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A Dry Lent

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Normally, I ignore Lent. This year is different.

It is very easy to be a drunkard here in Spain. No one needs to try very hard but we don’t usually see many drunks. All sorts of alcoholic drinks are readily and cheaply available. Being an alcoholic doesn’t cost much. There is more alcohol in my house than I have ever had before. Wine in abundance. Beer in the fridge - mostly for visitors. It is rare that I drink beer. Not an acquired taste. However, I do enjoy cider, especially on a hot day. That doesn’t last long in the fridge. 

When I first came to Spain, my habitual nightcap was a small glass of Famous Grouse Whiskey. It was possible to buy three one litre bottles at Carrefour for about £30, a fraction of the cost in the UK. Some of those three one litre bottles remain in the drinks cupboard. I have discovered Soberano, a local brandy, sweeter and below the usual proof standard of proper French cognacs. Soberano is now my usual nightcap.

One of the problems here in Spain is that restaurants often provide a free half bottle of wine or a small carafe with a meal. It is very easy to get carried overboard with this. Our nearest cheap and cheerful Chinese restaurants does just that: half a bottle of wine or a beer with any meal, a small glass of (rather weak) Sangria to start with and once the bill is paid, the offer of a shot glass of schnapps. And then, it is difficult to resist a cana, a small glass of beer, to quench the thirst. Out here, thirst needs to be quenched.

Accordingly, on the first of January, once the New Year festivities were over, I vowed to have a month without any alcohol at all, just to prove to myself that I am not an alcoholic.

‘Hang about,’ my wife urged. ‘I want to do that with you but my birthday is in January. Wait until Lent and we can go dry together.’

Foolishly, I agreed. The consequence is that I sacrificed thirty one days of going without alcohol in January, for the forty days and nights of Lent. Two days in, we are dry. No alcohol. Only 38 days to go.
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I’ve been a union member all my life: first as a member of the National Union of Teachers when I qualified, subsequently a member of the National Association of Headteachers and now in retirement, a life member of the N.A.H.T. I believe in the right of workers to join together for their own good and for their protection.

As a young man I was a activist, attending every meeting, taking on posts of minor responsibility, attending conferences and even making an occasional poor speech. 

However, unions, and industrial action, can be a thorn in the flesh. My parents were both youngsters in a mining community in the 1920s, a time of intense industrial action, a time of strikes, both a long miners’ strike and the General Strike. It appears that my maternal grandfather was not a striker. My aunt, born during the miners’ strike, tells the tale of a brick being thrown through the front room window of their terraced house the week she was born. She got that tale from my mother who was already a teenager. Apparently grandfather continued to go to work. He was the safety overman down Emma colliery where the family lived. Had he not gone down the mine to check that  necessary supports were in place, there would have been no seam to work when the strike was over. 

Mother used to relate another tale of that time. Because the buses were on strike, she had to walk from Ryton, Tyne and Wear to Blaydon, a door to door distance of four miles there and four miles back after school. On one occasion a limousine stopped and offered a lift which she was glad to accept. Making polite conversation, the driver asked what she was learning at school, what her father did. Receiving the answer, ‘He’s a miner’, the next question was, ‘and is he working or is he on strike?’ Being told that grandfather was a safety overman and still working, the driver said, ‘Good. Give this to your mother.’ It was half a crown, not an inconsiderable sum of money in those days. The driver was the mine owner. Grandfather was not enamoured with mother’s story. She was ordered to throw the money into the nearby River Tyne. Mother, being mother, didn’t exactly disobey. The coin was dropped into a still river pool, where her younger brother Tom was able to retrieve it later.

Father’s tale of the time is even less positive. In dad’s early twenties, oldest of four brothers, his father was a local butcher. Three butchers shops in three mining villages, a field to rear livestock for slaughter and a small private abattoir. During the hard times, valued customers were given credit which they were unable to pay back. The business went bankrupt. Father remained a skilled butcher. He was the most adept grocer I’ve known, frighteningly fast and skilled boning a side of bacon. And we once kept a pig which father slaughtered and cured when the time came.

My own association with industrial action is unfortunate. As headteacher of a large school, I was glad most of my staff were union members. However, membership was divided between three associations. During times of unrest, and there were quite a few in my time, my school became a vulnerable target for shut down.  Many of our pupils travelled from distant hamlets and farms. Transport arrangements were a nightmare, especially when one union or another decided to close the school down, which they did in relays, never together. I’m sure action was not directed at me personally but I took it personally, as our neighboring school, with less vulnerability was never affected. It caused much damage to parental perception that took ages to overcome.

I hope university tutors and lecturers, currently taking action, get satisfaction. Equally, I hope there is no collateral damage to students.

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No longer a citizen

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Edited by Geoff Cooper, Saturday, 1 Feb 2020, 17:04

Well! That’s it. Done and dusted. Boris Johnson, the right wing of British politics, the cheats, rumour mongers and liars have their way. Resident in the E.U. I am no longer a citizen of that organisation. 

I wish it were otherwise. I had thought that jingoism died during the First World War with Wilfred Owen. As a child of the years of the Second World War, I hated and feared anything German. My childish nightmares were about Adolf Hitler.

Two salutary lessons were learned post-war. First, my parents invited Walther Rehm to our home during Christmas 1945. Father had recently been released from his service in the Royal Air Force, ironically enough Bomber Command. Walther was a ‘no threat’ prisoner of war, of low rank. As such, privileges were granted: he was able to visit our church, occasionally he could spend a night away from his prison camp. He was a joy. Hitler would have loved him. Tall. Blond. Blue eyed. But a gentle man. Kind. Thoughtful. Anxious to look and learn. He and father got on well together. Mother, a teacher, gave him English lessons.

And he taught, too. He taught me my first few stammering words of German. Without formal skills in German, I can still count up to ten. In his Bavarian accent. We sang together, ‘Silent Night’, in its original language. When he returned to Germany, I was no longer having nightmares about Hitler and Germans.

Some years later, I was part of an exchange trip to German from school. Father had warned me of the devastating damage he had seen flying over Cologne. I knew we were going to a broken and run down country. I was prepared to be humble and condescendingly kind to the nation Britain had defeated. 

How wrong I was. How my eyes were opened. How humiliated I became.

Cologne was still in ruins. Little rebuilding had taken place. The Dom tower still stood aloof from the rubble.

But my broken hosts had.a car. A shining, gleaming, brand new Mercedes Benz. We had no car. My hosts had a wonderful house with private bathrooms. The pit village house I had lived in had an outside toilet. They had servants. My family, butchers by trade, had employed domestic servants until the 1920s. Never in my time. Then, the business - its three shops, its abattoir, its one or two fields raising its own livestock for slaughter - was lost to the industrial strife of that period of British history. Collateral damage. 

My nascent social and political outlook began to formulate the belief that it was better for humankind if we became joiners together rather than separators and dividers. I felt this confirmed what I was being taught in church, through the faith I was acquiring. And the gutter press, the biased and privileged owned spreader of falsehoods, today plasters front pages with Union Jacks and exultant banner headlines ranting ‘freedom’. This does not feel like freedom.

I now feel separated and divided. And wronged. 

Much is being said about ‘heal the nation’. Yet, the rowdy yobs on television last night seem intent only on glorifying their ‘victory’. In so many cases the TV interviews appeared to be an excuse for further self indulgence. Rubbing the noses of those who want to be E.U. citizens in the dirt of the lies and prejudice that has been spread.

I regret yesterday more than anything else that I have regretted in my 82 years as a British citizen. It seems we have learned nothing from history.

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World Holocaust Day

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Edited by Geoff Cooper, Saturday, 1 Feb 2020, 17:05

Written for World Holocaust Day


Having visited Israel several times, having worked and holidayed in the Middle East, having visited Auswichtz twice and studied the treatment of Jewry under Hitler and National Socialism, I am currently more in sympathy with the Palestinians than with the politics of Israel. However, I believe it is imperative that what happened in Hitler’s concentration camps should never be forgotten.


Shadows of black.

Elusive shades of grey.

No colour.


Silence.

No birdsong,

No waiting train

On adjacent track.


No scent of rain

On living grass.

No welcome puppy smell.

Only the stench

Of impending death,

Of living death.


A bitter taste.

The rancid, bitter taste

Of human hate,

Of human waste.


I am ZW037782D,

5030468 the living dead.

You are a number,

Some letters.

He was 204610.


The symbolism of the numbers and letters: they all belong to me; or perhaps I belong to them; the first is my British National Insurance number, the second the number given to me when I joined the Royal Air Force and finally the number of my membership of The Poetry Society. I am more than a number. Humankind is more than a number.


And an incident.


With my three children in Israel on holiday. It would be about 1983. We crossed by boat from Tiberius to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee for a visit to a kibbutz. The journey over the sea had been serene and calm. By late afternoon, the temperature had become oppressive and during the return, a wind had got up. The lake is subject to rapid weather changes. Think of Jesus and the disciples in a boat, Jesus stilling the storm. An elderly lady was finding the rocking of the boat distressing. We had wet wipes and she was glad to accept one. Lifting her hand to wipe her brow, the numbered tattoo on her arm was noticeable. She had survived the death camps. 


I suspect that there will be those who see some of what I have written above as anti-Semitism. That is not my intention. I have seen the desert in Israel bloom. I have appreciated Israeli hospitality, organisation, culture. I regret - and believe it wrong - that more and more territory occupied by Palestinians for generations and indeed for centuries, should be appropriated for more Jewish settlements. I cannot think that this will do anything to further peace and harmony in the Middle East.




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Angry Again

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Edited by Geoff Cooper, Saturday, 1 Feb 2020, 17:07

I am angry again.

     It is Saturday - outside the supermarket

      Jeanie is inside, shopping for the weekend.

      The dog and I are waiting in the car. Tilly still needs company and we have only brought her out for a walk after the shopping.

      James is at the car park gate.

      He is begging.

     James is tall, strong, good-looking, ambitious, healthy - and black.

     He has a family - a stable relationship - a wife and first child, a son, Happiness. James wants to work. He is desperate to work.

     The question to be asked is, ‘Why doesn’t he work. Why beg when fit enough and strong enough to work.’

      The answer, ‘He entered this country of Spain illegally, undocumented. By law, he cannot own or rent a property, he is not allowed to work and earn money for his family. ’

      His ambition is to live a settled life. Not to beg. A life caring for his family. A life enabling him to hold up his head. To be proud. He is a refugee but doesn’t want to be a refugee. He has no status. No identification. No National Insurance number. He cannot apply for status. He cannot apply for a driving licence or take driving lessons. He wants what we have, a life free from persecution, from strife. A life where his family can grow up in an atmosphere of calm. He is from Nigeria where Christians and Muslims are in constant friction, one against the other. His wife is a victim of family persecution,

     He came to Spain illegally to try to achieve his ambition. Here, he has no health care. He has no passport. His wife has a passport and his child was born in Spain. They are able to receive health care.

