Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Two villages in one day

I went to see a client's 'new' house yesterday, set in a small Oxfordshire village. I'd like to show you photos of it, but this might be a breach of confidentiality here, so I can't.

It dates from around 1480 (that's AD) and could have been used as a safe house for the kids in a Harry Potter film, complete with oak-panelled rooms which yawl like a ship on the high seas - I have fallen in love with this place and developed an almost proprietorial, protective attitude toward it before I even stepped over the ancient threshold.

Luckily, she - being the new owner - has an even more protective attitude to it, and I think she will make sure that some of the ghastly fuck-ups done by the previous owner will be undone, with a little help from me. I'll give you one little example: A small radiator against a bedroom wall has been painted with broad, dark brown, vertical bands to 'camouflage' it against the Tudor beams it is fixed to...

After the site visit, where else to go but Bicester Village?

All the signboards at the Village are written in both English and Chinese, and there is a shop there which sells nothing but flight-cases and travel bags. People get off planes, buy a flight-case, fill it full of designer clothes, then get back on the planes again. I am serious.

I saw a group of Saudi women, clad in black from head to foot with a small slit for their eyes so they could look at the products. They were buying expensive Armani or Versace outfits to wear under their black burkhas.

One of their party - who was dragging a huge flight-case on wheels - looked very out of place amongst them as they wandered from shop to shop.

She had shortish hair and a woollen hat, a cheap quilted coat and off-white trainers. She looked Arab, but not Saudi. I pointed her out to S.D. and asked who she thought she was.

"That's their servant, of course," came the then obvious answer. S.D. should know, she works in fashion retail.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Aliens in our midst

Sunday bedtime story.

There has been a bit of talk about fungi, it being Autumn. We all know that you have to be careful of mushrooms, no natter how knowledgeable you think you may be about them.

But did you know that the world of Science still - after all these years of reason - does not know in which category to place them out of Animal or Vegetable?

Think smaller.

Fungi and bacteria are closely related, but bear little resemblance to a virus.

Virus change on an hourly basis, making their next foray into our bodies almost impossible to predict. The world of Science does not know how to categorise the virus between Animal and Mineral - they are somewhere in between.

Nobody knows how or why they change and mutate so incredibly quickly, but what we do know is that they can survive extremely low and high temperatures, plus lethal exposure to radiation, unlike humans.

The nucleus of a comet leaves a pretty trail in the sky as it passes our world and the solar wind wipes off microscopic particles, and some of this dust filters down into our atmosphere. Some of this dust also contains virus that are millions of years old, and just waiting to be woken up by a host of the correct temperature.

'The Meek Shall Inherit The Earth.....'

(To be read in a very camp, Vincent Price voice)

Lots of lovely Lifestyle

How many people do you know who wear a hat to make a blog-post? Stylish, or what?

Actually, at this time of the year, the sun blares right into the front windows of our compact but adorable city apartment (welcome home, Mise), so if I don't wear something with a brim, I can't see what I am writing. It could be worse, it could be a baseball cap.

Also actually, this hat is one of two that I have bought, and they are called 'Irish Walking Hats'. Well they are made in Ireland (welcome back, Mise), but they don't improve my walking.

You all know very well by now, the problems I have had over the last few years trying to find the perfect tweed hat (below) as worn by Basil Rathbone, and you may remember the excuse which a top London Hatter made when I asked why they couldn't make one of their own models with an extra half an inch of brim on it, just for me: "There is a shortage of Harris Tweed, Sir."

Of course, Harris Tweed is a Scottish product, and this hat is Irish. I know that the Japanese and Italians try to buy as much Harris tweed as they can lay the hands on - they virtually pull it off the loom -  but an extra half-inch on one hat? I mean, really.

Step-Daughter works for a small company which commissions  and sells cashmere products, and these are all made in one small area of East Scotland. At the moment, the Bath branch is about 500 yards away from here, but they are about to relocate to different premises - right beneath our compact but adorable city apartment.

S.D. was born in London but brought up in this flat, and I first met her when she was 4 years old. In the intervening 40 years, she has moved to London where she was the general manager of 'Whistles' for the original owners, moved back to the Frome area where she brought up her two lovely kids, moved back into Bath to continue to work in fashion retail, and has ended up right where she started at the compact but adorable city apartment.

