Friday, 27 February 2015

Being less loyal to Waitrose really does save a lot of money

Waitrose's polite and smiling brush-off at Burgess Hill when I asked why their fresh milk was sometimes 'off' led, as foreseen, to a change in my shopping habits. I still regard Waitrose as a very good supermarket, very much a store that I feel at home in, but it's no longer my main source for everyday food and household items. Just compare my shopping record for November 2014 with that for February 2015:


Cost of goods bought at Waitrose (mostly at Burgess Hill, ten minutes away)
1st November    £47.20
6th November    £60.46
12th November     £59.87
16th November    £47.76
20th November    £55.57
23rd November    £20.79
27th November    £85.73
TOTAL: £377.38
Car fuel for these shopping trips @ £1 every time: £7
Car parking @ £0.80 each time except on 1st November: £4.80 (fully refunded by Waitrose, so net £0)

Cost of goods bought at Budgens (two different stores, both within walking distance)
3rd November    £3.55
8th November    £2.00
TOTAL: £5.55
Car fuel for these shopping trips: £0
Car parking each time: £0

Cost of goods bought at Sainsbury's (at Hove, twenty minutes away)
26th November    £20.00
TOTAL: £20.00
Car fuel for this shopping trip: £2
Car parking for this shopping trip: £0

Waitrose      £384
Budgens       £6
Sainsbury's   £22


Cost of goods bought at Waitrose (at Burgess Hill, ten minutes away)
3rd February    £14.11
10th February    £43.54
20th February    £36.42
TOTAL: £94.07
Car fuel for these shopping trips @ £1 every time: £3
Car parking @ £0.80 each time: £2.40 (fully refunded by Waitrose on two occasions, so net only £0.80)

Cost of goods bought at Budgens (at Henfield, twenty minutes away)
3rd February    £53.26
6th February    £24.39
10th February    £21.64
13th February    £17.60
17th February    £35.76
20th February    £28.93
25th February    £56.49
TOTAL: £238.07
Car fuel for these shopping trips @ £2 every time: £14
Car parking each time: £0

Waitrose      £98
Budgens       £252

So despite a longer car journey to get to Henfield and back, it pays quite handsomely to shop there, at Budgens, for most of the time. Although Budgens is by no means a cheap store, I've saved £62 in February, compared to what shopping cost me in November, when my destination was almost exclusively Waitrose. I'm still getting some specific items at Waitrose, where Budgens don't have quite what I want, but really I could eliminate Waitrose altogether, if I so wished. There's no need to, but you can clearly see how a little thing like getting my fresh milk from somewhere else has completely altered the shopping pattern.

I'm sure Waitrose didn't believe me about the milk, and did nothing afterwards to check that their delivery handling arrangements were as perfect as they supposed them to be. I shrug my shoulders at that. I expected little else for my trouble.

However, instead of spending £377 with them every month I am now spending only £94 - a reduction of £283, or £3,396 if projected over twelve months. If I were the manager at Burgess Hill, I'd be rather concerned about this underspend! They have reduced themselves to my occasional source for a few above-average or niche products, but they are not where I now go for the bulk of my ordinary food and household shopping.

Waitrose elsewhere is another thing. I've never had any problem with their stores in other parts of the country, and, for instance, I would still shop at the very, very good Waitrose-cum-John-Lewis at Salisbury. But this is really to talk of food shopping while on holiday, and not when at home.

You might now say to me 'The scales have fallen from your eyes, haven't they? Waitrose is not necessarily the best in all respects, and you have proved to yourself that they are overly expensive for what they offer.' I'd agree that this is fair comment.

I have made much in the past of the 'atmosphere' of a store, and I still appreciate how Waitrose 'feels'. But it isn't worth spending another £62 a month to get it. Budgens has a good 'feel' too, does more to support local producers, has (like Waitrose) staff who get to know you and will talk to you, and the store at Henfield is hassle-free to get to, park at, and shop at. What's not to like?

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Responsibility and guilt

The concept of 'having responsibilities' was always rammed down my throat when young, and there was no let-up as I got older. The responsibilities were never specified, but it was perfectly clear what they covered:

# Being a credit to one's parents - and indeed listening to them and abiding by their wishes, on the basis that they were older and wiser and had more experience of life. Ultimately to look after them in their old age.
# Behaving well towards other members of society, and respecting all of society's time-honoured institutions.
# Not to be a burden on society, which meant studying hard to get qualifications and, with those, a good job so that one would be at least self-supporting.
# To strive for promotion at work, and achieve senior status with a salary and pension rights to match.
# To be a good citizen, by being alert, well-informed, kind, generous, honest, public-spirited, solvent, law-abiding and conforming. Outlandish dress and hippy attitudes were a betrayal of this.
# To actively seek a partner, and make that person very happy - at least as happy as one's own parents had been.
# To laugh at adversity, and make the most of any rare opportunity.
# If possible, to create a wonderful family, and bring them up to be persons any parent (or grandparent) would be proud of.
# To keep away from people who would drag you down. And generally reject ideas and passing fads that weren't soundly-based. Self-discipline and discernment, then.
# To face the darker things in life, such as serious illness, with bravery and fortitude. To never complain without just cause - and yet never give up where a good principle were at stake.