      Now, in Spain, the situation is that any government sponsored charity, any government aided organisation, wants nothing to do with him and his family. If an illegal is helped or supported in any way, potential grants, subsidies, charitable support can be at risk. So Caritas, so Reach Out, so social services cannot or will not help. There is no organisation that can allow him to be put to work. This is why many of his fellow countrymen, and other illegal immigrants from the African continent, can be seen hawking illegal, contraband items on sea front promenades, watching carefully for the local police and doing everything possible to avoid them. Rather than run from the police, James has chosen to beg at the supermarket gate.

     Spain has many economic migrants. Those with a Hispanic heritage - particularly from Latin America - have citizenship rights. Those who come illegally from the African continent generally have no rights.

      James is a church going Christian here in Spain, respected well enough within his congregation. Yet it is other hard nosed Western Christians, not from his congregation, who have tried to separate him from his wife. They are devoted to each other, loyal to each other but have not gone through a conventional Western marriage. It has been said,

     ‘You are not married. You must live apart. Your child is illegitimate. Living in sin, you cannot be baptised in the Faith.’

      This is the church at large which was given the the instruction,

      ‘Go forth and speak to the nations in my name, the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.’

      He who taught love and self sacrifice, He who healed, who asked for little children to come to Him, who welcomed the outcast and the vulnerable.

      James and Patience and their son attend our church, have been baptised and are welcomed and loved. Our church, mainly comprised of senior citizens, old age pensioners, does what it can to support and help. Illegally. Despite this, because of circumstances that beset him, James still needs to beg outside the supermarket this morning.

      I am angry at this uncaring world.



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Workshop Reflection

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Edited by Geoff Cooper, Friday, 24 Jan 2020, 17:54

Workshop Reflection


As postgraduate students, we are expected to be reflective. I don’t think it is possible to be reflective in a vacuum, into space, nothingness; even if not expecting an echo, not possible to reflect into empty cyber space. Which is why this is addressed to my blog. To which the question must be added: will anyone ever read this?


I’ve found the Workshop experience interesting but disturbing. There are two sides to the coin and each is multifaceted. The two sides of the coin are, of course, experiences as a reader-critic and experiences as the one read-criticised. 


I was excited at the concept of being a voiced reader-critic. Everyone who reads is a critic. Views, opinions, ideas are realised in the mind. Being part of a Workshop concept, each reader finds a voice. Having spent a lifetime marking the work of children, I had thought this would be an extension of that; ‘marking for adults’. In some ways it was without the grading, but it set me off on the wrong foot. With children’s work, one is always looking for ‘correctness’. That is dictionary perfect spelling, appropriate and exciting vocabulary, correct sentence structure, observation of the conventions of written English, allied with the beginning of a way with words that enlivens what has been written, that conveys graphically the picture in the child author’s mind.


Starting like that was an error. I was shocked and rather disturbed to be able to find many ‘errors’ in some of the work I was given the read. Passages marked as sentences that weren’t sentences even given latitude for the passion of a creative mind. Passages that were sentences without capitals and full stops but not apparently intended as ‘stream of consciousness’ devices. This hindered my ability to look deeper into what the author was actually trying to say. And slowed, impeded, the narrative flow. Looking for clues to explain this, I came to the conclusion that two of the authors I was reading were people speaking English as a second language. In some cases, the quality of the language was imaginative and varied but figurative writing, similes, metaphors appeared to miss the mark. There was clearly a strong desire to use literary strategies but without impact. And there were misconstrued colloquialisms.


One of the things that I failed to pick up, because my view was obscured by semantic challenges, was that I had been given almost 4000 words in one piece, when the university specifically said between 500 and 2000. This piece was in a genre completely strange to me, and although I felt able to comment on it, at times I felt that I was floundering through a morass. A morass that contained some very strange concepts and some very strange vocabulary. I worry that this has negatively affected my feedback to that writer. There was OU advice about word count and how to treat longer pieces, which I managed to neglect.


I found the OU format for feedback to be generally useful. In the old days, marking pupil’s work, I had a similar way of marking and analysing. However, the university’s response areas were much more detailed than mine had ever been. As a result, I didn’t always want to respond about a particular point in the writing. Sometimes one of the OU points didn’t stick out. At times there was nothing good to say and nothing critical to comment on. It was the last area of the format that confused. I know that I am not alone among students to have been confused about that. It appeared to be the case that ‘all bases had been covered’ with a summary box and then - a final summary box was revealed. I am aware that some students just put n/a, or a bland one sentence comment. I tried to write a summary, a précis, if you like, of what had been said in the previous boxes but found this very repetitious.


Where my comments were perhaps rather more strident than I would have liked them to be, I tried to refer directly back to OU guidance which some of the writers I was given appeared not to have read, or chose to ignore.  


On the other side of the coin, comments received about my writing were generally encouraging. Despite the fact that all my life I have resented criticism, no matter how well intended it has been. However, I was puzzled by some comments. In my critiques, I always tried to respond to what the writer had written, not to what I thought the writer should have written. I believed this was what was required.


In some cases, those reading my work wanted to change my characters, or the plot, or modify the setting, or add more detail when one of my greatest problems is keeping stories within word limits. I found myself surprised that readers focused their appreciation on characters other than those I felt were central.


Elsewhere, it was suggested that some minor characters could have been cut from the story. However, had that been done, it would have left my central female figure, naked, on an isolated river bank, screaming for help, with no one to hear her. In that case, she might still have been there today. In my view, the minor characters identified were an integral part of the story and vital to the plot.


Perhaps in summary, I need to recognise that I may be an impaired story teller and a worse editor, with a badly misleading critical stance that no-one in their right mind would wish to tolerate. I think I also need to recognise that I'm probably very arrogant about taking/not taking guidance.


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Review work returned

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I’ve just been reading and re-reading the reviews of my story ‘Still Waters’ by other students. Interesting reading. I’m more comfortable with the second read, than I was with the first reading of what they have said. I’m terrible with criticism, even with constructive criticism. What surprises me, is what others see in my writing that I don’t think I’ve put there. ‘Still Waters’ is intended as a short story, complete in itself, with no further to go. In fact, it is a re-hash of something written about a year ago for the local Writer’s Circle. It got a lot of appreciation there. Fellow students who have subsequently read it, are quite complementary but want to put their own construction on the story: to miss bits out that I feel are essential to the story; to add bits to it, that in my view would change its nature and my style. That’s probably just arrogant on my part. In my reviews of the writing of others, I’ve tried to comment on what they have written, rather than what I think they should have written. My difficulty was that two of my fellow students appear to have English as a second language and that has complicated things.

So, today, heart in mouth, I have re-edited my TMA02, its commentary and my EMA proposal. I think it is as refined as it is going to get. I’ve found the editing difficult. I enjoyed writing the original story and was relatively comfortable with it. Two people made really helpful comments when I posted it on the draft TMA forum. Subsequently, I’ve edited and re-edited it about four times: that is five different versions of the original story. Then I got muddled up about what went where. Then I tried to put into practice what others had said. Then I tried to include aspects of the teaching on the course. Consequently, I became very confused and then ratty with myself and with my wife. But not with the dog. I think it is now as final as it is going to get. But, when I re-read it before posting tomorrow, you can bet there are alterations to make. It just never seems to be finished. Then when it does get posted, I will be seeing all sorts of flaws and necessary corrections and amendments. Hey, ho! Just get on with it. The EMA proposal started out at 600 words and needs to be about 300. I’ve done that but only by missing out lots of connectives and sentence subjects. More note form than prose. Hope that’s OK.

The ‘Gota Fria’ is still doing its thing outside. I shivered and shook all through Spanish today - because I got soaked walking the few yards to the hotel where the lesson takes place. I chill so easily these days. The dog has been reluctant to go out and get wet. And we have had no water. I had assumed that it was because of the storm. No. A stop valve has not stopped in the technical hut, resulting in a four foot flood of water swamping some electrics. Tony called later this afternoon to say that he and Glen have sorted it for the time being and we can make a cup of tea and flush the toilets. Until the plumber comes. The airport is still closed. 40 kilometers away. It must be really bad up there. And Jeanie is showing me ‘Facebook’ photos of snow nearby. Hopefully not coming down to us.

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A new choir

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Edited by Geoff Cooper, Saturday, 11 Jan 2020, 11:03

I’ve always sung in choirs. There was a time, in the innocence of youth, that I had aspirations to be a professional singer. In light opera. With the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. As a teenager I lived in the Gods at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle whenever the Gilbert and Sullivan light operas were being performed. Then my voice broke. The wrong way. It just wasn’t good enough. 

So, Jeanie has encouraged me to join a new choir. It is a very young choir, in its second season and full of people almost as old as I am, so its youth needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Andante - at walking pace. Appropriate for me these days.  Jeanie sang with the choir last year and being the ever dutiful husband, I attended its pre-Christmas concert. I was charmed. The conductor teaches at a local international school and joined her adult choir with her pupils’ choir in the concert. She knows what she is doing with the baton. 

The next concert will mainly feature John Rutter’s ‘Requiem’ which Jeanie and I have both sung previously. I love it. There is something magical about the sound Rutter creates. And he is like that in real life too. Some years ago, we were fortunate enough to attend a ‘Day with John Rutter’ workshop in the parish church in Corbridge, Northumberland. It was magnificent. About 500 people enjoying making music at the direction of a master. Not just a master of music. There is something so very human about the man. A man that anyone could delight in. The whole day was a triumph. He is skilled, knowledgable, has an easy manner of delivery that inspires and he has a joyful natural touch with it.

I missed my teenage aspiration to sing but there is always a tune in my head. Often just a snatch of two or three notes. It is strange, as a boy, my mother always wanted me to learn poems off by heart. I frequently disappointed her. I recall the very able but infuriating girl, daughter of the people who ran a bed and breakfast in Callender where we were staying. Every night, she recited a different poem for my mother. Dad didn’t seem particularly interested. Conversation would turn to what I could recite. It was very little. But if I’d been asked to sing - I wasn’t - I could have sung a song, with correct words and in tune. It never happened. When mother became bed ridden and had lost the power of speech, I used to read poems to her. It was possible to see by the faint smile on her lips and the residual sparkle in her eyes, that the verses meant something to her. She could memorise in a way I never could. Yet I find it so easy to memorise a tune.

John Rutter’s clever and inspirational musical themes are my current constant companions.

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What an adventurous life!

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The New Year has been pretty adventurous. Having a well settled but lively dog can be fun. Tilly brings a lot of pleasure into our lives. However, she has a mind of her own and has had two escapologist adventures. She has a relatively lightweight harness that she wears during the day. It clips onto her lead when out walking and into the car seat belt when driving. She has suddenly discovered that when her lead is taut, she can slip the harness and escape. She created chaos when Jeanie and I were doing minor errands in the village. I had charge of the dog while waiting for Jeanie to finish what she was doing. I took Tilly to sit at the outside tables of ‘La Mesa’, the small cafe near the village square. Suddenly she was gone. I had the lead tight to stop her tangling herself around the tables and chairs. Suddenly there was an empty harness and she was off, up the road, over the square and onto the Calle Mayor, technically the main road but never very busy. Not only had she escaped from the harness but also at the same time - beyond reach, beyond the ability to do anything about it - she had left a doggy deposit in the middle of the pavement outside the tobacconist’s shop. It is no fun at the age of 82 trying to run uphill to catch a dog while worrying about what to do about the dog mess glaring at me from the pavement. The dog was caught. Fortunately Jeanie turned up soon afterwards and while I was holding the dog in solitary confinement, Jeanie removed the dog mess before anyone stepped in it.

