Andalucia Steve

...living the dream

Things that wind me up

My surprising reaction to life in Coronavirus lock down dystopia.
 
Maybe it's cabin fever but one thing I've been reflecting on of late are things that have got on my nerves over the years. (Politics aside that is. Though it pains me to do it, I generally try to keep this blog politics-free since it is probably dull enough as it is and my Facebook feed is full of it anyway). 
 
All of a sudden my house has become like sensory deprivation tank, free from outside noise and interference. There are no kids playing ball in the street, or playing 'Knock Down Ginger' (knocking on my door and running away in case that term is one not used in your part of the world). There are no longer motorcycles roaring past my door. The smoker coughing up his morning lung-butter no longer passes my house on his way to work. Things are quiet. It's bliss. That got me thinking about the things that used to bug me.
 
Breaking down the things that grind my gears into animal, vegetable or mineral, I can quickly see that plants don't really annoy me very much. Having said that, as a child I used to hate getting foxtails stuck in my socks. Even when picked out and discarded they still seemed to itch until a change of footwear sorted out the problem. I wasn't overly keen on stinging nettles but as one learns to look out for them, being stung almost becomes a matter of choice.
 
Minerals I'm generally down with too. I don't recall being annoyed by a amethyst or taking umbridge at uraninite, though given the latter is a 'flesh devouring' mineral that emits natural radiation my opinion could conceivably change if I kept a lump of it in my pocket for any length of time.
 
Only animals have bothered me in a significant way. Bugs have bugged me to distraction. For their small size,  Drosophila are remarkably irritating, especially if like me you enjoy a glass of wine, since these chaps like nothing more to join you in a glass - literally in your glass - committing suicide in the process, seemingly with the only purpose of plundering the pleasure of your sip by becoming a bitter, unwanted speck on your tongue. [If they bother you too, the trick is to get some empty spice jars, the ones with small perforations in the lid, half fill them with apple-cider vinegar and leave them dotted about your house. The vinegar is more tasty to the files than your wine and once they enter the spice jar they can't get out again. You may have seen many of their war-dead kin in vinegar cruets when holidaying in hot countries]
 
Creepy crawlies in general get my gander up. I can't stand spiders, crane flies, flying ants, beetles, cockroaches, earwigs, the list goes on and on. I endured a bed-bug infestation a few years ago that was extraordinarily irksome. Those guys are hard to vanquish. I spent months disinfecting and trying to track down the eggs but they kept coming back. Engage a professional pest controller if you can afford it, but I couldn't so I eventually cracked it by getting hold of some industrial-strength, nicotine based foggers, the type they use in professional greenhouses. I had to move out for a few days and everything had to be washed to get rid of the tobacco smell but the bed bugs abandoned the place never to return.
 
Apart from insects the only other class of animal to get my goat really is man. Where to start? I used to work with a guy years ago who, if there were any justice in this world, would have been clapped in irons. His crime? Well he brought a packed lunch into the office each day, part of which was a yogurt. I sat behind this chap, back to back with a movable partition screen separating us. Whenever his spoon reached the bottom of the yogurt pot he would scrape and lick, scrape and lick, scrape and lick. Minutes would go by of his noisy excavations at the bottom of the plastic pot, slowing the passage of time in my mind to a standstill. There surely could be not even a molecule of yogurt left, but on he would go, scraping, scraping scraping, until I would shout DAVE THAT'S IT - YOU'RE DONE!! then jump around the screen and blow his head off with a sawn off shotgun (well I didn't but that's what I was thinking).
 
This illustrates an important point about the nature of things that vex me. Human behaviour is far more irritating than anything else in the natural world because it is empowered by the volition of the human mind. Jean-Paul Sartre got it right when in his 1944 play 'Huis Clos' he said "Hell is Other People".
 
With that in mind, I've never quite understood why people congregate in Spain. Take bars for example. I knew a guy who ran a very popular little bar which was always packed. I asked him once why he didn't move to larger premises. He told me Spanish folk won't go into an empty bar. Larger bars seem emptier than smaller bars even if they have the same number of people in them [I later learned this is a manifestation of a psychophysical phenomenon called Weber's law, but I digress] Given the choice, if I was going to go for a drink with a friend I'd go for an empty bar rather than a full one, since I'd expect to get served more quickly and wouldn't have to shout to be heard but apparently I'm in the minority. People want atmosphere. When I lived in Murcia I'd occasionally go one of the beaches in a town called Aguilas. There are 35 beaches in Aguilas. Four of them have commercial facilities, bars, a first-aid hut, tourist tat shops etc. Those four beaches are generally heaving with tourists in summer, while the other 31 beaches will be virtually empty. Now me being me, my worst nightmare would be to go to one of the busy beaches, squeezing my beach towel between two families of tourists, indulging in the untold sorts of pursuits that would be sure to irk me. I'd prefer to drive five minutes down the road and have a beach to myself!
 
I'm probably then one of the few miserable buggers dreading the end of the lock down. I've quite enjoyed not hearing the nightly roaring of unsilenced quads, mopeds and scooters parading up and down the main street in pursuit of young female attention. I've quite enjoyed going shopping and not seeing a living soul except for the odd tractor driver spraying the street with bleach. The world seems a healthier, cleaner place with reports of crystal clear canals in Venice, reduced air pollution and animals venturing into towns emboldened by the abatement of people and traffic. If this is our dystopian future, long may it continue! Mind you as I say that, I've also noticed a sharp increase in flying things and creepy crawlies. I guess there's always a downside to everything. Where did I put those foggers?

On Playing Music

What's it really like to be a musician

 

I thought I'd jot down a few thoughts on being a musician.
 
We're a breed apart. I'm not saying people who don't play music are weirdly different such that we can't mix, socialise, marry, procreate or whatever but there is in some way a barrier that the two can never cross. It is a bit like being in one of those American movies where the visitor and the criminal can only talk over the phone though a glass screen. I had a girlfriend years back who was charming in every way but for her tin-ear. Music had no meaning for her so we never really hit it off.
 
So to the non-musicians out there, what is it like to be a musician, why do we do it? What is the point in an age where live-bands can be undercut by DJs? Well it's a blessing and a curse. I hope to answer a few of these questions here today.
 
Music was born out of curiosity for me. Dad plonked me in front of a piano when I was four and had me picking tunes out but I had no great interest at that time and the business of playing Three Blind Mice seemed unchallenging and a bit pointless. I had recorder lessons at school to learn how to read the dots, but again this exercise seemed worthless for the same reason. Who wants to play Three Blind Mice on recorder? It wasn't until I got a little older and heard Jimi Hendrix play guitar that I thought 'wow, how did he do that', that I dug out an old Neapolitan mandolin, family heirloom that had been languishing unloved in the cupboard under the stairs, and started to pick out Purple Haze and Voodoo Chile (Slight return). From then on I was hooked.
 
Mandolin was a gateway drug to guitar. Soon after I managed to save enough cash to buy a Spanish Classical guitar and started learning properly. I couldn't afford tuition but a school friend lent me some sheet music and was gracious with his time to show me the basics of technique, so I was soon on my way. 
 
That friend of mine was called Graham, and his other role in this story was that he setup for me what would turn out to be a lifetime dilemma. He had been taking lessons and at about aged 14 he volunteered to do a concert in the school hall. What you have to know about Graham is that he was a very shy, quiet dude who wouldn't say boo to a goose. He was ginger, not Auburn but bright orange like a Belisha Beacon which became his nickname. I'd stepped in to stop him getting beaten up on more than one occasion as he was the sort of chap who got picked on a lot. But here he was, bold as brass in front of the whole school giving a recital of Sor and Tárrega. I was gob-smacked. Not only was I in awe of my friend's confidence but I knew that as an introvert myself, performing in front of a large number of people is about the last thing in the world I would want to do. My dilemma then was what goals to have as a musician if being in the spotlight wasn't one of them. This is something I wrestle with to the present day.
 