It was difficult to argue with a comprehensive list like that. My parents would speak as if they were living examples of people who recognised these responsibilities and faced up to them. For most of my life, I expressed no dissent. I wouldn't have dared.

Thus I endured school and got my three good A-levels, one of them with distinction, and was absorbed into the best-paying government department, then plodded my way through thirty-five conscientious years, and finally took the pension offered at the end of it all. I never vandalised a park bench, never stole, never took drugs, never smoked, never entered a betting shop, never went to a rock festival, and never ended up on the dole, living in a crummy bedsit with a baby on my hands. I paid heed to my responsibilities. My parents were pleased.

But was my life one worth living? Where were the unsafe experiences? What did I know about making really bad mistakes? About risk? What did I know about how it felt to be at the bottom of the pit, to be lost, to want an end?

I've never been depressed. I've never felt suicidal. I've also never known ecstasy. Responsible people can't feel extremes, because they stay away from anything that will risk emotional overload. Thanks, Mum and Dad.

And yet, I should say thanks, and without any irony, because my 'safe' and 'responsible' life has preserved me intact. Where are the scars? I can offer only bags under the eyes.

Where is the street-wisdom and the cynicism? I am still naïve and innocent in many ways. My outlook is too sunny, too simple, too optimistic, and I know it. That's remarkable because all of this has happened to me:

# A secret, solitary childhood with adverse consequences for successful socialisation.
# Occasional bad experiences at work - personality clashes, members of the public being horrible.
# A badly-considered marriage that ended in divorce.
# The violent death of my brother, my only sibling.
# The death of both parents, almost together.
# The loss of a lifetime's capital - £200,000 - which was to be my financial security in old age.
# The loss of the love of my life, as the chief (but not the only) consequence of transitioning.

But I can't help it. The optimism persists. I did not give up, I did not crumple. I just picked myself up, dusted myself off, and started all over again. Just as zillions of other people have had to. It's the responsible thing to do.

I can however change my view on what is important now. On what should be my responsibilities in the rest of my life. Having been through a period of profound change, I feel completely free to select what I will consider a responsibility. Let's revisit that first list, at the beginning of the post. Which of those responsibilities are now still relevant, and still worth acknowledging?

# Behaving well towards other members of society. Not just to be a good neighbour.
# Not to be a burden on society. Vital to be self-supporting.
# To be a good citizen, by being alert, well-informed, kind, generous, honest, public-spirited, solvent, and law-abiding.
# To laugh at adversity, and to create opportunities.
# To cultivate self-discipline and discernment.
# To face the darker things in life, such as serious illness, with bravery and fortitude. To never complain without just cause - and yet never give up where a good principle is at stake.

Ha! The list has shortened! And there are nuanced changes here and there. Such as 'creating opportunities' - not merely taking advantage of them if they arise. So I now believe I should be deliberately pro-active. 

I also now have some fresh responsibilities:

# To do nothing that will bring the recognition and social position of trans people into disrepute or disrespect. I must be a very good 'trans ambassador'.
# To respect and champion all groups of people who are being unfairly or unjustly put down by a dominant group. A responsibility then to encourage equality and co-operation, everywhere, with no special exceptions.
# To be aware of what is damaging the planet, and do nothing to compromise its ongoing good health. It may be the only lifeboat we have. Certainly not to give support to governments and organisations intending to over-exploit earth's resources, and drive us all to extinction. I am suspicious of endless 'growth' in world economies. I think it better to limit population, and give everyone a larger and tastier slice of the cake that way.

It's sad to think that Mum and Dad would have dismissed my 'fresh responsibilities' as airy-fairy stuff. And they would have questioned my omission of duties like 'looking after grand-children'. (But then I haven't got any)

Ultimately, where responsibilities are concerned, the chief requirement is to acknowledge that at least some things must be addressed, that no complete escape is possible, and that a distinction must be made between the really important things and the much less important.

I often feel that people drift into doing things - it might be a family role, or regularly looking after a neighbour's pet - because they feel they 'ought to', and not as a positive decision that they took upon themselves to make, and had a responsibility to make. Putting this another way, it may be a bad thing to accept responsibility when the personal time and effort could be better used on something else.

Is it, for example, a better use of time to serve in a charity shop - or write a blog post? The knee-jerk reaction might be 'charity shop service' every time. But why? Shop assistants may not always be easy to get, but they are interchangeable. What extra or unique thing do they bring to a shop, or to the charitable process? And yet an inspiring or comforting post might make a big difference for some reader in doubt, or be at least be 'useful' and 'enlightening' in a way that just taking cash for goods can't be. This is even truer for writing proper books and influential articles that will get a wide circulation.