Tomorrow she has a day off, and I am combining business with pleasure by visiting a client in the Oxford area, then dropping her and her mother at Bicester Village - again - so she can have a bit of a busman's holiday.

They just cannot get enough of this Lifestyle malarky.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Getting into hot water

To celebrate the return of darling Mise, here is a Life-Style post.

H.I. said she was fed up with our old kettle, and had found a new one with £12 off the RRP, right next door. So we got it.

Out with the old, in with the new, eh?


An American tourist got accidentally locked into a London bookshop last night, and this little news snippet prompted a radio show to ask listeners if they had ever been locked in anywhere at any time.

Lots of stories surfaced, but the one I found most gripping was told by a woman who found herself locked in - alone at night - at the Madame Tussaud waxworks, also in London.

There have been countless films which used waxworks museums as a really terrifying set - you know the ones, where one of a group of figures is real, but you don't know which, etc. - but this woman calmly recounted her experience as if she had been trapped in a furniture shop. The first wrong turn she made took her straight into the Chamber of Horrors apparently. I think I would have fainted, but she said that she turned around and walked calmly out. I bet she didn't look over her shoulder, though.

About 15 miles from Rome lies the ancient port of Ostia Antica, though the sea has long since retreated and the old supply town for ancient Rome lies in ruins.

The 'new' town is dominated by a large castle (above) and the castle is attached to some old barracks, one of which serves as a self-catering holiday cottage which H.I. and me rented for about a week once.

The very first thing we decided to do on the first morning was to visit the castle which loomed over us, filling the window of our little room in the barracks. Entry was free, and we were the only tourists when the huge gates were opened at 10.00 am.

The young woman who was to be our guide could speak no English, so she beckoned us to follow her into the courtyard, then unlocked a small iron door which lead to the dungeons. The other young woman guide stayed at the small hut by the main gate.

She held the door open and H.I. went in, then I - being English - gestured for her to go before me, which she did. I then - for some reason to do with following the Country Code, maybe - pulled the door shut behind me.

The woman let out a scream just before the door closed with a clunk of finality, but it was too late. It could only be opened from the outside.

She stared up at me with a look of hatred in her eyes as she ranted a tirade of abuse which, though I could not understand, I got the general meaning of. I think the word 'stupido' was mentioned a couple of times.

I calmly took my mobile phone out of my pocket and handed it to her so she could call her friend for assistance, but she pointed at the 20 foot-thick walls, then at the non-existent signal icon on the screen.

I started laughing as H.I. was asking me why the hell I had shut the door, and for a brief second, the Italian girl laughed with me, but her good humour didn't last for long.

She went to the iron door and began screaming "MARIA!!!" as loud as she could, over and over again.

After about 10 minutes of this, Maria turned up to see what the fuss was about, but then had to go off again to try and find the spare set of keys. That took about another quarter of an hour.

The rest of the tour of the castle was conducted in a very frosty silence indeed, broken only by my occasional fits of stifled giggling as I tried to avoid the malevolent eyes of our guide.

Friday, 17 October 2014

We live in medieval times

I have just been sent one of those online petitions to sign, and this one is to do with the privatisation of certain sections of the National Gallery, London.

I once signed one of these things, and for the next few months I was bombarded with other petitions to sign about things I knew nothing about, but was supposed to care about anyway because they were so important. I soon got petition-fatigue and had to tick a box requesting not to be sent any more by total strangers with an axe to grind.

The success of these online petitions depends on the amount of signatures required to force the government to at least talk about it in the House of Commons, and I think it is somewhere around 100,000. When you sign one, you can only submit it by filling out mandatory boxes giving them your email address and postcode, which is the way paper petitions are required to be filled out, but the difference is that nobody looks at the paper ones and many of them are signed by Disney characters. The online company carefully stores your personal information for future use or reference.

The gist of this petition is that - following the resignation of the last director - the board of trustees have decided that all the National Gallery's security needs should be supplied by the company, 'G4' who are the same bunch of unscrupulous so-and-sos who transport criminals between the courts and the prisons, and I think I am right in saying that they have recently been forced to pay the government a considerable amount of money back - millions - for a 'clerical error' which resulted in invoices presented for services which were never supplied.