You would think that a lesson had been learned. Not a bit of it. Yesterday when Jeanie was out at the ladies fellowship meeting, it was my delegated duty to take the dog for a walk. We walked in relatively orderly fashion to the hotel. Not a long walk but one with a well defined destination. Tilly has been to the hotel several times and has met all the people running the place. It was a lovely afternoon and time for a drink. As food is served in the main room where the bar is, Tilly and I would have to stay outside, on the veranda overlooking the Vega Baja. I hooked Tilly’s lead over the top of the fence and went inside to order a drink. Pleasantries were being exchanged with Richard at the bar when screams from outside were heard.

‘The dog’s escaped. She’s on the road.’

Hastily abandoning my drink, and leaving all my loose change on the bar, I scurried outside to see a brown flash pounding its way up the footpath towards home. Pursued by a woman and her daughter who had been sitting on the veranda enjoying the sun, then me, then by Richard’s girl friend who had been sitting at the bar, then by Richard who had abandoned the bar and taken the hotel mini bus to try to get ahead of Tilly. It was rather like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, with Tilly as the piper and the rest of us as the rats. There was no way that Tilly was going to come back, despite desperate entreaties. We got as far as the urbanisation car park. No sign of Tilly. Turning the corner ahead of us, she had found some escape route. The next problem was that the top end of the urbanisation where the car park is is gated. This prevents all and sundry taking a short cut through our properties and deters undesirables and summer holiday drunks coming back from the bars and restaurants. I had no keys. Coming out with Tilly for a walk, there had been no sign of the house keys which have the post box key, the swimming pool key and the car park gate key on the same ring for convenience and safe keeping. Or, in this case, for inconvenience. Having taken Tilly for an early morning walk, Jeanie hadn’t bothered to put the keys back where they are kept and walking to the hotel I wasn’t going to need them. Until Tilly escaped. And I now had no way of getting into the urbanisation to see if she had run home. Aware of the commotion in the car park, a couple sunbathing on their rooftop solarium called down to me to see what was the matter. Having explained, the husband kindly came down and allowed me through. Arriving at home, half expecting and desperately hoping that the dog was on the front patio, no sign. Convinced that we had lost the little rescue dog and that it would need to be rescued by someone again, called for her, not really expecting a response. Pause. silence. Then from around the hedge on our drive, the escapologist appeared, eagerly wagging her tail and looking pleased with herself.

She was shut up inside the house and I went back to the hotel where my drink and loose change were still on the bar.

Priority - new collar or harness that can’t be slipped.

Two disappointing discoveries this morning. I took a quite expensive, rather smart pair of trousers out of the wardrobe when getting dressed. I had an early morning appointment with the nurse. The trousers have clearly shrunk because they are about four inches too small. Unless I have put on weight recently. OK. I have put on weight. Insulin injections have improved my appetite and that is showing around the stomach. So I wore a rather more voluminous pair of trousers for my visit to the nurse. Blood tests again. She said that it might hurt but I felt nothing. Back home, having gone to the surgery fasting, as instructed, prepared for my insulin injection and breakfast by checking blood sugar readings. High. Rather surprised how high - 178, when these days it is more normally between 60 and 100. Chinese meal last night? Wine with the meal? Brandy at the hotel watching football? Four Roses chocolates before bed? Possibly a combination of them all. Despite all my physical activity chasing the dog. Need to watch that.

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Tilly

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We have an addition to the family. I didn’t think I could ever be ecstatic about a dog. Well, almost ecstatic. Not as ecstatic as my wife.

We visited Linda Jean, animal rescuer, in Benidorm, while away for our Christmas break staying in nearby Albir. I wasn’t too enthusiastic - and less enthusiastic - when Jeanie, my wife, rang Linda Jean’s door bell. An immediate cacophony of barks, growls and scrabbles at doors confirmed that, as soon as the door opened, I was going to be eaten alive. Jeanie had seen a photograph of a small dog, Tilly, that she felt she could be interested in, having mistakenly re-homed lovely Sophie on leaving England for Spain.

As dogs poured out of the opened gateway, a huge one, with wolf like eyes, stared me full in the face and licked my hand, while a host of smaller dogs clustered around our feet. 

‘Don’t worry,’ said Linda Jean. ‘He’s my guard dog until you are welcomed in. Then he is the softest of them all.’

There were so many dogs, I fully expected to enter a morass of dog smell and dog poo. Not a hint of it. Although there were teens of dogs in the living room, it was all orderly and ordered. Dog baskets lined up around the room. Dogs sitting on every surface. I chose to sit on what appeared to be a vacant settee and was immediately inundated by dogs wanting to share my knee, wanting to lick, wanting to be petted. 

Subsequently, Linda Jean showed us the rest of her establishment. A separate pen for a new mother dog with nine puppies. Two separate pens for two families of puppies almost ready to be homed. A very large open enclosure where Linda Jean feeds her 23 cats. 

Meanwhile, Jeanie made a bee line for the settee, where Tilly was sitting quietly and rather timidly. She is a small brown dog, of undefined breed, but very pretty. A rescue dog, having been brought in after living on the street, foraging for what she could get. At that stage, pregnant. Her first visit to the vet confirmed that her puppies were dead and the placenta infected. She has clearly been very badly treated. Scared of people when they move, especially men. Trembling at the sound of any moving vehicle. 

Jeanie, having bonded with Tilly - she does like her belly to be scratched (the dog, not Jeanie) where she had the major operation - we agreed to offer Tilly a new home. This meant a hasty visit to a Chinese supermarket (they are all over the place in Spain) for dog bowl, lead, car harness, dog food, dog bed, grooming equipment.  

Picking Tilly up on the way home from Albir was a shade traumatic. For Linda Jean and for Tilly. A six page questionnaire was completed to confirm the adoption of the dog, a copy for us and a copy for Linda Jean. A dog passport was handed over to us, a donation towards rescue home running costs to Linda Jean. Linda Jean’s parting with Tilly was such sweet sorrow. A great deal of care has gone into the little dog’s recuperation. Tilly got into her dog harness. Was strapped into the car. And shook and trembled every one of the more than 100 kilometres home to Algorfa.

The journey was also traumatic for Jeanie. Half way home, she realised that she had left her handbag behind at Linda Jean’s house. The bag contained purse, wallet, mobile phone, bank cards, Spanish identification documents and driving licence, both our passports and all those other things ladies carry in voluminous bags. That involved a hasty return to Benidorm for Jeanie on Sunday after church. 

Tilly has settled much better than we could have expected. Now walking on the lead, rather than having to be dragged. She has been to the outside part of a local restaurant where she settled under the table as we ate. She has been down to the hotel and met Kata and Katalina while we had drinks on the balcony. She was welcomed into the Chandelier Showbar and fussed over by the owners. She has shopped inside the pet supermarket in Torrevieja. And she has had rides in both cars without trembling. She now knows where our upstairs bedroom is and enjoys stealing slippers from the bedside. She is eating well - including carefully taking treats from the hand - but so far, no dog poo. That needs to be kept an eye on.

So the three of us are settling in. Tilly becoming more confident with us but still very nervous of strangers.

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Ready for the Christmas break

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Well, that’s one more old age task dispensed with this evening. Because of my age, my Spanish driver’s licence needs to be renewed every three years. The three years is up in February 2020. I no longer have a UK licence as I have no UK address. The authorities like to get applications in early. They take a long time to issue in Spain.

The process is more or less routine but not as routine as in the UK. Here, a fitness to drive test has to take place. Not an ‘on the road’, or theory test. There is an aptitude braking and steering test on a device rather like a gaming machine with handles. The handles control two ‘cars’ on separate rolling roads that go both ways at once. I hate it. There is an eyesight test. Brief questions about medical condition, a stethoscope listen to heart and chest and finally blood pressure readings. If successful, and I’ve not heard of anyone failing, a photo is taken, a temporary licence is issue and 35€s is coughed up. A new full licence is sent out from ‘Traffico’ the licensing authority in due course.

I was able to tell the doctor that my cataracts have been removed and my driving vision is much improved. He wanted to know how my diabetes was and seemed happy with the much reduced blood sugar readings. My blood pressure was much better than before because of the blood pressure medication. So he was quick to sign me off. I now have a folded piece of paper in my wallet alongside the soon to expire long term one. Good. I’d hate to be put off the road living out here with no public transport.

So, down to considering things Christmassy and going to Albir. I have so many clothes, what to pack is a bewildering issue. We may be taking friends to Benidorm on our way. He is suffering and is unable to walk/drive and she doesn’t. It is only a small diversion. Jeanie’s pre Christmas events are almost finished: one singing engagement, one last church service.

We are hoping that Phyl has got off to Tenerife this morning. When we were with her for supper last night she was really low and still missing Ken her late husband a year after his death. I hope three days in a good hotel and a seven day cruise does her good. She didn’t want to go. Of course, our mutual friends, Rick and Jose are away on their holiday and she is missing the fuss and attention she gets from them.

Jeanie and I may be about to acquire a dog. We miss Sophie, regretting rehoming her before committing to Spain. J has been in contact with a dog adopting agency in Benidorm and we may meet this pooch while we are away. I love dogs but I’m not sure I want to be tied down again. On the other hand it might ensure that I get more exercise. We have been discussing it for some time and looking at adoptadog adverts. We will see.


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Missing for a while

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Edited by Geoff Cooper, Thursday, 12 Mar 2020, 02:08

I’ve been missing for a while. Licking wounds I suppose. My TMA01 is back but not as successfully as I had imagined. Clear pass but lots of naive errors that I didn’t expect. So a big learning curve. Some of the things I got wrong were not specific ‘no-noes’ in the rubric and I’m disappointed that what I thought were good ideas were disapproved of. Also disappointed that what I imagined to be strong narrative was seen as ‘listy’, despite never once using ‘and then’ as a lead in. So, much to think about. The new Fiction forum and work shopping is chaotic but I’m not the only one rather bewildered. Very  tentatively, have submitted a spontaneously written story to the workshop phase. Have a possible for TMA02 but very uncertain about submitting. Not sure where to focus for EMA but asked for a 300 word summary as part of TMA02. Already! Seems a bit early. Thought the new year and return to CNF would be more than soon enough. Does a 300 word submission tie me in? Irretrievably? 

Note that there is a planned Christmas break. Glad about that but suspect the iPad will go with me to Albir and stories will be written. I’ve got a number of unfinished stories, major re-edit pieces to sort. The hotel in Albir may be attractive but the time there may be busy.

Personally disappointed in the general election result. Believe in ‘stronger together’ and feel this result make us vulnerable to USA.  Could be problematic for we expats in Spain . Hope not. I’m very vulnerable to any health care problems.  Devastated that some of my native Tyneside/north east has turned Tory blue! Mother will be turning in her grave.