So I don't feel that I'm evading a social responsibility by not popping into Age UK or British Heart Foundation and covering a Thursday-morning slot. I'd consider charity better-served if I went to such a shop and actually bought something, as a customer. And in fact that is the main way I give money to charity. But buying goods is not a responsibility, nor even a moral imperative, and I think nobody should feel guilty if they never spend money in a charity shop.

It's an interesting thing, that link between responsibility and guilt. So often, where someone (a manipulator) wants something to happen, and dresses it up as a 'responsibility', guilt is then invoked to ensure that it does happen in the way they want. Guilt is the lever. Nobody enjoys feeling guilty. It's easiest to comply. Not so easy, of course, where there are two or more genuine responsibilities, and they compete. I do not envy anyone who has a job, children, and elderly parents on their hands at the same time - not an uncommon situation. What if they can't all be handled simultaneously? Which gets priority? How much guilt for neglect can be borne?

My parents were subtle in their use of guilt. Nothing was said. And yet I knew that I would be made to feel guilty if I walked away from some 'responsibility'. Even if the reason were understandable.

It might be as small as not sticking out the wet weather on a family tenting holiday in Cornwall. In 1971, after a few days of relentlessly bad weather and nothing to do, I announced that I'd had enough, and proposed to take the train home to Southampton. I was nearly nineteen, but I'd never rebelled like that before. I wasn't unpleasant about it. I'd not long left school, I had started work, had some money, and I knew where to buy milk and how to cook up bacon and baked beans. I could get by. Well, my parents made a bit of a scene. Then, when they saw I meant it, they melted and became concerned for my welfare at home, to the point of fussiness. One type of control substituted for another, of course. They drove me to Bodmin Road station (now Bodmin Parkway) and an adventure began for me. Guilt for desertion slipped away. I was travelling alone for almost the first time in my life! It was an eventful journey indeed. Between Exeter and Salisbury, some boys - who had escaped from a young offenders' detention facility - boarded the train and played hide and seek with police and train staff, moving progressively towards the front of the train. At one point, they sat close to my seat, whispering to themselves. Were they going to take a hostage? Gulp. But no, they moved on, and eventually must have been cornered and arrested. We saw them being led off the platform at Tisbury, I think it was.

My survival at home over the next few days was nothing so exciting! The feeling that I'd let Mum and Dad down - embarrassed them, even - returned. But they didn't harp on about it once back. I rather thought that making my own mind up and acting on it, showing spirit in fact, had impressed Mum and Dad, making this something of a high point in my standing with them. I'd been plucky. I'd also been well-organised with train timetables, unafraid to fend for myself, and I'd clearly mastered some cooking skills. And I'd eked out my money sensibly, with some still to spare after several days of unaccustomed food expenditure.

This was a turning-point, but it wasn't the end of a life built around 'responsibilities', some real, some manufactured for me, and all designed to keep me on a tight lead. I couldn't bear to submit to any of that now. Equally, I couldn't bring myself to impose such a regime on somebody else. The family has gone: I'm the sole survivor. I look outwards now, at my place in the wider world, and how best to conduct myself in it. And not to be gulled into accepting 'duties' and 'responsibilities' so that some political party, or pressure group, or business interest, can get their claws into me and bleed me to death.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Funky Fanfare, Basil Brush, and Pinky and Perky

Now he looks like a chap who likes fast cars, fast women, and a good time. Note the look. A man of action from 1969. But before discussing one of his singles, a real party anthem, let us discuss what constitutes a good sense of humour. A subject I disclaim any knowledge of, even though it's often suggested to me that I'm fibbing. As if.

Well, despite owning a fairly powerful bolide that can definitely outperform most ordinary vehicles on the road - within the speed limit, of course - I am no petrolhead.

I mean, I literally wouldn't be, as Fiona runs on diesel. But I'm saying that while I like nothing better than to cleanly and skilfully pass some slow, dithering, doddering, barely-awake, pathetic, greyheaded, muttering, old-school bigot and blusterer who should have his car taken from him as a kindness to other road users - my blistering overtaking manoeuvre being a genuinely public-spirited gesture, surely - I am no motoring brat, no ranting Queen of the Road. I like to project Reasonable Road Behaviour, and to be the Safety-Conscious Soul of Volvo.

It's not my fault if certain other road users take issue when they see me at the wheel. Let them self-ignite in their anger, I say. And if it's a boy racer, panting for a contest, then again I'm not playing. Sophisticated women in pearls - especially Volvo drivers - do not parley with pimply little boys in noisy red toys.