The thing is though, once you get the bug, playing music is a class-A drug. I love the physical production of sound, the fretting of a note. I love the action of changing its  pitch by bending and vibrating it. I relish the challenge of playing a new melody I just heard for the first time, picking up my guitar and figuring it out. When one starts to make combinations of sounds a whole new world opens up in which every note takes on a new life dancing with its partners in time which for musicians is a never-ending puzzle of mathematics and emotion that is somehow of capable of describing the greatest wonders of the universe to the human mind through the ears. As Mozart marvelled "If only the whole world could feel the power of harmony."
 
Somehow then I get endless entertainment from playing. There are downsides though. Practising is a necessary evil, especially with stringed instruments where it is necessary to maintain a certain degree of hard-skin and muscle memory. This can seriously piss-off any significant other who come to see your guitar as 'the other woman'. Gear envy is another big problem. There are so many instruments I'd love to buy if I had the money. As a non-musician you might look at all guitars as being pretty much the same, but when you're an enthusiast the nuance in sound between two instruments appears as a roaring chasm with green grass on the other side, a journey that someday somehow has to be made. I have a wish list on an online music shop that has been building up for years and it struck me recently that even if I could afford everything on the list I'd need a warehouse to store it all as my house would be far too small!
 
I was in several bands when I was a kid from about aged 14 and I had a love/hate relationship with performing. It paid money which was good. My first decent guitar came from gigging before I'd ever worked a proper day job. However I always felt uncomfortable on stage and hated being in the spotlight, i.e. when I was called upon to do a solo or something. However for some reason I kept on doing it, as though there was a greater purpose I was unaware of that needed to be pursued. 
 
Up until I moved to Spain in 2003 I'd always been a sideman, a musician in a band where someone else was the centre of attention, so I was generally fortunate not to have to be exposed to the spotlight too much. In Spain however I found myself in a situation with no fellow musicians to fall back on. I felt the calling to move forward and perform but I had no band, no friends to even jam or practice with. So out of necessity, I taught myself to sing and worked out a repertoire of songs to sing solo in a reasonable fashion. It took a while. A friend of mine who was a musical examiner gave me some vocal coaching lessons which was mainly about breathing and off I went. I did some local gigs and some busking and forced myself to become a solo performer. I can't emphasise enough how alien that idea would have been to me only a few years earlier, but for some reason I found the music driving me rather than the other way around.
 
Ten years ago there were a few domestic changes in my life and I found myself living in another part of Spain.  I immediately found there were more musicians here and struck up several friendships which I still cherish.  I soon began jamming with my partner-in-crime Nigel 'bad boy' Tucker and we gig together to this day. It works because Nigel enjoys the spotlight much more than I do. Initially we just played with two acoustic guitars. then I switched to acoustic bass, but this wasn't really loud enough, so we upgraded to electric bass, which in turn demanded a drum machine. As our music advanced though, I found myself increasingly drawn towards the production side. Then I figured out how to hack the drum machine so I could add other backing sounds like horns and organs until now we're a bit like a full band albeit with only two players.
 
Now I feel like all my Christmases have come at once. I get to perform without being the limelight, yet I'm getting all the satisfaction of arranging and producing all the music we play. My role is something of the unseen hand but it fulfils my original curious interest in music which is enjoying the endless fascination of how this stuff works. We don't do it for the money. A famous meme circulating online describes a musician as someone who puts $5000 worth of gear in a $500 car to drive 50 miles to a $50 gig. Well believe me, in this part of Spain, $50 gigs are few and far between, but as you can see for the reasons above, it's still very much worth it!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A tale of two wasted Ronda hospital visits

Getting seen by a specialist isn't so easy in 2020 lockdown Spain

 

I wanna tell you a story. Trouble is, I have a split audience. Most folk who actually bother to read my trivial weekly musings probably do so because they know me, so they'll know some of the back-story of my life that puts this tale in context. If you're one of those then feel free to skip the next paragraph. If not, here comes the exposition.
 
I live in Spain on a low income, basically a pension I took early. I don't own a car and I live in quite a remote little village called Olvera. Olvera has a medical centre where I can visit a GP, but for more specialist medical treatment I need to go to a regional hospital, such as the one in Ronda which is featured in this story, which is about an hours drive away. There is only one bus that leaves Olvera at seven in the morning and returns from the hospital at two in the afternoon.
 
Back in September 2019 I had a fall, nothing serious but I managed to land on my eye-ball, which became bloodshot and rather uncomfortable. I visited A&E who kindly patched me up. Then I made an appointment to see my GP who referred me to the ophthalmologist in Ronda. I waited a few months and was assigned an appointment at the end of January. My vision had still not returned to normal. I was seeing floaters and each time I blinked I briefly saw a pattern in the manner of a Rorschach test, which was less entertaining than it sounds, so I was quite eager to get the problem looked at.
 
The day finally came. I'm an anxious traveller at the best of times, but the big worry here is, with only one return bus, I knew if I missed it I'd probably be sleeping rough until the next day, as I couldn't afford a taxi or temporary accommodation. I don't mind living on a low income on a day-to-day basis (it's good for both my dietary health and carbon footprint), but unforeseen expenses can force difficult choices.
 
So with some trepidation, I boarded the bus on a brisk winter's morning and headed off to the hospital. My appointment was 11:25 so arriving at eight gave me time to kill. I walked around the hospital to familiarise myself with it. This was a fairly new building which only opened in 2017 and this was my first time there. I noted there was a mortuary around the back a bit too near to the rubbish bins for my liking, but otherwise everything seemed clean and new. I just wished they'ed painted it a jollier colour rather than choosing the very depressing battleship grey.
 
I made my way inside and found the ophthalmology department. Many people were already waiting. If you know nothing of Spanish culture, one thing a person rarely does here is visit a hospital alone. These are deeply family oriented people and a hospital visit will rarely be conducted without a pack of three or four folk from several generations, often with an advanced party to reconnoitre the layout of the building, locate vending machines and to grab the best seats like Germans putting their towels on the sun-loungers. I'm not mocking this behaviour, well perhaps just a tad. I'm actually rather envious of it. A English lady of my acquaintance found herself in a dual room with a Spanish patient some years back, and the Spanish patient's family were so horrified that the poor English lady had nobody visiting her at all hours of the day, that they adopted her and brought her food and gifts, holding her hand and generally treating her as part of the family. This is one of the many tales that I've heard over the years that speaks volumes about the best qualities of ordinary Spanish society.
 
I sat down and pulled out a book. As the hours rolled by, the people milling about soon outnumbered the chairs, of which there were many. I reckon that more than a hundred people must have come and gone.  The Coronavirus threat was still a distant problem exclusive to China at this point. Everyone was on top of everyone else, many with seasonal coughs and splutters. How I didn't pick up something nasty that day I'll never know.
 
The time of my appointment came and went. Then another hour went by. I attracted the attention of a nurse who double-checked I was in the right place and reassured me that they were very busy and that my time would soon come. Finally at ten minutes to two I still hadn't been called so I made the decision to bail. I went to the reception and asked to have my appointment rescheduled, then jumped on the bus back home.
 
Some months went by then I got a phone call saying a new appointment was available if I still wanted it. Then a letter arrived confirming the date of Monday 6th of April, an earlier appointment at 9:25 which should give me a better chance of being seen - yay! By this time of course, the world had changed thanks to a virus called COVID-19. Olvera was in lock-down. There was a one person per car rule and police were monitoring who came in and out of town.
 
