Archive | March, 2012

CONCRETE OR FEATHERS?

25 Mar

It’s been a bad week. The Tory Chancellor has decided to take money away from pensioners ( I’m a pensioner) and give lots of money to millionaires.( I’m not a millioniare!)  Then my wife, Chris, and I found out that Wimpey’s want to build yet another housing estate on the quiet fields opposite our house. No doubt they will get their way as the Government, in its wisdom, has relaxed the planning laws that used to protect our countryside from insensitive over- development. Then we got the devastating news that the court case against an out- of- town superstore complex on another green field site, has been lost. So our small, friendly high street with its selection of independent retailers is to be put in serious jeopardy by the “alien” invader whose only interest is in making money rather than protecting local communities.

I moved to Skelton in Cleveland just over 5 years ago after living in the urban conurbation of Tyneside for 35 years. It was a big change. I exchanged the vast array of amenities and facilities of the city for the quieter more intimate life of living in the semi-countryside. Some would say I was now living in “the sticks.” I moved there when I got married and when I finally retired from the job that was tying me to Tyneside. Although it is only a few miles from industrial Teesside, Skelton is very close to the coast, the Cleveland Hills and the North York Moors. It is just up the road from the charming, old-fashioned Victorian resort of Saltburn- by- the- Sea. So we don’t have a huge array of shops, we cannot choose from a wide selection of films, plays and entertainments, we cannot watch premier League football, but we do have peace, calm and fresh air and we do have lots of lovely countryside on our doorstep. The village itself is friendly and down to earth. Everyone says “hello” and passes the time of day. In the village centre we often bump into each other at meeting places such as the little branch library, the Post office, the Coop or the pub. It’s not a particularly picturesque village. We don’t have a babbling stream or charming clusters of thatched cottages. But it a pleasant, friendly place and worth wanting to preserve. The High Street is situated on a hillside and inbetween the buildings , one gets distant views of the sea. We have a village green, the remains of a medieval whipping post, an old church ( along with a newer Victorian one), an old Board school, now converted into a house, and a selection of dwellings from the last 3 centuries. Skelton also has a castle but the original structure has made way for an 18th/19th century grand house set in extensive grounds. Up until the time of Henry VIII this was the baronial home of the powerful De Brus family whose relatives north of the border, spawned the famous freedom- gaining Scottish King: Robert the Bruce.

Unfortunately the present owner of Skelton castle seems largely to be an “absentee landlord” and has little connection with the local community. This is where our problem probably lies. The land owned by the castle estate is slowly being sold off to developers. Housing estates are now spreading down the hill like a stain. Green grass is turning into concrete. Wild flowers, insects and birds are being replaced by bricks and mortar and the inevitable cars. Ironically, the latest estate is called Castle View but most of the newcomers will just have a view of houses and double garages. One of our neighbours, lives in an older property called Woodland View. But the wood is nowhere in sight and the name of the house seems like a sick joke.

I know this post is now starting to sound like a classic piece of NIMBYISM. New houses and shops are fine so long as they don’t spoil my view and upset my status quo. I also know that change is inevitable. However, the questions have to be asked — How much development can one area take before it is ruined for everyone? The developers just want to make their money. Do they really care about destroying the peace, wiping out the wildlife or ruining the quality of life of the people who actually have to live in the place where they are building. Does our absentee Lord of the Manor really care about the people living in the village around his frequently empty castle? Changes and “developments” have to be sensitive and in keeping with the scale and nature of the area where they are taking place. I doubt if the Head of Wimpeys or the councillors on the Planning Committee would like to have a housing estate or an out-of-town shopping development stuck on to green field sites opposite them.

