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A Visit to Slovenia( or was it Slovakia?)

21 Oct

CONFUSION.

I think it was President George W Bush on a state visit to Slovenia, who famously said something like: “It’s great to be here in Slovakia.” I have witnessed the same confusion when I’ve told people about my holiday this year in the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia. Almost inevitably, the response has been: “Do you mean Slovenia or Slovakia? I’ve always got the two mixed up!” I suppose they do sound very similar.

HISTORY.

They are both small countries in central Europe that generally don’t feature in the international news. Both are populated by Slavs. Both used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire.  After the fall of that Empire in 1918, both Slovenes and Slovaks were pushed into uneasy partnerships with other national groups. The Slovaks were merged with the Czechs to form Czechoslovakia, while the Slovenes were combined with other south Slav peoples to create the new state of Yugoslavia. It seems that the international community at Versailles didn’t think these two small races were a viable proposition on their own. Both Slovenes and Slovaks fell under the sway of one-party Communist regimes at the end of the Second World War.

It was only in the early 1990’s, following the fall of the “Iron Curtain” and the collapse of communism in Europe that the Slovaks and the Slovenes at last tasted true independence. In Slovenia’s case, 1991 was the year when it finally controlled its own destiny.

As I was visiting it I have tried to make sense of Slovenia’s complex history by reading and by visiting the city museum of Ljubljana, its attractive capital. I have settled for just getting a rough outline. After the usual Neolithic stuff, the Romans arrived. Slovenia today is very proud of its Roman heritage. Next came the Magyars but they were pushed back by the German Emperor who had designs on the area himself. The Turks too were defeated so Slovenia never became part of the mighty Ottoman Empire like some of its neighbours. Thus today, Slovenia is a devoutly Christian country and it was on the Catholic side of the Orthodox/ Catholic schism. From the late 13th century, it became part of the Austrian Empire and therefore developed on largely Germanic lines. In the First World War the Slovenes fought fiercely on the Austrian-German side, especially when, in 1915, Italy was bribed to side with Britain, France and Russia after being promised Slovenian territory, including the important port of Trieste. It’s ironic that Britain, which joined the war to protect little Belgium, was now happy to cynically give away chunks of another small country in the interests of military expediency. Sadly many thousands of Slovenes and other Austro-Hungarian troops died fighting the Italians. The place where we stayed on Lake Bohinj was an important staging post for that campaign. The Italians also suffered heavy casualties in the mountain battles that ensued. One of the more sobering moments of our holiday was a visit to an Austro-Hungarian war cemetery containing over 300 graves from 1915 to 1917.

I now know enough to appreciate how proud the Slovenes must be to have gained their independence. It must be strange but exciting to be a citizen of a country that has existed for less than 3 decades.The guide who led our walking tour of Ljubljana said that everyone was pleased when the population hit 2 million. Out impression was that it is a very clean and environmentally-aware nation. We didn’t see a scrap of litter on the streets. I expected to see a poorer, still- developing Balkan -style country, maybe like Bosnia or Albania. However it is so sophisticated that at times it felt as if we were in Scandinavia. There were stylish designer goods, well maintained buildings and efficient transport systems. The buses ran on time, and in the city, people paid with an electronic card which they pressed on to a sensor.( like London’s Oyster card.) Only when we got out into the rural areas did we see cash being used. While in Slovenia, we had Euros in our wallet and purse. Slovenia joined the Eurozone in 2007, three years after it was admitted to the European Union. It had been the most liberal and progressive of the former Yugoslav republics and had largely escaped the horrors of the Civil War after a brief, 10 day skirmish. The transition to a democracy and to capitalism was achieved fairly smoothly. In 2008 it became the first of the former communist countries to assume the presidency of the EU. Coming from 2017 United Kingdom it seemed strange to us that here was a country that was embracing Europe rather than turning its back on its  neighbours.

THE CAPITAL.

Ljubljana is a lovely city to visit. It is attractive, relaxed and cosmopolitan. It’s small enough to explore on foot. There is a variety of interesting architecture, pleasant riverside walks, a variety of cafes and restaurants to suit most tastes and just about everyone speaks excellent English. We asked an older lady for help at the bus stop. She not only told us which bus to catch and when it would come, but also explained how we should pay ( with the smart-card) and where to get off. All this was in decent English. Apparently, Slovenian is a very difficult language to learn. Ljubljana has a picturesque old town full of renaissance and baroque buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries. There are : statues, squares, fountains, interesting little alleyways, pavement cafes and stylish shops. Up above, on a steep hill, is a castle, accessed by a funicular. A river flows through the centre crossed by a series of interesting bridges. The most famous are the Triple Bridge and the Dragon Bridge. The former is 3 pedestrianised bridges in one, furnished with Venetian style balustrades built in the 1830’s. The latter, built in 1901, is a flamboyant, Secessionist structure with 4 dramatic green dragons and ornamental lamps guarded by tiny griffins.

The main square, Preservov trg is flanked by the Triple Bridge, a huge, pink Baroque church, a Parisian Art- Nouveau department stall with a fancy, wrought iron and glass entrance, and a 4-storey Viennese-style Secessionist building. The square is a gathering place for tourists, locals and street entertainers. We were “treated” to a loud display of break-dancing which rather drowned out the poor man in traditional costume trying to sing his folk songs. We settled for a routine of strolling around, popping in and out of little shops and the occasional church, watching the river flow below the avenues of trees, and visiting pavement cafes. At the last mentioned we drank tea or coffee and ate strudel ( me) and chocolate cake (Chris.) For me, it’s compulsory to eat apple strudel if I’m anywhere in the former Hapsburg Empire. Ljubljana has shades of Vienna, Prague and Paris, but on a more intimate scale.

METELKOVA .

One day we strolled out of the main tourist haunts, into an area east of Presernov Square, which had a completely different feel to it. It was more informal and featured more quirky, alternative sights. We saw old music shops, zany art galleries, junk shops and whole walls of colourful graffiti. Virtually the first thing we spotted was a display of old shoes, boots and trainers hanging from a telephone wire slung across the narrow street. There were vegetarian cafes and erotica shops, though I’m not suggesting that there’s necessarily a connection between the two. We were on our way to visit St Peter’s Church, another extravagant baroque concoction. We virtually had it to ourselves as it was off the beaten track. We lit candles for our loved ones, sat in silence for a while and then wandered on.

In fact we ended up wandering into one of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen — the Metelkova autonomous artist’s colony. ( That’s my version of its Slovenian name.) It’s a former Yugoslav army base that later became a squat. Today it’s like an alternative city within a city. In the words of one guidebook, it’s “the subversive heart of the city.”  It’s a rambling complex of bars, clubs, galleries, NGOs and a hostel. What is incredible is that the whole site is festooned with bizarre, vibrant graffiti, weird sculptures and strange installations. It is all anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, counter-culture stuff. As we walked in, our jaws dropping, the sounds of the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” drifted towards us and the smell of weed pervaded the air. It was like going back to 1967/68. The vivid graffiti was the stuff of dreams ( and nightmares.) The whole scene was surreal. Metelkova has to be seen to be believed.

We enjoyed our week in Ljubljana very much. We made easy day trips to: a castle in a cave, halfway up a cliff ( Predjama), a huge, amazing complex of limestone caves, tunnels and caverns complete with a weird but wonderful array of stalactites and stalagmites (Postojna), and an attractive, medieval town surrounded by wooded hills ( Skofja Loka.) We enjoyed the trips but mostly just wandered the city, trying to scratch a little beneath its surface. We met a Chinese tourist later in the holiday and he couldn’t believe that we had spent a whole week in one place! In the same time-span he had visited 3 countries. He was only going to spend one quick day in Ljubljana seeing the “essential” sights. But, I have turned against this tick-list, rushing around sort of itinerary. I think our more relaxed schedule paid off, at least for us. If we’d visited for just a day, we would never have discovered the art market on the riverbank, the flea market with its Tito- era memorabilia or the wonderful Plecnik’s House. The latter was the home of Slovenia’s most eminent architect, Joze Plecnik. The guided tour was fascinating, revealing the great contrast between his grandiose projects and his modest life-style.

THE MOUNTAINS AND LAKES.

