensham Common. This is an area of undulating sandy heathland north-west of Hindhead, west of the A3, and in the furthest south-west corner of Surrey. It's very beautiful. Both 'ponds' are in fact lakes. They have sandy shores and are partly surrounded by woodland, some of it deciduous, some of it pine. The air is clear, and from the higher parts (such as near the Devil's Jumps to the south) there are wide views to be had. Photographically it is superb, at least in bits.

The other day it was bright and cheerful, and I decided to pay Little Frensham Pond another visit. I hadn't been there since 2009 (see my post Heavy metal on 28 September 2009).

I set off in late morning and stopped first at Haslemere, where there is a Waitrose, to buy a sandwich and a smoothie. I devoured these in Fiona, but it wasn't exactly a hassle-free experience. Waitrose itself was fine. It was the later arrivals at the car park.

I'd been very lucky: I'd seen an empty space straight off, and had slid into it without hesitation. It was a Saturday, and the car park was otherwise completely full. People arriving after me had to circle round, like sharks, waiting for a space to become free. If there was any sign that somebody might be on the verge of departure, these cars would top dead and wait to see what they did. It seemed at bit selfish, that: because nobody behind them could get past, and if one circulating car stopped, then they all had to.

And some seemed to think they had a divine right to hold up the rest. These were invariably owners of newish posh vehicles, whose drivers sat in a high-and-mighty position. Typically Range Rover drivers, and there are plenty of that breed in this well-off part of Surrey! They'd stop, and then glare intently at you in an impatient manner that said 'I'm Very Important and Well-Off and My Time Is More Valuable Than Anyone Else's. Hurry up and let me have your space, damn you!' I had one or two of such folk stopping just behind me, while I ate my sandwich and drank my smoothie, and listened to BBC4's Money Box on the radio. They clearly thought 'Aha! There's somebody in the driver's seat! Let's hustle them along.'

Well, sod you. I wasn't having it. I lazily listened, and lazily ate and drank. I fiddled with my hair and lipstick. I consulted my phone and may have yawned a bit. I didn't actually give them the finger, but it was a close thing. If any of these drivers had got out and tapped on my window, I had searing words ready for them. None did: a pity.

I will not be cajoled or bullied into doing anything I don't want to do. I owed them nothing. I was not a member of their club or caste. They could huff and puff as much as they pleased, I had half an hour and more left on my ticket, and they could swivel. I wasn't quite goaded into bloodymindedness, but my peace had been disturbed by arrogant people who needed a damned good thrashing! Only joking.

I was soon on my way in any case. The sun was still shining. The Pond drew me.

My goodness, it was cold and frosty there! And the sun was low already, brilliant but quite unable to warm things up. Everyone was well clad. The air was wonderfully crisp. I had my Alt-Berg walking boots on. I intended to walk up to a ridge, then descend, circumnavigate the Pond, and so back to Fiona.

The pictures will give you a flavour of the place. It always strikes me as odd that the Pond really has a sandy shoreline, like a beach. The paths hereabouts are sandy too. It was gorgeous being out on such a sunny day! You can see how bright it was, because I had to screw up my eyes:

Well, I got up onto the ridge. It separates the Little Pond from the Great Pond. Then I worked my way down and around the Little Pond. It was very much like it had been, not only in 2009, but all those years before, in the 1980s and 1990s. Slightly more manicured now, perhaps. Modern fencing. Pathways made a little more suitable for scooters and wheelchairs and buggies. New seats. One seat (on the eastern shore) had STRENGTH AND COURAGE carved on it:

Strength and courage. The chief things very old people wish for.

Then it was back along the edge of the Pond, stopping frequently to shoot the lowering sun and the darkening lake view.

A very special place. And what a feeling of continuity. This had been the haunt of my parents thirty years ago. Now it was my turn. I hoped that somehow I would still be able to come here, thirty years hence, and reflect on what it was to be young, then middle-aged, then old. Everything else about me would be completely insignificant.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Android Lollipop

The picture above will tell you at once - if you have an Android phone - that I have now installed Android 5.0 (aka Lollipop) on Demelza, my Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone. The basic update has been out for many, many weeks. But Samsung needed time to fit their own skin on top. I was only able to install it a couple of days ago.