Bus services had been reduced or in some cases scratched altogether. There was a lot of misinformation online as to which busses were running, whether one could still pay in cash or had to buy a ticket online or in advance from a ticket office. I spent a sizeable amount of time researching this in the week prior to the appointment. The bus company website had a link to a timetable that was dead, and the option to buy an advance ticket didn't work properly. I resorted to ringing the two phone numbers given on the website, and neither worked!!
 
Finally on the Friday I happened upon an obscure article in a Spanish newspaper saying the local 'urbano' busses in Ronda had to be pre-booked, and said that folk using Olvera busses that connect with them should ring in advance too. It seemed crazy but due to the lock-down, so few people are using the bus that they only run them if someone rings at least an hour before, signalling an intention to ride. I dialled the number and surprisingly it worked! I spoke to a chap who sounded equally as surprised as I was. I heard kids playing in the background suggesting it might be his home number. I explained my circumstances and he confirmed me a place on the Olvera/Ronda bus at 7 a.m. Monday 6th April returning at 2 p.m. He didn't express the need to take my name but this is Spain. A nod's as good as a wink to a blind donkey.
 
So Monday came and with the bus largely to myself I cruised majestically into the Ronda hospital car park, alighting at 8 a.m. I took my place in the waiting area. This time, the chairs, which were in banks of three, had the middle one labelled with a message saying "Don't use due to social distancing". I was the only one there. It was deathly quiet. I sat there reading my book and hardly a soul stirred save a grumpy looking chap riding a floor-washing machine. Then a masked nurse emerged from the surgery area.
 
"What are you doing here" she said, sounding so surprised she set my alarm bells off.
 
"I have an appointment this morning", I said and triumphantly thrust my document proving the fact into her rubber-gloved hand.
 
"All consultations were cancelled. You should have received a message last week. We will send you another one."
 
My heart sank as I recall those missed calls from an unknown number on my phone last Friday which I didn't see until the next day because I'd stupidly forgotten to turn off 'aeroplane mode' after my siesta.
 
"Bugger" I said, slipping back into English, and skulked off to find a dark corner in which to weep and spend five hours to wait for the only bus back home. Ronda is a pretty town, but it's not as though I could have gone for a nice walk and taken in the sights as the police would probably arrest me for tourism, such is the strangeness of the times. I finished my book, a cheerful tome (#ironyalert) called 'Feast of the Goat' by Mario Vargas Llosa, a novel about the final dark days of the Dominican Republic's fascist leader Rafael Trujillo. I pitted my wits against my phone and beat the little shit at Monopoly and Chess. I had a stroll around the hospital grounds and struck up a conversation with the gardener, who coincidentally, as I discovered, was born in Olvera. (Seemingly tending a hospital's gardens is an essential occupation conferring on him the right to escape lock-down. Who knew?) He turned out to be a conspiracy theorist who spent ten minutes solemnly confiding in me his view that Coronavirus was created in a Chinese weapons-grade bio-lab with the ultimate goal of destroying the Western economy.
 
Eventually two o'clock came and my driver arrived with the bus, which again I had all to myself. As we headed back, storm clouds were gathering, the sky over the sierras becoming black as pitch. Francisco the driver, whom I now considered my personal chauffeur, delivered me to Olvera just as the rain began to fall. It had to really. It had been that sort of day! 
 
My wait to see the eye specialist continues, as does the lock-down. In both cases and in more ways than one, I'm unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel!

Lockdown Cooking Tips

How to make things last when its hard to shop
 
Now I'm not claiming to be a whizz in the kitchen, but I've endured some difficult times in Spain that have forced me to acquire some culinary discipline. I lost a cushy job selling houses for a Spanish estate agent chain thanks to the 2008 crash, and, being unable to qualify for benefits here, money got very tight. For a few months I was almost living on air. During that time I learned some important lessons which are becoming useful and relevant again, now I'm virtual house-arrest in the uber-tight Corona-virus lock-down here in Spain!
 
So in the unlikely event I might be able to help someone struggling to cope in these difficult times I thought I'd share a few tips I've picked up over the years. I shared some of these on the '48% Preppers' group on Facebook, a group that has been preparing for a no-deal Brexit for a number of years, and they were warmly received.
 
Firstly you can probably make vegetables last a lot longer than you may have thought possible. Take onions for example. I used to hold an onion by the stalk end and cut the bottom off, then take slices perpendicular to the stem because they're easy to use in sandwiches or chop for frying, then I'd throw the onion in the bottom of the fridge in the hope in might use the rest of it later. The problem is that when you chop the bottom off of an onion you're depriving it of the root, so the onion thinks it's dead (it is - you killed it when you chopped the root off!) A few days later when you go back in the fridge to retrieve the onion, the layers will have started to separate and the onion will start to go off and look very unappetising. The trick then is to take you onion and take slices from the side, parallel to the stem. Then keep the onion in sealed in a Tupperware box, so it hinders drying out. This will help the onion to keep believing its still alive while stopping any onion smell pervading your fridge. You can take four quarters away from the onion like this leaving the exposed centre it will still survive for a week or more, just because you took the trouble to keep the root in tact. 
 
If I buy a whole lettuce I never cut into it with a knife unless I plan to use the whole thing in one go. Cutting creates a wound from which moisture escape leading to oxidation triggering the death of the plant. Again with lettuce, like the onion, keep the root on and peel off leaves as you need them. If after a while the lettuce starts to wilt, this can often be remedied by placing the lettuce in a bowl of water overnight to give it a drink. If the root has calloused over, slice off a small section of a millimetre or so to expose the capillaries to the water. The lettuce will drink up water and be good for another week or so.
 
Moisture can be the enemy with a lot of veg. I often get a prepared salad rather than individual items because, living alone, I'd rather have the variety than buy lots of individual items that might end up getting not used. The problem with prepared salads is because they're chopped already, they tend to go off more quickly than individual items. One can delay the ageing of prepared salads by sealing them up, either in their original bag or in Tupperware, with a dry sheet of kitchen towel. The towel will soak up the moisture creeping out of the leaves, so preventing them going damp and mouldy so quickly.
 
Another thing I found is to know what is essential to have in your store cupboard. A lot of this is down to personal taste, but I like curry so I always have spices, chick peas, gram flour, wholemeal flour, tinned tomatoes and a couple of tins of coconut milk. It's amazing what you can pull off with just these simple ingredients. You can make a chick pea salad essentially with onions, oil, chick peas and a few spices. There are loads of recipes for chickpea salad online with cucumber, tomatoes, peppers etc but don't be precious about it, throw in what you have, it'll be fine! A great accompaniment for this is the world's easiest bread. You can make a chapati with wholemeal flour, salt and a little water. Mix into a fairly dry dough, roll it flat and cook on a fairly high heat a few minutes on each side. Cheap and quick!
 
Another good thing to have in the store cupboard is textured soy protein which keeps forever and can be used to run up chill-con-carne, spag-bol. burgers etc. I'm not a vegan so when I'm reconstituting it with hot water I stir in a little Bovril to get a good meaty taste going on. Bovril is another store-cupboard favourite of mine that keeps for ever and finds multiple uses like this whenever a spot of umami is required.
 
