Wednesday, June 29, 2011

World Heritage Sites

The next step was a short step for the Modus under full power.  Ali had been in contact with his friend Micky who was at uni there and was looking for us to meet.  Micky organised a hotel for us and we were rolling.

In full tourist mode
Bordeaux is a Unesco World Heritage Site, our first for the trip, and by some miracle Micky was waving to us from the side of a road into the city centre when we spotted him so the drive in was easy.  He had booked us into a Quality Inn right in the city centre which was very convenient and then proceeded to give us the tourist visit of Bordeaux.  Lovely city too.  More mussels for dinner followed by cigars and brandy ended things nicely.

Next up was a drive down the coast to St Jean de Luz, the first place in France that Wellington stayed in 1814 after expelling the French from Spain/Portugal.  But first to an extraordinary natural phenomenon that is the Dunes de Pyla.  I had been to see them 10+ years ago but thought Ali would be interested too.  They are simply huge sand dunes that have been piled up on the sea shore over the last million or so years by the endless swell from the Atlantic Ocean and currently stand some 100+ metres high and 8 kms long.

We walked to the bottom on the other side... which was far easier than walking back up again!
Below the Dunes is a fairly desolate area of SW France known as Aquitaine that has sand and pine trees and the occasional village.  Miles and miles of it and we drove all of it on secondary roads away from the autoroutes.  This part of France was owned by England in the days of Henry II and you can see why the French didn't really care much at the time.  However these days the intrepid view the endless sandy beaches on the Atlantic as summer beach resorts and surfers just love it with the continuous big swells and no rocky sand to land on.  Pretty breezy though.

I had convinced Ali of the need to not stay in Biarritz and push on another 17 kms to St Jean but we did visit Biarritz to see why the jet set like it.  Pretty posh it is but the day we chose to be there was grim and windy.  The hotels, casinos and beach front were all there though as were a good bunch of people just looking (like us).

Note the fine summer weather!
St Jean on the other hand is small and cute.  We adopted a new (successful and subsequently adopted) tactic of heading for the town centre and finding the tourist information office (which everyone had these days).  This found us digs for the night in the middle of this charming little fishing village.  We couldn't find where Wellington stayed and nobody would tell us.  I guess he wasn't that popular here.  However the people are French Basques who are resolutely different from the French (and Spanish on the other side too) and most things are distinctly un-French.  However seafood remains the order of the day and fish soup and paella made an appearance at the dinner table.

Our next stop was intended to be San Sebastian (or Donostia as the Spanish Basques and road signs confusingly call it) but first we had to contend with the peages.  Tech isn't a strong point but really getting through a peage is like taking an intelligence test.  Symbols all over the place and with nobody around if you mess up, simply getting through one of these things is more stress than you need on a holiday.  But first we decided to head into the Pyrenees and see what the fuss about them is all about.  They are BIG.

If you are a student of Wellington's campaigns in the Peninsular War you will know it took him 4 years to wend his way from the lines of Torres Vedras outside Lisbon to the French border and beyond.  You probably think that it meant simply tramping up roads and thrashing the French periodically.  It wasn't (other than the 'thrashing the French' bit).  The terrain is mountainy and virtually impassable these days in a car, on roads and without nasties shooting at you.  One late-ish affray in early 1814 took place atop La Rhune just outside (actually 9,000 feet above) St Jean de Luz.  The French were on high ground and Wellington's sharp shooters and irregulars pushed them off.  How on earth did they manage that?  These days you take a cog railway train that huffs and puffs and heads up to the top.  Good view though.

St Jean to the left and Biarritz off to the right
San Sebastian is a nice town although they don't really care for Wellington much.  It was the scene of the last battle in Spain in 1813 and when the British troops who had suffered mightily in the storming of the town actually broke in, they spent 2 days pillaging the place and burned it flat.  So no buildings predate 1813.  The tourist information is really rather upset by all this and keep on repeating it however we managed our head in/tourist information office combo again and found the Hotel de la Playa conveniently located nowhere near a 'playa' but more handily located on the edge of the old town.