That is not a screen view that you will ordinarily see. It's the 'Easter Egg' screen, and the cartoon lollipop on it comes in various other colours, such as yellow, mauve, lime green, brown and orange, all of which you might want to 'collect' with a series of screenshots - if, that is, you have the kind of leisure time that I enjoy, and you can take a break from supervising your slaves.

If you do a 'long press' on any of these coloured lollipops, a rather nice-looking game appears, in which a green Android Robot bobs around in obedience to your screen taps, which keep it in the air. I think you have to keep it aloft (instead of bombing downwards into the cityscape below) without touching either of the lollipops, nor their sticks. If the Android Robot does touch them, it will adhere to them, and that's not good. Should you avoid the lollipops, and their sticks, then you build up points, though to what end completely eludes me. The scene moves from left to right, and changes gradually from day to night and back again, all very attractively. The types of lollipop change too.

If you want to see all this for yourself, go into Settings, then select About device, then tap rapidly on Android version (five or six times, say), and you will see your normal home screen appear (the black-and-white beach photo is my own home screen). It will have a large coloured dot on it. A long press on this dot brings forth a cartoon lollpop in the  same colour. Tapping on this scrolls through the various other colours. A long press on any colour of lollipop starts the game.

Is that all there is to the latest Android update?

No, of course not. Although I will remark that Lollipop is not exactly a quantum leap forward from Android 4.4 (aka KitKat). It's a tweaking job. But a rather comprehensive one. It has left the OS looking more unified and visually consistent, so that (for instance) every Google app now has controls styled and accessed in a standard way. Call it a comprehensive redecoration, with several significant changes in the way one does things. But there aren't many completely new things one can do.

It certainly went in without fuss or problems of any kind. I've been playing with it for two days now, and I've got used to it already. I like it, mostly. And of course I will adapt to the things that don't presently suit me much.

So what's different?

Jolly Good things

# The phone now operates distinctly faster. As if Lollipop has sorted out some processing bottlenecks. Apps come and go in a flash. (Bear in mind, though, that my Galaxy S5 is a top-end phone, with a very snappy processor already)

# There's now a nice (and welcome) consistency to the presentation of Google-inspired apps. At last, all these apps have been given some attention. Chrome and Gmail had already undergone an attractive redesign. Apps like Google Calendar have now followed suit. I'm not yet prepared to abandon my favourite third-party calendar app (Business Calendar Pro, mark I), but I do now use Google Calendar alongside, because its 'Schedule' view is clear and useful to me.

# There is a new combined 'last apps used/last web pages visited' feature, operated by the lower-left screen button, which lets one switch between apps and web pages freely, scrolling through a rotating 3D presentation. In effect, it's almost as if one were scrolling through a series of (in Microsoft terms) open windows. It's excellent. In the old KitKat, this functionality was split between the button (for apps) and the tabs in Chrome (for web pages - if you had Chrome installed, that is).

# Not one of my third-party apps has stuttered. They all work beautifully with Lollipop. Some even have a great new look.

Not-so-good things

# The battery seems to be working harder - is this because the processor is now better-oiled? Anyway, it seems to lose charge a little bit more rapidly than it used to. This is partly because the new Lollipop screen decor, for menus and options, is predominantly white (i.e. most pixels are lit up fully - a big power drain), rather than black (the pixels mostly unlit). In this connection, bear in mind that Demelza has an OLED screen - it won't be so noticeable with other sorts. Still, unless you compound the battery drain by turning on Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or GPS, the loss of juice isn't eyebrow-raising.