Which brings me to the pheasants. In our area we are lucky enough to still have a lot of birdlife. Even just in our garden we have a pair of blue tits taking up home in the nest-box, a pair of Turtle-doves cooing in the apple tree, and blackbirds, thrushes and sparrows regularly washing in the bird bath. The nearby fields often have pheasants and grouse wandering across them. Unfortunately many of them get mown down my motorists and end up as  colourful but sad feathery corpses for cars to negotiate around. The new Asda superstore, petrol station and giant car-park is to be built on one of these fields. Asda is part of the American Wallmart “family”. It makes it sound all cosy and friendly doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want a friendly family moving in next to them? Unfortunately the image will not match up to the reality. The tenant farmer who has been growing crops on that field has now been ordered not to sow any more. So it’s goodbye swathes of swaying wheat and hello polluting petrol pumps. The hedges will be uprooted, so its goodbye birds, berries and wildflowers and hello cars, noise and litter. A huge shed will rise on this green field site completely dwarfing all the buildings in the surrounding area. It will be goodbye pheasants, hello concrete. That retail shed will start to suck the trade and life out of our village. Independent retailers’ livelihoods will be threatened. Our village community life will be seriously at risk as people opt for the cheaper, big store alternative away from the High Street. This has happened and is still happening up and down the country. I hear Holmfirth, the Pennine town made famous by “TheLast of the Summer Wine ” TV series, is being menaced by a giant Tescos development. So is Hay-on-Wye in the south. My friend Vic from Brighton, is still depressed and devastated by the building of a large new football stadium and all its accompanying buildings and roads in an area of the South Downs designated as being of “Outstanding beauty” and ” Special Scientific interest.” I thought we had won the argument for protecting our  High Streets and countryside against car-orientated out- of- town develpments. But it seems I have been naive. Despite the intervention of Mary Portas, the government’s High Street “Czar”, it seems that our town and village centres are still under severe threat. Despite all the work of  Peter Scott and David Attenbrough, it seems our wildlife and beauty spots are still regarded by many as expendable. The argument for preserving the centres of our valuable communities is far from won. So is the one about protecting our precious countryside and wildlife. Apparently, our current Tory- dominated Coalition government wants to ensure that planning regulations no longer hold back economic growth irrespective of the cost to fragile environments.

In a sick PR stunt, our local council of Redcar and Cleveland, involved innocent local primary children in the naming of the lane that will lead to the green-field superstore development. The naive children decided to christen it “Pheasant Fields Lane”. It makes sense — as the field that the road runs alongside often has pheasants running and flying around in it. However, if the Councillors and developers get their way, there will be no more pheasants because there will be no more field. They will just be seeing a larger number of squashed birds on the road as the traffic vastly increases. As a writer to our local newspaper noted, maybe they should call it “Dead Pheasants Road” instead. In a contest between feathers and concrete there is only one winner. Unfortunately, the same has to be said about a contest between a small village High Street and a giant retailer. The landowner, the developers and the outside retailer will all make a heap of money but the people and wild-life of our area will be the ones who will pay a heavy price.

WHY I’M GOING TO ALBANIA.

14 Mar

I’m going to Albania this April. When I tell people this, their reactions range from surprise to incredulity. Maybe that’s the first reason  I’m going — I like to be unpredictable. Most people want to know “why?” The fact is that I’ve wanted to go there for ages but for most of my lifetime Albania was cut off from the rest of the world. I wasn’t allowed to visit it. Up until 1990 it was difficult to freely visit any of the communist countries on the other side of Churchill’s “Iron Curtain.” However Albania was probably the most sealed- off country of all, because it’s rulers not only opposed the capitalist countries of the west, but also eventually fell out with their Communist allies — firstly Yugoslavia which was next door, then the USSR (Russia) and finally, it’s last major friend: China, after the death of Mao. Albania became one of the main “Billy No Mates” of the world. It had many similarities with the mysterious, cut-off country of North Korea, except that Albania is not some remote country at the far end of Asia but a European nation, sharing a border with Greece and just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. So now that Albania has at last opened itself up to visitors from outside, I am desperately curious to go. What will it be like to visit a country that has been completely separated from the rest of the continent ( and the world) for most of my lifetime? Will it be like some modern-day Pompeii — trapped in time, its past preserved? In some ways, I imagine it’s going to be like travelling back in time. I’m surprised that there’s not been a stampede to  visit this “strange” country on our doorstep. Yet the truth is,  most people seem to have only barely heard of it and have probably never dreamt of visiting it. Most seem to have little idea where it is located. Even my travel buddy, Eric, who has travelled extensively round the world, only had a vague idea about Albania, at first tentatively suggesting that it might be close to Russia. OK, I’ll come clean — I’m an ex Geography teacher and what’s more: an ex-stamp-collector, so I’m pedantically hot about where places are in the world. For most of my life, I have never been far from my atlas. As a child looking at all those exotic sounding places on map after map was the stuff of dreams. Now, in my adult life, I am resolved to visit as many of them as possible, and that includes Albania.