All this said, I do enjoy watching Top Gear on BBC2. I know, it's utterly childish. But the mixed studio audience in that hangar at Dunsfold Airport look sensible enough. They want to see and hear the three presenters Clarkson, May and Hammond chaff each other, interview celebrities, and test exotic dream cars. Add in some amazing filming in amazing locations, and a whacky project or two, and it's the sort of entertainment that even a super-careful Volvo driver can enjoy. I don't care much for the Stig, but that's a minor quibble.

The Top Gear team do however have some strange prejudices. One is caravanning. I simply can't see what they find laughable about owning, towing, and holidaying in a caravan. Am I lacking a sense of humour? Is there something wrong with me? Can it be that, after all, I am mad, and just can't see what a joke it is to be so keen on a major national pastime. As if, say, fishing, keeping hamsters and solving sudoku puzzles were a matter for smirking. No, I just don't get it.

Then there is their opinion of Peugeot cars. Why the prejudice? I owned a Peugeot 306 from 1999 to 2002. Here it is in 2002:

It was a revelation after my previous car, a 1988 Nissan Micra. I liked driving it, once overtaking no less than eight cars in one go on a straight stretch of the A15 south of Lincoln. Its only fault was an occasional reluctance to start on damp mornings. That was annoying, but my memory of its good service is hardly tarnished. And yet Clarkson, May and Hammond have consistently sneered at Peugeots. Obviously their acceptance of double-lobotomies as part of their BBC salary package was a mistake with lasting effects. I wonder if they regret it. (Can you regret anything if you've had a double-lobotomy?)

Anyway, on this week's Top Gear they paid 'homage' to Peugeot's output in the last ten years. Two of them filmed themselves driving around in a couple of frankly unexciting and characterless family saloons from the Peugeot stable, and not only showing off the plasticky cheapness and nastiness of the cars themselves, but aping how 'typical' owners might behave on the road - including examples of indecision, vaccilation, procrastination, flatulence, blindness, and a complete inability to control their cars. It seems as if the Lion has no longer been going from Strength to Strength. As a Volvo driver I found it all hilarious. But if I were still a Peugeot driver I might not.

While they were clumsily steering onto verges at 10 mph, or casually bumping into parked cars, suitable background music was being played, all to suggest that despite appearances the 'typical' owner was actually cool and hip. Thus I heard a trumpet fanfare that I immediately associated with a pop song from the late 1960s - not recalled for decades - called House of Jack. A little Internet research established that the lively background hit was Funky Fanfare, an instrumental composed by Keith Mansfield, and that I'd been thinking of the 1969 vocal version sung by James Royal. You can hear a snatch of the instrumental version here on Amazon ( - you don't have to buy it - and here's the James Royal song itself ( Now isn't that one of the funkiest numbers you ever heard? It was still being played at the first parties I went to, after leaving school and starting work in 1970.

Ah, to be young in the late 1960s! Well, actually it wasn't so hot. The Swinging Sixties had happened up in London. I was in Southampton. Southampton wasn't London in any shape or form.

Even so, travel with me now, back to a time when Dad's Army was on TV (was there ever not such a time?). We'll do it through the medium of two handbooks I purchased during that epoch and still have on my shelves. One is the BBC Handbook for 1969, which reviewed what the Beeb had achieved in 1968, and the other is the ITV Handbook of 1970, which examined the successes of Independent Television in 1969:

Opening these up reveals a mass of text. It's the photos that are interesting. The best-quality ones are in the ITV handbook. The ITV was strong on entertainment, comedy and popular escapist drama. Liberace and Anita Harris:

Doctor in the House, On the Buses and Never Mind The Quality, Feel The Width:

And for fantasy adventure, Department S, starring Peter Wyngarde as sex symbol Jason King.

Jason King: his poster adorned many a girl's bedroom wall. I have proof. One of my 1970s girlfriends, Jenny, had him near her bedside, clad in a silken blue kaftan open over the chest:

Dream on, girl.

The BBC then as now had a much wider broadcasting remit, and its handbook was not so slick. In fact it was a stuffy affair. Still, there were some evocative photos. Chart-topping Esther and Abi Ofarim, and Eurovision Song contest winner for Spain, Massiel:

Children's TV, represented by Rodney Bewes and Basil Brush...boom boom!...and silly old Hector:

The Beeb was also cutting-edge on the Pop Scene! Some DJs: Jimmy Savile, Tony Brandon and David Symonds (talking to another Eurovision Song Contest winner, Mireille Matthieu):

Did anyone who mattered in the BBC see beyond Savile's cheerfulness and big cigar at the time? And did Rolf Harris (below) seem in any obvious way dodgy to programming bosses? Why were there so many blind eyes?