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After TMA01

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Edited by Geoff Cooper, Wednesday, 4 Dec 2019, 00:40

Well, having dispatched TMA 01, and awaiting results with baited breath, I have entered a new forum, the fiction forum for the next batch of work. It would appear that I’ve entered that new forum with all my former creative non-fictionites and that it is a very noisy forum with lots of traffic, because there are so many more people in it. A bit confusing. But fortunately, there is no whole new IT system to learn. That really would be a nightmare. Some of our group have the results of their assessed pieces. I wish I didn’t know that, because it intensifies the anticipation/expectation of mine. Although tutors don’t have long to turn assignments around, each day seems like an eternity.

It has been a pretty busy time since my last blog entry. I’ve seen the ophthalmologist. It was Maria Isabel Madrid Saavedra again, and again, my heart warmed to her. She has a smile and a manner one could drown in. And she has confirmed that my damaged left eye is healing well and unless there are further problems, I don’t need to go back. I’m almost disappointed not to see her again. She had a student with her and it was clear that the student was in an early learning situation because she was unable to focus on the back of my eye as easily as Maria Isabel could. I’m sure she will learn. 

Because this is the build up to Christmas, and because Christmas comes early here, things are very busy - especially with meals out for the different groups we belong to. On Friday, after the hospital visit, we had the ‘do it yourself’ concert that Jeanie organised at church. It went off successfully which I was thankful about for J’s sake, although the audience was relatively thin. Everyone who had volunteered to perform did well. I was particularly impressed with Jackie Garrett’s liveliness, with Doug Brown’s unexpected sense of humour and with Colin Anderson’s powerful delivery of the Betcheman Advent poem. I was disappointed in my own singing. The bloom appears to have gone off my voice with old age and I didn’t get my usual resonance off the back wall of the church. Afterwards, sixteen of us went to the Gran China Asiatic for an evening meal and had great social fun. 

It is the time of meals out. Phyl invited us to Portico Mar and Saturday for her birthday. Portico Mar is not cheap, but it was a good meal and the fifteen there had a good time.The house red wine was particularly good. Because there was no one else to do it, I played the organ at church on Sunday morning. One of the hymns was in A flat and I hate four flats as a key to play in. However, it went off fine. There were only six of us for lunch, Keith, Kathie, Peter, Kate, Jeanie and me at the Herradura. For once, I enjoyed the ‘special bread’. I’m not sure why it is special bread but this time it was soft and chewy not hard and coarse. With alioli and tomato, of course. I loved my smoked salmon starter and the chicken main course wasn’t bad, either. Monday was eating out again. Jeanie is a member of the ladies friendship group and lunch time was their Christmas celebration. To a place I’d never previously been to. Laurels, upstairs in Quesada.  And that was good, too.

So, when the Christmas period is over, I must slim. I must be putting pounds on.

We've had the beginning of another ‘Gota Fria’. It is forecast for three days but not as intensive as the one a couple of months ago. There was intense thunder and lighting last night and it has rain most of the day today. There is apparently more bad flooding down at Alcathares. People who have previously lost their homes are flooded out again. Quiz night tonight. Too much soaps (Coronation Street characters: I knew none) and too much pop music (I recognised some music but knew no answers).Despite that, a good social time. I’m told that we re going Christmas shopping tomorrow to la Zenia Boulevard and that at some time I must make myself scarce. There are plenty of good coffee shops to make myself scarce in.

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No detached retina

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Edited by Geoff Cooper, Saturday, 30 Nov 2019, 15:03

It is always good to have good news. I have good news. There is no detached retina in my left eye. I had taken a heavy knock on my left shoulder, jerking my head, and there were ‘things’ floating about in my left eye.

Ignoring the recommendations of family, the entreaties of my daughters, I held off any medical interference with my eye until Monday, after Spanish lesson. My Spanish homework was mostly correct. Bits that I had wrong were correct in Jeanie’s. Bits that she had wrong were correct in mine. I did go to see the doctor immediately after the Spanish lesson. I had prepared a ‘this is what is wrong’ note in Spanish, using Google Translate. I waited a long time in the surgery (no appointment) but eventually I was called in to see Doctor Salek Ali. He has one of the best and largest smiles I’ve ever seen on a man. He quickly scanned my complaints list, wrote out a new prescription and ordered me to report to the local hospital on the next (Tuesday) morning, Then, with his usual ‘Good homework’ - his smiling comment on my work with Google Translate - I was dismissed with a prescription for new diabetic glucose test strips, a new box of insulin ‘one time only’ injection needles and having got rid of the hazardous waste yellow box full of used needles and insulin pens. 

That left me free to go to the airport to pick Jeanie up from her visit to the family in the East Midlands. With time to go to the farmacia in the village to pick up new test strips. I was surprised to be given four packets of different medicines, the routine ones I take each day, but no test strips. I asked the assistant (they all have reasonable English), ‘What about test strips?’ ‘Not due.’ So I have no idea what my blood sugar is. Nor will I until test strips are due on 5th December. Doctor Salek clearly thought he’d prescribed them for me but I won’t go back and pester him again.

So it grew close to the time when I needed to drive to the airport to pick Jeanie up. Greatly daring, I took the quickest route, up the AP7 and the A7, the motorway route. It was busy but I was fine, only having a mild heart attack when blue police lights followed me off the motorway, all the way down the airport approach road, onto the airport itself but turned off before I reached the car park. There in plenty of time, plenty of time to indulge myself, have my evening meal, my once on occasion Burger King up on the new mezzanine floor. Jeanie doesn’t like establishments like Burger King but just occasionally, I do. And what I had was good. The burger was juicy and stuffed full with fresh salad and pickles. 

Still with plenty of time before Jeanie’s flight arrived, I wandered through the small Smith’s and again wondered about buying the old Attwood, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, which I haven’t read. The trouble is that books in English are so expensive to buy here. The paperback copy I bought cost 12.75€s in Spain. The Spanish price ticket was covering up the £8.50 in England price. However, I did buy it. I was kept entertained until flight arrival time with another cup of coffee and learning the intricacies of Attwood’s dystopian world. Then suddenly, 35 minutes early, Jeanie’s flight had arrived. Sitting in the cafe at arrivals, I had almost missed her. Hastily to the barrier and it wasn’t long before she was there.

At the moment, she is so full of appointments, engagements and ‘gigs’ with various choirs and bands. It was difficult to find the time, an opportunity, to go to the hospital next day. I offered go to hospital very early, leave me there and collect me later. But she had Bible Study to lead and didn’t want me to miss that. In the end it was agreed that we would go to Bible Study, have breakfast at the restaurant where Bible Study meets and then go straight to hospital. Then Jeanie had band practice during the afternoon. So I asked her just to drop me at the hospital, for her to go to band practice and pick me up later when I’d been seen.

Vega Baja hospital does not have a good name. I’ve been there several times, on behalf of other people, or for minor things for myself. I was dreading being dropped. Again, without an appointment and without an interpreter, I had consulted Google Translate again and had a printed ‘This is what I’m concerned about’ piece of paper. Showing that to the man at the reception window, I was immediately despatched to emergency where an auxiliary marched me (he was walking at a pace I found difficult to maintain) to the eye department. A gruff ‘sit’ indicated a chair where I should wait. A lot of people were there, waiting.

I settled down for a long wait but I was surprised to be summoned very quickly. By name. By middle name and surname. That is quite usual in Spain. They have such trouble with my first name in Spain but when I acknowledged my presence, some pronunciation of my first name was attempted. There was a quick check on my eyes. The usual stuff was dropped in to dilate the pupil so a proper inspection of the back of the eye could take place. Then I was returned back to the waiting room until dilation had taken place. It wasn’t long before the real specialist summoned me. She was lovely in nature. Cheerful, smiling, laughing at our mutual attempts to understand each other. My Spanish is still not very good. Her English was better but not good enough. She appeared to be quite happy about what she could see in the back of the eye. But couldn’t explain to me. So she sent for a younger colleague, another specialist, who had almost perfect English. No detached retina. The blow had burst one of the small blood vessels at the back of the eye. The shadow I could see was a very small blood clot which should be absorbed naturally. If there are any further problems, come back immediately. An appointment for 7 to 10 days time was made for a check up. She confirmed with me that I was seeing fine. I was. She then asked if there was any pain. I was delighted to say, in Spanish, ‘Non. Sin dolor.’ Just occasionally the necessary words are there but not yet frequently enough. And apart from the shock of the initial bash on the left shoulder, and the few minutes of feeling stunned afterwards, there has been no pain and my eyes focus normally. The ophthalmologist asked about my cataracts and had a good look at what the surgeon had done in removing them. I had been almost blind before the procedure. Her parting words, in English, ‘good job’. I agree with her. The removal of my cataracts was expensive, as I had the operation done privately, but in this case, a job well done and money well spent, despite my socialist ‘national health services’ principles.

So next Friday, back to the hospital for 11 a.m. I hope it is ophthalmologist Maria Isabel Madrid Saavedra again. Thank you, Spanish public healthcare.

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Funny old weekend

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Edited by Geoff Cooper, Sunday, 17 Nov 2019, 22:16

Its been a funny old weekend. With Jeanie away, I’ve ben left to my own devices. Or should that be vices. I’ve done a lot of things that I should have done. And a great many that could have been left undone. Even things left undone.

On Friday, there was the surprise email from my Open University tutor saying that all posts now needed to be posted to the tutor forum to be read by her for assessment. I’ve counted up the number of posts I’ve made, of my own work, of my response to the work of others and the posts on my blog. There are more than eighty in total, most of which can be classified as creative non fiction, my area of study. I had intended to go to Alicante on Friday morning to ride on the tram system to Benidorm. I delayed, trying to respond to my tutor and trying to begin to transfer files from one place to another but finally went off about noon.

It had been my plan to leave early, drive to Alicante airport, leave the car there and take the airport bus to the city. Then get the tram at Luceros to Benidorm. In the end, having sent an email to the tutor asking for clarification, I did that journey. I made copious study notes on the outward journey. It was very interesting and picturesque, all along the coast. My arrangements, including a light lunch in a cafe at Luceros, went well. I had not intended to stop long in Benidorm. Its a place usually full of stags and hens and frequently over-inebriated Englishmen. Checking on the timetable, I had time for coffee before taking the tram back to Alicante city. It was as I was checking the timetable, that a very large man walked two paces backwards and accidentally gave me a hefty shoulder charge on the left hand side. My head jerked violently and I had to hold on to the wall to prevent myself from falling. At 81, I am not wonderfully steady on my feet at the best of times. Very shaken, the man and his wife comforted me, checked that I was not particularly damaged and I went for a recuperative cup of coffee just around the corner. The tram left about 15 minutes later.