People go on holiday for many different reasons. Some want a change of scene, some seek the sun, some want a rest from the hurly-burly of everyday life. I have empathy for all these tourists and over the years, have joined their ranks for the very same reasons.  I have done my share of lying on a beach or sitting by a pool, reading a book and having the occasional refreshing dip. Others like to stay in expensive spas and hotels in order to be petted and pampered and be waited on hand and foot. I must admit that that sounds pretty tempting too but I’ve never done it because I haven’t had enough money. My main aim when I travel is to experience a different culture. I’m a cultural tourist. They say a change is as good as a rest and one cannot get more of a change than visiting a foreign country. I find it very stimulating to be in a country where everyday life is very different from what I’m used to. Bill Bryson compared arriving in a far-away, foreign country as being like a 5 year old again because everything is new, surprising and exciting. It gives me a buzz to be in a strange environment where everything is potentially interesting and a fascinating novelty. Whether its the language, the food and drink, the architecture, the dress, the religion, the traditions — all is different from life at home and constitutes a big adventure. For instance, have you eaten any “ajvar” with a glass of “salep” lately?  Of course it can all be a bit frightening and nerve-wracking as well, but that’s what gives this type of travel its edge. I think it’s boring to play safe all the time. To me Albania will be a wonderful adventure precisely because I don’t know what will happen and what to expect. Australia is much further away on the other side of the world, is a spectacular place to visit and a fantastic holiday destination. However, to me Australia is nowhere near as exciting as Albania because I already know Australians speak familiar, comforting English, watch TV channels that I can understand, drive on the left and have an easily recognisable western life-style. Going there is largely playing safe inmy opinion. Unless I decide to go swimming with sharks or try to survive in the heat of the bush, Australia doesn’t really represent as much of a challenge as going to an obscure country in a forgotten corner of my own continent. I’m taking a risk going to Albania but it’s that very risk that makes the destination so appealing.

So Eric and I are going to a country where a shake of the head means “yes” and a nod represents “no.”  We are travelling to a country that is part Muslim and part orthodox Christian but which also officially embraced atheism in its recent past. We are visiting a place which has 17,000 round concrete bunkers which it doesn’t know how to get rid of. In Albania every town and village has 2 names for some unknown reason and the buses don’t have their destinations displayed. We will have to take a torch in order to avoid falling into large potholes during one of the regular power-cuts. We will have to steer well clear of packs of mangy dogs while trying to locate undecipherable addresses. But we are also going to drive through spectacular mountains and perhaps glimpse shepherds in traditional dress. We will walk on empty but beautiful Adriatic beaches and visit Ancient Greek/Roman/ Venetian/Ottoman archaeological sites that nobody’s ever heard of. We will be visiting medieval mosques and churches and hope to see some strikingly beautiful icons. We will also be surprisingly following in the footsteps of the Romantic poet Lord Byron, who described it as like being in paradise. ( Mind you — that’s probably something to do with the fact that he was a guest of the famously debauched ottoman prince, Ali pasha, whose court was notorious for its sexual license.)  Strangest of all, we may encounter a ” sworn virgin.” I know Eric is particularly excited about this! Apparently in the north there is a big shortage of males, so some women or their families make this decision to avoid an unwanted arranged marriage or keep a “male” heir in the family. Once the decision has been made the “sworn virgin” becomes a man and is treated as such in all aspects of life — from clothes, job, hairstyle, eating, drinking to smoking. It sounds fascinating doesn’t it? Don’t think you’d get much of that in: London New York or Sydney. Maybe that’s why Byron was so keen to include it in his itinerary?

This is not meant to be a tourist advert for Albania so I won’t list all the attractions I’ve researched. Anyway, I’m sure there are many sights and experiences that I don’t know about. There’s not even a Rough Guide for Albania as far as I know. But to be honest, this very lack of information is the main attraction of the place. It creates an aura of mystery about Albania and makes it a fertile place for exploration. When Eric and I fly off from Gatwick to Tirana it will be a case of: into the unknown. Inspired by Captain James T Kirk, if you’ll excuse me comparing the Balkans with Outer Space, we will be pushing back our personal frontiers of knowledge and experience. We are absolutely determined to boldly go where neither of us has gone before! That’s why we’re flying to Albania this April.