Perhaps everyone's attention was on Morecambe and Wise. And lulled into nostalgia with Dad's Army, even then, forty-seven years ago, a national institution:

I'm thinking that nobody suspected a thing. The betrayed victims would themselves hardly believe it possible, and may not have had the words to label their experience, wrap it up, screw it into a a hard little ball of horror, and then throw it into to deepest recess of their mind. The BBC bosses would pay attention only to the audience viewing figures:

Look at that! The Rolf Harris Show and Top of the Pops (a vehicle for Jimmy Savile) right up there among the most-viewed light entertainment programmes, among the most-viewed of any kind of programme, certainly on par with the best-loved programmes of the day, such as the crime dramas Softly, Softly, Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars; homely Scottish hokum like Dr Finlay's Casebook; and (ironically) comedy shows like Not In Front Of The Children. And even beating Dr Who for popularity:

This was a pre-computer age, of course, and before the time when there were many other competing entertainment gadgets in the home. People fixated on the TV. Some were prepared to watch anything, which explains why Pinky and Perky was so much watched:

I could never make my mind up about Pinky and Perky. Were they lovable, or just irritating? It's a funny thing, but the BBC dropped them - after a long eleven-year run - in 1968, the year The Beatles' White Album came out, which featured a George Harrison composition called Piggies, made infamous by the deranged Californian killer Charles Manson's liking it so much. Although the Beeb hadn't lifted a finger over Saville, they clearly saw a disturbing connection between Pinky and Perky and Charles Manson, and passed the poisoned chalice to ITV.

I understand that the piglets themselves are now in pleasant retirement. A bit like me.

Ah, what fresh trips down Memory Lane will next week's Top Gear encourage?

Monday, 23 February 2015

Equalilty plea for women

I refer of course to Patricia Arquette's speech on accepting an Oscar at last night's award ceremony. She was speaking about the unfair deal given to women in America, the Land of the Free, the Land of Wonder Woman.

What does the torch held by the Statue of Liberty stand for, if not hope, and the promise of an equal chance for everyone? And yet if the women of America, those self-aware, super-vocal, super-assertive, extraordinarily well-educated and politically-sophisticated women, who might be expected to lead world womanhood, can't get basic equality in the most go-ahead of Western Countries, what can their awful plight be elsewhere in the world?

It is a reasonable question to ask, whether most women are second-class citizens - or even slaves.

Second-class citizens? Well, who (even now in 2015) is assumed by outsiders and strangers and even officialdom to be the 'head of the household', the one with the most life-experience, the best brain, and the one who makes all the Biggest Decisions in a family? Who, generally, has the most financial clout, and therefore the most independence, in a relationship? Who, generally, has the most time and personal freedom to spend money as they wish, in or out of the home, and not suffer questions about it? Who can dress and slob about as they like - and who can't, without being thought sluttish? Who is physically the strongest? Who, generally, can use the threat of pain, punishment or humiliation to exact attention, services and body-use from their partner? Who can, without much effective social or legal sanction, behave as they please towards their partner, including obsessive mental control and cruel indifference? Again, no prizes for guessing who it is. Clue: not the wife.

And women as slaves? Consider. A slave is bound to a master at his whim, and is property, bought with money or through barter. A slave is not a person, but a possession, and may be abused simply to demonstrate who has the commanding status. Male attitudes everywhere treat a woman as something to own, and when a man tells a woman 'You are mine' it's a statement of fact, not a poetic device to make her feel flattered and wanted.

In that respect the world has never altered. Nowadays in the West the possessive reality is sugared and blurred with love and romance, to make the acquisition ritual seem benign. Thus the bride has her day, but lives to rue it. But once secured, the woman is trapped, forever playing the role of second fiddle, and having to give up an independent existence for a home-centred life and stifling constraints. It might be a formal marriage or something looser, but the woman is the one stuck in the web and persuaded by the entire machinery of society that this is the safest and most satisfying place. If the conditioning of men is designed to make them strong and overbearing, the conditioning of women is designed to make them compliant and servile. All for the illusion of a secure home of their own.

Oh, I'm not denying the existence in all periods of spirited women who stood out. I'm not denying all the accumulated social freedoms won by women. Nor all the legal protections and rights given to them. Nor am I denying the positive and unique joys of happy family life, and the special status within it of the mother.

But look at what a woman who has submitted herself to a shared life cannot do on her own. The things she cannot be. There are many signs of being slavishly bound to a male master - the direct and obvious emotional and material ties, but also the many obligations and responsibilities that a relationship imposes. Children most of all. Escape is made so difficult. I am sure that many women resign themselves to no escape, so that their best plan - the virtuous plan, the only feasible plan - is to accept their dependency, and play the willing slave until the death or desertion of their partner releases them.

I paint a stark picture because I want to make a clear point. Of course there are many, many exceptions to my bleak description of the woman's state. I need think only of my own Dad, and how he regarded Mum, and the life they constructed together, in which each seemed to contribute equally. They looked after each other through all setbacks, and they shared all their successes. And they were mutually and humbly dependent on each other as life drew to its close. I read Mum's nursing records the other day, and learned how Dad faithfully tended to Mum's weeping sores with his arthritic hands, every day, until she went into the hospice. It was a matter of pure survival by then, and not a case of one dominating the other. The straightforward relief of discomfort and anxiety, both ground down equally by the harsh facts of old age.