It was only on the tram back to the city, looking into the setting sun, that I was aware of lots of spots on my spectacles. So I removed them and found the spots were still there. Some time passed before I realised that the spots were not on my spectacles but in my eye. Later still, I was aware that it was only my left eye that was affected, the side where I had been bumped. Then I became aware of a transparent shadow moving in the eye as I looked from side to side. Other than that, apart from being shaken by the impact, there were no other side effects. The spots and the shadow are still there. I believe that I now have a detached retina. I’ve checked on the National Health Service website on the internet, and on an American Mayo Clinic site. The symptoms of detached retina appear to be what I am experiencing. My eyes are still in focus. There is no pain. With Jeanie away and as it is the weekend, I’ve done nothing about this. My daughters, one in York and one in California tell me I should be checking into emergency at the local hospital. I’ve ignored their advice, probably wrongly, but Jeanie is away, I don’t want to be admitted to hospital, I have many other things to do before she returns and she needs to be picked up at the airport on Monday evening. If I’m told not to drive (and at present I can see normally to drive), that will be a great inconvenience. So I’ve delayed any action.

I got home very late after my ‘adventure’ and went straight to bed, promising myself a visit to the market Saturday morning. When I got up, I felt extremely lazy and spent most of the day, doing this and that but not going to the market. I had an evening date for a meal out with friends. I kept that date and enjoyed the occasion. A visit to a previously unvisited restaurant in Quesada, a Thai restaurant. The food was good, spicy, different and the company was good. Returning I checked my email and there was a similar query to mine about the forum work but no tutor response. Indulgently, I ate sour gummy sweets which should be an absolute ‘no, no’ for a diabetic. During the eating of sweets, rather absentmindedly, I began copying the link references for al my posts. Getting confused after a while and finding myself missing some posts and duplicating others, I went to bed early, knowing that I had to be up early in the morning for church. This was a service at 9.30 a.m. some distance drive away. I set my alarm for the appropriate time. I did sleep, intermittently, but wide awake at 5 a.m. I got up and made tea. As the alarm was set for 8.15 a.m. going to bed at 6 a.m. for a couple more hours of sleep seemed to be a good idea. 

At 7.15 a.m. the alarm went. I had neglected to reset the clock in the alarm to wintertime. I turned the alarm off, knowing that I would now be able to get up and go through the process of preparing for church in a leisurely manner. I next awoke at 8.50 a.m. with very little time to get ready and get to church on time. I did get there on time but it was a rather harum scarum process. I was glad I got there on time. The preacher, a friend who had been at the Thai restaurant, had even been very apprehensive the night before. He was good. Following church, it was our usual coffee time in a local cafe, always a pleasant occurrence. 

Spanish lesson is on Monday morning and I had not done my homework. After Sunday morning coffee, I came straight home with an hour or so to spare to do the homework. I hope I’ve got it right. I’ve checked it against Jeanie’s homework and some of mine is quite different. Then to Baybrooks just across the road for Sunday lunch, again with friends. Another very sociable and enjoyable event. With coffee and no pudding. That brought me to siesta time which I’d planned for by getting the Spanish homework out of the way. I did sleep for a while but woke up with intense cramp, a frequent occurrence these days. I wasted a good bit more valuable time, not doing the tasks I should have done, like tidying up, putting away the washed dishes (I have done that chore). But the food waste and the waste paper basket will need to be emptied before Jeanie gets back tomorrow. This waste of time brought me, inevitably, to Sunday evening sports time, with both an England soccer match and the Brazilian Grand Prix happening side by side. 

What to watch was solved by walking down to the hotel to watch the soccer, while taking my iPad to keep a close check on the Grand Prix. England won comfortably and Lewis Hamilton came third, rather than his usual first. I enjoyed my two gin and tonics and some mild flirting with Kata, the proprietors daughter. Once home, wrongly, I ate a few more sour gummy drops and felt quite ill as a result. Probably on the edge of a diabetic hyper so I did my evening insulin injection rather earlier than usual. Normally, Jeanie prepares the insulin pen for me and disposes of the used needle. I can manage by myself but find myself rather more clumsy when she is not there to help me. I have felt better and did a little bit on the Open University course. Not reading or writing, but responding to other students. Then watching ‘His Dark Materials’ next episode. I read the trilogy some time ago and was fascinated at Phillip Pullman’s inventiveness and imagination. Oh! to have similar powers. 

Tomorrow, Spanish lesson is only one hour long because there will only be two of us. After that, I must try to see the local doctor to see what he thinks about my eye. I don’t want to go to hospital immediately, if that is what he recommends, as I must be available to pick Jeanie up at the airport at 9.30 p.m. Hospital, if it is necessary, can wait until Tuesday, although there is a complication there, as Tuesday morning is Jeanie’s Bible study session and we can’t do any hospital arrangements before that. 

So now, another indulgence: my evening brandy before bed. Just as I am reminding myself that in my morning haste, my bed is not made. Too many indulgences and not enough seeing to responsibilities. 

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A First Marriage

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It was July, 1967 when I first married, in Scarborough on the lovely Yorkshire coast. Scarborough had always been important to our family, as dad managed to save enough money through his working year to take us to Scarborough for a week’s holiday during the school summer break. Every year in my childhood memory. The school summer break was important because mother was a teacher. So it was fortuitous that my first marriage was to a Scarborough girl whose mother ran a boarding house. 

Because she was an organised girl, who liked everything to be sorted and ‘just so’, the marriage was planned a long time in advance. The church, her childhood church, was booked a year ahead. A great deal of time was spent organising the reception. Scarborough in the holiday season is not an easy place to get a reception planned. In the end, one of the best hotels, right in the centre of town, took the appointment. Prospective wife, prospective mother in law and I spent a long time with the hotel, arranging food, drinks and  facilities for photographs (ultimately some on the grand staircase and others on an outside terrace with beautiful sea views). There were some difficulties with drinks, as many of my relatives came from teetotaller backgrounds and the bride had never let alcohol pass her lips. In the end it was agreed that a limited amount of Asti Spumante would be available for those who wanted it with other soft drinks where preferred. As I remember it, the Asti was delightful.

The fact that the United States of America and the USSR were heavily engaged in the Cold War had not entirely escaped our attention. Some friends had taken part in peace marches to the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston. We had read that brown paper bags to place over the head might be issued should a nuclear war break out. Having fairly recently served as a national serviceman in the Royal Air Force, I was aware that some fellow airmen had been posted to Christmas Island where British nuclear bombs were tested. Some of those fellow airmen are still suffering the consequences. 

The build up to the marriage was long and slow. We were both teachers. As my mother was. In the end, the appointed day was to be about a fortnight into the school summer holiday. Father would take two weeks holiday. He was allowed three weeks a year. Because mother in law-to-be ran a boarding house we; my parents, my brother and I, were invited to Scarborough to stay in the boarding house the week before the marriage. This all seemed to be eminently suitable. We enjoyed Scarborough. Mother in law-to-be was a suitable hostess. 

As my brother was to be best man at the age of fifteen, we needed a gift for him. Something less conventional was deemed to be appropriate in his case, at his age. He had recently been promoted to our local cricket team’s first eleven as an opening batsman. He regularly haunted sports shops. In Scarborough there was an especially good one. A new cricket bat was decided upon, an expensive one, endorsed by all the batsmen of the England cricket team. Both my wife to be and I signed it, alongside the official signatures of the England cricketers. Later in life, it returned to us, for use by my son. 

What we had neglected to do was to buy a ring. It had been discussed. I was not required to wear a wedding ring but my bride would. It was to be simple. Nothing fancy and expensive. But it did need to be gold. Good quality, durable gold. A copper curtain ring would not suffice. We had tentatively looked in the windows of jeweller’s shops. But never entered. I was finding my salary was not going far. I had my first car through a bank loan. I was renting an apartment for the first time near where I taught. The first few days in Scarborough were very busy with other details. Sorting out the legal procedures with the registrar. Consulting with the church minister. Ensuring that mother had the dress she wanted for the day. Final fittings of the bride’s dress. I was not allowed near. Visiting relatives and prospective relatives. Checking that all was well with the busy hotel. When we finally got round to visiting a jeweller’s shop together, we were greeted with pursed lips. 

‘When would the item be required?‘

‘This weekend.’

‘Oh, dear. We don't have in stock the required item in the correct size. It will need to come from headquarters.’

We called every day up to the Friday before the Saturday ceremony. At two p.m. on the eve of the wedding the ring arrived.

Meanwhile, in the wider world, the Beatles were signing a letter published in The Times, part of a petition to ask for the legalisation of marijuana. As I was an amateur classical musician, I had no idea who the Beatles were. I suspect some of my younger numerous cousins did know. That debate, the legalisation of marijuana still goes on. The world moves on but some debates linger.

The day before the marriage, I was ejected from the boarding house. I was not allowed to sleep in the same house as my prospective bride on the eve of the wedding day. I was thrust into the bosom of a family of friends: the daughter was to be bridesmaid, the father the man appointed to ‘give the bride away’ as mother in law was a widow. All very proper for those days and all very traditional. Except that I didn’t sleep a wink all night. On the morning of the marriage, walking along the seafront promenade to clear my head, I unexpectedly came across my parents. 

You’d better make yourself scarce. She’s down here having her last minute hair do.’ 

I felt singularly unrequired, unnecessary. 

I was early at the church. So was the minister. And the registrar, as the church wasn’t licensed for marriages. So were many local guests. My brother was there looking a little uncomfortable in his new suit. I showed him where all the gratings were on the church floor, where he had to be very careful not to drop the ring. But no bus with all my friends and relatives from home and from Tyneside. Nor was there any sign of Peter, my best friend, who was to play an organ that he had never seen before. He was very accustomed to church organs, being organist in the church where I sang in the choir, a wonderful three manual organ with a full range of pedals. I had been given opportunities to play that organ and was bewildered about which keyboard to play and when. 

On the appointed hour - on the precise minute when the service should have started - the bus appeared having been stuck in holiday traffic jams. One farm uncle and aunt were there. But not my favourite farm aunt and husband. I puzzled for years about why that was. A family squabble years later explained it. Then around the corner Peter arrived. 

Has it started? Where’s the organ?’ wrestling to open his music case. And straight into the voluntary to welcome the bride who had appeared in the nick of time at the open door of the church.

I had been afraid that the minister, having a pretty full church for a change, might launch into one of his lengthy sermons. He was accustomed to preaching for an hour and a half or longer. Fortunately, he had remembered that the reception was about a mile away, through heavy holiday traffic and was carefully timed for the hotel’s sake. He did cause some merriment among the gathered congregation and a potential heart attack on my part, by announcing the wrong hymn. Peter did not hesitate, used to putting priests and ministers in their place. He played the correct hymn tune very loudly, and paused, whereupon the minister corrected himself to everyone’s relief.

Meanwhile, having served their jail terms, one for possession of amphetamine and the other for allowing cannabis to be smoked on his property, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were released to resume their musical careers. Again, I had no idea who they were. In San Francisco, where my daughter lives, one of the offspring of this marriage, the first steps were taken in the construction of the wonderful Bay Area Rapid Transport system. When I visit, I love it. At the same time, not so far away, in London, Cicely Saunders was putting to finishing touches to the Saint Christopher’s hospice, the first of its kind. In the United States of America, Lyndon Johnson was struggling to contain race riots taking place in many cities and states, resulting in significant loss of life.