Our second week in Slovenia was a complete contrast. We travelled by public bus up into the north-west, an area of mountains and alpine lakes. It was very like Austria, the country just to the north. We stayed just 50 meters from the shore of Lake Bohinj, the country’s largest lake. It was created by glacial action. Mention “lake” and “Slovenia” to most travellers, and they’ll usually come up with the name “Bled.” Lake Bled is certainly the most famous of Slovenia’s lakes. ( some would say “iconic.”) But Bohinj is more beautiful, in my opinion. It’s an atmospheric, completely still stretch of water. Sensibly, no big buildings have been allowed on the lakeside, so the peace of Bohinj is maintained and its beauty unsullied. The peaceful lake is surrounded by wooded hills and massive, steep-faced mountains. It is a magical and magisterial sight. In winter it is so still that it freezes over. Last year people were able to skate on it for 2 to 3 weeks. That must have been quite a sight!

So we had a week of peace and tranquility. We walked the lake’s shores, sailed on a very quiet tourist boat, explored a dramatic limestone gorge and trecked for one and a half hours up through lovely autumn woods to the spectacular Savica Waterfall. This plunges from a cleft in the towering rock face, 78 metres down into a striking turquoise/green pool. The villages around were Alpine in character with little wooden houses and geranium decorated balconies. They were surrounded by bright green meadows and all had neat wood stores and old hay-drying racks. We half expected to see Heidi and Peter running down the slopes with their goat-herd or hear Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp family bursting into exultant song.

This used to be a big, alpine dairy- farming and cheese making area but this has almost died out as the younger generation has drifted off to the towns and cities. Local cheeses can still be bought however. We saw old, black and white photographs of villages communities in the past wearing their traditional costumes. Each village had its elegant church with a tall bell-tower or slender spire piercing the air. We also came across wayside shrines with little statues of Jesus or Mary and strings of rosary beads.

Bohinj is an area rich in nature. Every spring it has a wild-flower festival. We came across: heron, dippers, wagtails, nuthatches and robins. We also heard a couple of red squirrels squeaking excitedly as they scurried up and down a tree, and saw speckled trout lazily swimming in the river that fed the lake. On our last full day we got the most sensational views of all, when we ascended on a cable car to the Vogel ski centre. We were treated to panoramic views of the massed peaks of the Julian Alps. Bohinj is part of the Triglav National Park, the only one of such parks in Slovenia. It’s a place to preserve and treasure. We really enjoyed our week there. Yes we stayed for a relaxing 7 days. The Chinese tourist would have been shocked all over again!

BLED.

We met the nice guy from Beijing on a side trip to Bled, a 40 minutes, cheap bus ride away from our base. Bled is beautiful too, but sadly it has been partly ruined. The culprit is mass-tourism and the commercialization that follows in its wake. Lake Bled is world famous. I’d heard of it long before I knew anything else about Slovenia.The usual image shown is of a graceful, old church on an enchanting island in a lake, with a backcloth of hills and mountains. Also impressive, is an old, red-roofed castle on a cliff soaring above the water. That’s all true. But the chocolate boxes, jig-saws and calanders don’t show the built-up mess on the other end of the lake. There’s the huge, ugly Hotel Park, which advertises lakeside views but ruins everyone else’s view. There’s the large, modern casino, plus the usual motley assortment of bars, souvenir shops, hotels and cafes, not to mention a busy road, constantly choked with traffic. The place is heaving with tourists from all over the world. When our bus from Ljubljana to Bohinj arrived at Bled, just about everyone got off. Bled, from certain angles, is very picturesque but with its swarms of visitors, it is in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

We walked along the lake’s quieter, wooded shore and it was very pleasant. However, when we decided to sail across to the island and the church, it wasn’t as idyllic as I’d imagined. It’s good that there are no noisy launches ploughing up and down. One can hire a rowing boat, get a quiet but expensive electric boat or go on a pletna. This is a traditional, wooden stretched gondola propelled by a gondolier standing at the back. ( No, he doesn’t wear a stripy shirt or sing just one cornetto!) We chose the latter. 20 adults and 2 children all piled on, at the steep price of 14 Euros each. We had to squash tightly together on either side of the boat. What I thought would be a peaceful, serene experience, gliding across the water, never materialised because of my fellow tourists contorting themselves into all sorts of positions to take the best photos and then posing for numerous selfies with their friends and family. We had 40 minutes on the island which was crowded. Even though it was only a small island, containing a church and bell-tower, they have still found space to squash in a cafe, an ice-cream stall and a shop. We decided to visit the church which has lovely 18th century frescoes and other baroque adornments. However, we were shocked to find that we were expected to pay 6 Euros each to go in. This included the bell tower but we didn’t want to go up that as we are both nervous of heights. I cannot recall ever having to pay to go into a church before. The exquisitely frescoed medieval church of St John the Baptist near our hotel in Bohinj, is free. But we swallowed our indignation and “coffed up.” It was rather small but quite beautiful. Unfortunately, any hopes of enjoying a spiritual atmosphere were ruined by a constant procession of camera-wielding fellow tourists. They queued up to pull the bell-rope and make a wish. It has been dubbed the “wishing bell!” They posed in mid-pull for photos, with inane grins on their faces. Isn’t it funny how so many fall for such gimmicks? The bell-tower was entered through a modern turn-style activated by a bar-code on one’s ticket. The 18th century interior has been hollowed out and replaced with a modern zig-zag staircase. We didn’t bother going up. Any shred of historical authenticity had been sacrificed in the interests of making money( it seems.)

Our visit to Bled was rescued by a totally unexpected but brilliant Salvador Dali exhibition in the base of the casino. ( a private French collection.) We also enjoyed a small craft market and a display of vintage cars, incongruously parked along the lake-shore.

RADOVLJICA.

Our other trip from Bohinj was to Radovljica, a pretty, old town set in lovely countryside. It featured an exquisite old church, a beautiful, historic square and a grand, old mansion containing the delightful “Beekeeping Museum.” Keeping bees is a Slovenian tradition. The highlight was a wonderful collection of bee-hive panels from the 19th century. These were religious and satirical paintings to decorate the hives. They were another Slovenian speciality.

It was a great holiday — an interesting, attractive city followed by a week among the glorious mountains and lakes. Apart from the obvious tourist traps the costs ranged from cheap to reasonable. We found it to be a civilized and progressive country. Yes, it was an excellent visit to Slovenia ( or was it Slovakia?)

 

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A Eulogy for my Mum: Jessie Bates (1926 to 2017.)

15 Oct

My sister Gl—- , my brother Gr—- and I would like to thank you all for coming today to remember and celebrate the life of our lovely mum, Jessie Bates. As I’m sure you will agree, she was a quiet, caring and gentle person. There wasn’t a bad bone in her body. To us, she was the ideal mother– an endless source of unconditional love. Mum supported us in everything we did as children and as adults. She always provided a shoulder to cry on, or a patient, attentive listening ear. No problem was too big or too small for her to help us with. She, along with our dear departed dad, was ever present in our lives. Jessie supported us in the bad times and celebrated with us in the good times.

I remember mum looking after my 3 year old daughter J—– when my other daughter C——– was born and my wife was in hospital. There was no such thing as paternity leave in 1976! Gr—- told me that his mum was there for him when he was having a rough time at college. He remembers her as being a very good listener, always sympathetic and understanding. Gl—- remembers mum and dad helping set up her hotel business in Skegness. Jessie even organised groups from chapel to stay at the hotel in the off season. The visits went so well that they went on for 10 years or more. Gl—- and I both remember mum being quietly supportive throughout our divorces.

Jessie’s own marriage to Maurice was very long and successful. They were inseparable for nearly 68 years. It led to a whole new family tree of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. For most of her adult life, mum was not Jessie, but half of a well-known local double-act known as Maurice and Jessie. Their two names were invariably uttered in the same breath. They were a team and a very successful, enduring partnership. Our family history is strewn with special events as Maurice and Jessie reached milestone after milestone. Invariably, there celebrations were held at the local Methodist Chapel.

The church provided structure for Jessie’s life. She was christened there, got married there and celebrated most special occasions there. Christianity gave Jessie the tools to lead a good, wholesome and fulfilling life. She supported numerous charities and always encouraged us to help others. I remember selling the “Sunny Smiles” picture booklets to raise money for young people in the National Children’s Homes. Mum encouraged us to pester friends, neighbours and family to sell as many as possible. Mum’s Christian faith was important to her. It gave her hope and a firm belief that she would pass on to a better world, once she had left this one. Jessie’s faith gave her life a strong foundation.

I don’t want to give the impression that my mum was always a serious person. She liked to laugh and had a quiet sense of humour. She often had a twinkle in her eye and there was always a little spark to her personality. Jessie could see the funny side of things. Whenever Jessie was given the Derbyshire Times ( the local paper), she would turn straight away to the obituaries. After perusing them for a few minutes, she would declare: “Well, I’m not in again this week, so I must still be here!” Even in the latter stages of her life, when she was suffering from dementia, mum would often indulge in gentle rounds of banter with the carers who came to visit her.