# The way notifications work has been overhauled. This is for me the hardest part of the new Lollipop regime to get used to. But I've now worked out what I need to do. The main 'loss' is the former Blocking Mode, which let you enter the times between which you did not want to be interrupted with a ringtone, or the sound that told you that an email or text message had come in. Blocking Mode was highly useful. I could set it to block all disturbing noises from midnight to 7.00am, ensuring a peaceful night's sleep. Only my wake-up alarm would still sound. And once set, it operated automatically every night. No need to touch the phone.

Blocking with Lollipop is no longer automatic - and you have to achieve it differently. You can't set any blocking times (at least not on a Samsung phone). You can however do three other things:

1. Set 'no interruptions whatever' (but then the phone will be stubbornly silent, and a wake-up alarm won't sound).

2. Set 'always interrupt' (meaning you can be bombarded with all kinds of sound 24/7).

3. Or you can set 'priority interruptions only'. The last is the best one for me to use at night. I can define what is a 'priority interruption' - in my case, not a phone call or a message. Just an event or reminder - which will include, willy-nilly, my wake-up alarm. And that's all that should sound when I am asleep - provided I have remembered to set 'Priority Interruptions Only' when going to bed. It always has to be set manually at night, and unset manually next morning. It's not automatic. Hmm. A step backwards, surely.

So an app that might send out a notification a night - Vodafone, perhaps - will now be able to sound off and wake me up. But thankfully there's an option to silence apps individually if they become a nuisance.

That's just about all the things I think are worth mentioning! Taken as an entire package, I like Lollipop.

Now beware. There are people (who comment on techy websites) who seem to live desperate lives in which their fragile happiness depends on having the perfect phone and a perfect OS. I have lately read stuff written by these saddos, who are often poor spellers, or otherwise inarticulate - and I can't help feeling, from their desperate tone and over-the-top denunciation of Lollipop, that they are lacking intelligence and a normal sense of perspective - that indeed they have serious personality problems, and are primarily just airing their frustration against life in general. It's grumble, grumble, friggin' this and friggin' that, or worse. Mostly men.

Don't heed them. This is - all considered - a very decent and enjoyable upgrade, and if you hit any snags that your own bright and nimble brain can't see the cure for, then there is an answer (or at least a workaround) out there on the Internet.

Oh, once installed, it's goodbye to KitKat forever! So no more of this (another of my screenshots):

I wish I hadn't done that...I have a sudden KitKat craving, and the fridge is bereft of them.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Dentures, dolly mixtures, and white, white Ultrabrite

Gene Kelly's whiter-than-white smile in the final photo of my last post reminds me that back in the early 1950s a gloriously complete, even, unchipped, and brilliantly white set of teeth, set in healthy pink gums, was the sole preserve of those who could afford expensive dental treatment. Which meant Hollywood stars, royalty and the rich - and hardly anyone else.

The rest of the population made do. And without a lifetime of NHS dental care behind them - not in the 1950s, when the NHS was less than ten years old - it showed.

Many adults, particularly if they came from what were once known as the 'working classes', had never had any kind of preservative or cosmetic dentistry, and when teeth decayed, pulling them out was the standard remedy. After that, they lived with the gaps. When I was young, nearly everyone I saw around Barry, young or old, had gaps between their teeth where an extraction had taken place. Some had more gaps than teeth! it was a sign that you probably weren't well off. But it was so usual, there wasn't any particular stigma attached to it, not so far as I recall.

The better-off, if they thought it important to take care of their teeth - and not everyone did think it very important - could avoid extractions, and have instead fillings and all kinds of other treatments, though not of course the range available today. People like my parents could aspire to a mouth full of usable but no doubt yellowish teeth (smoking was universal, of course), many of them crooked, and one or two definitely prone to giving constant trouble.

Really good dental care (and that Hollywood Smile) wasn't within common reach. Extractions, and the fitting of dentures, were still standard once teeth got beyond straightforward rescue. Dentures were an uncomfortable nuisance. I remember my Mum complaining how badly-fitting hers were. A lot of people didn't bother with them.

Children's teeth were in no better state. The wartime sweet ration ended in 1953 and after that kids glutted themselves on all kinds of confectionery, with predictable consequences. I was no different, when I had pocket money to spend. If it hadn't been for sweets, I would now have far less in the way of fillings. And fewer crowns.