Very nice place too is San Sebastian these days.  Surfing beach nearby if you want it, thousands of bars, cafes and restaurants in the old town when you've finished.  And with this being Spain (even Basque country), suckling pig or goat is always on the menu -- this time goat.

And did I talk about the tapas?  My experience with tapas formerly was a few plates of small food scrapings you poked around at and said 'very nice' and then went off to dinner.  This was nothing like.  Simply amazing.  Endless platters of small things that you simply wandered around to and grazed at.  The barman would tick off one of this, two of that, and so on, and at the end you give him 10 euros and get change.  AND if things couldn't get any better than this, in the morning you went back for your breakfast tapas.  The little bacon and eggs things were fantastic as was the coffee, as was.... well San Sebastian.

Egg and bacon things on the right... yummy!
Sadly only 1 night as we were next headed for Marseilles where we needed to do some laundry and planned to stay 2 nights.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Quality Time

The Big Smoke and Alistair.  What a prospect!

My intent was to help Ali packing after 3 years at Kingston Uni and I expected a lot of stuff in heaps together with indeterminate other things maybe even including people.  I had brought lots of black bin bags, bleach, cloths and what I hoped was stern resolve but in the end it wasn't really needed.  Ali has made do with a tiny bed-sit and his stuff was already conveniently bagged up and tossing it into a skip was (for me at any rate) a snip.  We will continue over Ali's football boots when we return.

The Royal Borough (no less) of Kingston is a nice place, only 3 miles down the road from Henry VIII's favourite home at Hampton Court.  I would have visited but the day I arrived was the day the drought officially broke in Kingston.  As Ali visited pals each evening after a day's cleaning and tidying I had the run of Kingston to myself.  Nice town indeed, well laid out shopping and pedestrian area.  Lots of bars and restaurants by the river and boy were they jammed.  Kingston is also home to Oceana, a dance club for young uns and a haven for all around that part of South London and as I chose to be there Friday through Sunday, I received a full dose seeing as I had chosen a Travel Lodge smack opposite.  It's a combination of being older and a different generation but boy were there some sights.  All the girls in skirts that could barely be called skirts and in the highest of high heels and the lads in jeans and T-shirts -- I wondered how that could be seeing as the girls went to so much trouble.  Ali gave me an uncomprehending stare when I asked him about it (he's a jeans/T-shirt guy).

Moving on and feeling considerably older I witnessed something I had heard of but never seen -- a couple of girls clad as described above binge drinking whilst hanging on to a rubbish bin.  This was before the club so I would hope they had some fresh breath sweets or something.  I cannot believe I did this looking back but the following day I checked the bin but found no signs of unfortunate and unforeseen expectorations, odd as the pair of them last seen had a bottle of white wine and another of Jack Daniels they were passing to and fro.

See trash bin to left!

The nice VW I hired from Europcar went really well and was incredibly economical.  I bought a tank of petrol in York and with driving down 250 miles and then going all over the place in London, Southend, Canterbury and finally down to Dover, I had used half a tank.  They even gave us a lift to the ferry terminal so we could hop on.

I also thought Renault were great.  Ali calls this a tax dodge -- renting a car for more then 2 weeks and getting involved in a guaranteed "sale and buy back" deal which cuts the rental cost, expands insurance coverage and gets you a car with 5 kms on the clock -- in our case a Renault Modus.  The pick up point is right in the terminal when you arrive and if nobody is there you make a call and 15 minutes later a delightful lady turns up and in only another 15 minutes does all the paperwork and the necessary to get you off on the road.  I had chosen a Modus because it wasn't too small and had a great rep for mileage seeing as we had grandiose plans to fulfill.

What! 5km on the clock!!

The Modus is NOT a handsome vehicle (sorry Modus) but as a means of transport it is second to none.

Note "tax dodging" number plates -- a give away according to the Renault lady
All the messing around had made us late to Calais so it wasn't until 3pm that we set off first stop to a hypermarket to stock up on essentials. I like Carrefour, really.  It is what Tesco, Walmart and Asda is now but it has been this way for 20+ years.  The stuff you buy can be cheap or top of the range -- its all there, you just make your choice.  However their DIY 24X7 gas station underneath needs work.  In fact all DIY things like this need work.  What if, say, you don't have a credit card that has a chip and pin number?  I don't, for example, so attempting completion of this relatively simple task became an intelligence test quite beyond me seeing as it was a public holiday in France and nobody breathing was around to help.  Fortunately Ali had encountered issues like this before and used his card and the deal was done and we moved on.