Remembering what had been done to my cousin’s car and his and his bride’s luggage by his mother, the farm aunt who attended, I had hidden my car. Call me a spoil sport if you like, but I had no wish to have kippers tied to the hottest parts of the engine. Or more tin cans than emerge from most rubbish dumps tied to the exhaust. The reception went well. More than expected took Asti Spumante, including many of my Methodist leaning, ci-devant teetotallers. Despite mother in law’s protestations, the meal was a buffet and I was devastated to be detained by well wishers and failed to get a chicken drumstick. One of my uncles, used to big family gatherings, self catered, in church halls, declared,

By lad. This is posh.’

We were glad to get away. To our secret destination. My flat in the oldest house in Newcastle upon Tyne. Previously I had shown it to my Tyneside spinster aunts. Their comment,

Oh dear. You’re never bringing that girl here.’

Being hungry on arrival, we took ourselves to the only place I could afford, the local greasy spoon for a fry up. Mr True Romantic.


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THE BEES

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It was my first wife’s idea to keep bees. Friends were emigrating to Canada. They kept bees in their line side garden beside the main King’s Cross to Edinburgh railway. They gave us the bees - two hives - and we bought the equipment

     It should have been my then wife who kept bees. I had an intense dislike of the nasty, buzzy, stingy little things. And they knew it. She should have been the beekeeper, but she was allergic, had a severe reaction to any sting. Needed to go to hospital.

     So, she being her, I kept bees. The honey would be good for the children, she said.

     Most of their necessary equipment came with the bees, but not all. I bought beekeeper’s hat and veil, gauntlets and a smoker to go with an old white painter’s overall I already had. And a book: ‘Beekeeping for Beginners’. It should have been Beekeeping for Dummies.

     Beekeeping is a fascinating, complex, compelling, intriguing hobby, with much to learn. I enlisted the help of Joe, an elderly friend, fellow cardholder in the political party I espoused, a retired college lecturer and longtime beekeeper, to be my guide and mentor.

     To move bees, it is necessary to shut up the hive, find some way of securing it and get the hive into van, truck, wagon or car. At that time, I drove estate cars. Helpful with a growing family. With seats turned down, Joe and I manipulated the two hives into my car to transport them to my garden. Up the drive. Through the garage. Past the kitchen door. Up the steps through the lower garden. Through the rustic arch. A bit of a struggle there. Up the steps to the upper lawn. Across it and then finally, onto the flat concrete platform I’d prepared and which Joe had checked with his spirit level. I found out then that not only was he meticulous, he was impossibly careful and meticulous. We did all this twice.

     The bees were mine. I could hear them inside the hives, humming in sinister fashion. It sounded like, ‘We’ll soon get him. Be ready.’ But, of course, to ensure that bees didn’t beetle back off to my friend’s garden seven miles away, they still needed to be shut up in their hives. Anyway, my friend had already gone to Canada with his wife and children to start a new life in Newfoundland. The day came, soon enough, when Joe said to me, 

I’ll come across after you come back from school tonight.’ 

     My house was just across the school field, handy for late mornings and occasional coffee breaks in free periods. 

It’s time to let the little people free.’

     So, in the cool of the evening, the bees were released. There was some activity, some movement at the entrance to the hive - but at that stage, very little. 

Too cool for much activity,’ Joe said. ‘Wait until tomorrow. Have a look during your lunch break.’

      At lunch break, the hive was a hive of intense activity. Bees came. Bees went. Bees were everywhere,. I kept my distance and reported in to Joe.

Fine’, he said. ‘Just as it should be. I’ll come round on Saturday morning when you are free and we’ll inspect the brood chamber.’

     Oh! Inspect! Brood chamber! I knew from my reading research that this was a seething mass of insectivity. Did I really need to be a bee inspector?

Oh, yes!’ said Joe. ‘Learn just as Sylvia Plath did.’

     Now this was the first - but not the last - that I had heard of Sylvia Plath’s engagement with bees; Sylvia Plath the beekeeper. Like her, I had a lot to learn.

     The innocent reader, if there is one, needs to have innocence and ignorance dispelled about bees and bee facts. First, there are essentially three types of honey bee: the worker, who is by far the most numerous; the drone, who has only one real task, to mate with the queen; and the queen, herself, of whom in most circumstances, there is only one. The hive is a complex of activity and clearly defined tasks. Workers forage for nectar and pollen, bringing both back into the hive, they secrete wax, build cells, fill the cells with honey, feed and tend larvae, clean and defend the hive. Drones do little, until the time comes for a once in a lifetime opportunity to mate with a queen, then it is every drone for himself. All the queen has to do, after mating, is to be fed and to lay eggs, for she becomes the all-mother.

     At the heart of the hive, the queen will lay an egg in any empty cell she can find. The bee-keeper knows if her majesty is well and laying eggs by noting workers coming into the hive with yellow pollen sacs full. This is a sure sign of good hive health and a welcome sign after overwintering, which can be perilous for a weak hive. However, the queen and her children, (note children rather than subjects for this is the more realistic order of things in the hive) need access to the honey which the beekeeper also craves. So, human cunning being what it is, the beekeeper inserts between the brood chamber and an upper chamber, a thin sheet of perforated zinc, the perforations of which are of sufficient size for workers to pass through but not the queen. The queen is a much larger individual than a worker. Therefore, in the upper chamber no eggs are laid but workers do store honey there. It is this stored honey that the beekeeper will take.

      On an approximately weekly basis, the wise beekeeper will open up the hive, and inspect the brood chamber. He will be keeping a close eye on the upper chamber, too, hoping for a good harvest of honey for himself. In the brood chamber, he will look for cells with eggs, cells with larvae, possibly look for the queen herself, although she is not always noticeable, and for cells that are a different size and shape from the majority. In a healthy hive, from time to time the queen will lay a special egg, the grub of which, fed a more substantial diet, will develop into another queen. The laying to hatching period takes about ten days. There are times when the beekeeper will welcome another queen. Times also when a new queen may not be desirable. A hive can only tolerate one queen at a time. Should a new queen hatch, the old one will gather her retainers around her and depart, a phenomenon called swarming. 

     It was to teach me about this process that Joe and I were to inspect the brood chamber. Joe, as an old hand, never wore beekeeping gloves. It made him more nimble handling the intenseness of the inner secrets of the hive. I was glad of my clumsy leather gauntlets. A sting meant little to Joe but much to me. If his hand got stung, he apologised to the bee as he gently brushed it off. An apology was needed because the bee’s sting is its only defence and for the bee, it is a matter of life and death. 

     Should a wasp sting you, it can fly away and sting again. Its sting is sharp, knife-like, straight and can be inserted and withdrawn. The sting of a bee is barbed, and once used, it cannot be withdrawn but brings with it internal organs vital to the bee’s life. Once the sting is used, the bee dies. 

      We didn’t identify the queen on this inspection of the brood chamber. That didn’t matter Joe said, because there were plenty of new eggs being laid, meaning she was there somewhere. Neither did we see any sign of a new queen cell but Joe assured me that I needed to keep an eye out for one. It could happen in the next week or so, or not at all. So, with some personal relief, the brood chamber was closed up and the bees left to peacefully go about their business. 

      Being advised by Joe to be aware of what was going on in there, next Saturday, I set about my own, first independent inspection of the brood chamber. It was a hot, sultry June afternoon when I instructed my wife to keep well away from the garden as I was going into the hives. Sweating profusely inside overall, hat, mask, gauntlets, I proceeded to smoke the first hive. Smoking makes the bees believe there is a forest fire, they gorge themselves ready for flight and this is supposed to subdue them. My bees were not subdued. They sensed my nervousness. They were aware of the sweat on my spectacles obscuring my view. They were ready for action.

     Things went more or less smoothly at first. My gauntleted hands were more clumsy than Joe’s bare hands but I managed to get into the brood chamber. It was very busy in there and I could see lots of new eggs at the bottom of cells, white grubs ready to hatch into new workers, and then, something that didn’t quite fit. A different cell. A queen cell. I knew that if I left it, very shortly a new queen would emerge and the hive would swarm. I wasn’t ready for that so I did what I thought I had been advised. I cut the cell out, using my new hive tool. Inspection of the second hive revealed nothing out of order. Satisfied that I had learned a lesson, I reported to Joe.

Oh dear,’ he said. ‘We were waiting for that cell. I was going to show you how to manage a swarm and start a new hive.’

     As I have said, there was a lot to learn.

      My children did get honey. There never was a huge amount. Enough for breakfast, not enough to give away and never enough to sell. Joe showed me how to move hives around midsummer to the moor, permission of a friendly farmer, to get the benefit of nectar from the heather. Heather honey is especially runny and easy to extract, but it also full of health giving goodness cut straight from the comb, wax and all. Much of the honey gathered in my garden was spoiled. The farms all around grew massive fields of vivid yellow oil seed rape. The bees found plenty to forage on but honey made from oil seed rape crystallises easily, solidifies, and has a relatively bitter taste. Crystallised honey is virtually impossible to extract and is therefore difficult to use. 

      There were times when my adventures with bees left me marked. Bees always seem to get more agitated when the atmosphere is heavy and sultry. There was the occasion that I went to school on Monday with a spreading black eye that began just where my spectacles sit on the bridge of the nose. It was rare that any bee got inside the mask to attack the sweaty area just there, but this one did. The final straw came when I was promoted to a big new job and began to find difficulty managing the, by then, three hives. It was a very hasty brood chamber inspection job that precipitated the decision to leave bee keeping. The inspection had gone satisfactorily but the bees appeared to be particularly agitated by my interference in their management of the hive. Closing up the hives, I went back inside, very hot and bothered and prepared to take a shower to cool down. I got down to my underpants and as I removed them, a dead bee fell out. I had felt no sting. Presumably it had been expended on some piece of clothing rather than me. However, as that one bee had managed to find its way into a rather sensitive part of the anatomy, I decided that the time had come to part with the little creatures. Other beekeepers were happy to take my burden from me.