Sorry if you are a vegetarian but now I come to one of my favourite money-savers, a whole chicken. I'm in Spain and I can get a decent sized bird for about five euros and that will feed me for the best part of a fortnight. I'll roast the bird whole. For the first week I'll have maybe a chicken salad, chicken and chips or have roast chicken, spuds, veg and gravy for dinner in the evening and a chicken sandwich or chicken omelette for breakfast. Then, as I'm down to the carcass I'll generally boil it up to get as much meat off it as possible. Then I can use that for soup, or any number of other dishes. I've found the one that goes furthest is chicken biryani. The way I do that is I'll whizz up some garlic, lemon and fresh ginger to make a tikka masala paste, throw in my preferred spices, coriander, cumin, asafoetida, salt, pepper,  chilli powder etc and add that to a pot of yogurt to make a marinade. I'll let the chicken soak in that over night, then the next day I'll make a batch of pilau rice. When the rice is pretty near done, I'll put the marinaded chicken in a baking dish, pour the rice over the top, cover with foil then bake in the oven on 180c for half an hour. When I take it out I stir it all together and there it is - the perfect 'cheats' biryani.
 
I find biryani a complete meal in itself though sometimes I'll put a little chopped mint and onion in a pot of yogurt as a make-do raita to go with it, but either way I'll usually get about five or six portions out of the one chicken's leftovers so as I say, the one bird almost stretches to a fortnight, which is what you need when the local police and the army are trying to discourage people from making unnecessary trips to the shops. Now if only I'd had the foresight to buy some demijohn's to make my own wine. "Alexa?..."

My Timemachine of Technology

How I've been lucky to live in a time of unparalleled technological change

 

I feel very fortunate to have been born when I did and to have observed the revolutionary change in technology that I have. Things whizz along so fast these days. My father woke me up in the middle of the night to watch man's first moon landing, but the rocket that took man to the moon only had a 16 bit processor and a tiny amount of memory by modern standards. These days we all have far more power in our mobile phones! It's all happened so blindingly quickly!
 
In fact I feel very fortunate to be born at all, as my parents were quite ‘elderly’ when they had me. Dad was 54 when he had me and mum in her mid forties so I'm lucky to be here. Accordingly the environment I grew up in was full of old technology that had been accumulated over many years. We had a valve radios and television that took ages to get hot before they would work. The family camera was a ‘box brownie’ – little more than a black box with a lens and a winding mechanism to advance the film. The film wasn’t cheap so we took each photograph with care, posing and saying cheese! Then it took days or weeks to get the prints back from the chemist! All these artifacts smelt old and musty, but also everything felt frozen in time as though they had been around forever.
 
Then around the mid-sixties I remember my elderly grandfather went through a number of transistor radios, all of which were made in Hong Kong. My grandad was a bit clumsy and used to drop these ‘trannies’ repeatedly. Invariably the case would break and after a few months of being held together with rubber bands and sticky tape, they would be replaced with another which was always smaller and lighter than the last.
 
I loved to take the old radios apart and figure out how they worked. The valves of old had been replaced by small blobs which were transistors. The other components had all been shrunk too, as had the printed circuit board. Even so, every component was identifiable and it was generally possible to figure out which did what.
 
By the time I reached secondary school things started to change a whole lot. My physics teacher explained to me about integrated circuits. Tens or hundreds of transistors were now being fabricated together on one piece of silicon to form whole circuits. These were found in the first pocket calculators. My first calculator, made by Prinztronic cost a fortune but only did +-/* and percentages!
 
It wasn’t long after that I saw the first microcomputer on the television. This was the commodore Pet, which today still looks more like the sort of thing you would find on the deck of the starship enterprise. The Pet seemed unimaginably expensive to a youngster like me, but pretty soon my school purchased a bunch of microcomputers in kit form (NASCOM 1 if you're curious)  and us school-kids were co-opted to spend hours soldering them together.
 
I inevitably found myself working in computers and during the 1980's the IBM PC became the default architecture for most business users. My first experience of these was the Olivetti M24, which was a dinosaur by today's standards but crucially the office had them networked together with this clever thing called co-axial cable. The first time I met with this concept I remember thinking what a waste of money! Surely if two people wanted to work on the same spreadsheet they could copy it to a floppy disk and walk to the next office with it. How wrong I was, which is a recurring theme in my life! Of course from these humble beginnings, networking really took off, bringing us to the Internet and the applications on the World-Wide Web we are all so dependent on today.
 
I'd moved to Spain by the time I saw my first smartphone, a first generation iPhone owned by a friend on holiday from the UK. It seemed so revolutionary at the time, and Apple had clearly got it right - the combination of touch-screen and scrolling GUI was a winner. Now we all have one (or more) in our pockets and think little of it. When you do think about it though, today's smartphones are far more advanced than the communicators used in the first series of Star Trek, which themselves were considered light years ahead at the time. 
 
An example of how far things have advanced is the disdain people have today of optical media, the CD/DVD discs read with a laser, which are now seen as quaint and clunky like the horse and cart of the digital world. With today's Internet speeds it a lot easier to stream a movie from Netflix than it is to watch an optical disk. A laser based tech becoming near obsolete in my lifetime! How amazing is that?
 
You might think then, like the apocryphal story of the commissioner of the US patent office, Charles H. Duell, that everything that could be invented had been invented. (I traced the quote - it was more likely a joke prophecy made in Punch magazine). This couldn't be further from the truth. the 21st century is the age of materials, where scientists are gaining insights as to how to manufacture new things at an atomic and quantum level. Quantum computers are in their infancy but promise to bring unparalleled levels of computing power. Graphene, the single atom thick layer of carbon famed for its conductivity of electricity and heat as well as tensile strength has already made its way into a commercial battery. Though at the moment it is only used to assist and enhance conventional lithium batteries,  it is expected that graphene only batteries will be used in future mobile phones and electric vehicles that will be a fraction of the size of those used today. 
 
So I've seen the world move from valves to the quantum computer in a couple of generations and technological progress is still accelerating. We're living in a world none of us could have envisaged 10 years ago. Who know what the next ten or fifteen years will bring. 

The Thief of Time

You've no idea how long I put off writing this blog-post!
 
 
I remember the occasion that I learned the meaning of the word procrastination. It was 1974 and I was in my first computer class. Our teacher, a dear man called Stan Smith, who in a previous profession had been a scientist at Jodrell Bank, had taught us about loops and set us an exercise - to write a program that printed a phrase 10 times. That phrase was "Procrastination is the Thief of Time". Why he broke with the traditional convention in computer programming of having us print "Hello World" is a mystery to me, but for whatever reason I'd learned a new word.
 
verb [ I ]
uk/prəˈkræs.tɪ.neɪt/ us/proʊˈkræs.tə.neɪt/
to keep delaying something that must be done, often because it is unpleasant or boring
 
Perhaps he was being ironic because computers, machines, electronics and robots simply don't procrastinate. As John Conor said in the 1984 movie Terminator, "..when Skynet went live it decided our fate in a microsecond".
 
Humans do procrastinate and me more than most. I don't think I'm alone in this but I'll watch a movie rather than do something arduous like clean the bathroom, but then when I'm watching the movie I'll pause it at a dull moment to go and check Facebook before resuming the movie. In programming terms I'm a recursive procrastinator.
 
I've never found myself able to stop procrastination altogether, so over the years I've developed techniques for working around it. I split my tasks up so that I give myself divided targets, chunking a big job into several smaller ones, then give myself a foreseen ration of more interesting things to entertain myself with as procrastination treats.
 
As we identify procrastination with the evils of modern life like TV, Video Games, Social Media and worst of all, YouTube, one could be forgiven for thinking procrastination was a recent phenomena. Not a bit of it. The Stoic philosophers were writing about how to combat procrastination 2000 years ago. Seneca wrote (In 'On the Shortness of Life' https://archive.org/stream/SenecaOnTheShortnessOfLife/Seneca+on+the+Shortness+of+Life_djvu.txt )
 
It's not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it's been given to us in generous measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested. But when life is squandered through soft and careless living, and when it's spent on no worthwhile pursuit, death finally presses and we realize that the life which we didn't notice passing has passed away. 
 