Jessie was not adventurous. She usually played safe and never travelled very far. Maurice said that a nasty bout of sea-sickness on a boat trip around Scarborough Bay put paid to any idea of sailing across to explore the continent beyond these shores. Jessie’s idea of an overseas journey was crossing the Solent to the Isle of Wight, a place she loved to visit. She never flew in an aeroplane or had any wish to. Buying her a parachute jump for her birthday would have been a complete waste of money! She was content to stay on terra- firma. She stayed in England with occasional, brief sorties into Scotland or Wales. Jessie was happy to grow deep roots in Chesterfield, a town she lived in for her entire life. Her last home in Staveley-Middlecroft was only 4 or 5 miles from her first home, in the New Whittington area of Chesterfield. On one sense, you could drive Jessie’s entire life in 15 minutes! Staying in one place meant that Jessie got to know lots of local people very well, and they got to know her.

My mum was a very accepting person. She accepted her lot in life. Like many of her generation, she was quite deferential. If the Queen had walked into the room, she would automatically have curtsied. She did not complain or get angry. She didn’t blame others.  Mum was not a rebel. She always tried to fit in and not make a fuss. She was quiet and unassuming. I think Jessie took life mostly in her stride despite its ups and downs. I think she had an inner calm.

Jessie’s last months were spent quietly in her house being looked after by family and carers. Maurice died two and a half years before also at the age of 91. So she was a widow. It must have been sad and difficult for her at times. I recently read a memorial  on a public seat which said: ” Your legacy is all the people you have touched in your life.” Jessie led a quiet, low-key life but touched many people. She was humble and didn’t think of herself as particularly important. But from another perspective, Jessie’s life was rich and fulfilling. It was rich in family relationships, rich in friendships, rich in kindness, charity and compassion. I will really miss her and I’m sure you will too. Thank you.

NB — Delivered at the funeral service at Inkersall Methodist Church, near Chesterfield on Friday, October 13th, 2017. Jessie Bates died peacefully in hospital on September 24th, 2017. She was 91 years and 2 months.

 

Confessions of a Poll Clerk.

15 Jun

I’ve always voted in elections, be they local, General or referenda. That’s every election since 1970, when Edward Heath’s Conservatives confounded all expectations and all poll- predictions  by defeating Harold Wilson’s Labour Party. ( Where have you heard that one before?) I have voted in community centres in south Manchester and north Hertfordshire, schools in Sheffield, churches or scout huts in North Tyneside and Civic Centres in Cleveland. On all those occasions I just slipped in and out before or after work and didn’t spare a second thought about the people manning the polling stations. I think I just assumed they were council employees who were being very well paid for their long day’s work. But I barely thought about them, just taking it for granted that they would be on duty and making our cherished democratic process possible.

Well now, in my retirement years, I have ended up being one of those poll clerks. The money is not great and the hours are extremely long. The poll stations operate from 7am to 10pm, a total of 15 hours. However we have to arrive by 6-30am at the latest in order to set up and then at the end, it takes at least 20 minutes to pack everything away. My colleague, officially known as the Presiding Officer, then has to lock up, return the keys to the caretaker and finally, transport the sacred ballot box and all the forms and stationary down to the HQ of the count, which is several miles away. It’s a hell of a long day, and this year we’ve done it twice — once for the Tees Valley Mayoral election and a second time 7 weeks later for the snap General Election called by the Prime Minister, Theresa May. On both occasions I had to get up at 5-15 am and didn’t get back home before 10-30pm. All poll clerks have to sign a special form, exempting themselves from The European Working Time Directive. This states that no-one should work no more than 48 hours a week and should have a break at least every 4.5 hours. By signing a simple form, we polling- station staff voluntarily pull out of this sensible, civilised arrangement and let ourselves in for a 16 hour endurance tests, with no official breaks. We have to snatch our food and drinks in-between voters.  You might think the pay for such an arduous and important job would be brilliant. However, it works out at approximately £7.50 an hour, roughly around the current minimum wage. We get paid a bit for a training session for a couple of hours 2 days before. However, in my case, the taxman comes in to take his cut, so I actually get even less than the above.

So, long hours and low pay  — the question is, why do we do it? Obviously different people have different reasons. Many are council employees who are “persuaded” to work at the polling station instead of doing their usual job for that day. I presume they get paid twice although I don’t actually know. In my case, I work as a poll clerk for 3 main reasons. The first is that bit of extra money to top- up my pension and go towards the holiday fund. The second reason, I suppose, is because it’s a sort of public service. In this sense, it’s a bit like jury duty although that is compulsory if one is selected. If we are to continue enjoying the benefits of living in a democracy, then some of us have to make it possible for everyone else to exercise their votes. Thirdly, one gets to be part of a little bit of history. This is especially so in a General Election which determines the UK’s next Government, or in the Referendum about whether to remain in or leave the European Union. The place was buzzing that day in June, 2016, with a much bigger turn out for the EU referendum than for a normal election.  ( In our case, pushing 70%)  We could tell something dramatic was afoot as the people came in their droves. Quite a lot had not voted in a long time or had never ever voted before. Some, whipped- up by a Facebook campaign, were suspicious of the thick pencils that are always provided in the booths, and insisted on using their own pens. Many didn’t know what to do. “Is this the election where every vote counts?” they asked, excited by the feeling of empowerment that an election can give one. I can now tell my grandchildren and write in my diary that I processed some of the votes that took the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Whether you voted LEAVE or REMAIN, you have to admit it was a historical occasion.

I work in a small ex-mining village in Cleveland, on the eastern edge of Tees-side in North east England. It’s called North Skelton. Everyone is friendly and we have no trouble. In training we get warnings about anti-social behaviour, teenagers running in and stealing the ballot box, verbal abuse from people who find they are not registered to vote, people angrily spoiling their papers and people taking selfies in the voting booth to put them on social media. We are also warned about people from the political parties canvassing near the polling station or putting up party posters that might influence people as they turn up to vote. Everything has to be fair and neutral. We are instructed to not engage in political discussions with members of the public, even though we may be asked interesting or challenging questions. We are even told to wear neutral coloured clothes and avoid colours associated with the competing political parties. So I cannot wear: red, blue, orange, green or even purple, the latter being UKIP’s colour. My colleague and I usually end up in boring black and white. One year, I turned up for a November election in a royal blue jumper by mistake. When the presiding officer pointed this out to me, I insisted on taking it off and ended up shivering for the next 12 hours or so. This year, following the shocking terrorist atrocities in Manchester and London, we were also given extra instructions about security.

The voters of North Skelton are very friendly as I have said. We have had no trouble at all. Now that we have manned the same station several times, we have got to know some of the characters. There’s the plasterer who comes in early in his white splattered overalls. There’s the woman who works at the Post office sorting office and the man who is a ticket inspector on the local train. There’s the man who works the tills at Tesco’s and the woman who votes in her green uniform after her shift at Asda. Then there’s the retired District Nurse and the man who parks his white van outside after a day fitting double- glazing. Quite a few thank us for what we are doing, especially when they realize what a long day we are working for their community. One woman has bought us home baked cakes and another gave us a chocolate wafer bar each. One of my favourite punters is a man who writes humorous poetry. I must have told him that I used to be a history teacher because in this recent election, he brought me in two hand- written ditties, one about the Vikings and one about the Normans. He even took my address so he could post me some more.

We get young voters coming in, some of them for the first time. It’s lovely to see the genuine excitement on their faces as they prepare to cast their first ever vote. It makes a refreshing change to witness this in an age of supposed political apathy. This last general Election actually saw a surge of young voters going into the polling booths to have their say. It always depresses me to hear of people who cannot be bothered to use their vote. In my more pompous moments I think this is an abnegation of their civic responsibility. My colleague and I have sat through Council elections and Police Commissioner elections when the turn out has been as low as 20% and 12% respectively. It makes for a long, draggy day having only about 6 or 7 people walking in every hour. We also get old people coming in to vote, some in their wheel chairs or arriving on their invalid scooters. We have to help some to read the ballot paper because their eyesight is fading and they have forgotten their spectacles. Some express pride that they have always used their vote throughout their entire lives. My colleague thinks that the UK should be like Australia, where voting in elections is compulsory. I think that’s a bit draconian but do think it’s a shame that some people refuse to accept any responsibility for what happens in their own country. In my opinion, such non-voters forfeit the right to grumble about any decisions the subsequent government or council may make.

