Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Daft gifts

I was in Arundel two days ago, which is a small, attractive, riverside town in West Sussex famous for its castle, the seat of the Dukes of Norfolk, and its Roman Catholic cathedral - the Dukes of Norfolk (despite being the first in rank of the nobility) being a Catholic family, an historic anomaly that often got them into difficulties with Protestant kings, notably Henry VIII. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duke_of_Norfolk. But I wasn't there to hobnob with the Duke. I was there to stroll around and get my daily 10,000 steps in, which is becoming hard to do when the days are now so short.

I don't often go to Arundel. It's an odd place. It's fine if you want tea and cake (do go to Belinda's) or a browse in Kim's Bookshop (it's a good second-hand bookshop on several floors).

But it's lacking in 'normal' shops. It used to have Pegler's, a well-known outdoor specialist who had two or three shops scattered around the town, each specialising in some aspect of outdoor activity. If you wanted serious kit for walking and backpacking, you went to Pegler's. I bought my Alt-Berg boots from them in July 2011, carefully chosen with the patient assistance of a keen trekker. Alas, they closed down in 2013, and the town has been less interesting ever since.

Since then the place has become filled with upmarket art, jewellery, clothing and gift shops - rather overwhelming the antique shops that were always there (Sussex is still absolutely stuffed with antique shops, even though the trade has been in general decline for a very long time: the salad days of Lovejoy on 1980s and 1990s TV are well past).

All these places, whether long-established or johnny-come-latelies, seem to cater for fashion-conscious trendies on very good incomes, mostly under forty-five. They are expensive. My advice is: don't go into them. Just window-shop, and admire the town's well-preserved architecture, some of which is truly ancient. It helps that Arundel is a hilly place, and that the best bits are nicely arranged along a hillside overlooking the river - the castle and cathedral being dominant. From a distance, Arundel definitely has a 'French' look.

It's easy to take great photos. I timed my visit to secure some fabulous shots of the setting sun on the river, from the original old stone bridge and from the by-pass bridge. But before that, I'd snatched some half-decent street shots, after tea and cake in Belinda's:

So much for the fine views. What about the main topic of this post?

Well, I'd stuck to my maxim of keeping out of all those expensive shops. But a light rain shower drove me into a particularly upmarket shop in a modern conversion from former artisan's premises. It was on three levels, the topmost being a restaurant. They'd installed a swanky lift, if you please, but I took the stairs. It was seething with a youngish crowd looking for 'different' gifts for Christmas. Clothes, Kitchen and Confectionery were the chief gods here.  

I have to admit that many of the gifts were genuinely quirky and amusing, and would raise a smile when unwrapped. They were all clearly a cut above the ordinary: no cheap, tacky rubbish here. But closer examination told me that the quality, though adequate, wasn't enough to make any of these gifts durable. They would fall apart, or break, soon enough. It was fortunate that (a) their novelty value would expire long before they disintegrated; (b) the people buying them could afford to waste their money; and (c) the recipients could junk them without a care soon after Boxing Day.

And some of these gifts were really daft. Such as?

Well, what about a cuddly toy elephant's head, as a joke hunting trophy to put on your wall? 

You could choose more than one animal's head, if wishing to seem a Big Shot:

Bizarre. Goodness knows what these wall heads cost. I didn't look. (Actually, the moose head's price tag is visible, if you zoom into the picture: £69.95. Hmm. I wonder how you would wrap the thing up?)

Another example. Chocolates made to look like body parts:

Not just bizarre. This is verging on tasteless. What sort of person would give a gift like this, and who would gleefully bite into a lookalike human heart, or a super-realistic human finger? Again, I didn't peer at the price tag, but the packaging suggested these well-made but horrific stocking-fillers wouldn't be cheap. 

I would be highly embarrassed to purchase anything like this, and I can't think of anybody I know who would truly want to receive it. What would they think of me? 

I slipped out before anyone asked me why I was taking pictures, and continued my walk. 

Thank goodness I'd entirely given up sending Christmas gifts and cards. I'm so glad I'm no longer involved in that game. Especially if it might mean buying such stuff. 

Monday, 26 November 2018

Now the hard sell begins

This morning, on the BBC News website:

Yesterday the Brexit Deal negotiated by Mrs May got the approval of the other twenty-seven EU member countries, and now she has to get Parliament's approval too. The vote is next month. It's anybody's guess how the vote will actually go, but at present there are many boos and hisses at what she managed to get agreed. So the outcome she wants looks very iffy.