Seneca offered many insights into dealing with procrastination. He advocated structure and planning, anticipating work to be done and analysing it for the pitfalls that await to distract and divert one's attention. Many of the suggestions of Seneca and the other stoics distilled into the writing of Tim Ferris in his famous book 'The Four Hour Work Week', for example in the recommendation that one only checks email once per day. Ferris talks much of the stoics in his works and it amazes me how relevant their insights are when applied to modern life.

It's a shame then, especially with PM Johnson being a classics scholar, that the US/UK governments have not observed the lessons of the stoics. The pandemic crisis of COVID-19 engulfing the world as I write has been met by successive countries, not with decisive action but with procrastination. In fact the World Health Organisation procrastinated in declaring Coronavirus a pandemic. There were over 100,000 cases in all continents save Antarctica before the WHO yielded to the admission. Prior to this it was calling it an epidemic. The distinction may seem a small one but it is quite important. An epidemic can in theory be contained. A country can close its borders and maybe receive aid and medical assistance from outside its borders. A pandemic is confirmation that the whole world is an infected area. Closing borders no longer is an effective way to contain the spread of the disease so that each country has to take responsibility for containing its contagion domestically. It is a starting gun for governments to act.

When the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March it then became up to national governments to take effective action to battle the disease. Spain acted quite swiftly bringing in a total lock-down last weekend. Meanwhile Britain and America are still procrastinating. America has brought in local lock-downs in cities where the infections have been seen. Britain's government have advised people to stay at home but delayed 10 days before taking the decision to close pubs, restaurants and gyms. Most shops remain open and people still have freedom to leave their homes, unlike Spain. It's easy to understand why, they didn't want to cause an unnecessary panic and the economic cost of shutting down businesses will be severe. However the message from Seneca is the relationship between short-term pain and long term gain. The longer Britain and America stave off the decision to bring in a complete lock-down, the larger will be the strain on the health services, the more people will die and the greater will be the socio-economic impact. The thief of time will become the thief of life.

I won't bloat this post with more detailed description of the failings of the UK and US governments in their handling of the crisis but here are some links to stories documenting the issue.

Working From Home. Why Not?

2020 is the year that COVID-19 made home-working a must.
With the relentless advance of Coronavirus and the Daily Express asserting this is the 'End of The World' predicted by Nostradamus (as it does regularly as clockwork about anything from the latest Near Earth Object to God's face being seen in tub of lard), governments across the globe are asking as many of us as possible to work from home. 
 
As I touched on in a previous blog, I've had plenty of experience of this since I first tried it in the early 1990's. In fact for the best part of a decade I was a paid up member of the UK's Teleworkers Association. 
 
In theory, modern communications are so advanced that they should make travel irrelevant save for the transport of goods. With a video camera, a microphone, even 3D virtual reality spaces like Rumii and Meetingroom.io available to anyone with a smartphone, there seems on the face of it, very little reason to leave one's house, nor even ones bed in the morning. 
 
Human nature however works differently. I worked in a organisation many years ago with four geographically dispersed offices in different parts of Britain. Someone had the bright idea that if they invested in a video conferencing system, the cost would soon be recouped by the savings in travel and expenses. In those days, before the Internet and with the insistence on studio quality cameras it was a six figure investment. Despite much goading from above to try and get executives to use it, the system soon became a white elephant. I doubt it ever achieved the return on the investment that was hoped for. 
 
The reasons seemed to be twofold.  Firstly many people are inherently camera shy. Especially if they don't appear in front of a camera very often, most people have that feeling of being 'put on the spot' and of having their natural spontaneity sucked from them by anxiousness. Secondly, people enjoy face-to-face meetings. In contrast to camera shyness, people open-up in the physical presence of another human being. Also, as my boss at the time remarked "nobody wanted to use the thing because they would rather go on a jolly, leave the wife at home for a few days, have a few beers in the evening with their mates and maybe squeeze in a round of golf".
 
When the Internet became popular in the early to mid 1990s I really thought remote working would finally take off. Why on earth would employers maintain offices in expensive locations when they could move to a cheaper place out of town? Why have an office at all if employees could network remotely? Then when the Twin Towers (and building seven) were destroyed in a terrorist attack there seemed to be even more incentive for large concentrations of workers in cities to become a thing of the past. Surely businesses would see the value in dispersing geographically? Incidentally I was working at home on 9/11. In the interests of self-discipline I made a point of never turning on the TV while I was working, so as to avoid distraction. One day, I had a yearning to break that rule. I made a cup of tea and turned on the TV which happened to be tuned to Skynews. The first plane had just crashed into the Twin Towers. I watched open mouthed as Kay Burley mistakenly interpreted the incoming footage as being the same crash from another angle. It was the second plane. I don't know what made me turn the television on that fateful day to see the live action as it happened. What did stick in my mind is the sense of being alone in a crisis. There was just me and a two dimensional representation of Kay Burley. I really needed another human being to turn to and just say "what the absolute fuck?", but there was no one other than my cat who was not really interested in the matter. The isolation of working at home can be very frustrating.
 
Anyhoo, despite 9/11, businesses continue to concentrate in ever taller buildings. Twenty years on and the web has made very little impact on employer's desire to keep people in chair so they can keep an eye on them. Most companies have vertical hierarchies, and managers love to manage. Many get into it because they are psychopathic control freaks, the sort of folk who like standing over you watching what you do - seeing how long it takes you to go to the loo and what time you choose to knock off in the evening. Home-working has a different dynamic which old style managers cannot get their heads around.
 
So will generation Z be any different? We're talking about people who were born into being videoed so feel very comfortable with it. They also seem to handle isolation well, being that they are welded to their phones from early childhood and no longer seem to bother talking face-to-face.
 
Somehow I doubt it.  At the end of the day, interaction is at the root of markets, it is at the root of our psyche and it is fundamental to who we are as humans. So however good virtual reality gets and how comfortable future generations become with it, I feel there will always be  the last nine yards in which there is no substitute for direct human contact. Also any companies of the future pioneering teleworking seemed doomed if they try to use the hierarchical management structures of the past. They will need to be more co-operative and have a flatter management structure that is less dependent on monitoring and more reliant on collaboration. I think if such companies do arise they will find big rewards in being agile and competitive. The snag is as, with big open source projects like say, Wikipedia, they end up begging for funding because despite a huge amount of volunteer working they don't have a format that impacts sales in a way that a vertically structured company does. It seems you need an arse at the top banging on doors, making deals and keeping profitability in-check, while confident enough in delegation to keep management structures flat. 
 
I saw an interesting video recently in which Elon Musk was ascribed just these qualities. Apparently in both Tesla and SpaceX he promotes a results-driven culture in which people are encouraged and rewarded for delivering ideas across what in other companies would be considered 'cultural' divides. So if a person working on one aspect of production had an insight into another unrelated field, he or she has free-reign to approach that area's director to make a suggestion. This has led to some quantum leaps in Tesla's development and is the sort of management that is required of companies in the 21st century. I don't know the degree to which Musk encourages homeworking, but presumably because he can't be in two places at once, he must himself be a remote manager for some of his time at Tesla, SpaceX and the Boring company. Perhaps Elon is the chap we should be keeping an eye on. Tesla's market capitalisation has just hit $100 billion which is a trigger built into his contractual compensation plan that could be worth $55billion or more, making him the richest person on the planet. Not bad for a part-timer! 

My Top 10 Youtube Channels

I don't watch TV - here's what I do watch.

I haven't been a regular TV viewer since the last century! Working from home in the mid 1990's I always had a computer in my front room anyway, so I transitioned from 'lean back' to 'lean forward' media very early on and soon found it quite odd that folk would sit on a sofa having inane programming firehosed at them while there was a whole planet of interesting stuff to go and find.
 