Our polling station is a village hall in North Skelton. At one end is a stage for local amateur dramatic productions. During the day we are visited by a group of adults with special needs who are bussed in to do craft and art activities. Sometimes they do some baking and occasionally wander into the station with chocolate cake mixture all round their mouths! One likes to shake the hands of voters as they come in while another insists on locking the door so we have to watch him like a hawk. At one end of the hall there are often piled up pigeon- boxes, stored by the local pigeon racing club. Recently we saw that they had been carefully sorted out into “hens” and “cocks, and mysterious wooden clocks had been placed in front of them. Presumably they were soon to be transported far away and then the race would be on to see whose bird reaches home first. One of the “pigeon men” told us that the birds are sometimes taken as far away as the continent before being released. The pigeon men are often in dispute with the Zumba women , who don’t like the unsavoury smells that sometimes waft across their dancing space. We sometimes get entertained by the Latin American dance music as the leotard-clad Zumba group are put through their paces. This is another compensation for working that very long day — we get to see community life. A particularly nice moments is when whole families come in to vote together. We even get to meet the local police who usually pop in once or twice during the day to check that everything is alright.

So ends my “confessions” of a poll clerk. It’s long hours and low pay but I enjoy it all in the end. It has many compensations. I only hope that the Prime Minister doesn’t call another surprise election soon. It makes for an interesting day but the attractions of the job would soon start to pall if I had to do it more than once or twice a year!

General Election Blues.

14 May

It’s General Election time 2017. The Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, has called a snap election despite assuring questioners  on numerous occasions that the next general Election wouldn’t be until 2020. Maybe the breaking of her oft repeated promise is something to do with her being way ahead in the opinion polls. Such cynicism will do little to raise the publics already low estimation of politics and politicians.

I always feel strangely uneasy during a General Election campaign. There are many reasons for this. First, there is the awful feeling that, once again, it’s going to be confirmed that I live in a deeply conservative country. The Labour Party, which I support, is being represented as having an extremist, “hard left” programme, and yet I recently read the views of a Swedish political commentator, who remarked that Labour’s policies would be regarded as unremarkable and middle of the road anywhere in Scandinavia. Maybe I’m living in the wrong country!

This blog isn’t aimed to be politically neutral or balanced like a BBC news report supposedly is. I have always held left of centre views as have most of my family and friends. ( Birds of a feather flock together.) Some might call me an unapologetic socialist, which I accept. Although I sadly believe that the current Labour party is almost certain to lose at the polls, I still strongly agree with their election slogan: “For the many, not the few.” In my ideal world, everyone would have equality of opportunity and everyone would look after everyone else. I would love to live in a selfless society where the strong protect the weak and the rich support the poor. That was the type of society envisaged by Clement Atlee’s post 1945 Labour government when it set up the National Health Service and the Welfare State. Not only had Britain won the war against Nazi Germany and Japan, but it now intended to wage war on : poverty, ignorance, hunger and disease. Basing their policies on the ideas of the Beveridge Report of the early 1940’s, the Labour Party swept to power on its promise of creating a country that was fit for the returning heroes.( unlike what was promised but never delivered after the First World War.)

The Welfare State, started by the Liberals in the early 1900s and completed by Labour halfway through the 20th century, is something to be proud of and something which is envied by many other countries. The same goes for the National Health Service, underpinned by the noble idea that nobody should suffer illness and premature death just because they are poor. For 40 years or so a consensus held between the main political parties that these were things to treasure and protect. However, since the days of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s,  both have been under attack, mainly from Conservative administrations including the present one. ( but also from Tony Blair’s New Labour) The idea of pulling together as a nation, engendered in the dark days of World War 2 has now given way to an “every man for himself” approach and “I’m all right Jack” attitude. Benefits, even for disabled people, have been cut and made more difficult to access. Poor people are stigmatised as lazy scroungers. Many branches of the health service have been (or are being) privatised, while the NHS as a whole is seriously underfunded, unable to adequately meet the rising demand caused by our ageing population. The Prime Minister seemed bemused and uncomfortable recently when asked to explain why so many nurses were having to visit food banks. She would not admit any responsibility for the consequences of her government’s policies, but instead vaguely alluded to “many complex reasons.” There’s nothing complex about long hours and low pay.

For me there are many compelling reasons why people should not vote Conservative, but the likelihood is that Mrs May and her party will be voted back in with an increased majority, if the polls are to be believed. So I am depressed and have to live with this feeling of unease, impotence and dread, sitting like a cold, heavy stone in my stomach.

During an election campaign, real and important news is neglected and the electioneering antics of the politicians are given central stage. When the UK has so many real and pressing problems, we are asked instead to witness a dreary beauty contest, with competing politicians trying to win the affections of the British people in order to win power. The BBC pretends to be fair and neutral but many feel it consistently leans to the right. However, most of our newspapers unashamedly support one side over the other. The Sun ,Mail, Express and Telegraph pump out a relentless diet of anti-Labour, anti Jeremy Corbyn propaganda.( rather than genuine news.) This is done because of the probably correct assumption that if you throw enough mud, some of it will stick. It was sickening but not surprising to see one tabloid picturing Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, against a lurid red background, thus trying to associate him with the disgraced leaders of Communist Russia. My own sister, swallowing this propaganda, described Labour as being led by a “red”. ( shades of 1950s style McCarthyism here.) Everyone is welcome to his/her opinion, but it depresses me to hear people trotting out crude tabloid prejudices. I believe the power of the media and especially the press is far too high in Britain, although I would always defend the freedom of the press, which is an important cornerstone of a civilised country. Unfortunately, in Britain today, the press orchestrates public opinion rather than responding to it. The situation is even more depressing when one realizes that some of the main press barons — Murdoch, Dacre and Black– are billionaires living abroad. One would not expect such men to have the interests of ordinary British people close to their hearts. They would rather support the party that would maximise their own profits. To quote the Labour election motto — they are the “few” not the “many.”

So election campaigns get me unsettled and worked up. They get me shouting at the telly! I fear that policies that will be bad for the country will be voted for. I am angry at the constant diet of simplistic propaganda inflaming, rather than informing, people’s opinions. I am depressed that so many people now seem to behave as self-centred individuals rather than as members of a caring society. As Mrs Thatcher notoriously asserted — “There is no such thing as society.” I think it is wrong that our society is increasingly controlled by people whose main aim is to make a profit. This has even infiltrated our schools with the Academy movement. It seems crazy to me that market forces rule human beings rather than vice versa.

So, all this is boiling up inside me but I cannot really talk about it. I discuss issues with my wife and I share views with similar-minded Facebook friends on social media, but in everyday life it would be considered awkward and embarrassing to try to enter into passionate political discussion with people. Most of us quietly go about our daily lives, keeping the peace and keeping up the social niceties. Then in the secrecy of the polling booths, we deliver our verdicts. This is when the great silent majority have their say. Only those in so-called marginal constituencies have any real influence on the election result. That’s another massive frustration! In the “first past the post” system, a party, like the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP can get substantial numbers of votes throughout the country but very few MPs elected to parliament. You don’t win power by getting a lot of close, creditable second places. I would like to see Proportional Representation coming in, so that every voter could have a significant say in the complexion of the subsequent parliament. This unfortunately was roundly rejected by the public in an earlier referendum, probably because many people don’t like change and the PR system was too complicated to fully understand. I hate referendums. They often ask for a simple answer to a complicated question which is an unsatisfactory way of going about things I think. It was interesting working as a poll clerk on the EU (“BREXIT”) referendum of June, 2016. Many people who came into the polling station asked “is this the election where every vote counts?” Just for once they felt empowered. However, this is not the case in a General Election in the UK. Conservatives voting in a safe Labour area, Labour supporters voting in a Tory stronghold or Greens, Liberal Democrats or UKIP people voting just about anywhere, are all effectively disenfranchised.

My area of  East Cleveland in north-east England has traditionally been a safe Labour stronghold. However, in these BREXIT times, many previously Labour voters have turned to UKIP as they want the UK to leave the European Union. Thus they have deserted Labour, and now that the Conservatives have reinvented themselves as an anti EU party and copied UKIP’s ideas, many might even vote Tory!  Thus my area has now become a marginal constituency. The Conservatives recently had their candidate chosen as Mayor of Tees Valley, which was a big shock in such a traditional Labour area. So maybe my Labour vote will actually be important this time, even though I fear I will be disappointed with the overall election result. Apologies for not mentioning Scotland or Northern Ireland by the way as I don’t know enough about the issues affecting these parts of the UK.