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly you become a complete moron in a foreign country when faced by the most simple of tasks.  It IS all about language of course and my umpteen years of French study and knowing how to rectify the grandmother's ear trumpet being wonky problem helped not at all when faced with a more contemporary chip and pin road block.

This put us waaaaaay back and our early thoughts about driving to Normandy or even the Vendee region were totally washed away.  We barely made it to Le Touquet, some 50 minutes or so away, before calling it quits which the Hotel Bristol accommodated in fine fashion.  Located some 50 metres away from the sea front and double that from the single street that is crammed with restaurants, clubs, pubs, bars and low life casinos, it was just perfect for us.  Mussels and seafood were the order of the day even though they were out of season and the tone was set for the trip.

The drive to La Rochelle was lengthy and the Modus performed well although we did discover that French radio stations cover all the FM wavebands so running the iPod through the radio was a waste of time.  It is also 700+ kms so the drive was lengthy even though we passed through some nice countryside.

La Rochelle is a lovely old city -- a theme that would recur continuously throughout as European towns and cities tend to grow up around the old settlements and then expand rapidly outside, but the heart remains in the 'old town' in whichever language you want to use.  My brother Jan has a friend there and visits often and has droned on about it so as it is en route to Bordeaux, we thought why not?

The town itself is based around an old port that used to be the scene of endless battles.  Remember Dumas' book 'The 3 Musketeers'?  They were always off to fight the rebels in La Rochelle as many out here were protestants.  Truth I suspect is they had money and weren't keen to pay taxes.  Once he'd had them sorted out, Louis XIV took their fishing business (La Rochelle fishermen ventured to Newfoundland for cod which is why they first settled in Canada) and introduced the 'only fish on Friday' rule for the people so he could sell them the produce he'd now cornered.  Viv and I had visited Louisberg in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia a year or so back and discovered this then so it was interesting connecting the dots back to the old country.  The fish were fantastic and mussels were of course in season so featured heavily.

The harbour in La Rochelle

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Medieval York

The express train from Kings Cross to York with John of Lourdes was a fine experience until I looked at the ticket price -- 44 quid one way!  This is meant to be public transport and should be less costly than other transport means.  But it was a comfortable ride and fortunately John had reserved seats for us and less than 2 hours later we arrived.  What a lovely city!

York is relatively small with 150,000 or so inhabitants and most importantly no suburban sprawl outside ... unlike Canterbury.  Outside is fields and lovely little villages and the moors.  And giving credit to a past Archbishop of York from the 1830's who fought against Victorian industrialists that wanted to level the Roman/Norman/Medieval/old walls to permit some new fangled invention to enter the city, the walls are the most complete set anywhere in England.  In fact there's only the bit over an ex-lake that is missing and I suppose given that it wasn't there in the first place, that is pretty good.  There is no comparison with Canterbury in this regard and moving on, the Cathedral, sorry Minster, is bigger -- biggest north of the Alps  (Milan is apparently bigger but -- sniff here from the tour guide -- "that place has colour and statues.  We're C of E").  Great street names too -- The Shambles stands out -- and if you think Stratford-upon-Avon is 'olde worlde', forget it.  York has that one too.