Slipping Slowly Out Of The Mainstream.

5 Mar

DON’T GET OLD SON. —-  My father Maurice recently gave me a piece of advice. “Don’t get old son,” he said. Mum and dad are now in their later 80’s and in most definitions of the word, are now “old”. They are still quite happy and retain some degree of independence, although they now have a small band of people who come in to help. My mum, Jessie, sleeps with a stick by the bed because she has a bad leg that she “could do without.” My dad finds it difficult to serve up a cup of tea because his hands shake. He is reluctantly having to give up driving soon because he no longer has total command of the foot- pedals. They both take an array of tablets to counteract various problems. Their short term memories are slowly declining although long term recollection still seems to be intact. Yet they remain contented and happy despite the extra visits to the doctor. Their life is quiet and comfortable. They have their family, their friends and their faith. Most of all they have each other and their enduring love.

But I know what dad means when he implores me not to get old. The advancing years have seen the whittling away of their health , fitness and mobility. They have seen a slow erosion of their independence. Their life has gradually shrunk. This year they finally gave up the idea of having an annual holiday because they didn’t want to have to cope with the effort of travel. Their life has in effect been marooned in a quiet backwater, well away from the hectic, hurley-burley of the mainstream. They have changed from looking after their 3 children, which they did very well, to having to be looked after to a certain extent. It’s a delicate business — judging how much help an older person needs and how much independence they can safely retain. It’s a question of treating them with respect and dignity. Looking out for someone includes looking out for their feelings as well. I am well over 20 years younger than my parents, but even now, in my early 60’s, I am starting to experience some of the consequences of age and the feelings they induce.

60 IS THE NEW 40 ISN’T IT?  —-  Some people may already regard me as an “old” person or at least getting that way. I am 62. To a young child I must appear ancient with my grey hair and the wrinkles fanning out from my eyes. I have acquired a bit of a beer belly despite hardly drinking any beer ( life’s so unfair) and I am so dependent on  my reading glasses that I go into a panic if I lose them ( which I frequently do!). I have decided not to be bo-toxed or have plastic surgery, even if I could afford it. I have also decided not to die my hair or disguise myself behind make-up. As a friend of mine used to say:” What you see is what you get.” However, with life-expectancy rising and retirement/pension ages being constantly pushed up, I don’t really think of myself as old. Didn’t somebody say that 60 is the new 40? ( or maybe 50.) Either way, I think they have a point. I feel fairly fit and healthy, don’t get out of breath when climbing up the stairs, have an active mind and numerous things I still want to do . Thus I’m not ready to be written- off just yet.

A YOUNG PERSON’S WORLD.  —-  Despite all of the above, I still sense the clock ticking. I’m also aware of a subtle change in attitude to me, especially from younger generations. I don’t like it and in my unkinder moments I dub it “the arrogance of youth.” Let’s face it — it’s a mostly young peoples’ world or so it seems. One only notices that as one gets older. To judge from our TV screens and especially the adverts, a visitor from Mars might think that the World consists of exclusively 20 and 30 somethings. We see young people: eating, drinking, cooking, joking, wearing the latest fashions, driving the latest cars, putting on make-up, styling their hair, partying, travelling and so on. Just every now and then an ageing Michael Parkinson appears, advertising insurance or a funeral down-payment scheme. but mostly it’s the young who dominate. Not many from my generation appear in this “glamerous” media world or on the air-brushed covers of glossy magazines. Apart from the odd distinguished actor like Maggie Smith or Anthony Hopkins, or “evergreen” rock stars like Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart, we “oldies” have largely disappeared from the mainstream of public consciousness.

ON THE SCRAPHEAP?  —-  The perceived change in attitude to me probably started when I retired. I was lucky enough to attain slightly early retirement at the age of nearly 57. I was ready for it after the stresses and strains of nearly 35 years in the front-line. I don’t know how my dad carried on in full-time work until the day before his 65th birthday. He did extremely well, as did many others, and I admire him, and them, greatly.