General Elections reveal to me that our democracy is largely a sham. Smaller parties don’t get much of a look- in even though they may have many supporters spread throughout the country. The parties that gain power are those with large clusters of support in certain areas rather than having an even spread, The media is mainly weighted on the right side of the political spectrum. Instead of real news, we are fed a constant diet of propaganda, false fears, and dubious promises. ( Mr Trump would call it fake news.) People retreat into entrenched political positions ( including me) instead of engaging in genuinely open and respectful debate. (in fact, the PM, Mrs May has arrogantly refused to take part in any televised debate.) In polite society people mostly avoid serious political discussion, because, like religion, politics is a conversational hot-potato. Yes, General Election time is a horrible time for me, especially as I realize in my heart of hearts, that my utopian dream of a: just, compassionate and peace-loving society will not be realised. As polling day gets closer, the feeling of dread and depression grows ever stronger inside me!

PEEPING OUT OF THE BUBBLE.

11 Apr

We all like to believe that it’s our own views and lifestyle that are “normal” and that it is those of others that are strange or extreme. We try to surround ourselves with like-minded people, read like-minded newspapers and books and largely watch TV programmes that bolster our view of the world. This results in people following a similar life-style to those they are close to. In other words, we create our own bubbles to live in, bubbles that protect us from those with: opposing views, contrasting life-styles, different priorities or conflicting attitudes. So it comes as a shock when we encounter someone or something that doesn’t conform to life inside our comfortable bubble. The most obvious example of this is when we have a General Election or a referendum. If the result goes against what we passionately believe in, then it pulls us up with a start. It’s a sickening realization. It’s a shock to find that many of the beliefs that one holds dear, are not shared or are actually rejected by many others. It’s a feeling of helplessness and even despair. It is as if one is living in the wrong world.

I have felt this emotion many times. I seem to specialise in being in a minority. For a start I’m left-handed, which I think is normal but others think is odd and feel free to comment on. On a more serious note, I am a life-long vegetarian in a country of rampant meat-eaters. How else can I explain the inexorable march of McDonalds, Burger Kings and KFCs? How else to explain the popularity of pub carveries or the stubborn clinging to the tradition of the Sunday joint? I try to ignore all this and imagine a world where everyone cares about other living creatures. In other words I conjure up a fantasy world that reflects my own views and moral stance, but every now and then I am confronted with the reality of people eating animals and so get shocked and upset all over again.

Next up is war. I am against war because of all the misery, destruction, injuries and deaths it leads to. This is why I have been a supporter of CND and the Peace Movement for many years. Yet I live in a country, the United Kingdom, that is very militaristic and is frequently involved in making war. In the Tony Blair years, the UK went to war 5 times in 6 years. ( Iraq, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq again). Since then we have got militarily involved in Libya and Syria. The UK is also one of the biggest exporters of lethal arms in the world. Currently,  the weapons it has sold to Saudi Arabia are being employed to kill and maim the people of Yemen. The peace movement has large numbers of course but is almost certainly out-numbered by those who support the military and acts of war. This usually includes our Government and Parliament. Many people have sons, husbands and other relatives in the armed forces, so naturally support the causes they are fighting for, even though this involves invading somebody else’s sovereign country and killing its people. British soldiers are now routinely described as “heroes” and it would lead to many an upsetting scene to argue otherwise. As much as possible, I converse with pacifists and shield myself from the horrible reality of my country pursuing war.

These are just a few examples, and I’m not even going to get started on the EU referendum of June, 2016, which has polarised the nation into Leavers or Remainers. Just for the record, I  voted “remain”, which put me in the minority camp yet again, even though the margin of the “Leave” victory was very narrow.

So, for much of my everyday life, I just sit inside my comfortable bubble, mixing with people who mostly agree with me. I do this to preserve my own sanity and to keep the peace. Being constantly at odds with others is not conducive to a calm and happy life. My friends and most of my family share the majority of my views. On social media I usually swap opinions with like- minded people. For example, the vast majority of my Facebook friends shared my shock and dismay at the “Leave” vote and posts generally back up this common viewpoint. But every now and again, someone pops up who has a different opinion and dares to express it. This can lead to quite heated online discussions which can quickly disintegrate into unpleasant slanging matches. This is when I get to peep at the world outside my bubble. I think this is a good thing. It’s not always comfortable but always valuable to encounter opposing views. The thing about Facebook “friends” is that they’re not always genuine friends. They can be: acquaintances, work colleagues, ex-work colleagues, friends of friends, people you have met on holiday etc. I think it’s a positive thing because it gives one the chance to encounter alternative views and attitudes to one’s own. For instance, I supported one friend ( a genuine, long-term friend), who challenged the idea of Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, being a man of the common people. He did this by posting a picture of Farage at a fox hunt, something one usually associates with the upper classes. So Nigel’s claims that UKIP campaigns for the “ordinary man” (and woman) seems to have been contradicted by his life-style. However, the  response my friend got was full of  seething anger, bitterness and resentment. Many claimed that Farage was a hero of the people because he had freed the UK from the evil clutches of Brussels and others grumbled at the fact that he had been ignored in the New Year Honours list. The anger and outright bile exhibited in those Facebook responses was pretty shocking to me as such views don’t exist inside my bubble. It gave me a salutary but enlightening glimpse into another version of the country I live in ( almost a parallel universe.)

The world of work provides another opportunity to peep outside the bubble. One can choose one’s friends but there is no choice about one’s work colleagues. It’s important to get along with them in order to do a better job as cooperative members of a team. It also makes for a more peaceful existence. Constantly clashing and arguing with colleagues at work would make life a misery. So most people keep quiet if their views don’t fit, unless it is a work issue which should be thrashed out in an orderly and respectful fashion. Thus, when I was a full- time school teacher, I debated educational issues with colleagues in staff meetings or working parties, but seldom got into arguments about war, politics, religion or the morality of eating animals. I have now retired from full time work, thank goodness, but still do occasional casual work at 2 local schools as an examination invigilator.  In between exams I often sit in the staffroom and listen to the “crack” which is invariably amusing and/or informative. These staff-room conversations give me a useful and interesting insight into the alternative worlds beyond my “bubble.”

Only last week I learnt the following things. Many people still believe in the Death Penalty and would vote to bring it back if there was a referendum. Some think the persistent discipline problem in schools and in society at large should be tackled by bringing back corporal punishment, or reintroducing “Boot Camps.” ( This is despite all the stories of child abuse and public school beatings that unfortunately frequent the news waves.) Michael Howard, the former Conservative Home Secretary, who liked to think he was being tough on crime, would have been very pleased. One person actually claimed that the rot had set in when “Childline” was launched. So the juvenile delinquency problem is all down to Esther Rantzen! Everyone was dead against a local community centre being converted into a refuge for asylum seekers. We don’t want them here because we’re Brexit, was the cry! No comment was the safest policy. On a more trivial note, I found out that some people go to have spray tans before a special event like a wedding. You are not allowed to wash for 24 hours and it lasts for 2 weeks. I said nothing of course but couldn’t help thinking that this is yet another example of the fraudulent society we are creating — fake news, fake identities on social media, fake musical tribute artists, fake looks following botox or plastic surgery. Compared to all that, a fake tan seems mild.

Finally we come to the great Yorkshire Pudding controversy. The conversation went from diets ( always a popular topic), to food in general, to Yorkshire puddings. I had these as a child but they haven’t featured in my diet for years except in the occasional pub lunch. Well, it seems that everyone who was in the staffroom at that time has a Yorkshire pudding every week  with the Sunday roast. One person puts vinegar into the mixture as her husband likes his Yorkshire crispy. Maybe, it’s because Cleveland, where I live, is part of the old North Yorkshire. I listened quietly but then was asked directly how I liked my Yorkshire. It’s not the usual question one gets asked in an educational establishment! I had to admit that I didn’t eat them and everyone’s jaws simultaneously dropped to the ground. They couldn’t believe it and thought I was joking. When asked “why?” — I answered: “Because they’re fattening.” This answer was met with a stony silence. I had obviously broken a sacred, social taboo. I had committed the sin of making judgement on other people. I would normally have kept my mouth shut but was put on the spot, and didn’t realize my honest answer would cause such a stir.

So it’s very comfortable to live in one’s own cosy world but fascinating to peep out of it. The lives of others are always interesting. When faced with a direct question, I will try to answer as straight-forwardly and honestly as possible. However the best policy is usually to keep mum. It’s the coward’s way out I know, but I don’t really want my life to be scarred by constant arguments and upsets. This probably contradicts what I said in an earlier blog, when I argued that it was preferable to be honest rather than just polite. Maybe, I’m mellowing in my old age. Peeping out of one’s bubble is interesting and fine, but  constantly bursting out of it is not recommended!

Encounters with Portugal.