One argument against going with this Deal is that it isn't what the country voted for. Well, let's consult the official pamphlets sent to every home in the run-up to the 2016 Referendum. I still have copies. We all got this pamphlet from the The Electoral Commission. It explained what the Referendum was all about, who could vote, and the mechanics of actually voting.

All pretty clear. Nothing frightening here. Anyone with normal intelligence would understand from this pamphlet exactly what to do if they wished to cast a vote either way. And although the two main for-and-against messages were summarised in the centrefold, the Commission wasn't pushing one of them more than the other.  

However, we all got another pamphlet, this time from the government, in which the reasons for staying in the EU were strongly emphasised. On every page, things were pointed out to the reader that ought to make him or her think very hard about discounting, or ignoring, the government's recommendation - which was to vote to remain. Several key issues were discussed.

The point was made that already, before the Referendum, the UK had negotiated some big concessions from the EU on currency, border control and opting out of political integration. 

Attention was drawn to what membership of the EU gave us in terms of job prospects and exports...

...and how leaving would make everything cost more.

Trade was touched upon. Would those container ships keep coming, if we left the Single Market? Would the dock at Felixstowe (in the illustration) instead be empty?

A 'reality check' on immigration.  

How continued membership of the EU would mean a brighter future for young families.

And finally, the key points the government wanted to put across.

I had no quarrel with either pamphlet. I thought they were both informative and useful. But not all the issues that mattered to me were discussed. I didn't even think I was the voter chiefly in mind. You'll notice that nobody over forty-five appeared in the pictures in the government pamphlet. It was angled at younger voters, and not the vast and growing army of older (and possibly wiser) people. I did see that younger people would live longer into the future, and in that sense had more at stake. But it was quite possible that I'd be around, alive and kicking, for another thirty years, and I too - and plenty of people like me - would have a big stake in the outcome. 

And it wasn't all about jobs, an ever-higher standard of living, and border issues. What about the maintenance of our distinctive British culture and ways of doing things? What about the soul of Britain? Would we really be able to resist the gradual Europeanisation of every aspect of British life? Wasn't it overwhelmingly likely that, at some point, within the next decade or two certainly, the British Parliament would have to adopt the Euro, accept over-arching Federal laws the same as any EU country, and a high degree of cultural homogenisation? That made me shudder. I'd rather have independence, and put up with the cost of enjoying it. 

And clearly I wasn't alone. I was in the majority - although it must be the case that everyone who wanted to get out of the EU, as I did, had a boatload of personal reasons not addressed by these pamphlets, nor the politicians' media rantings. In their arrogance, politicians on all sides thought their words would be influential, decisive, and sway the vote. They were wrong. They are always wrong, because they are a breed apart and out of touch with what ordinary, unpolitical people think. And they don't listen. It's one reason why no government ever introduces policies that really get to the heart of the country's problems.

As the result started to come in on Referendum night, with a Remain win expected, there was at first no sense of shock; just surprise that there wasn't, from the start, a clear general vote to stay in the EU. Early on, around 1.00am, with only a few results in, it was still 'too early' to call:

Not long afterwards, with 15 results in, and 367 undeclared, the studio experts were still keeping an open mind - despite the Leavers already gaining on the Remainers:

But as the hours wore on, it became clear than the Remain lobby had not been persuasive. And a point came when a clearly-surprised David Dimbleby in the BBC studio had to announce some unexpected breaking news:

London, the Home Counties, and certain metropolitan areas had voted to stay. So, conspicuously, had Scotland. But elsewhere, and especially in the north and east of England, people had voted to go. There was an age divide too - younger people had generally voted to stay, older folk to leave. 

But the overall position was perfectly clear: the majority of prople in the UK had voted to leave the EU. 

The wranglings and recriminations began. The immediate spontaneous celebrations from the UKIP camp were in stark contrast to the rest. I was much struck at how the chief Leavers - Boris Johnson et al - were lost for words, and embarrassingly unprepared to make an adequate victory speech. Aha, I thought: you had made a lot of noise, but now you were caught by surprise! You had no plan ready. 

But neither had the other politicians. They had all thought they knew what the outcome would be: stay in the EU, of course. They had taken it for granted. They hadn't even campaigned very hard. It was sweet to see them flustered and wrong-footed by the 'people's vote'. And it was, despite wrigglings to get out of it in the months that followed, a binding vote.  