York was settled in AD 71 by the Romans who were busily righting a wrong.  A British queen had had some booty stolen from her by a rebel king and the Romans just had to support their allies even though the rebel king was the queen's husband (still with me?).  And in true Roman fashion, they liked it so much they stayed ostensibly to position a garrison in a strategic northern position where they could keep an eye (i.e occasionally stomp) on unruly tribes and those damned Picts and Scots.  They chose York -- or rather Eboracum -- because its in the V of two rivers, the Ouse and the smaller Fosse and they only had to build one barricade to the north.  It started out as earth but when Hadrian arrived in 120 or so, he got them to not only build that bloody wall further oop north but also to build massive stone fortifications around Eboracum, now to include the part of the city that had grown on the other side of the river banks.  Incredibly Eboracum became the largest city north of Rome with 100,000 inhabitants and became the centre for trade in Brittania.   300 years later came disaster as the Romans left (in 410 AD) and in came a whole host of smellies starting with the Anglians in the 600's and more damagingly the Vikings in the 800's.  Eboracum became Yorvik under the Vikings and the city again grew to importance as it became a capital of the Viking kings during the Danegeld period when Britain was carved in two.  Putting it in perspective, the population under the Vikings grew to 18,000 which was considered a very large city then.  First the Saxons under Harold gave the Vikings a hammering in 1066 and only 3 weeks later came the Normans who subsequently "harried" the north to such an extent that historians believe over 100,000 people died in the suppression and famine that followed.

The Normans couldn't pronounce Yorvik so the city became York and the walls rose a further 30 feet as it became the northern centre of Norman influence again.  No 'hearts and minds' in those days.  And those darned Normans built the first Minster (why Minster and not a Cathedral?  York is a place of "ministering" to the flock, hence Minster.  Canterbury is a place to "teach".  A place of teaching was called a "cathedra" hence Cathedral) which was another darn great church.  A couple of hundred years later Edward I moved the court to York to conduct his endless wars against the Scots and invited his nobles to join him.  When they did, Edward "asked" for a contribution to the building of a new Minster on top of the old one and I get the feeling that it wasn't sensible to decline so York got a really big new Minster.  Edward I didn't need that foppish Magna Carta to keep the barons under control.

York was mightily involved in the Wars of the Roses (Richard III was something of a hero to York even though the House of York was essentially a southern family, the House of Lancaster was the northern family) and again in the Civil War when it was besieged mightily prior to Naseby in 1644 and suffered damage from the Parliamentarian besiegers.  Cromwell turned the religious buildings into secular hostels but the city barely noticed and from the Restoration picked up and polished its brass again.  The result is a lovely city which has many, many wonderful historical sites that the city fathers have sensibly enhanced on the whole pretty well.

Being a snotty southerner I had always thought folk from "oop north" were poor relations and lived in back to back houses one sees on Coronation Street.  Not a bit of it.  Certainly the bits I saw showed a very conservative and wealthy population very certain where they've come from and who and where they are.  I really did walk all over the city but could not find much in the way of urban poverty or scrubby streets where I wouldn't have much liked to go.  I am sure they exist though as the Pound Stores and Money Shops were all about like in other cities but I saw little evidence of it.

I had a day out in Whitby, a seaside town on the coast, where John said would be the finest fish and chips anywhere.  I doubted this as Sarfend seafront's Ye Olde Chippy was still a fond memory.  The drive was through part of the North Yorkshire moors and it was something out of the Hound of the Baskervilles (wrong moor, I know).  Rugged and spectacular indeed.  My ears popped so we must have been quite high.  In winter when a north wind blew, it would have been unlivable.

Whitby was straight out of a Hovis advertisement.  I expected to see an old man pushing a bike with his dog running alongside but only saw the new signs of Whitby -- endless shops and attractions expounding the "Whitby Experience".  Whitby was a fishing village and had an old abbey that Henry VIII looted and flattened in the Reformation and I think that was about it.  Bram Stoker lived nearby and supposedly had the idea of Dracula when living in Whitby.  However the fish and chips from The Magpie Cafe were very nice indeed (I had haddock as rock was not on the menu which would have enabled a direct comparison) even though on another table a patron was enjoying a bottle of Champagne with his haddock and chips.  I've never seen that before.  And you wouldn't do that in Ye Olde Chippy.

Other than farming I have seen no sign of industry at all in Yorkshire.  Have all those dark satanic mills gone?  I think so.  Whitby was all tourist related (i.e. services) as was York.  John and his wife, Mandy, have just visited China for the first time and said that while they saw plenty of US influence and stuff from Germany and occasionally designer stuff from elsewhere, there was precious little of Britain.  Interesting observation.  I put it down to the fact that these days Britain doesn't make much of anything any more.  I see BMW is moving Mini production to Britain which is nice but offhand I cannot think of much else that we do any more.  So just what do people do?  Surely not everyone can be in services.  Another thing from this is that if (in this case) the Chinese see nothing from Britain, there's precious little interest in getting to know anything about Britain.  Surely our most important export to China isn't just Hong Kong?