12 Mar

Portugal– a small country at the western edge of Europe which hardly ever makes the news headlines, except for the tragic disappearance of the British toddler, Madeleine McCann. Yet this is the country whose explorers discovered a large chunk of the world. It’s a country that had a world empire well before the British, French or Dutch. It’s a fiercely Christian nation that used to be Muslim. Just in the 20th century, it murdered its king, became a republic, endured a long dictatorship, avoided both world wars, had a peaceful revolution and joined the European Community. I’ve just been to Portugal, my second visit. On both occasions I didn’t go to Portugal’s popular and picturesque south coast, the Algarve, although I believe it is lovely. Instead I opted  for cultural sightseeing in Lisbon and Porto and all points in between. Typical history and geography teacher’s stuff really. Here are a few of the things I saw and found out about.

THE VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY and the DAY WHEN MY DAD LOCKED MY SCHOOL BOOKS AWAY.

At Belem, a suburb of Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, is the striking Monument to the Discoveries. It is a huge white, waterfront edifice in the shape of a caravel, the ocean-going sailing ship developed by the Portuguese to explore  lands beyond Europe. On it are clustered famous Portuguese explorers, kings, poets and priests. It was built in 1960 to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, who did more than most to make the famous Portuguese, 15th century voyages of discovery possible. He set up a maritime school in the Algarve which developed great advances in navigation, cartography and ship design.

Portuguese explorers in the second half of the 15th century, gradually sailed down the west coast of Africa, dispersing the fog of the unknown and opening up the world that we know today. It was from Belem that Bartholomew Diaz embarked when he became the first European to sail round the tip of South Africa. He changed its name from “Cape of Storms” to “Cape of Good Hope.” Then in 1497, Vasco da Gama sailed all the way round Africa and across the Indian Ocean to India. He thus opened up a cheaper route to the lucrative Spice Trade than the expensive and dangerous overland one, making Portugal extremely rich and turning it into a world power. Even before this, in 1494, the Pope had divided the world between Portugal and Spain. The Spanish had become wealthy and powerful following the discovery of the New World of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Yet, even here, there was a strong Portuguese connection. Columbus, an Italian from Genoa, was married to the daughter of a Portuguese sea-captain and learnt all his mariner’s skills and knowledge on the Algarve.

I know all this because as a young teenager, I became fascinated with the age of discovery which I learnt about in my history lessons at secondary school. It was probably this subject that ignited my life-long passion for History. One could argue that Portugal was responsible for my subsequent long career as a History and geography teacher. I got so obsessed that I spent hours and hours producing marathon home-works which ran well beyond 30 pages of writing, drawings and maps. My poor teacher, Mrs Todd, must have hated me as she had all that extra marking to do! My dad got very worried. Surely I should be out in the fresh air, playing football or hide and seek with the other “normal” kids? In fact, my father got so concerned that he locked my books up in a cabinet and ordered me out of the house! It didn’t work though because as soon as he left for work I took my books out again and continued my absorbing studies.

MANUELINE ARCHITECTURE. — an exercise in Royal showing off.

The Portuguese got extremely rich through their discoveries and the establishment of their Empire. The 15th and early 16th centuries are seen as Portugal’s “Golden Age.” They even cashed in on the discovery of the “New World” by colonising Brazil, the largest country in South America. This proved to be a fortuitous move for gold was later discovered in Brazil and brought yet more wealth pouring into the Portuguese coffers. The Royal family, the Catholic church and others spent vast sums of money on lavish palaces, churches and monasteries.( for some reason, monasteries are called convents in Portugal.) I doubt whether many ordinary people enjoyed the benefits of all this wealth. Basically, it was a huge showing- off operation with each king or noble trying to  outshine the others. For instance, Mafra, a small town near Lisbon, is dominated by an enormous monastery-palace built in the early 1700s by the extravagant King Dom Joao V to celebrate the birth of his son and heir. It began as a simple Franciscan monastery, but thanks to the vast mineral wealth pouring in from Brazil, it soon grew into a gargantuan palace with hundreds of monks employed to pray for the Royal souls. Some people regard the spending on Mafra as obscene. Still, all that extravagance has brought great dividends to the modern Portuguese tourist industry. Cultural tourists flock to see these spectacular, over-the-top edifices. I saw similar grandiose buildings at Belem ( the Jeronimos Monastery), Coimbra, Tomar and Batalha, to name just a few.

The most characteristic style of architecture in Portugal’s Golden era is the Manueline style. It gets its name from King Manuel I ( 1495-1521).( no connection with the waiter in Fawlty Towers.) He used much of the riches of the empire to build fantastic monuments of self-glorification. His successor favoured a more restrained, simpler style so the Manueline period was relatively short. As I said, this extravagant style of architecture is a great hit with the tourists of today. Manueline architecture was a late, Portuguese version of the Gothic style. It involves elaborately carved stone-work around doors, windows and arcades. It includes: mock vegetation, twisted ropes, knots and swirls, crosses and globes. Sometimes it seems impossible that such delicate ornamentation can have been carved out of actual stone. A lot of the carvings are symbolic, representing the king, the church or the empire. Coming face to face with it, Manueline architecture makes your jaw drop. Brought up on modern architecture full of clean lines, tourists are taken aback by the forest of fancy ornamentation. It’s all very over-the-top. At the Convento do Cristo at Tomar, we saw the most brilliant examples of the Manueline style. It decorates the chapel and the multiple, arcaded cloisters ( some of them 2 storied). The whole display comes to a head at the hard-to-believe Chapter House Window.( Janela do Capitulo.) The window is swathed in intricate stone carvings representing maritime and Imperial motifs. Our guide talked to us for a full 5 minutes to explain all the symbolism in front of us. We had to pinch ourselves to remember that this was only a mere window! It is a rich, extravagant early 16th century fantasy.

AZULEJOS — beautiful glazed tiles.

Today Portugal is a Christian country but, like its neighbour Spain, it used to be ruled by the Muslim Moors from  north Africa. Much of Portugal’s history is taken up with the Christian re-conquest, led by organisations like the Knights’ Templar.( whose HQ was at Tomar.) However, the Moors did leave a strong legacy especially in the south. The most obvious relics of the Moors are the lovely glazed tiles, that grace both public and private buildings, inside and out. They brought this skilled craft over in the eighth century. The Portuguese name for these beautiful, decorative tiles is “Azulejos.” Some are pictorial, some show repeated patterns. Many of these ceramic tiles are in pale blue and white, but others feature pale yellows, reds and greens. We saw them in medieval palaces, 15th and 16th century churches and cloisters and even in 19th and  20th century Town Halls, shops, houses and railway stations. The entrance hall of Porto’s suburban rail station is particularly spectacular. Tiles are particularly apt for hot countries because they are so cool. Of course  they are ubiquitous in the Arab countries of north Africa and the Middle East. Portugal’s legacy from its Arab past is particularly rich.

We saw lovely early 16th century geometric tiles in the Royal Palace in Sintra.( Palacio Nationale.) We saw a lot of religious imagery in the churches such as the Sao Roque in Lisbon’s upper town. These were usually in restrained pale colours. Later more colourful, extravagent panels were commissioned showing: battles, hunting scenes and fantastical images  influenced by the Voyages of Discovery. Sometimes a large panel would cover a whole wall like a vertical carpet. In the later 17th the blue and white Dutch style became very popular, often showing images of flowers and fruit. Tiles were seen as good insulators on the inside and solid protection from rain and fire on the outside. After the industrial revolution, mass produced tiles were used to decorate shops and factories. We saw numerous independent shops and cafes in Lisbon and Porto, all sporting attractive decoration involving azulejos. Now that I am back in Britain, the beautiful ceramic tiles of Portugal are certainly an abiding memory.

PORT WINE – White, Tawny and Ruby.

As a child I was brought up as a tee-totaller Methodist. However, even my strict, non-drinking parents made an exception for Christmas. We all enjoyed a glass of port wine. OK, it was adulterated with lemonade, but it still counted. I still remember its rich flavour and heavy texture. I think we all thought we were being rather daring and just for once, were letting ourselves go! (Ha! Ha!)