Mind you, back then, content was spread around among many independent websites. It was quite a while before video became a significant datatype. Bandwidth was at a premium and video hosting could be a tricky business. An announcement of an online video in the mainstream media could trigger a demand spike that would cripple a normal website. My own web design company, Datadial, reacted by providing a dedicating video-hosting outsourcing service that was popular at the time with advertising and marketing companies, as we had servers in the docklands datacentre that could handle a big surge in demand.
 
I mention this because when YouTube first came out in 2005 my first thought was 'That's a really dumb idea!'. Knowing how video chewed up bandwidth, the idea of having a generic hosting service where anyone could upload a video about anything seemed like a great way to go out of business really fast. Surely hosting costs would never be recouped by a freeview service from the low quality video being uploaded by Joe Public? How wrong I was! Here we are 15 years later and YouTube is one of the Internet's top five websites with over 31 million unique channels and an audience of two billion per month and growing. And I'm the biggest sucker for it! Rarely a day goes by in which I don't watch a video or two from one of the 900 or so channels I'm subscribed to.
 
So for this week's blog (which is admittedly a bit of a filler because I've had a lot to do), I thought I'd list my top ten YouTube channels. 
 

Rich Rebuilds

Rich RebuildsOk this is about a guy (called Rich) who rebuilds cars. Simple enough, huh? Except Richie B Kidd only rebuilds electric cars. The channel started a few years back when Richie bought a Tesla model S that had been written off after taking a swim in a lake. He took the car to pieces and put it back together over a fascinating series of videos that showed me for the first time what the inside of an electric car looked like. Subsequent videos have documented his rebuilding of a Model three and converting a petrol driven Rat-rod into an EV using the guts of a second hand electric motorbike. The show is interesting, not only because it illuminates the engineering behind EVs, but it also exposes the politics behind Tesla's aftercare. Tesla is not keen on work being done on their cars by non-authorised mechanics. Rich has done some quite revealing exposés documenting a range of issues from being denied permission to buy parts to having supercharging turned off remotely by Tesla. Another great reason to watch the channel is Richie himself, who is a world class wit, prankster and comedian. Even when he diverts from the narrative to bring a word from his sponsor, the content he delivers remains fresh and funny as though you're not watching an advert but part of the main feature, which is a very rare skill.
 

First We Feast - Hot Ones

Hot Ones In the words of their own blurb, "First We Feast videos offer an iconoclastic view into the culinary world, taking you behind-the-scenes with some of the country's best chefs and finding the unexpected places where food and pop culture intersect." First We Feast is a magazine, YouTube channel and brand that produces a number of video series, one of which is called Hot Ones. Hot Ones has a cult following. The format of the show sees host Sean Evans interviewing a celebrity whilst both he and the star munch their way through ten food items (usually chicken wings or vegetarian options such as cauliflower bhajis) each of which has an increasingly powerful dab of hot chilli source. It's a deceptively simple idea that works incredibly well, partly because the show is meticulous well researched so its questions are deep and probing, and also as the 'scoville' units rise, the celebrities are often caught off guard leading to some really revealing answers. This week the host of 'In The Actors Studio', James Lipton died at the age of 93. Previously his show was the best place to go for celebrity interviews, but Hot Ones has in my opinion taken it's place in the 21st century, as the stars seem to be falling over themselves to be on it. Good guests to look out for include Charlize Theron, Gordon Ramsey and Idris Elba.
 

Up and Atom

Up and AtomI stumbled across this channel when I saw the click-bait title "50 AMAZING Physics Facts to Blow Your Mind!" I was irresistibly drawn to click through and I've been a fan of the channel ever since. Up and Atom is the brainchild of Australian science communicator Jade Tan-Holmes. Her videos cover the full gamut of STEM topics from quantum biology, physics, higher mathematics, logic and even touches on philosophy. What makes the channel such a delight is the presenter's mastery of communication. I don't recall seeing anyone taking a bachelors degree level subject and making it so accessible to the layman. Her joy in both the subject and the action of explaining it is instantly visible in all her work and is dangerously infectious. If you have even the faintest interest in science, watch one of her videos. I'm sure you too will end up subscribing.
 

Geography Now

Geography NowWith well over two million subscribers, Geography Now probably needs no introduction, but if you have not heard of it before, the channel is on a mission to bring you a bite-sized video about every country on planet earth. Working from A through Z, they are up to St Kitts and Nevis at the time of writing. Fast talking host Paul Barbato started the channel in 2014 and shares presenting duties with a small team of regular hosts and guests from the country being featured. The presenting style is opposite to what one has experienced in traditional academia, and is an attention grabbing mix of comic book/pop-art/slapstick. Episodes are divided into four sections, political geography, physical geography, demographics and the friend-zone (international relations). Despite the informal presenting style, the videos are well researched and contain a mountain of facts. Errors do creep in occasionally but corrections appear in a follow-up show to each episode in a counterpart called Fan-Flag Friday.  Good episodes to cut your teeth on include Japan, Israel and Iran.
 

Ask a Mortician

Ask a morticianAnother channel that has become so popular now you probably don't need me to tell you about it, Ask A Mortician is hosted by the ever engaging Caitlin Doughty who has been delivering death-themed videos since 2011 and now has over a million subscribers. As one might expect from a holder of a BA in medieval history, Caitlin's videos are meticulously researched, but also she has a gift for story telling. This coupled with her dry sense of humour infuses her videos with bitter-sweet quality - it's kind of like Jackanory with corpses! Good episodes to watch out for are "WHAT HAPPENED TO HIROSHIMA'S DEAD?", "The Self Mummified Monks", "Why Do We Get Columbine So Wrong?" and "The Dyatlov Pass Incident".
 

Ave

AveAve is a channel primarily devoted to mechanical engineering, a subject which is of little interest to me, however I watch often because the host is endlessly entertaining. Who he is remains a mystery as he keeps his identity private, however he is a French Canadian engineer who clearly has a background in machine-shop, hydraulic systems and electronics. Many of his videos (or vijayos as he calls them) are tear downs of tools or domestic electronic products. What makes the channel outstanding is the host's creative use of the English language. He doesn't talk so much as paint with words. His lexicon is extended with local north-American expressions like chooch and skookum, the meanings of which become apparent through watching his videos. He weaves these in with expletives, rhyming slang and shop-talk almost creating a private language all of his own. Just as Shakespeare had a gift for creating expressions such as 'the milk of human kindness' and 'disappeared into thin air', Ave has a gift for coining novel expressions with a wit and creativity that is truly remarkable. I randomly dove in to one of his videos to bring you an example and within seconds came across a rant where he was battling with his camera's auto-focus: "Eye of the Tiger right out fighting with Jesusless camera for the focusing - fuck!" Sheer poetry!

Contrapoints

ContrapointsFrom the channel's description "YouTuber, ex-philosopher. Sex, drugs, and social justice." Contrapoints is the video channel of Natalie Wynn, a transgender women who is making a name for herself as an astute, left-wing video essayist. Her channel also explores transgender issues and the politics of sexuality. Not the sort of thing I'd normally watch videos about but the production values are so high and the content so well constructed that I find her videos compelling viewing.  
 

Dr Becky

Dr BeckyRebecca Smethurst is an astrophysicist with a passion for blackholes. As I write this I can see a common theme emerging among the channels I watch, in that Dr Becky is another presenter who exudes joy in delivering information about her chosen subject. Her enthusiasm is quite infectious. I don't know my parsec from my elbow but I'm learning thanks to watching her weekly content. She only has just over 100k subscribers at the moment but this is climbing and I'm sure she will become the Patrick Moore of the 21st century.
 