York is on the tourist through route for buses en route for Edinburgh so the highlights get a lot of foreign visitors.  On my first visit to the Minster, I saw a sign for free guided tours and asked the information desk who suggested I rush off and join the nearest one that had just started.  I joined 3 or 4 before realising that all were for bus tour people and the visitors knew everyone else and were eyeing up the interloper.  I did finally join a start up tour with 2 South Africans, a Californian and an Italian and had a delightful lady talk about different but not conflicting things to those 3 or 4 other tours.  Interesting what different people find the most interesting bits when its all about the same thing.

On another occasion at the end of a heavy walking day I popped back into the Minster for a sit down and bit of peace and quiet only to walk into the most beautiful choral service given by children of the Minster school (located in the cloisters rather like Kings in Canterbury, but its just a junior school).  There were a couple of other visitors like me feeling rather privileged to be there (I imagine) but as they all left I decided to take a look at the high altar area where the action had just taken place and ran into a volunteer guide there who for some reason took to me.  Charming chap chatted away and even the sudden explosion of John Bonham's drums announcing the opening chords to Rock and Roll (my mobile phone ring tone) caused him murmur other than to say "mobile phones should be turned off as the firemen say they could cause a short circuit with the fire alarms and spark a fire".  He made me chuckle a bit as he said he enjoyed being involved from a historical and religious interest perspective, but he wasn't that interested in the spiritual stuff.  He also told a couple of tales of greed, power grabbing and general incompetence of previous Deans and Archbishops -- even the C of E has their Borgias!  By the time we ended, he had to let me out of the church meaning I got to see the tradesmen's entrance -- it was the car park at the back.  Thanks Paul.

I enjoyed the York Museum thoroughly although was a bit disappointed with the general lack of loads of Roman stuff until I read that it had mostly been reused and mixed up with subsequent building so unless it was simply lying around somewhere it had been recycled.  The lovely gardens had lots of vague old looking bits that were supposedly Roman but then again I suppose the Forum in Rome needs an awful lot of imagination too.

I could have managed another day to see the other small bits I'd missed but have a mission to help Alistair pack up and leave Uni.  So that pleasure will have to wait another day or so.  Thanks Mandy and John for a memorable visit.  I do leave York though feeling that Richard III had a really bad rap from history and in particular that hack, Shakespeare.  He was the good guy in all that Princes in the Tower stuff.

I almost forgot the Morris Dancers!!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Lourdes, the Home of Cricket

Every cricketer must go to a Lords Test Match at some point in their life.  For myself and 4 other Bermuda and ex-Bermuda hands this was our pilgrimage.  Rosie from Bermuda had suggested it a couple of months ago -- first two days of the Test Match against Sri Lanka -- and I jumped at it.  Another Bermuda hand, Dave B, also jumped at it.  When they heard about it, another couple of ex-Bermuda hands, Ali in Dublin and John in York, said yes too.  So we were set.

The Members' Pavilion at Lourdes

Cricket needs to be watched in good weather though and we were fortunate to have sunshine on both days.  Getting there was a dream too -- 3 stops up the Jubilee Line and 10 minute walk.  However in the hallowed ground, no vestiges of the Barmy Army. They apparently only appear at away matches and at matches other than at Lords (I'd seen them at Old Trafford in Manchester, Rosie at the most recent Ashes series in Melbourne) but the atmosphere was upbeat and very well organised.

Time was that major events in England were chaos.  Refreshment stands were laughable and bathroom facilities unspeakable.  If the event was sporting, it began on time but otherwise start time was more indicative than reality. But time has moved on and so has the organisation.  It is now arguably over-organised.  And very clean.

The cricket was terrific too.  England batted and after a jittery start, Essex boy Alistair Cook picked up from where he left off in Australia and just batted Sri Lanka out of the match.  Not quite actually as he had a sole rush of blood on 96 and departed but others picked up the mantle and mashed their way to 341-6 overnight. Rosie and I had our picture taken with Mike Gatting who was very gracious.