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Been and Gone

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Well, that’s Megan’s much anticipated visit been and gone. At this moment, she is somewhere mid-Atlantic, on her way to Philadelphia. I’ve been tracking her flight. The aircraft has just climbed several thousand feet higher and made a significant deviation from its planned flight path. I suspect they are avoiding strong headwinds or avoiding turbulence. Megan’s check in early this morning at Alicante airport was a nonsense. Very short queue on arrival. Long delays while the checker-in-er checked in the two previous sets of people. It took ages. Lots of challenge about carry on bags. Lots of weighing and re-packing of hold bags. With one family, it took two men to put two cases onto the conveyor, the bags were so heavy. Lots of telephoning someone. Lots of anxious faces, some on the faces of airport staff.  When Megan’s turn came, the checker-in-er challenged her booking (stored on a mobile phone), rang someone (presumably at headquarters), consulted her computer screen, typed things into a keyboard. There had been a very short queue behind and only one check-in desk open. By the time the next twenty minutes had expired, the queue was snaking way past the barriers and into the main concourse. And people in the queue were beginning to expire. Some were diverted to the ‘business only’ desk. The supervisor was summoned, inspected the screen at the desk where Megan was waiting patiently, shrugged his shoulders and opened another desk to relieve the queue. We had arrived at the airport so promptly, promising ourselves a last coffee with Megan. By the time her three boarding passes were issued, one to Madrid, one to Philadelphia and one on to Saint Louis, Megan had to go straight through security as boarding time was close. How close it was for those still behind her in the queue is anyone’s guess. We got home from the airport to find a telephone message from Megan. Her boarding pass for Madrid, at the final boarding stage, did not work, so lots of computer typing had to be gone through before she boarded. When she boarded, someone else was in her numbered seat and she was ushered to a seat at the uttermost back of the aircraft. The message we received from her was, ‘In Madrid, why is it so difficult to leave Spain, got my Burger King.’ So, I hope whatever her flight is avoiding is not too tough on her. It has been a joy to have her in the house and all our arrangements, including yesterday’s lunch for church friends and neighbours, went well. Not for the first time, our house has been ‘standing room only’. Thirty people, including us. Not for the first time, we have struggled with the weather. We needed to be able to get some visitors outside: last time it was a problem with rain and the lower patio flooding; this time, high winds and every door in the house banging and clashing. But it was warm enough to sit outside in the arbor. It was so nice, that the final guests were still there well after sunset and we had to put the arbor lights on. A good job that I had replaced two bulbs that had been shattered in the ‘Gota Fria’ a few weeks ago. As she left the house, Megan promised that she would be back again. After this morning’s airport trauma, she may be having second thoughts. Jeanie and I, usually flying only to England, do internet check-in at home, have our boarding passes already printed out, take only a cabin bag, so never have to queue at the airport check in desks. Now I understand why we do it that way.

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Nightmares

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Is it legitimate to exorcise nightmares by writing about them, in particular by writing poetry about them? My childish nightmares were often true, like this one about my grandmother.

IN 1947

In 1947

Granny came

To stay with us

To die.

My little old granny

Parchment grey skin,

All skin and bones

Who’d nursed me

Through measles, mumps and whooping cough 

And the chicken pox and ringworm.

But I missed scarlet fever

And the impetigo.

Dad was recently back

From the war.

Having gran in his ‘getting used to civvy life’ house

Must have been hard for him.

It was hard for me,

Getting used to having a dad

And getting used to a poorly gran.

She’d always

Fed me lunch

When mam was away at work.

And now

She was downstairs

In our house,

In our front room

In bed, all skin and bones

Come to die.

No, she didn’t want hospital,

Nor any operations,

And not that radium thingy,

Just the pills

That helped to make her

Feel better.

She knew what was wrong

And what was going to happen.

She was sick.

Always being sick.

Couldn’t keep anything down

And blamed mam’s cooking.

But a boiled egg would be nice.

It was sad and I was scared,

So I stole her an egg

That mam boiled.

I’d watched the captive hen

In its cage

Lay this egg

So I stole it for gran.

Felt it still warm from the hen

In my hand.

It was boiled.

Gran ate it

And was sick.

It was cancer,

But in those days

No one dared say the word

In case of bad luck.


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The grand paella party

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Edited by Geoff Cooper, Saturday, 16 Nov 2019, 12:10

Once a year, at the Hotel Algorfa, about 150 yards away from my home, a grand paella party is held. This event is free to all those living in the local urbanisations. Many groups of houses in Spain have a management committee with president, vice president and usually an outside company looking after the urbanisation’s finances and legal obligations, to manage things like maintenance, street lighting, rules for the community swimming pool and for the community in general, gardening. Because most of us in this group of urbanisations vote for the incumbent mayor, he sponsors the paella party as a ‘thank you’. I hope it is not a bribe. He has been good to the expatriate community. We have a pedestrian crossing at the main road where previously it was ’take your life in your hands’. The roads have all been recently re-surfaced (days before his re-election). And the path from our houses to the hotel, where our vice-president had a bad fall and a badly broken leg, has been properly paved. So the mayor gathers votes. The votes of many who would not usually vote for a Socialist mayor. The group of urbanisation presidents have a regular meeting with him, which has been most effective. Expats here outnumber locals. Which is why my Spanish is not coming along as quickly as I had hoped. Too many of us speak English and when you ask a question in Spanish in the market, it is quite usual to get an answer in English. 

     The hotel is interesting. It is where we gather for an evening drink. It is where we have our annual general meeting. The Tuesday night quiz is held there with its ‘don’t tell the police’ side games. (Play your cards right). Actually, the police do visit the hotel, most days, to take their coffee breaks (and an occasional meal) and they are very welcome visitors. Seeing their car with its bright blue light (always illuminated when on patrol) means that they are regularly patrolling our streets. We have very little trouble with burglars or other unwelcome visitors. The hotel is where the more rabid among British football supporters gather mid-week and at weekends to watch the matches. And it is where my acquaintance, Bernie, gets on his telephone to his betting shop friend in England to place his (several hundred pound) bets on matches or horses. The hotel, three star in local ratings, is unique in my experience. It is entirely run by a family of four Hungarians, who have lived in Spain for years and who are on very good terms with the police. The husband does the heavy work, and during restaurant hours, is the chef. There is a very acceptable goulash. His name - and this is no joke - is Atilla, as in Atilla the Hun, from Hungary. His wife does all the domestic things; cleaning and maintaining the bedrooms, serving at table and behind the bar. She, Katalina,  does a lot of smiling and often looks quite stressed and tired. The two children, young grown ups, spend almost all of their waking hours supporting mother and father, being barmen/women, receptionists when required, maintenance assistants. It works for customers and clients but no one in the family appears to have much of another life. At busy times, there is a local girl who takes drinks to tables and returns the empties, but she is not allowed to dispense drinks or handle money.

     Today, the place has been absolutely crowded. Any port of call to take advantage of a freebie. And it was free to all residents holding a ticket as long as the drinks kept flowing. We estimate that some 150 people took advantage of the paella. It was cooked outside in four huge paella dishes and although very basic, it tasted good. Perhaps because it was free. The entertainment was free, too. A local duo, frequent visitors on Saturday nights, ‘Bella Luna’, played, very loudly, and some, even some of the oldest of the oldie expats, danced. However, as it was Saturday, the big television screen was on. Raymond, the most rabid of the rabid football supporters, sat, back to everyone else, watching his beloved Manchester City defeat Aston Villa. When I first met Raymond, Leicester City were making themselves surprisingly famous by winning the Premier league title. Raymond was proud to wear his Leicester City Foxes supporter regalia. However, next season, Raymond's allegiances changed as Manchester City swept almost all before them. He despises my type of football supporting, my local team, ever since childhood, through thick and a great deal of thin. And he mocks me and my team for it. I prefer loyalty to switching to the most popular option.

     Of course, this being the mayor’s event, he turned up with his main supporter, Enrico, who sells fibre optic technology locally, glad handing people. And I think people were genuinely glad to be gladhanded. He is young, good looking and as far as the expat community is concerned, effective. Oh! for effective politicians worldwide.

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Cheap and cheerful

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Edited by Geoff Cooper, Friday, 15 Nov 2019, 10:29

We’ve been to the cheap and cheerful Chinese restaurant tonight about six kilometres away with Nick and Paula. They go back to UK on Thursday. The name cheap and cheerful Chinese is rather rude but accurate. Its proper name is the Pato Pekin. Order any meal on the set menu (there are about 40 choices) and it comes with a small glass of ‘sangria’, a starter (soup, salad, sesame toast etc) main course with chips, noodles or fried rice, sweet (except that I always have Chinese tea but could also have ice cream, banana fritter or crepe caramel or coffee) and half a bottle of local wine (a not bad at all white, rose or red). When the bill is paid a tot of liqueur, schnapps, or local brandy follows.  Some of the main meal choices have two small main courses. Tonight, I have had chicken balls and curried prawns as well as my noodles. Jeanie has had pork spare rib and prawns with fried rice. Always substantial and often too much so some is taken home for a meal next day. Four of us have eaten generously, and the total bill - with a reasonable tip - came to 40 euros. Chinese friends who visited some time ago questioned how this could be sustained. However, the restaurant was pretty full tonight. The cheapest all in meal is about  5 euros 70 cents. We are not complaining. Nor should we.

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Raw in tooth and claw

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Edited by Geoff Cooper, Saturday, 16 Nov 2019, 12:11

THE DAY THE WOODPECKERS CAME 

(Nature Raw In Tooth and Claw)


In this piece, the person watching the birds is the narrator, the protagonist. However, as a bird watcher, he is unseen by the birds. This is written, deliberately, in the third person with no mention of ‘I’ or ‘me’, in keeping with the observation of the main actors, the birds.

The cottage in North Northumberland had a big garden. Big enough to have a small wood, a fertile, mature small orchard, a generous lawn and several outbuildings. There was sufficient justification to buy a lawn tractor. It kept the lawn trim. It was nimble enough to go around the little wood crunching leaves and twigs. It stopped the rough grass around the orchard from over growing. It and its trailer were very helpful moving logs around the place. The cottage had a wood burning stove and it was very necessary in the winter. There were Bramley apples to store for winter apple sauce. Victoria plums and greengage sufficient to gorge on when ripe and to make jam to last until next season. In the hedge, brambles grew in profusion. Bramble jelly was popular and more than enough were left over to marinade a joint of lean Northumbrian pork.

It was a tranquil and isolated spot. A minor road passed by, busy only when there was a major accident on the main road two miles away. Or at harvest time when huge combine harvesters frequently competed for road space. Two miles west to the nearest village, with church, shop, school and pub. Two miles east to the nearest bus stop. Half a mile north to the nearest farm. 

Birds frequently visited. Buzzards screeched overhead, quartering the fields for prey or calling for a mate. Every year, swallows nested in the outbuilding that had lost its door to rot and not had it replaced. There was even the year when one pair of swallows nested in the  garage, gaining access through a hole in the double door. Young swallows performed their circuits and bumps joyfully up and down the drive, while learning to catch the flying insects which could be a considerable nuisance in season. Wagtails took advantage of a wheelbarrow full of logs left out from winter, to build cunningly and rear their young there. No logs were disturbed when the family was at home.

There were nesting boxes all around the property. Strangely, although conditions were almost perfect, no birds ever took up residence. Until one year, blue tits were seen flying in and out excitedly. Later beaksful of moss and grass and bits of lamb’s wood were seen going in but not out. At last, a clutch of eggs could be seen, at least seven, possibly eight. It took great patience, not to disturb the brooding pair. Then one day, there was a constant flying in and out with mouthsful of food for the sitting bird, and later, mouthsful of food flying in and out from both parents to feed the newly hatch chicks.

Also in the vicinity, hanging apparently perilously upside down, was a nuthatch, an attractive bird. It enjoyed the peanuts and the seed feeder. Then the woodpeckers arrived. Three. A male in the splendour of its green and scarlet plumage, a female, almost as gaudy and what was probably a juvenile. They feasted regularly, on the bird table, hanging from the feeders, meaning that top ups for smaller birds had to be frequent. They were a sight for sore eyes. Welcome visitors from the mature wood on the other side of the road.