Years later, when I first visited Lisbon, my girlfriend and I made a special point of visiting the Port Wine Institute for a tasting. We were ushered into what looked like the entrance hall of a rather grand, old hotel. It was cool and shady compared to the dazzling, hot sunshine outside. The atmosphere was hushed and still. It was like stepping into another world. We sat at a table in a partitioned booth, and waited. In front of us was a menu. It was a list of different types of Port, some ruby red, some white and some tawny.( a cross between the two.) An old, uniformed waiter approached us for our order. The deal was that we could sample 6 different ports for a special, subsidised price. Not having a lot of spare cash, we carefully chose the cheapest options. However, everytime we selected a cheaper wine, the waiter gravely shook his head, saying it was not available. It was only when we got to the quite expensive ( for us) category that he finally nodded, and after a short wait, brought us our samples. We drank 3 rubies and 3 whites, carefully trying to savour the flavours and look like connoisseurs. I don’t think the waiter was fooled for a second. We soon became talkative and giggly as the wine took effect. In the end, our heads swimming, we parted with a too large sum of money and staggered out into the daylight. As soon as the bright sun hit us we realised how drunk we were. So we retreated to the quiet courtyard of a nearby old convent ( The Carmo) to rest and slowly sober up.

  Recently, I was lucky enough to visit Porto itself and went with my tour group for a tasting at a wine lodge on the banks of the Duoro. We were given a long but interesting talk about the special grapes, their growing conditions and the processes they go through to finally produce the port wines. The soils, cold winters and long hot summers of the Duoro valley provide ideal conditions for the vines to grow and prosper. It was all very scientific and I’ve forgotten most of the technical details. Apparently the British were very involved in the development of the industry, such that we have ended up with names such as :Sandeman, Graham’s, Cockburn and Taylor’s. Most of the lodges are on the Gaia side of the river Duoro, on the opposite bank to Porto itself. We had an interesting and pleasant tasting involving one ruby and one white. Someone acquired a sample of tawny wine which ended up being our favourite. It was lighter than the others and slipped down more easily. I suppose this preference just confirmed that we are philistines but after 3 ports, we didn’t really care. We had tasted port wine in Porto, the drink that shares its name with its country. When you’re a serious tourist you have to do these things! My Methodist background just faded into the past.

The European Union.

  Portugal voted to join the European Union in 1986, over 10 years after the British. Membership of the EU guaranteed political stability. It’s first attempt at democracy after the fall of the monarchy in the early 20th century, had resulted in massive political instability. There were a staggering 45 changes of government in only 16 years. This led to the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar who, being a skilled finance minister, at least brought some order to the country’s economy. However, ordinary people were denied human rights, no opposition was allowed and the press was heavily censured. It was a one-party dictatorship. The country became backward compared to much of Europe and the ordinary people suffered poverty. The dictatorship was overthrown when Salazar stepped down in 1970 due to illness and dementia. The colonies were given up after damaging wars and a so-called “Carnation-Revolution”in 1974, overthrew the old regime and restored democracy. ( The protesters put flowers in the barrels of the soldiers guns.) I remember visiting Estoril in the mid 1990’s and seeing the atmospheric, decaying, empty mansions of the rich. Their gardens were overgrown with weeds and the gates were secured with rusty pad-locks. It was like a scene from the Adams Family! These supporters and beneficiaries of the dictatorship had all fled to Brazil and abandoned their sumptuous homes, fearing for their safety.

 Joining the EU gave Portugal much needed international support and stability. Its infrastructure was badly neglected and European money was pumped in to build roads, bridges, railways and all the other necessities for a modern nation. We were told that if there was a referendum about EU membership in Portugal today, probably about 90 to 95% would vote to stay, as the benefits for the country had been so great. The Portuguese governments had also used the excuse of EU membership to bring in some important reforms. Some measures would have been initially unpopular and might have led to the fall of a government. However, using Europe as the reason for their introduction, helped to bring in some much needed changes that were to the long- term benefit of the country. Our recent tour guide Tomas ( half Portuguese, half German) told us much of this as we drove around on a cultural tour of his country. I don’t think anyone failed to spot the irony in the fact that he talking to British tourists whose country had just voted narrowly to actually leave the European Union in the Referendum of June, 2016. It highlighted the great difference that now divides the United Kingdom from Portugal. On the face of it these 2 nations have great similarities. Both are in western Europe, both are democracies, both are sea-faring nations, both had “golden eras” and world-wide empires, both lost their empires in the second half of the 20th century and have had to come to terms with their diminished status in the world. However, one nation sees its future firmly in Europe while the other has decided, for better or for worse, to go it alone.

I have enjoyed my visits to Portugal and will certainly go again. There are many things I have not mentioned of course as this blog is not intended as a comprehensive guide, but merely some fleeting impressions. Two last images spring to mind as I near the end of the piece — the wonderful mosaic pavements decorating many of the towns and cities we visited, and the delicious pastries in the numerous bakeries and cafes we visited, especially the Pasties de Belem, wonderful flaky custard tartlets, sprinkled with cinnamon and icing sugar. These were some of the many treats we experienced in Portugal. ( Do you think the Portuguese Tourist Board will give me a free holiday now?)

 

 

Wildlife Encounters– Costa Rican Style.

1 Feb

It was none other than Christopher Columbus who gave Costa Rica its name. Although he “pretended” to be an ambassador for Spain and a missionary, the explorer was primarily a treasure hunter. Thus when he saw some of the locals wearing fine gold and jade adornments, he thought he’s hit the jackpot! Columbus named his latest discovery Costa Rica, or Rich Coast. Unfortunately for him and his greed, the natives he saw were important chiefs and the dazzling jewellery they sported was obtained largely through trade. Columbus never made his fortune here but today Costa Rica is indeed rich, although not in gold or precious stones. It is rich in pristine tropical rain forests and has a huge diversity of wildlife for such a small country. In an age when other countries are recklessly destroying their valuable rain forests to sell the timber or clear the land for cash crop farming, the Costa Ricans have bucked the trend and have succeeded in saving much of their forests and the increasingly precious flora and fauna that inhabits them. This is why I ended up following in Columbus’s footsteps, attracted not by gold but by the chance to see exotic: animals, birds, trees and plants in their natural habitat. A nature loving friend went there a few years ago and came back raving about what he had seen. Once I had saved enough money, I was determined to go and see for myself the rich wildlife of Costa Rica.

A blow by blow account of the entire trip would be too boring, but instead, here are descriptions of just a couple of my Central American wildlife encounters.

Wildlife on the Beach — Manual Antonio, Costa Rica.

Our hotel was set in tropical gardens just off the ocean front of Manual Antonio, on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. Vibrantly coloured humming-birds darted around, collecting nectar from the flowers and every now and then a large iguana ambled across the lawn. It was just before the end of the rainy season and we had had a very wet night. Our first rain forest wildlife walk had been delayed until the weather decided to settle. It was just like being on holiday in Britain — sitting in a hotel room waiting for the rain to stop. Except of course, you don’t see humming birds or iguanas in Blackpool or Skegness. ( at least I’ve never spotted any!)

We sat on our little balcony and looked out towards the ocean. Wooded islands punctuated the middle distance and in the foreground, swaying palm trees fringed the sandy beach. Black vultures soared around and then landed in the tree tops, spreading their large wings to dry. Just across from our room, a man quickly shinned up a palm tree, using no ropes or special equipment. He hacked at a clump of coconuts until they dropped down to his waiting mates below. His climbing skill was amazing. Again, I suspect that this is not a regular occurrence in Britain. I remember Keith Richards falling out of a coconut tree but that was while he was on a World tour, not back in his homeland.

When we had arrived the day before we had taken a walk on the beach. It’s one of those magical places where the rain forest sweeps down to the sea. It’s a popular spot. We had just passed someone having a massage, when we noticed people pointing up to the top of a tree that had encroached on to the sand. We looked up and there was our first ever sighting of a sloth! This was one of the main reasons why we had decided to visit Central America — to see exotic wild-life. Once one has got over the excitement of spotting a sloth however, the actual “spectacle” can be something of an anti-climax. This is because the sloth rarely moves. It can spend up to 15 hours a day sleeping and when it does stir, is officially the world’s slowest animal. In fact the sloth is so sedentary that algae grows on its furry coat. Its greenish tint helps to camouflage the animal as it sits high up in the rain forest canopy.  Luckily, “our” sloth, one of the 3-toed variety, was in a small tree so we got to see it more clearly than usual. It was hanging from a branch and its head was half-turned towards us, revealing  big, soulful eyes and a shy smile. It may not be the most thrilling of mammals to watch but it is certainly one of the most endearing. People love animals that seem to have human characteristics. The sloth’s natural mouth position makes it appear to be smiling, so as far as most people are concerned, it’s a winner.