Looking away from the politicians, and instead at the reactions of people I personally knew, I was amazed (and concerned) at the dismay generally expressed at the Leave result. My local girl friends and their husbands were solidly for leave, as I had been. But other people in my life were in despair, and in some cases very angry. This made me feel pretty uncomfortable for a while. And yet, surely we had all given the matter our most serious thought, and we all had amply good reasons for the way we voted. I never met anybody who had approached the Referendum frivolously.

Well, there's a lesson here: referendums are as unpredictable as the Grand National. Governments should beware of holding them. No wonder Mrs May (for the Government) has absolutely ruled out another referendum on Brexit. And Mr Corbyn (for the Opposition) should hesitate too. You can't rely on the 'people's vote'. It can't be fixed. The electorate - us - isn't easily impressed. Did they really think that campaign buses with fancy slogans on them would ever make a difference? Or that big beasts snorting at each other in TV 'debates' had anything more than passing entertainment value? How naïve.

I don't know about you, but I always ask myself who is telling me this or that, and what their form is. I will dismiss them, and their messages, if I think they personally lack realistic vision, conviction, common sense and basic honesty, or if their party has been historically incompetent. And I have a long memory, having followed political events since the 1964 General Election. No promises of future good behaviour or economic wizardry will influence me, if a politician's background and track record is dodgy. Leopards do not change their spots.

And my guess as to how Mrs May will fare over the next two weeks, as she woos the general public and tries to promote the Brexit Deal? 

Well, she has shown courage, tenacity and stamina, and still deserves the epiphet of a 'safe pair of hands'. I do think it's an achievement to have secured a Deal at all. 

Of course its approval by Parliament cannot be counted upon. But then, if polls show that the general public are happy with what is on the table, and will revolt if the matter is made to drag on much longer, might not that influence how the voting will go in Parliament? After all, isn't Parliament supposed to reflect the 'will of the British people', even if individual MPs will choke on it?

Another two years of life

I came home a few days ago after a great lunch with my local girl friends - one of them had just had her 61st birthday, and we were celebrating with presents, pizza, and plenty of white wine. She was five years younger than me, and looking fabulous. I fancied we all did. We certainly looked great in my photos of the occasion.

Golden girls indeed.

I was brought down to earth by an NHS envelope awaiting me, just inside my porch.

I knew what it was. The results of a recent bowel cancer screening.

I sighed. Well, no panic. I'd take my coat off first, and hang it up. Then I'd change my clothes. Then put on the kettle for a nice cup of tea. No hurry.

Only after these things were done did I open the envelope. I was half-expecting bad news. Or at least worrying news, such as 'the latest result was inconclusive, and we'll be sending you another kit'. That happened once before.

Phew. A 'normal' screening result. No bowel cancer then. Not even a request for another screening because of unclear indications. No, I was clear, off the hook. I could have another two years' peace of mind, until the next time.

I don't know why I'd felt seriously concerned. After all, I consumed no manufactured 'ready meals', not even posh ones from a Marks & Spencer Foodhall, or from Waitrose. Certainly not the cheaper but utterly artificial packaged offerings from the mass-market food stores. I ate only home-cooked meals prepared by myself, or in friends' houses - or cooked from scratch by a chef when eating out - made from natural raw ingredients, cooked in healthy ways. As nature intended, you could say. Nothing in them to irritate my digestive tract and make it bleed or turn cancerous. Why had I worried?

The answer is, of course, that at my time of life I constantly feel vulnerable to sudden body part failure. We are all living longer than we used to, and there is more chance that something will wear out, or decide to malfunction.

I can't avoid the various processes of ageing, even if I consciously adopt a healthy eating and exercise regime. Even if I recall that at no point in the past did I stupidly sow a seed of destruction, a little death-worm that would grow and gnaw at me, and one day devour me.

I never habitually drank to excess, never took drugs, never smoked, never subjected my body to physical stresses, nor my mind to mental torture. I must be one of those whose sensible lifestyle choices have greatly improved the odds against dying early, greatly improved the likelihood of living on - with my faculties intact - well into my nineties, or even beyond. For I don't want to be a burden on society. I don't want to neglect or ruin my health, and get so ill and enfeebled that society must look after me. I want to die standing. Or better still, asleep, dreaming sweetly of some exciting holiday yet to come.