Rosie, Dave and I met newly arrived Ali in Covent Garden after which a Belgian restaurant called "Belgo" was the joint of choice.

The second day saw John arrive too and with Rosie, Dave and I representing Bermuda in formal wear, we departed.  We earned several wolf whistles but the most incongruous (and amusing) thing was Rosie calling out "tickets for sale" trying to be both surreptitious, invisible (to the authorities) and at the same time visible to potential punters on a street corner near the ground -- wearing yellow Bermuda shorts.  Ali had engineered an invitation into a box so our tickets were redundant.  Rosie managed to sell the tickets for half face value so the stress for the day was over and the day could be well enjoyed.

L to R: Me, John, Dave B and Rosie all dressed up with somewhere to go

It is easy to sneer at corporate hospitality.  I do it all the time.  Those bloody prawn sandwich brigade, etc.  And with some justification too.  Those attending tend not to be true cricket fans but rather people out for a jolly.  The box next door for example (a large UK bank) was totally empty other than for Michael Vaughan and his family for part of the afternoon -- he left after turning down the opportunity of appearing in a global exclusive photo shoot with us.  It was jammed on business days but on the weekend (this was Saturday) nobody wanted to go.  Our box on the other hand was jammed.  And going back to my first point, it was increasingly difficult to maintain a high moral ground faced with the corporate largesse spread in our direction.  Great day indeed and thanks are due to Dave T, Max and Nick from Invesco for being such gracious hosts.

The cricket was fabulous as well.  Prior's great hundred followed by Dilshan's.  I managed to win the pool on how many SL would end up with at the end of the day -- my bet was 232 for 5, they managed 231-1 but it was only runs that counted.  And the day gradually wound down increasingly hazily but with much great bonhomie all round.

Who wouldn't love a day out like this?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Back to the Smoke

Its been quite a hurly-burly since the last post from Antwerp -- return leg, indulgence in Canterbury, great weather and setting up shop in London ready for the cricket tomorrow and Saturday.  Where to begin?

Antwerp is jammed full of museums if you look for them, and why not?  The city is an old Roman settlement that grew and grew and is now the 3rd (I think) largest container port in the world.  They got let down a lot along the way but that seems par for the course for Belgium and the fact they are where they are is pretty impressive.

MAS museum in Antwerp

Belgium is one of the old Benelux countries that merged to form the European Coal and Steel Union back in the 50's which was a precursor to the EEC and finally the EU.  I hadn't realised it but Benelux was where it all started for these countries anyway.  Back in the 1500's and before they were part of the old Spanish Hapsburg empire that was called The Low Countries and comprised all of modern day Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland.  It was religion of course that broke things up -- Holland being Protestant while the others were rather more fence sitters.  It helped that by the time the Dutch had made their minds up to be protestant and independent, the Spanish woke up to realise they'd better be more accommodating (i.e. pay more attention) to this remote backwater of the Empire.  The Spanish lost Holland in 1648 at the end of the 30 Years War and passed on Belgium and Luxembourg to the Austrian Hapsburgs to ignore.  So having swapped one disinterested colonial master for another, the Dutch heaped even more on the Belgians by denying access to the River Scheldt (Schelder in Flemish) to anyone but Dutch ships.  Antwerp which by then was the 3rd largest city in Europe after Paris and London crashed as their entire trade stopped stone cold dead.  The traders upped sticks and left leaving less than half the former population to find their way.

It took Boney in 1797 and the revolutionary armies to stomp all over everyone and open up the Schelder again and rebuild and enlarge Antwerp considerably to re-establish Antwerp as something other than a great place to drink beer.  But after Waterloo the Dutch re-established their shipping prohibition once again (thanks a lot!) so Belgium mortgaged their future in 1830 and paid 17 million guilders as a one-off payment to Holland to enable their shipping to have free access to the Schelder.  The Dutch King Wilhelm as a gesture of thanks for this cash influx finished off another huge dock redevelopment and left Belgium alone.