They were certainly not unique. I suppose all long-standing relationships end in one partner nursing the other, with no pretensions left.

And yet in their active years the relationship between Mum and Dad was hardly equal. Dad was most definitely in charge; society had placed him in that position; and although Mum voiced her opinions often and forcefully, she never wore the trousers. It had a certain simplicity to it, that way of living. Mum and Dad tut-tutted over the freer arrangements and experiments of later generations and found them wanting. Mum actually said to me that the position of women had declined: that nothing substantial had been gained by feminism, only a disturbance in the natural order of things. How could a woman be better off, she said, if knocked from the pedestal, if no longer treated with the old courtesies, if she were made a dependent of the State instead of a loving husband?

I often ponder what might happen if I met someone and fell for their persuasions. It's no part of my modern Life Plan, but the future might hold many surprises. No doubt it would be in some respects a rational and sensible bonding - double the income to splash about, a lovely new house, constant holidaying, cultural events, good food, the lot.

But as the woman I would not be an equal. I would have to defer. I would not have control over my time, my personal space, my body, nor my future plans. It would be a kind of slavery, and I would not wish to sell myself into it.

In search of ancient New Zealand

There is no such thing as 'New Zealand as humans knew it a thousand years ago' - the migrating Maori did not arrive in their seagoing vessels before 1200. Further back, the two islands that make up New Zealand were pristine, completely unknown to man. So there was no ancient population, and therefore no ancient history. It's no good expecting to see a Stonehenge or an Avebury, or any prehistoric standing stones. There was nobody to set them up, and so they do not exist. The Maori worked mainly with timber, not large stone buildings, so there are no halls, castles or ancient temples to see either.

When I visited New Zealand for two months in 2007, I found this absence of really old structures faintly disappointing, even somewhat disturbing. It was as if 'history as we recognise it' began suddenly in the ship's log of Dutchman Abel Tasman in 1642 (a brief but bloody encounter that was not quickly followed up) or the careful mapping of the coastline undertaken by Englishman James Cook in 1769 (which was).

Living on an island with a very long continuous history - written and archaeological - going back thousands of years, I have a very strong sense of Deep History, of the endless succession of generations, and there is plenty to evoke it all around England, Wales and Scotland. Not so in New Zealand. It feels only just established, with the Maori having had hardly more than four hundred years to land, disperse, and settle down, before the first Europeans arrived to spoil everything for them, the initial trickle of whaling men becoming a flood of settlers in the nineteenth century. The Maori themselves hardly left a mark; and the European settlers arrived much too recently to build anything more ancient than municipal buildings and churches in the styles favoured by emigré Victorians.

Is there nothing old to see? Well, the Maori were sensitive to unusual rock formations, whether coastal or inland, and found some of them very special. There are many sacred places, some of which must be hundreds of years old, on for instance oddly-shaped headlands, or where the headland commands an inspiring view across a bay, as does this burial place off State Highway 35 at Hicks Bay in eastern North Island:

In South Island there is a weathered cliff near Duntroon, inland from the east coast north of Dunedin, and just off SH 83. The cliff is pocked with overhangs and shallow caves, and, sheltered in some of those, are some very old Maori paintings:

Nearby is this pair of curiously-shaped rocks, like strange stone animals. It's tempting to think that they are part of the site, protecting it perhaps:

Unusual rock formations crop up in other places in South Island. These are the Castle Hill Rocks, off SH 73 south of Arthur's Pass:

And this is the cave overlooking the Waiau River at Clifden, where SH 99 starts. You can imagine its possible use for initiation ceremonies:

These are all natural rock features that the Maori could make use of, and not actual constructions. And yet in the centre of Banks Penisula, southeast of Christchurch, is a very special natural fort that a local Maori tribe defended against aggressive Maori invaders as late as 1833. It's called Onawe Pa. It lies just off SH 75, a few miles short of the pretty town of Akaroa. Its situation can best be understood from this model of the peninsula in a little museum at Okains Bay:

It's the tonsil-like 'droplet' at the head of the big sea inlet called Akaroa Harbour. It's pretty obvious that the entire peninsula is an old flooded volcano, and that Onawe Pa sits exactly where the rock plug over the heart of the volcano must be. If the volcano ever bursts into life again, this will be a dangerous spot. I was highly conscious of that when visiting Onawe! Here are more shots from the Summit Road that follows the old crater rim:

Follow me now from where the campervan was parked (at the slender base of this near-island) to the topmost point.

There is a gap here, filled by the surging sea at high tide. Defenders would look across at attackers and expect to mock them with impunity. The ochre-coloured rocks here all have strange swirly or blobby markings that might have potent magical effect. They certainly recall the tattoos on the faces of Maori chiefs:

On we go.

What a commanding view the defenders had! Doesn't this next shot look like some ancient hill in England, with a grassy path winding up to the top?