Yet each medical test performed risks discovering the possibility of a dread death. So far, the news has always been good. But one day it won't be.

So I sometimes think of the end. The big switch-off, the permanent death of consciousness. And prior to that, the loss of physical capability.

I've already become reconciled to bowing out with much left undone, or never experienced. I think I'm already past the point where things that require great effort might still be attempted. I get tired if I do too much. And in any case need to protect myself from physical stresses. I speak as someone who has never suffered a broken bone, and is very fearful of any life-changing physical injury. So I suppose I must abandon notions of a trip to the moon, or Mars. And I probably shouldn't join a trek to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, nor visit Machu Picchu, just in case altitude sickness kills me.

Never mind. There's still an awful lot that I can do. I just want awful things like cancer to pass me by.

Fingers crossed.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Finally, new glasses that suit me

Well, of course, that's my own opinion, and you may not agree! Still, it's my face, and I'm happy, so phooey to anyone who demurs.

I last left this subject with the original rather striking (too striking) new frames rejected, a hurriedly-considered second choice rejected too, and the matter set aside while I went on holiday to South Wales and the New Forest in the closing part of October and the beginning of this month.

As soon as I was back, I had an appointment to make a third choice from Specsavers' range. I'd already paid them £216 for my original choice, fitted with expensive varifocal lenses, so they had my money and I couldn't really go elsewhere. Nor did I want to, as it seemed to me that Specsavers had the best range of the High Street opticians, with over five hundred women's frames to choose from. Surely they had something suitable?

Of course, not all their shops stocked every frame you might see on their website, and the Burgess Hill shop (my handiest) didn't. But you could get any shop to order a particular frame in, if you'd seen it elsewhere, or on their website. And their policy was, within reason, to let a customer change her mind more than once until she was satisfied.

Actually, my number two choice should have been what I now have. I'd spotted the frames in question (the product name was 'Raina') on the Specsavers website, and had hoped I could try them on at the shop. They didn't have them in stock. The very helpful girl who dealt with me on that occasion came up with two frames I hadn't noticed hitherto, and, wanting to nail this before going on holiday, I opted for one of them. A mistake: you can't rush these things. I should have asked her to order in those 'Raina' frames, and defer any decision until back from holiday.

Thankfully, while on holiday I managed to find 'Raina' frames on display in a big-city branch of Specsavers, and try them on. Perfect. So, once home again, I asked for them to be ordered with high confidence that this time I'd have no regrets. That was early last week. Two days ago I went to try them on. Yes: just right. Please go ahead and fit them with the new lenses, I said. And today I went along to see the result, and take them away if there were no issues.

There were no issues. They were fine. More than fine. They weren't merely satisfactory, I thought they looked as good as my gold-metal specs, and perhaps better. They were predominantly silver-metal, and therefore matched all my jewellery. But the part of the frames that held the lenses had a raspberry-pink tinge that made them blend somewhat with my skin. Not to make them invisible, but to make them unobtrusive. I had what I really wanted - frames that didn't dominate my face. You could see I was wearing glasses, but that wouldn't be the only thing you'd notice when looking at me. I wasn't hidden (or lost) behind a pair of over-assertive frames. I was out in the open.

And, it occurred to me, that hint of pink was a girly thing, and at my age I could do with some help in that department. As many readers will know, I was never pretty; and anything that tarts up the faded public image is most welcome. (I make no apologies whatever for saying pink is still generally perceived as a feminine colour. It is, and I will use the fact ruthlessly. As you would, if you were as plain and unattractive as I am)

So here's the gallery of selfies, taken today at home, to show off the new specs.

This is me looking stern, challenging and full of authority. I'd have wanted to look like this when I was an Investigation Manager for the Inland Revenue in the 1980s and 1990s:

This is me in a softer, gentler mood:

And this is me just being friendly, as you might catch me most of the time:

There you are, a variety of characteristic expressions and poses. And in all those shots, the new glasses seem to sit naturally and unobtrusively on the front of my face. At least, I think they do.

This was the original choice from mid-October:

Scary! But I dare say there are some who will still prefer my original choice. Sorry if you do. We'll just have to disagree.

Mind you, which pair of glasses might strike fear and consternation into the hearts of seasoned EU negotiators and secure - yes, even now - a decent deal for Britain? I'd say the answer to that is very obvious!