Manual Antonio is a popular spot for picnickers but those that do so, find that having an open-air meal is not the most relaxing of experiences. We watched a lady and her children enjoying a bite to eat at the edge of the forest when they were suddenly surrounded by a family of raccoons which had appeared out of the trees. The lady let out a scream as a racoon snatched one of her sandwiches. She quickly had to pack away all her food and make her escape. This, apparently, is a very common occurrence. Later, as we were nearing the end of our  walk, a whole troop of white-faced capuchin monkeys bounced on to the beach, causing quite a stir. They sped around on all fours , sporting lovely, curling prehensile tails. Some had cute little babies clinging to their backs. They had been attracted by fallen coconuts which afforded an easy feast. However, like the raccoons, these intelligent monkeys are not afraid to grab human food it it’s unguarded or on offer. We were told not to feed the monkeys as this increases dependency and can lead to more aggressive behaviour. Being surrounded by a whole horde of teeth-baring monkeys can be quite intimidating. However, for us, just watching the coconut- eating from a safe distance, proved to be a fascinating spectacle. It made this Costa Rican beach so very unusual and exciting compared to what we were accustomed to back home.

NIGHT WALK IN THE JUNGLE. (MONTEVERDE– The Green Mountain.)

We had driven north along the Pacific coast on the Pan American Highway of Costa Rica. At one point we stopped on a bridge across a wide river and when we looked down, saw at least 20 huge crocodiles basking on its banks. Then we turned inland and started to climb. We were heading for the Quaker established settlement of Monteverde, up in the spectacular cloud forests. American Quakers had migrated there in the 1960s, in order to escape the dreaded Vietnam draft. Costa Rica is a good place for conscientious objectors as it is a peaceful country and is the only one in its continent to have no standing army. They set up a successful community and were instrumental in preserving large reserves of rain forest and cloud forest in the surrounding area.  After an hour or so of climbing, the road turned into a narrow, twisting, unpaved track. It has been deliberately left unsurfaced to discourage mass tourism which could end up destroying the very things the visitors had come to see — pristine rain forests and exotic, increasingly rare wild-life.

The rain started to lash down relentlessly, and as we slowly ascended into the clouds, it seemed as if we were travelling to the very edge of the known world. At one point the road had almost disappeared following a landslip. Our minibus had to manoeuvre very gingerly around the diggers which were attempting to restore it. Any slight mistake and we would have plunged down a precipitous slope to our right. Mid-November should have been the start of the dry season, but an unseasonal hurricane was hitting the north Caribbean coast and all the weather systems had gone haywire.

So, it felt as if we very lucky when, the next morning, we woke up to a fine, hot ,sunny day in the beautiful cloud forests. Some hurried off to go zip-lining or horse riding, but we, acting our advanced age, chose the more sedate activities of visiting a butterfly garden, a hummingbird feeding station and a tropical frog pond. Later we also visited a fascinating orchid garden.  Many of the orchids were so tiny that they gave us magnifying glasses to view them. However, irrespective of their daytime choices, the whole group came together for what was to be the highlight of the visit: a night walk, deep into the cloud forest.

I’ve always been frightened of going into dark woods at night. We had a large wood near where I grew up. I loved playing in it during the day but avoided it like the plague after dusk. So, when I heard of the Night Walk in the Monteverde  Cloud Forest, I was at first filled with trepidation. What if I got detached from the group and was left, lost in a strange, tropical jungle? I had heard the rain forest at night while down at Manual Antonio. After dark it was a cacophony of sounds — the constant loud chirping of the cicadas, the croaking of the frogs, the growls of the howler monkeys and all the other strange and frightening hooting and screeching. We heard all this from a road that ran alongside the forest, but now we were deliberately going to walk into that pitch black unknown! The prospect was a bit nerve- shredding. The trouble is, I had read too many frightening books about the jungle when I was a child. The rain forest was painted as a place of menace and danger with poisonous spiders, fierce wild cats and huge snakes dangling down to bite you with their venom or squeeze you to death. Then in the rivers and streams were crocodiles and razor toothed piranhas which can strip a man of all his flesh in just a few seconds. Why would anyone voluntarily want to go there?

However, as this was probably a once in a lifetime experience, I conquered my fears and signed up to go. Of course, I was completely safe. We were issued with torches and followed an experienced guide along well trodden paths. So it wasn’t really recreating Tarzan and Jane. The real reason for going at night was because up to 80% of rain forest creatures are nocturnal. In other words they are mostly active at night. For many, this is because they are safer from their predators. But “safer” is a relative term, as many of the predators operate at night too, as we were to see.

Our little group of 7 plus a guide set off into the darkness. We stayed close together. There was no hanging back to take that extra photo on this trip. We trained our torches on the ground as we didn’t want to trip over obstacles such as rocks or low branches. The first creatures we spotted were a couple of tiny tree frogs, one green and one a golden-brown.  They sat totally motionless on large green leaves. Think of the cover of David Attenborough’s original “Life on Earth” and you will get the picture. We would never have seen them without the guide as they were so minute. They didn’t seem to be bothered by our torches. A powerful telescope was trained on them and we were all able to have a close-up look. The guide could even take a picture with his camera phone through the lens of the scope. The same applied to a sinister looking scorpion, sitting completely still on a tree trunk in the middle distance. When the light was shone on it, the scorpion glowed an eerie, luminous blue. We could clearly see its curly, sting-tipped tail. Also completely motionless were yellow and green vipers coiled around branches with their heads in the attack position, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting passing mouse or small bird. We were warned not to go too close so as not to disturb the reptile and not to stray into danger. We heard of one foolish tourist who had touched a poisonous snake to make it move in order to get a better picture. He got bitten for his troubles and had to be rushed to hospital to be given the anti-dote.

The walk had many highlights. A rustling in the tree tops revealed a feeding kinkajou — a sort of ferret w Iith a large prehensile tail acting as a fifth limb. It was as agile and lively as a monkey. A rustling in the undergrowth revealed what for me was the most exciting spot — an armadillo. The silver, linked, armour-like body made it look like a tiny knight returning from the Crusades. Both the armadillo and the kinkajou took me right back to my childhood when I saved the Brooke Bond tea cards. On one side was a coloured picture of the creature and on the other was the description of its appearance, habitat etc. My sister and I bought special albums to stick the cards in. I distinctly remember our albums of: Tropical Birds, Wild Animals of Africa and Wild-life of South America. Maybe the planting of that early seed in my brain was one of the prime reasons that had led me to the jungles of Latin America all those decades later.

The next highlight was seeing a large, female tarantula sitting menacingly at the mouth of her lair, halfway up a bank of earth. When the telescope was trained on her she looked enormous. I was mesmerised by it and must have looked at the frightening, magnified image at least 7 times. The tarantula had orange and brown striped hairy legs. I know it posed no danger to us but a chill still ran down my spine. Maybe I was thinking of the scene in Ian Fleming’s “Dr No” in which James Bond, on a mission in Jamaica, finds a large tarantula crawling up his body as he lay in bed. Fleming, who lived in Jamaica, which is not a million miles from Costa Rica, greatly exaggerated the danger posed by the spider for maximum dramatic effect. The sight of a real tarantula just a metre away from me was still a pretty chilling moment though.

The jungle night walk lasted for 2 hours but the time just flew by. We saw sleeping toucans with their spectacular bills tucked into their feathers. We saw endless columns of leaf cutter ants and when we switched off our torches, we were surrounded by the incandescent lights of glow-worms or fire-flies. We also saw sloths perched high up in the canopy. One was actually moving, painfully slowly, collecting leaves to eat. Apparently they stay up there most of the time and only come down to earth to defecate, about once a week.

It was a memorable and spectacular walk in my opinion. It encapsulated perfectly the reasons that I had so much wanted to visit Costa Rica. I think it’s important to see and appreciate wild animals, birds, reptiles and amphibians while they are still with us. Destruction of habitat is threatening so many species around the world, especially in sensitive areas such as the tropical rain forests. Zoos are fine for getting prolonged close ups of animals and also have praiseworthy breeding programmes for threatened species. However seeing a creature in an enclosure or a cage is nowhere near as satisfying as seeing it in the wild , in its natural habitat. Catching a glimpse of a feeding kinkajou or an ambling armadillo is a priceless, probably  once in a lifetime experience for me. One churlish reviewer on Trip Adviser expressed disappointment that he had only caught brief glimpses of the jungle creatures. He said that he would have been better off staying back at the hotel and getting a superior view on Google images! Just think, if I had read this review earlier, I could have saved a lot of money and watched a DVD or TV wildlife programme back at home. Come to think of it, I missed BBC’s “Life on Earth2” because I was foolish enough to go on holiday to Central America!  I’m just joking of course. I couldn’t disagree with that reviewer more. I think the live experience thrills much more than the canned, on-screen one. My wildlife experiences on Costas Rica’s beaches and in its rain forests have left me with a whole array of wonderful, indelible memories!