At first people congratulated me and wished me well. But then, as I have written before, I experienced a subtle change of attitude. Some felt sorry for me because I had “nothing to do”. Two friends suggested I might like to do a part-time job or take up charity work. The attitude was (is) that one is only doing something worthwhile if one is doing a job.( preferably paid.) Reading, writing, blogging, listening to music, singing, walking, travelling, photographing, meeting friends, going to the theatre or cinema, playing and watching sport, visiting museums and galleries, researching family history etc – didn’t seem to be good enough. One aquaintance even described retired people as being on “the scrapheap” and thus kindly gave me my blogging title. It was as if I had changed from a figure of envy to a figure of pity.

My income dropped considerably once I retired but so did my status in society and possibly my level of respect from others. How many times have you been asked at a party : “What do you do?” It usually comes straight after: “What is your name?” The person in question is probably not interested in your recreational pursuits or voluntary activities. He or she is primarily interested in your paid employment. Your answer to that question goes a long to deciding someone’s opinion of you.

THE PENSION PROBLEM  —-  Just as respect for the unemployed is probably quite low as shown by the benefit “scroungers” campaigns in certain newspapers, so I suspect ( in my current hyper-sensitive state) that respect for retirees also dips after they leave work. I have been quizzed by people who genuinely cannot understand how I fill my time. I have also been the butt of the occasional “joke” about them having to work even harder to pay my pension. The big increase in the pensioner population has become a massive issue for the government. Where is the money going to come from? Thus I cannot fully enjoy my retirement because I’m aware that some regard me as a financial burden on society and a contributer to one of the country’s biggest problems. I don’t like this feeling of being regarded as being a bit of a “parasite”, although nobody has actually said this to my face. Maybe it’s all a figment of my over-active imagination? In answer to my imagined accusers I say that I’ve always paid my taxes in full and still do, as an occupational pension is far from tax free. However the feeling still persisits that some respect me a little less because I am no longer fully “contributing”.

WHEN THE CHILDREN FLEE THE NEST.  —-  I feel as though I live a full and stimulating life which I enjoy. However, along with paid employment, another of my major life functions, that of being a full time parent, has now slid away into the past. My 3 children have all grown up into adulthood and lead their own independent lives. One of them, my daughter Joanna, now has her own two daughters with her partner Allan. So I am not completely redundant as I have an important part-time job as grandad. Obviously I have not entirely given up my role as a dad. Once a parent, always a parent. For instance I was recently called upon to make one of the speeches at my son’s wedding and I was also enlisted to help cut the cake. If Joanna, Catherine or Ian need help, I am always there. However, I am no longer required on a day-to-day basis. I no longer have to work hard to support them financially as they now support themselves. It’s inevitable , but once your children leave, you experience that uncomfortable feeling of redundancy and of being inched a little further away from life’s centre stage.

BECOMING OLD FASHIONED.  —-  It is futile to try to remain in employment indefinitely or to try to stop your children from leading their own lives. Both retirement and children leaving home are inevitable and highly desirable developments once the right time arrives. However, other developments as one gets older are not so easy to swallow. For instance one gets slightly mocked for being old-fashioned. There I go — being super-sensitive again! I feel this is happening to me even though I have tried hard to keep-up with ever-changing trends and technological changes. Change is a permanent feature of our society. Being resistant to change opens one up to the accusation of being “out of touch”. Popular music is a case in point. I rejected my parents’ “boring” brass bands and light classics in favour of pop, blues and rock music. Mum and dad hated all that and I categorised them as “old-fashioned” — ie unwilling to change with the times. I lined up with Bob Dylan when he sang:” The Times They Are a Changin'” However, now it’s my turn. I refuse to give up my rock music in favour of: House, disco, rap, hip-hop, boy bands or X factor winners. To me they are all pretty “rubbish”, the same term used by my parents in the ’60’s. Despite trying to move with the times, and I am getting into new artists all the time, my tastes have diverged from the mainstream of popular music and I have ended up in a minority taste, “alternative” world. Some might say I now exist in a sort of musical time-warp although I try not to wallow too much in nostalgia.