Until one day, a persistent knocking could be heard. Not a quiet sound coming from the distance of the wood beyond, but a close at hand knocking, echoing loudly through the cottage. It echoed all day. Then silence. Stillness. A return to tranquillity. 

Next day was lawn trimming day. The lawn tractor never seemed to bother the birds. Nothing came to the bird table, of course, when grass mowing was going on. But it was a relatively brief interruption, that had not previously stopped swallows swooping for insects, nor the mewing of buzzards seeking carrion, nor the gentle nesting of the blue-tits. However, there was no sign of the blue-tits. No parents flying in and out of the nest box. No eager tweeting of the chicks. No chicks. Only a ruined bird box, nest exposed to the elements, entrance pecked wide, forced open by voracious woodpeckers to carry off and eat their young downie feathered relatives.

Which is why this piece has the cliche, ‘Raw in tooth and claw’, as its subtitle.



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At the Gran’Italia

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Edited by Geoff Cooper, Saturday, 16 Nov 2019, 12:13

At the Gran’Italia


We’ve been out for a meal tonight, Jeanie and me. Think Italian, in Spain. Not Pizza Express not Pizza House, nor even Ask! and certainly not an ubiquitous American Diner with an Italian flavour. Very Italian. Grumpy Gustavo, mine host, is a Lazio supporting Roman. The cuisine at his restaurant is exquisite. However, the Gran’Italia is as much noted for its decor as its cuisine. Prego.

Think quirky. Very quirky. The floors of this place are uneven, sloping and stepped in places. The interior is built from temporary materials - screens and asbestos type roof. I’m willing to bet that what looks like asbestos is not asbestos but some material more acceptable than the carcinogen identified these days. The exterior is covered in bougainvillea of many different shades which hides the temporary nature of the building materials. Although the tablecloths are sparkling white, the tables and chairs, to match the condition of the floor, are all odd, uneven and some even fairly rickety. The kitchen, the bar, the toilets are the only places made of proper, substantial building materials - the original part of the establishment.

It is the walls that grab attention. And the surfaces. And the hanging lights. It looks a mess until you look beyond the chaos. The hanging lights all have home made fringed light shades in Italian themes. For example, one proclaims - and the proclamation is well illustrated - Amore Pizza. If eyes can be torn away from the ceiling and fall on the walls, there is no spare space to be found anywhere. Walls are draped with fishing net, fishing boat, trawler or drifter net. This is to provide easy hanging opportunities for the rest of the decor. It is a multitude, an impossibility, a cacophony of images. The walls reveal a lifetime of collecting. No one particular taste, that says ‘style’.  Just a hotch-potch of periods, modes, interpretations that in the end add up to this place’s individuality and cumulatively, its unique style. Starting with the paintings, most of them are modern interpretations of older times, with the odd still life thrust in. Always Mediterranean colourful fruit, of course. However, there are frequent references to fat ladies in their bathrooms, stout ladies wearing mantillas dancing, and even children dancing. Bucolic farm workers, taking a semi-naked siesta. One wonders what the generously proportioned lady, naked from the waist up, has been getting up to with her fellow male worker who is helpfully allowing her head rest on his knee as they sleep out, in the harvest field.

Where there are spaces on the walls, and there are not many of those, musical instruments hang, a mandolin instrument not the kitchen tool, Russian decorated spoons fill in, with an odd river fishing willow basket suspended, as though waiting for the next trout. And great serving plates, ‘assiettes’, now apparently redundant.There are even items hanging here whose purpose or origin are shrouded in mystery. And large puppet  Pinocchio with small Pinocchio hanging from his nose.

Then, as if all this was not enough, every flat surface is covered, too. Here stands a Singer sewing machine similar to the one my mother occasionally used in my childhood. Here a trumpeted gramophone. My brother, who collects such things, was very interested in this until he took a closer look. ‘Reproduction’, he said, dismissively. Delicate miniature coffee cups in their scores cover one side table. On another, a collection of ships in bottles with one or two ships without bottles. Candles, table lamps with bulbs of different colours and intensities. A classic French table clock, black marble and telling no time, probably dating about 1750. Among this apparent clutter, plants intertwine, subtly joining all the objects together. Someone has a predilection for porcelain dolls, lots of them, standing together to attention as if on parade. 

Then, almost unseen, out of the corner of an eye, at the swinging gate into the kitchen, a copper bedpan. And a home made placard advertising Pesce Fresca. Among all this, complementing the busy-ness of the decor, the busy-ness of the restaurant. The owner’s pleasant daughter/wife busying herself with customers. I’ve seen her described as both daughter and wife in restaurant recommendations. It is difficult to tell, looking too young to be a wife but described so by a visiting son as ‘my father’s wife’ and not ‘my sister’ and not ‘my mother’. There is little need to order. An experienced hand, she quickly recalls favourite meals and favourite wines, offering them before much consultation of the menu. So many customers, coming and going. The smiling sous-chef, determined not to be left out of the show, elegant scarlet chef’s hat, flamboyantly delivering delicious dessert for those who have room. The best tiramisu outside Venice. Fitting into all this, the babel of voices. So many languages, so many explanations in different languages of menu items and even so many misunderstandings at times. The English persistently calling for butter with their bread, despite Gustavo’s own piquant olive oil and herb addition on the table. My, how his mixture tingles on the palate. Those of a more delicate stomach asking for his tender steaks to be well done. ‘Shall it be burned?’ And my favourite, costolette di agnello, lamb chops. Never thick juicy lamb chops like a Barnsley double chop. Small, scrawny, thin things, lots of them on my plate, done in olive oil and a wonderful concoction of herbs with true Rosemary the only one I can recognize. But so tasty. So delicious. Vegetables in Mediterranean variety al dente, never stewed and tasteless. And then, chops taken in the fingers. 

My mother taught me always to eat with knife and fork and occasionally spoon. What joy now, to disobey, to take a tiny lamb chop in the fingers and chew away at the wonderful taste. The meal cannot possibly be complete without wine here. The waitress knows: Frascati. A light, cool, perfumed white from a favourite part of Italy, the Veneto. Satisfaction. So much atmosphere. So much personality.

And a final word about Grumpy Gustavo. I think he is just being unsmilingly serious about his work, his business. Although I have seen him purple with rage on one occasion dealing with very awkward customers. Arriverderci. 


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First TMA

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Edited by Geoff Cooper, Saturday, 16 Nov 2019, 12:13

Why is it, that things are so clear during a sleepless night but get lost on waking in the fog of morning? Except that this morning is as clear outside as can be, my distant mountains are in sharp focus and it is the first TMA that is cloudy, lost in the mists. I went to bed late - always a mistake - slept briefly, then lay awake planning in some detail how I would tackle the TMA. I knew how I was going to approach the assignment, what its topic would be, what tone I would adopt, what voice, how it would be shaped, the commentary was in the mental planning stage, although in my head I was having difficulty limiting it to 500 words (long on explanations and justifications, short on the ability to be concise), I knew where my research would be coming from, I was fairly sure about where it would lead, what it would reveal;  I even had the bibliography constructed in my head. So now, breakfasted, morning medicationed (OOH! That’s a noun-verb: would I be allowed to get away with that?), my other mind, the ‘concentrate on thoughts about TMA mind’, is blank. Interrupted by my wife, asking for help with the winter lightweight duvet. Here in Spain, we sleep the summer away with only a light cotton sheet covering us - and more often than not, not covering us, for the heat. It was 25.5 degrees as we left our friend at the airport yesterday mid-afternoon. By six, it was decidedly chilly and I may have to begin wearing trousers instead of shorts during the evening. A thought: in training to be a government report writer, we were instructed never to descend to noun-verbs, by ‘Athletes do not ‘medal’ at sporting events, they win ‘medals.’ Hope I rememberise. Or is it remembrocate? Could it even be remembrify?

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Full Wednesdays

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Edited by Geoff Cooper, Saturday, 16 Nov 2019, 12:15

Wednesday is the busiest day of my ‘retirement’, and, in many ways, the most difficult. After the morning ritual of old age medication and additionally administering a carefully measured dose of insulin, I usually, but not always, make my way some 20 miles to a writer’s club. I stand in awe at some of the contributions read around the table; the people so clever with rhythm and rhyme, those who can tell a tale and have the gathering rocking with laughter. One or two contributions I don’t care for but this is always the case with  personal choice. Just occasionally I want to challenge a timeline, or keeping quiet, wonder if adequate research has taken place. The club is useful, because it is a sounding board, and although there is rarely a depth of criticism, useful tips come out of the commentary after each reading.

Following writer’s club, I drive home and snatch a very hasty light lunch before hurrying off to church choir. I used to be the choir master but surrendered the role about a year ago because it was getting to be too much for me. However, I still enjoy the singing. My big difficulty is that so much church music is jazzy and in unison these days and my great love is part singing. And even when we find an item with part singing, Bob, our choirmaster, will often ask me to sing the melody line because my strong tenor ‘puts off’ those in the choir who can’t read music, can’t hold a part or have little experience of rigorous choral singing.

After choir, it is a little more relaxing when a group of us go down to the Spanish bar called ‘Quick’. This place feels very down at heel. There is often some heavy drinking and almost always some heavy smoking. Usually we are able to sit outside enjoying the Spanish southern sun. At times we have to sit with the smokers. We never have more than coffees, wines, shandies or water of different sorts. Jeanie, my wife and I, share a small local brandy, a ‘chopitos’. She pours some in her coffee. I drink the residue. This is a relatively brief but precious interlude with people I like.

Because we are then in town, Wednesday is a good day for shopping. Tonight, expecting a visitor imminently, we have been to the shop ‘Iceland’ to get in supplies ready for her coming. Tonight, because it is now some time from my last meal, and because that meal was very small, I was on the verge of a diabetic hypo, feeling shaky, weak and wobbly, not willing to take my share of the tasks. Hasty purchase of some soft fruity sweets and a coke at the small restaurant got me over the hump. 

Following shopping, recovered from the lack of sugar in my bloodstream, we went to pick up a recently bereaved friend, Phyl, a choir member. The death of her husband has hit her hard. Most Wednesday’s involve going somewhere locally for an evening meal with her and frequently a few others.  

Tonight, the meal has been taken at the ‘Star of India’ restaurant where we can usually be guaranteed an excellent curry. No exception in this case.  We are replete. However, having ordered a ‘sizzling’ curry, Jeanie has been spat at when her sizzler appeared on the table. We weren’t prepared to make a fuss in a rapidly filling venue but Jeanie was splattered by some of her delicious, and very hot, orange sauce. As was Phyl to a lesser extent. Despite this, the meal was a convivial success and we were pleased for those running the restaurant; it was full to the brim by the time we were due to leave. Apart from that, only one jarring note, a literally jarring note; two not very good singers, outside, about 100 yards apart, amplifiers turned up full, competing for customers and for air time.

So, parting with Phyl, a reminder that we will pick her up again tomorrow. She is flying to England for a few days. We will take her to the airport. Her sons, ten grandchildren and twenty great grandchildren await her.

Therefore, in my busy day, I will now try to catch up with my studies.

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