But at least my teeth are all still there, which is an achievement when you consider the abuse they suffered when I was young. One thing I remember about my dentist in Barry was that after every visit, which invariably entailed a filling, I was given a handful of little sweets called 'dolly mixtures'. The ideal thing! Was it well-intentioned, to console a child with a sore mouth? Or an act of cynicism, to make a return visit all that more likely? Who knows.

I did at least stay out of the hands of any practitioners from the Sweeney Todd School of Dentistry - the butchers who ruined many a mouth.

All the above is of course leading up to a hot update on my own teeth.

If you cast your mind back, I was going to have a crown fitted to a top-row tooth just before Christmas. I did. It has been excellent. Not the slightest problem. And of course, it instantly transforms a heavily-filled molar (with silver fillings) into a perfect, gloriously white molar. Allowing me to open my mouth, and positively bray with shrieking laughter, like a horse who has got the joke. A £405 joke, that is.

Then, just last week, it was the turn of another tooth on the other side of my mouth. Same kind of heavily-filled molar, one with a crack in it that was getting sensitive. Not a crown this time. A big white filling. That's now done and dusted too. All discomfort gone. I can chew with confidence again on both sides of my mouth. Wonderful! It too is gloriously dazzling to the eye, and worth another open-mouthed hoot of mirth. £85 worth, in fact.

Here I am, gaping in the sun on Frensham Common a few days ago. The rearmost teeth visible, and facing each other, are my new crown (nearest, behind the last two old-style fillings) and the new white filling (furthest away):

Unfortunately, this is not exactly a dazzling, oh-my-poor-eyes-where's-my-sunglasses 'Hollywood Smile'. It isn't even a Hollywood face. But hey ho, it's a face and mouth that are gradually getting better, and they're not bad for sixty-two. In my humble opinion, that is.

And who remembers the ads for Ultrabrite toothpaste on 1970s TV? The Ultrabrite Smile That Got You Noticed? Ads that pushed at you the notion that amazingly white teeth were very, very sexy, and got you the attention of a Dream Man?

I don't mean these ads for the American market, although they are very funny, and well worth a look:

I mean another ad that appeared on British TV screens in the mid-70s. It features beach-loving, disco-loving young people flashing winning smiles at each other and pairing off. It was sung in a British voice by a trendy-sounding band, and was altogether much zippier. I can't find a video for it, but it had the line:

Extra Strength Taste in a zingy toothpaste
That's white, white Ultrabrite!

And ended:

White, white Ultrabrite... [fades out]

Ah! Those were the days.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Singin' In The Rain

Gosh, it's astonishing. The famous film musical Singin' In The Rain - in my reckoning Gene Kelly's finest performance - was released sixty-three years ago, in 1952, the year I was born. And yet it's up there still as one of the finest films ever made - it you like singing and dancing and slapstick and Hollywood-style music, that is. I accept that it won't be for sci-fi freaks, and anyone whose outlook is so dark that violence and thuggery and death define their area of enjoyment. This film is for free spirits, open hearts, those with a sense of fun, and anyone who thrills to something done supremely well. It was jolly hard work for the cast.

I watched it on DVD the other night. I'd just dipped into a programme about George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess - the only thing on telly that had any appeal - and this had somehow got me into the mood for a classic Hollywood musical. I immediately dug out Singin' In The Rain, and wasn't disappointed.

I dare say you've seen it at least once. So I don't need to say much about the plot, which deals with a major film studio's rocky attempt to move away from silent movies into the new era of talkies. The transition poses difficulties! Gene Kelly is the handsome male lead Don Lockwood, and he possesses charisma and a fine voice, perfect for sound. But his on-screen leading lady (Jean Hagen, as Lina Lamont) has a weedy, nasal voice that didn't matter for silent films, but sounds farcical when you hear her in a talkie. She also behaves in a crass manner. The public reaction to her awful voice is a serious matter that threatens the survival of the studio. Matters come to a head, of course. Kelly is supported by his best friend (Donald O'Connor, as Cosmo Brown) and the studio boss (Millard Mitchell, as R F Simpson), and he falls in love with a young and feisty singer and dancer (Debbie Reynolds, as Kathy Selden). It all ends well, but just in case you've spent your life on the planet Zog, and have never actually seen the film, I'll say no more.