You could go to the museum of Antwerp (called the MAS) and learn all about this in their futuristic 9-storey museum and take a river cruise around the docks (I like looking at man's industrial prowess.  It impresses me as it makes me realise that mankind actually really aren't the parasites some people will have you believe but are really rather creative and solution oriented) but I think that's about it in terms of the why's and wherefore's about Antwerp.

OK I forgot -- on Sundays, the Grote Markt in the old town is turned into a mountain biking course!

A small digression here.  I bought this internet on a stick thing from Vodafone called would you believe it a "dongle" for 25 quid when I arrived.  It is amazing.  You just plug it in and it works.  I confess to being impressed by technology things that have practical applications and this is a cracker.  Smart phones are just brilliant technology but other than playing or checking your precise GPS location (why not use a map?) I cannot see much real solid practical use.  Beautiful yes.  Clever absolutely.  But what on earth do you do with it?  And it costs a fortune with all that data usage.  Now a dongle, I can see that.  I only look at email and occasional websites for checking news, sports scores and the like but it really does work.  I wouldn't be able to type this blog entry without it.

The English newspapers are just fascinating.  Who buys the trashy tabloids?  Answer, for the headlines.  On Tuesday the Star's front page screamed out "Having sex with Ryan Giggs turned me into a lesbian" and had a photo of a skimpily clad young woman.  Just brilliant.  I hope the author received a promotion for probably the best headline of the year.  But if you head past scintillating journalism such as this the subtext around the country is pretty gloomy -- slowing economy; despite austerity measures government spending is more than last year; local councils firing employees to outsource to India; Greece downgraded yet again and likely to default in July; end of the Euro; 43% of a 1100 person survey in England think that the UK should pull out of the Eurozone -- Ed note: the UK is actually NOT in the Eurozone; official "green" energy policy costs more than non-green former solutions both in terms of money, usage of resources and amazingly energy; 75,000 asylum seekers applying for immigration permits cannot be found so nobody knows where they are or if they are alive or dead; 96% of London inner city students speak English as at best a second language; and on it goes.  It really is difficult to see how the UK can wiggle its way out of its current mess.  The issues are endless and their complexities are enhanced by a seemingly general unwillingness of anyone in power to take a strong stance on anything.  "Taking the views of all stakeholders" is a common phrase used.  This means of course that the powers that be are trying to shift responsibility for something to "stakeholders" whoever they are.

Even the weather is a two edged sword.  I think England is the most beautiful country in the world on the 3 days of the year when the sun shines.  However in 2011 there's been no rain in the SE for 6-7 weeks depending on who you read so farmers are squealing -- and in Europe which produces 20% of the world's wheat, its even worse.  Yet in Scotland and up north, its wet as anything.  The solution to be acted upon is create more reservoirs in the SE (where there's no land) rather than pump it in.  The good news of course is that at least 5% of all crops are being turned over to synthetic petrol production as government tax hikes have prompted the major natural gas producer, Centrica, to moth ball certain sites as the 81% super-tax makes it more profitable to ship it in from elsewhere than produce it at home.  One of the papers calculated that by doing this Centrica makes $1 billion extra in income while the government loses $4 billion in tax revenues.

Be this as it may England when its sunny is gorgeous.  I went to Sissinghurst with mother-in-law Anna and the flowers were beautiful.  And to "enhance the Sissinghurst experience" I listened in to part of the historical lecture provided on Sissinghurst's role as a French sailors' POW camp in the 7 Years War (1756-1763).  "This is a story of deprivation, degradation and abuse" began the lecture.  Being a nature loving place most of the audience wore brown or green clothes with sandals and tutted their disapproval at this "shameful blot on the nation's history".  What?  These people clearly don't get out much.  Do they not know that simple sailors in the 1750's did not have luxury suites aka Carnival Cruise Lines but ordinarily lived in squalor & filth, ate muck, caught fell diseases and died of things most of us cannot spell these days?  Have they never heard of Dachau or Auschwitz? Rwanda?  The Death Railway in Thailand/Burma? Colditz?  Do we have to apologise for everything these days?

But the flowers were gorgeous as was the cream tea!  Tomorrow's Lords and the 2nd Test against Sri Lanka.