CHANGE FOR CHANGE SAKE?  —-  As I get older, I find myself getting more and more resistant to change. I used to criticise  other people  for this very thing, but now it has crept up and happened to me. Sometimes, particularly in the fast moving world of technology and communications, I suspect it is change for change sake. Actually, I know the real motivation — it’s to make money by generating constant demand for the new. Back in the 1950’s it used to be about buying the latest washing machine or vacuum cleaner. Now we are constantly being enticed by the next generation of cell-phone. I’m waiting for the one that can do scrambled eggs! A slick marketing campaign probably featuring David Beckham, persuades us that something we had never even thought of before is now absolutely essential to our lives. I laughed out loud when they came up with the idea of the camera phone. Surely it’s better to use a specialised camera to take a picture rather than something tagged on to a mobile? It doesn’t even have a zoom! But I was wrong. It caught on big time, partly because people desperately wanted to keep up with the Jones’s but also because the technology improved so swiftly that the pictures were ( are) actually pretty good. So the laugh is on me. You cannot even buy a mobile these days that doesn’t have a camera. It’s now thought of an integral component of every mobile along with: a clock, a radio, the Internet and a sat-nav, things that until recently we would have imagined to be “essential” componants of our phones.

My resistance to these so-called new necessities of life has pushed me further into a side stream and out of the main current. There I wallow around in an ever-shrinking pool of people who don’t want to, or cannot stay in the hectic mainstream. I suspect that I am sometimes derided as being out of touch or being a sort of modern Canute. However I think there is more to life than scrabbling around trying to acquire the latest gadget.  I still don’t use a mobile very much and agree with the comedian who said that ” mobile phones are for people who are frightened of being alone.” What’s wrong with a bit of peace and solitude? Until recently I thought  blackberries and apples were tasty fruits that  made delicious pies, but now I find they are actually smart-phones and laptops. I somehow struggle through each day without using the now ubiquitous I-Phone, but if I proudly announce this to yonger people I am greeted with cries of disbelief and derision. I think they think I am joking. Another example of how old-fashioned I am is that I refuse to have a machine telling me where I am and where I have to go . I would rather use my brain and something called a map.

THE GENERATION GAP  —-  By the time one gets to a certain age, one has enough experience of life to work out quite a bit about it. I have worked out a set of values which form the foundation of my life. In fact I think my well thought out values are worth sharing with others in order to give them the benefit of my experience. Therefore it is a bit galling to be criticised for repeating what I sincerely and passionately believe. Repitition is seen as boring even if one believes that what one is saying is valuable. It’s a case of knowing looks which interpreted mean: “There he goes again. We’ve heard it all before!” This is very frustrating. Even if I have genuinely discovered that the meaning of life is a lot more than 42 ( as in the Hitch-hiker’s Guide), I am only allowed to say it once and then have to move on to different topics in order to avoid being a social embarrassment. It’s also a bit irritating trying to impart knowledge and “wisdom” to people 2 or 3 generations younger than me but finding that they think they already know it all.

What I’m saying in my grumpy old man way is that experience is not valued enough in our society in my opinion. Once a person is regarded as “past it” or “over the hill”, then his or her opinion doesn’t count so much. Older peoples’ views are more frequently dismissed and as people get older they are more and more likely to be patronised.  Maybe I’m getting a bit too sensitive here but I feel it has started to occasionally happen to me. My wife feels the same. It’s very frustrating — this feeling that I am gradually being marginalised. The irony is that I am guilty of the same behaviour with regards to my parents. I quite often claim that I know better than them or decide not to discuss certain issues with them because they “wouldn’t understand.”

RESPECT AND DIGNITY.  —-  My conclusion to this rambling piece is that I don’t enjoy some aspects of getting older, even though I’m still only in my early sixties. I don’t like being eased out of the mainstrean and into a back-water by some of the attitudes of society. However, to be fair, if I want more respect from others who follow in my footsteps, then I must confer confer more respect on those who have gone before. Now that I have shed some of my major life roles I am very sensitive about being categorised as a : “has-been.” I also a bit touchy about being labelled as “old-fashioned” or ” a stick in the mud.”. I know I also have to moderate my behaviour to an even older generation in order not be seen as a hypocrite. In my wisdom of 62 years I believe that “respect” and “dignity” are two of the most vital ingredients of a happy life. That includes self respect as well as respect for others. I agree totally with what one of my former teaching colleagues put up on his classroom door: “Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.” I must phone up my mum and dad for a chat!