I want instead to examine a sequence towards the end of the film, called 'Broadway Melody', which despite the excellent earlier parts of the film, and catchy favourite numbers like Beautiful Girl, Moses Supposes, and (of course) Singin' In The Rain itself, is for me the very best part of the film. It's Kelly visualising a modern-dancing sequence for the studio boss. It will fit into their hastily-renamed and re-produced (and hitherto silent) historical film The Dancing Cavalier as a glitzy, all-singing, all-dancing and eyepopping spectacular, to wow the audience and make them forget the obvious defects of the much-adapted and hashed-around film.  

It opens with Kelly in immaculate evening wear, complete with hat and cane, in a spotlight, on a vast stylised film set. (These are my own photos throughout, by the way, taken off the TV screen)

Then pan out to impress the audience:

Now a hopeful Kelly - in small-town attire - arrives on Broadway in New York with his suitcase, trying to find work. He knocks on agents' doors, and gives them each a burst of 'Gotta dance!':

One hires him, and introduces him the the Broadway Crowd. They all energetically dance and sing 'Broadway Rhythm':

But watching the dancers at a table is the Big Underworld Boss and his two henchmen, all in evening dress; and an anonymous statuesque girl in green (the lovely-legged Cyd Charisse), who tranfixes Kelly with her cool, commanding presence:

There is no dialogue whatever: it's all gestures and glances and body movements. So much conveyed by physical means. I think that Kelly was a genius at choreographing all this.

With the Underworld Boss and his scarcely-restrained henchmen looking on, Kelly and Charisse dance together with power and sensuality. What a treat for the eyes. Kelly was in reality very strong and athletic. Charisse said later that she enjoyed all that strength and athleticism very much.

Kelly is extraordinarily attracted.

But then the Boss (flipping a coin, the sign of power) reins her in, with a new diamond necklace as the irresistible lure. Kelly looks on in dismay, as she turns away from him. The two henchmen then push him away.

The agent now puts Kelly to work. He starts in ordinary vaudeville, and quickly ends up as the top-hatted star of the Ziegfeld Follies. He comes off stage, joins a high-class society party at a Casino, and is surrounded by rich, beautiful and adoring New Yorkers - all wanting his attention.

Then he sees Her again, standing apart, dressed in white like a bride. The party, the champagne, and everyone else are instantly forgotten - he has eyes only for her:

Then begins a dream sequence, essentially a ballet with only two performers, assisted by Charisse's immensely long white train, some nice pink and mauve lighting, and multi-directional breezes. It's beautiful. They dance delicately, yet with yearning passion:

Fred Astaire, another dance genius, may have had better skill with his feet, but he couldn't hold a woman like Gene Kelly could!

Back down on earth, Kelly thinks that - surely - he must be in with a chance this time? He hopes...but no, it's not to be. She flips her own coin, gives it to him, and rejoins the Underworld Boss. Kelly gives the coin to a waitress as a tip, and leaves the Casino, despondent. It's still all being done by facial expression, gesture and body movement.

But then, another Broadway hopeful comes along, singing 'Gotta dance!' This changes Kelly's mood completely, and he launches into an upbeat 'Broadway Melody' finale:

Now some unusual camerawork and cutting-room magic (no computers in 1952!). The casino and its surroundings recede rapidly as the finale reaches its climax, but - simultaneously - we zoom in on Kelly, who ends with a cheerful and winning smile. That's the Broadway Melody!

Fantastic. I always find the whole thing thrilling. I know it's just one girl's view, but I hope you stayed with me, and enjoyed it too - and will see the film again for yourself.