At the very top is a pile of boulders, entirely natural, but seemingly arranged into a castrol or Last Redoubt, where the defenders would if necessary make a stand and die:

The Pa would also have had some less-solid, man-made structures for occupation and storage. It was a fortified village. It would seem impregnable to anything short of modern weaponry, but the 1833 defence did not succeed. The attackers came at low tide, and determination and (perhaps) treachery let them overrun the Pa. Most of the inhabitants were butchered. But there was no atmosphere of past tragedy on my visit. Only the sunshine and a light wind. It was the sort of peaceful place you wanted to linger at, but this wasn't possible. The travel timetable said not.

At Okains Bay, just a few miles away, there are more Maori things in and around a small museum, including pictures and old canoes:

I'm reminded of the fragmentary remains of the vikings, who also sailed far and wide, and settled distant lands, but failed to build anything much in a material that might last. No regard for posterity.

Maori legends were handed down orally. Which partly explains why New Zealand history, such as it is, was until quite recently almost entirely a European affair, and explained with a European voice.

That still allows the time before Captain Cook to be a story that the Maori might tell in their art and buildings. But the physical record is insufficient. If I had to live in New Zealand for any length of time, I think I would feel deprived of tangible and psychologically-comforting relics of the past - evidence of a continuous culture that I could relate to, just as one might relate to the many, many edifices and monuments of Ancient Egypt. I'd end up blaming the Maori for not building castles, manor houses, churches, shrines, and stone monuments of every sort - which would be unfair of me.

I wonder how modern New Zealanders feel about this?    

Saturday, 21 February 2015

From cooling down to hotting up

It's actually been a long while since I published anything at all on Cowper's Gland (aka the Bulbourethral Gland). A quick search reveals just the one post that mentions it, dated 20 October 2011, and titled Glandular overflow. I was writing about the then-mysterious leakage of a clear somewhat sticky fluid emanating from my own parts in the course of a sexy dream. It wasn't at all like a man's semen. I described it as runny KY gel in my 2011 post. But nowadays I'd liken it to Johnson's Baby Oil, which I use twice-weekly to get rid of the skin-mark left after removing a hormone patch.

Back in 2011, when in search of information on this intriguing phenomenon, the relevant Wikipedia articles were useful, but not then totally conclusive as to the source of this fluid, nor why it should flow in such abundance that my entire vaginal cleft was well and truly lubricated. But since then these articles seem to have been rewritten and improved, or else my understanding is greater. The ones I'll particularly mention are these:

On the various reproductive system correspondences between male-type and female-type bodies:

On Cowper's Gland and its female-body equivalent:

On the primary male and female sources of fluid during sexual events:

As you can see, Cowper's Gland seems to be the culprit in the case of unwanted male 'premature ejacultion', which used to embarrassingly frustrate a nervous man's full pleasure in bed. (Do modern men suffer still?) And Skene's Gland seems to be the source of the fluid that certain women might leak (or indeed spray, or even jet) when highly aroused, which sometimes used to be mistaken for urine. (You do wonder how the medical researchers get to check that all this is so, and observe it happening!)

Anyway, back to myself. My in utero incept date was around 6 October 1951, which was the date on which Stalin announced that the USSR had an atom bomb and had caught up with the USA. After a series of nuclear tests, spread over several years, the USSR must have significantly increased the background radiation throughout the Northern Hemisphere. And especially in Europe, if the wind were blowing the right way. I claim nothing specific from this, but I was a little overdue when born in the following July, and (considering the eventual outcome) may already have been genetically modified!

Certainly, there was this unearthly pink glow, and my christening was delayed until September - by which time I had cooled down to a normal black and white, and could even be handled:

It's freaky, but I naturally have a Cowper's Gland. It seems to have been inactive all my life until 2011, when its dormancy ended, and it sprang into occasional action. What I'd like to know now is this: can it be made to function reliably and predictably, by applying a definite stimulus for a definite length of time? In other words, is it controllable, so that if I want to, I can produce my own natural vaginal lubricant at will? This would be highly convenient. It would save the present bother of having to carry lubrication around in my bag 'just in case'. (At my age, of course, one is dry down there, no matter what the stimulus) It would also be a jolly amazing party trick. Or as something I could do, if stuck talking to a bore, or when passing time on a long train journey. The possibilities are endless.

Unfortunately I have insufficient data to determine what the correct stimulus and duration might be. In nearly every instance since 2011, fluid leakage from my Cowper's Gland has occurred when waking from sleep, and it's essentially all over by the time I'm aware of what has just taken place. All I can say is that the stimulus was in a sexy dream, though rarely remembered in detail. I have yet to discover what type of real-life analogue might produce the same result. So far as I can tell, it must involve another person, but in what optimum situation it is impossible to say. I know these things are not optimum situations:

# Discussing the merits of Facebook.
# Discussing the merits of iPhones versus Samsung Galaxy smartphones.
# Drinking Tomato Juice and Worcester Sauce, even with ice and a slice of lemon in it.
# Listening to Money Box on BBC Radio 4 on Saturdays.