Rick Beato - Everything Music

Rick BeatoBeing a musician myself I watch a ton of channels related to musical education, but Rick stands out as the crème de la crème.  He's worked as a college level music tutor, worked for over 20 years as a producer/engineer and has a huge range of contacts in the music industry. He has a number of series within his channel such as 'What makes this song great' where he tears down a famous cut (often working from the original multi-track recording) and he has other series on guitar tuition, music theory and film scoring. If you have any interest at all in how music is made, there will be something in Rick's channel for you.
 

Fully Charged Show

Fully Charged ShowFronted by Robert Llewellyn (yes, the Red Dwarf guy). Fully Charged is dedicated to bringing you news about electric vehicles and sustainable energy. I'm far from being a tree-hugger but I see the importance of moving to clean energy, so I watch the show regularly to keep up with the latest developments. Though the subscriber count is little over 640k there is a unique buzz about Fully Charged, a sense growing over time that we really are on the cusp of a green revolution. Contrary to what you might think, the show isn't all about Teslas! In fact the most recent video featured the Top 30 EV models in what is a fast growing market. 
 
So there we are. Let me know in the comments what you think of my picks and let me know if there are any channels you would recommend!
 

On mumbo jumbo

Is there anything to the Supernatural?

We live in a strange time. The Internet has given us instant access to a greater plethora of information than has ever been possible in history, yet rather than serving to better educate as all, the amount of mumbo jumbo seems to have risen rather than fallen. Flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, homeopaths, folk who swear by the healing power of crystals and Gwyneth Paltrow, all find it easier to get a platform these days.

Now I'm a logical sort of chap, a great believer in the scientific method, which basically stated is that "if a theory is disproved by experiment it isn't true". However there are a few wrinkles and crevasses in my belief system. These are what I want to share with you today.

Take divining for example. It's clearly rubbish as there is no verifiable force that can be detected by a human with a divining rod. However I recall as a kid we had a blocked drain. My father knew a lot about water. He had spent a decade as a plumber and worked for a time for the Water Board. I watched him fashion a couple of diving rods out of an old coat hanger. He than marched steadily back and forth across the garden. Each time he crossed a certain point the rods moved. He dug down a couple of feet, found the water pipe, disconnected it (it was the ceramic sort connected in sections) and found the blockage exactly where the diving rods had indicated. So I know first hand that diving works but I can't explain why. My best guess is my father knew subconsciously where the drain started, and where it exited the property, so he could have been making an educated guess with that information. How he guessed down to the nearest foot is still beyond me.

I know astrology is complete twaddle. But time and time again certain character traits do seem to reoccur in individuals according to their star sign. Leos are invariably extroverts. Cancerians are crabby and have mood swings. Virgos are organised and boringly safety-conscious, Scorpios are the undisputed masters of exacting revenge etc. It seems there are two possible explanations for this. Firstly we learn about our own sign in childhood and it is possible we either subconsciously (or possibly consciously in some cases) grow to fulfil our own prophesy. Another theory is that the seasons may play a role. The younger you are, the slower time passes. Imagine you are a newborn infant born say in September. Your first six months would seem like a life time, but much of it would be cold and grey, whereas if you were born in April those all important formative months would be bright and sunny. Many things other than the weather influence adult moods thorough-out the seasons, holidays and so forth, all of which would be absorbed by the infant. Is it then any wonder that people born at different times of year have a different outlook on life? The only snag with this theory is the character traits in the Southern hemisphere would be six months out of kilter with those in the northern hemisphere, though I still think it is a sufficiently interesting proposition that it warrants further investigation.

What I'm getting at is that for most phenomena considered supernatural, there is usually a more mundane explanation.

And now for a good old ghost story. Clearly ghosts don't exist according to science. However strange things happen. This is one I experienced myself.

Back in Murcia a couple arrived from the UK with the intention of establishing a pub, which they did by converting an old residential property, and a very good job they made of it too. They named it the Yorkshire Rose. It was heaven. Just before it opened, they invited an elderly neighbour in to show her what they had done to the place. She was happily admiring the decor until she reached the far right-hand corner of the bar, at which point she burst into tears. It turned out that is where her friend, the previous occupant had gasped her last breath.

I didn't know this until the story was recounted to me some years later. However I recall dining in that corner of the room and thought it felt chilly. I mentioned it casually to the waitress who laughed and said she had lost count of the people who said that. Stories abound that cold spots like this are associated with hauntings, but perhaps I'm just putting two and two together and making five. Perhaps it was explanable by air-flow, fluid dynamics and the fact that air-conditioning unit was just above my head!

However this wasn't the only spooky thing that happened in the bar. One night, I and a bunch of pals had a late-night lock-in playing poker. It was a bright moonlight night and very still. There was not a breeze in the air we had no music playing, so it was just the flick of the cards and our banter that could be heard. At about 1:30 a.m. there was an enormous crash. My first thought was that someone had thrown a brick through the window. As I was nearest the door, I unlocked it and had a look outside but there was nobody there, and anyway the windows were protected by wooden shutters.

Meanwhile my fellow poker-buddies looked around inside. It turned out that a glass had smashed behind the bar. This was strange, as nobody had been behind the bar for a while as we were all involved in the game. Also the shelf on which the glasses were kept didn't have a direct path to the floor. There were freezer cabinets and cupboards on which the glass should first have bounced, but this isn't what any of us heard. We all heard one large crash, so loud that we all agreed it sounded though it had been thrown down deliberately by a human hand. We got back to the game scratching our heads. I considered things always sound louder at night when it was quiet and dismissed it as a freak accident.

I was in the bar again quite early the next morning as I was due to meet a client there. A different barman was on shift. Thinking the owner may have told him the tale already (but setting my self up to segway neatly into the tale if necessary) I jokingly asked him if anymore glasses had smashed this morning. He turned to look at me, eyes like saucers, the colour running from his cheeks.

"How do you know about that?"

"I was here last night", I replied.

"No, just now. After I opened I was standing here at the sink washing up a few glasses and all of a sudden a glass smashed on the floor behind me. It sounded like someone threw it at the floor - I jumped out of my skin!"

It turned out the owner was having a lie-in and the barman knew nothing of the night before. After I shared the story with him, we did the only sensible thing in that situation and had a couple of nerve-steadying brandies!

Coincidence? Maybe. There are a lot of earthquakes in Murcia. Sometimes these come in swarms and are all but imperceptible, but resonance at a particular frequency can cause individual objects to move while everything around them is still. However, there is a primitive part of me that cannot shake off the notion that not everything is mumbo jumbo. Some things do go bump it the night!

The Gargoyle Folk

Second blog in a row about one of my shortcomings, this time, language!

While I did pretty well in most academic subjects at school, languages were not my strong suit. The comment on my report card for French 'Stephen gave up trying' pretty much summed it up and stings to this day. I'm not quite sure why I failed so badly, but I think that while some people have a dyslexia associated with vision, I seem to have a similar thing that confuses my ears brain and mouth! My voice just seemed incapable of making the sounds I command it to, and no amount of practice seemed to be able to remedy that.

A few years back, while failing dismally to learn Spanish, a big stumbling block was that I couldn't roll my 'Rs'. A native speaker gave me a drill that Spanish children use when they have this problem. 'Tres tristres tigres, tragaban trigo en un trigal, en tres tristes trasto, tragaban trigo tres tristes tigres. Un tigre, dos tigres, tres tigres'. I recited it dozens of times a day for weeks but it didn't seem to help me one iota.