The other fear is that the trustees will sell-off much of the nationally-owned collection to help pay for the 'services' supplied by G4.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think when it comes to something as important and grave as locking someone away in a prison, this should be done by government employees on a wage, rather than a profit-making company who will take more money from the public purse than it pays to its employees, then divide it up amongst shareholders as dividends. Margaret Thatcher called these people the 'wealth-creators'. I have a different description for them.

The last online petition I signed via this same organisation was to save Cork Street in London as the centre for private art galleries it has been for over 100 years, against property developers who have been greedily eyeing it up since London real estate prices turned into telephone numbers.

It didn't work. I walked past Cork Street the other week, and it is now a cultural desert. The developers got their way, and got the street.

The predominantly Conservative government is - right now - running around trying to raise as much money as they can so that the books look as good as possible in time for the next general election, and to fulfil any extravagant promises they may make in their manifestos.

One little scheme is to sell the share we have in the rolling-stock side of the Channel Tunnel to the French and Germans, now that the high-speed rail network seems to be more expensive than anyone but them can afford, but even the Germans are hitting hard times for the first time since WW2, aside from a moment of panic caused by reunification pledges - Mark for Mark - soon to be offset by the brand new Eastern Block market for Mercedes and BMW.

The under-the-counter plans to privatise the NHS and turn it into the American model of insured health care have been shelved for the time being because of the imminent plague of Ebola - who wants to invest in an organisation which cannot pay pharmaceutical companies billions to save the lives of half the nation who would have payed for the drugs anyway?

Also we have just seen what happens when you have a disjointed, privatised health care system divided into states and regions competing against each other for the dollar.

The second case of Ebola in the U.S. has just infected a health worker because of poor and disjointed  planning resulting in bad practice.

The first case has just made a full recovery, thanks to untested treatment. There was not enough time to test this treatment anyway, and - believe it or not - the testing was going to be by giving half the victims of Ebola a placebo to see whether the real treatment really worked! Even I can see a basic flaw in this idea.

It turns out - now that this woman can talk again - that she had already alerted the U.S. health authorities that she had just finished a mission in West Africa where she was treating many victims of Ebola, and was running a high temperature. They said, "That's OK, get on the plane home anyway."

They are now looking for the other 120 passengers - and their friends, family and anyone they may have come into casual contact with since their return  - spread out across the vast expanse of the U.S.A. and getting ready for all those Christmas parties which may not happen.

Ok, that's enough. I think I have made my point. I am at home waiting for a delivery, so you all have to suffer my boredom.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Achieving excellence

I suppose that anyone whose self esteem is so low that they would be willing to pay £1095 to some bully to tell them to buck-up may consider attending a course such as this.

Any little pussy-cat that looks into a mirror and sees a lion needs a different sort of therapy I would have thought - maybe one entitled 'Know Your Limits'. This would probably be quite well subscribed, as the first thing the trainee would do when enrolling on the course would be to over-spend on the fee, believing that it was a 'special price' with 'limited availability'.

Have you (Brits) noticed that the gits who run these training courses have almost always got Midland accents? A really successful personal trainer would begin - and end - by saying, "Right. The first thing you have to understand, right, is don't listen to any bully with a Midlands accent who is trying to tell you that he can tap your hidden potential, right, and release the giant within you, right? Now here's your money - take it and bugger off."

I defy anyone to watch an episode of Ricky Gervais in 'The Office' without cringing, particularly the one where he - somehow - gets paid what he thinks is a lot of money to give a motivational talk to a roomful of company employees.

He comes jogging into the room wearing trainers, leather jacket and a baseball cap with 'Simply The Best' playing through the speakers. It is so awful, because it is so accurate.

H.I. is sometimes forced to sit through sessions like this, when the managers have booked some ghastly bloke to shout manager-speak to an auditorium of people who are about 50 times more qualified than him to give the talk.

When she was last assessed (as a teacher of painting and drawing) she would have got full marks were it not for the fact that she didn't use a whiteboard and felt-tip pens when she taught. I am serious.

There is an entire industry based on this nonsense, and the trouble is that the managers write their own contracts, their own rulebooks and their own modus operandi.

If they say you are not fit to teach, then you are not fit to teach, even if you have been doing it for 40 years longer than they have.