I'd most definitely suppose that 'getting over a cold' wasn't a situation likely to stimulate one's Cowper's Gland, but then I'd be wrong, because I woke up this morning in exactly that state - and yet with the memory of another intimate bedroom scene in my mind, and a wet feeling amidships. I mopped up in the bathroom, while coughing my head off. It seemed a curious coupling of events: genital fluid overflow simultaneous with an irritating cough that was lingering on beyond its sell-by date.

This kind of synchrony diminishes a girl's excuses. I mean, if a cold and cough won't prevent involuntary body-responses, how can she plead that a mere headache will?

Thursday, 19 February 2015

What to do with spare tomato juice

I didn't used to be the thrifty kind, someone who hated the idea of waste, but as I got older (and perhaps more aware of how the earth's resources were getting more slender) I have become very willing to do my bit to avoid throwing away foodstuffs that could yet be made into something nice to eat. This impulse has for some time also extended to recycling materials, and so I am conscientious - if it is convenient - about popping plastic bottles, glass bottles, tin cans, and cardboard into my recycling bin at home. Conscientious, but not obsessive: I am not entirely convinced that glass and plastic really matter from the recycling point of view, although I do see that it's much better to separate them out from the stuff that will rot down naturally in a landfill site.

Anyway, back to food that shouldn't be thrown away. I've now trained myself - once back from shopping - to split up packets of food I've bought, and pop meal-sized portions into freezer bags for later defrosting and cooking. For example, one pack of six bacon rashers becomes three little potential meals, repacked into three sealed freezer bags. And I'll cut a big fillet of fresh fish into two, bag up the pieces, and freeze them for later. It takes only a little extra effort, and it completely sidesteps the problem of half-used fresh food going off in the fridge.

I still have an occasional problem with fresh vegetables. If they are to look great in proper meals, they need to be eaten quickly, and an unexpected spate of eating-out with friends generally leaves me with sad-looking carrots and parsnips, and green stuff past its best. I am now thinking about using the best bits of yellowing broccoli and dodgy-looking green beans in home-made soups - a new venture for me - and the prospect is exciting. I haven't done it before, because of the preparation involved (it's as much trouble as putting a casserole together) and the problem of what to do with all the soup made. It can't be consumed all at once, so how to store it? But recently I've found some unused kitchen gadgets in the kitchen (things that Mum had, but didn't get round to using) and some handy sealable plastic containers of the right size, and I think I will soon be in business. Lucy's Hearty Homemade Chorizo, Manchego and Onion Soup...mmmm! Lucy's Hearty Homemade Smoked Mackerel, Parsnip and Leek all sounds good to me!

Which brings me on to tomato juice. Not bought as such, but the thick fluid you get in a tin of plum tomatoes from any supermarket. The tin costs very little. It usually contains four plum tomatoes (well, Waitrose tins do). I will spoon out two of these per meal, whether it's a breakfast (cue a breakfast shot with bacon and coffee)...

...or an evening meal (as here with liver, courgettes and potato)...

..or even with chicken, red peppers, mushrooms and noodles...

As you can see, I like to cook meals with vivid colours in them, and tinned tomatoes provide an eye-catching splash of red! But I don't want splashes of tomato juice as well, or at least not too much of it, and so for a long while I tipped away the unwanted tomato juice, which was often one third of the contents of the can. It seemed such a pity.

Then, just before last Christmas, I made up my mind that drinking and driving had to be taken seriously, and I considered what I could enjoy at the pub that was alcohol-free. I needed to go no-alcohol after my initial large glass of wine. And I rediscovered Tomato Juice and Worcester Sauce (spiced up even further with a dash or two of Tabasco). It's not to everyone's taste, but I loved it. And I soon wondered whether I might make up my own version at home, from the tomato juice I would otherwise throw away. And so, once a week, or sometimes oftener, I now open a tin of plum tomatoes with a non-alcoholic evening drink in mind, as well as two cooked meals.

So that's the scene. One opened tin of Waitrose plum tomatoes, already rinsed out and ready for my recycling bin. Two plum tomatoes in the pan for gentle heating as part of tonight's meal. Two in a former conserve jar (the Bon Maman ones are perfect for this), to pop in my fridge, ready for another meal very soon. The 'unwanted' juice in a second jar for the fridge, but with a delicious cool savoury drink in mind.

And maybe that very evening, or the next, I'll get out the tomato juice, add a little water to make it runnier, shake in some Lea & Perrins Worcester Sauce - then a dash or two of chilli sauce - and stir it all up with a long spoon. And start sipping.

Fabbo! What a lovely drink. Smooth and cool, and yet with a hot kick. And I'm sure it's diet-friendly.