Similarly, I seem to have more problems than most in making out words, not just in a foreign language. Even in English, I often have trouble understanding what people are saying, especially in crowded situations, if they are talking quickly or they have an accent. I recall buying a Mars bar in the Shell garage in Kensington, and the Asian chap at the counter seemed to be calling me Pedro.

"Pedro?" I replied, "no I'm Steve".

No he replied "Petrol, petrol, gas?"

"Oh no, just the Mars bar" I said, pulling the hood of my anorak over my head in an attempt to hide in shame. This sort of thing has always happened to me. Back when I worked in the Department of Employment a chap in a turban was in the queue one day. I asked him his name and proceeded to look him up on the system.

"Sorry" I said, "I can't find a Mr Paddle here"

"Not Paddle" he said, "Patel, P-A-T-E-L".

"Oh, Pat-el, sorry", I said, unconciously and rudely re-pronouncing his name for him, having just made a complete arse of myself in front of a queue of a few dozen people who already hated me just for being a civil servant and therefore part of the enemy. I still have nightmares about that one.

Note: I'm not making fun of these people nor belittling their linguistic abilities. These errors are all my fault.
 

“Never make fun of someone who speaks broken English. It means they know another language.” – H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

So despite much effort to learn the language, when I moved to Spain and started conversing with the natives I was probably at a bit of a handicap to start with, but nothing could have prepared me for the next big problem. People in the village I relocated to don't speak the sort of Spanish one learns on a Michel Thomas CD. I later learned their accent in Spain has a position similar to Geordie in the UK. It is regarded by the rest of the Spanish speaking world as pretty unintelligble!

My wife and I were very fortunate to purchase a house in a place with fantastic neighbours who quickly adopted us and included us in their social gatherings. We immediately felt at home and took advantage of the opportunity to chat and improve our Spanish. God it was hard.

To give you an idea, one morning there had been a frost which was unusual. My immediate neighbour, Manolo came up to the fence and held out something in his hand, repeating a word over and over again expressing his obvious distress.

"Sellow sellow" is what it sounded like to me. I called out to the wife, whose Spanish was already far superior to mine, and she was equally puzzled.

We quizzed him as best we could and started to put the pieces together. He was apparently showing us a young almond kernel. The kernel had been frozen by the frost. Working backwards from there we found that the word for frozen was helado. The 'h' is silent in Spanish  and in Murcia they don't pronounce the 'd', collapsing it instead to an 'ow' sound. the final touch was this was a reflexive verb and he was saying it had frozen itself so there is the word 'se' on the front. So after a bit of a battle we figured he was saying 'se helado, se elao' - 'sellow sellow'! My wife was triumphant having figured this out but I knew in my heart I was losing the battle to learn Spanish. But worse was to come.

I befriended the local vet who took me out on his house-calls one day. The way it works is that farmers with herds of pigs or goats or whatever would take out insurance with him. In order to minimise his exposure to claims, he would visit the animals from time to time to carry out inoculations and inspections to look out for signs of infections and so forth. These actually took him quite far afield, which is why I was unusually eager to awaken at stupid-o'clock one cold winters morning, to jump into his 4x4 and bounce a long an ever deteriorating series of tracks that led to the mountains of Albacete. As the altitude increased so the temperature fell. I don't know how cold it got but I saw a frozen waterfall. This is a remote part of Spain, pockmarked by empty villages that had been abandoned as the children obviously made a choice between a propsperous life in the big city they saw on TV or a remote, freezing, impoverished life in the hills as a goat farmer and thought to themselves "blow this for a game of soldiers".  We visited several farms on the trip and on the way back I confessed to my veterinarian friend that I hadn't understood much of what had been said. He grinned and said he didn't either! Apparently the towns up in the hills are so spread out and isolated that the accents have diverged to such an extent that they were half unintelligible to a native Spanish speaker.

God rolled his dice and a few years later I started a new life, moving to a town in the inland of Andalusia, in Olvera, Cadiz province, the 'white village' I'm living in at the moment. Just as I'd been getting the hang of the accent in Murcia I found myself back in the deep-end trying to figure out what in God's name the Andalusians were talking about. Not only is the accent different again but the Andalusians speak Andaluz which is a combination of a heavy accent and a local lexicon of colloquialisms unique to the area. The bigger problem with Andaluz however is there seems to be a long standing campaign to kill off consonants altogether and reduce language to the lowest possible combination of vowel sounds.

The first word that foxed me when I moved here is a local term meaning mate or kid. I've never seen it written down but I'd have a stab at spelling it 'chaqillo'. When you hear this on the street however, typically one guy calling out of a car window, it is compressed into something resembling 'yo' where the 'je' of the 'y' is almost silent.  Another phrase common in Spanish is when two people greet they might say "¿Que haces?", meaning what's happening/what's up. Well that's how they say it in Spanish text books. Here they say "eh ah ee" though not as three separate syllables as I've presented here (for intelligibility?) but more like 'eai'.

I asked a local friend of mine about this and he said yes, that's the way in Andalusia - we eat our consonants! He went on to ask,

"Do you know how we say yes in Andalusia?"

"Si?" I suggested, wincing at the prospect that the real answer would be far worse.

"No, we say  eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee". He didn't even need to change his mouth shape to reward himself with a lingering grin!

Soon after, I visited one of the smaller town here south of Ronda. It only had about 200 inhabitants and I learned later that it only got its first fridge in 1983. There I was introduced to a jolly Spanish fellow whose name escapes me, but in entering is house I saw he had a fine collections of CD's.

"You like music", I said "what is your favourite kind?"

"aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa", he said.

I looked blankly at the person who had introduced us.

"Jazz" she translated, half smiling apologetically. At this point I felt so out of my depth I could see fish with lights on their heads!

I just pinched the 'lights on their heads' gag from my favourite comic author, Terry Pratchett and I think what the Andaluz accent most reminds me of is his story in 'Men at Arms" where Captain Vimes starts a conversation with a Gargoyle:

'What's your name, friend?'
' 'ornice-oggerooking-Oardway.'
Vimes' lips moved as he mentally inserted all those sounds unobtainable to a creature whose
mouth was stuck permanently open. Cornice-overlooking-Broad-way?
'Egg'.

The best way then to try to understand the local accent in Andalusia is to imagine them as people who don't close their mouths very much, somewhat like Pratchett's gargoyle folk.
 

That would have been the end of this blog post but I had a more serious afterthought. While I'm on the subject of my trouble dealing with the language here (and at least, I try) another thing  that I found to be a real challenge are automated telephone answering systems. If you try to ring many of the major utilities in Spain such as Telefonica or Vodafone you will be greeted by a mechanical voice asking questions about the nature of your enquiry. In an effort to steer you towards an answer with as little costly human intervention as possible, the questions may include speaking/spelling your name or contract number or even worse, repeating the answer of a multiple choice question.


Now the tricky thing here is that the phone software will be attuned to the accent of a natural Spanish speaker. When I try to respond to these questions in my best Spanish, the system must sniff out my South London accent and raise a red flag, as I can never, EVER, EVER manage to make the machine understand what I'm saying!! Often I'll run against a brick wall and a human operator will eventually come on to find out what is going on. Sometimes though - and this winds me up - the automated system will say it can't understand me and terminate the call. This has happened several times with Telefonica - and I've stood there for several seconds looking at the dead phone with complete incredulity. What else can you do other than get a Spanish friend to make the call for you?


IMHO there should be a law that stops them being able to do this. Non native speakers should have a right to access basic utilities through mutli-national phone answering systems using buttons only. My only consolation is a private chuckle when I think of the amount of business they must loose as a result of this sort of practice. Right now I need a second phone but I'll end up getting it from the highstreet shop of another company as my existing mobile operator can't be bothered to talk to me - stuff them!!

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An aside

Spain News

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