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“Er, waiter – what’s that tune?”

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I have a friend – we’ll call him Charlie – who, like me, takes his food very seriously. He also likes music a lot but being a chap of deep convictions he believes that the qualities of each are such that they are best indulged separately; put simply, he doesn’t like both at the same time. He tells me that when he wants to listen to music he’ll choose it carefully and enjoy listening to it. Conversely, when he eats he doesn’t want music disturbing his meal. I understand that and I agree with the view he takes, albeit less demonstratively [I am English after all and we tend to avoid making a fuss] if the combination is on the sensitive side. Charlie, however, is not given to compromise. So, to my increasing admiration as well as my continuous entertainment, the first thing he does on entering a restaurant softened by ambient music is to ask that it is immediately turned off. Of course, that doesn’t always go down well but he knows what he wants.

I’m a novice at this and not a wholly committed convert to Charlie’s cause but I’m not slow in having a word myself if the circumstances call for it. In my view the customer should decide as to whether he wants music while he eats and I’m not best pleased at having anything imposed on me in the belief that it will enhance my ‘customer experience’.

In Sicily we’ve been staying at a very new hotel – the Masseria della Volpe in Noto, which has just opened. This restored farm has a breathtaking setting that brims with innovation and Italian design. But to return to Charlie’s territory – its restaurant has an outside area that soothes the souls of its clientele with quiet classical music that is discernible, if you want to listen, well-chosen and unobtrusive. It’s very subtle and I found it pleasant enough. I was taken aback, though, when I asked the waiter about it because his immediate response was ‘would you like me to switch it off?’ This hotel is new and had a few [relatively minor] teething troubles but, if it continues in this vein, it might just turn into that rare thing – a venue where guests’ actual preferences are put first.

The peaceful view from the belvedere at 'Volpe', with the volpe symbol.

The peaceful view from the belvedere at ‘Volpe’, complete with volpe sculpture

In case you’re wondering – I didn’t ask that the music was turned off and the service, food and hotel were excellent.

We moved on to Tuscany, where we returned to Il Pellicano at Porto Ercole. The hotel is rated very highly and here, where there are more staff than you can say ‘buon giorno’ to if you had all day, I did ask them to turn the music off. Il Pellicano rightly prides itself on its five-star luxury service and I have to confess that we were looked after very well. Staff here glide silently through the hotel in twos and threes with choreographed ease, nirvanic expressions on their faces; their sole purpose to make their guests’ visit memorable. Nonetheless, the restaurants and bar were polluted by the worst kind of ‘ambient’ music; tuneless, invasive, unidentifiable piped background noise that was more suited to a shopping mall food hall. An American one at that. Of more concern was that I couldn’t find anyone who was actually responsible for it. No one knew what it was [my guess – an Art Farmer jazzy flugelhorn tribute selection, but I might be flattering it]; no-one knew who had chosen it; no-one knew why it was actually playing and, amazingly, no-one seemed to have authority to silence it. It was as if I had asked them to turn off all the lights in the foyer. A waiter made a valiant effort when I first complained and lowered the volume but only managed to change the track to a different version of the same stuff. When I reiterated that I would prefer it off completely he sadly advised that he would need to speak to his manager. Moving on to the black jackets didn’t help; my concerns received more smiles, some patronising hand-wringing and sympathetic understanding but the noise continued in tuneless irritation all evening. And all day. We ate outside the hotel after that. 

Il Pellicano's terrace restaurant, where on a clear day you can see forever...

Il Pellicano’s terrace restaurant, where on a clear day you can see forever…

It’s a funny thing, a hotel’s perception of service. In Il Pellicano service has reached a state of almost flawless perfection; eager faces and greetings at every turn, waves and smiles, immediate help with baggage or directions, earnest understanding of the guests’ needs and close attention to their every word [which I rather liked, actually]. It’s so perfect, in fact, that it’s become a well-oiled process that no one questions. So years of practice means that switching on the music in the morning has become a box that requires ticking. The operation is successful, but the patient dies; one night we had *spigola al sale. Staff buzzed around us, one bringing a serving table, another re-arranging ours and topping-up water glasses; our wine was relocated to make way for the food and yet another assistant brought roasted vegetables before re-arranging the table again. Under the paternal gaze of the maitre d’ the steaming dish was displayed and set before us, the salt ceremonially cracked and the fish lifted carefully off the bone, cutlery arcing like a conductor’s baton. But by the time this culinary two-step was complete both the dining plates and the vegetables were cold. And in the background the flugelhorn medley moved to double-articulation.

Now I’m certain that each person involved fulfilled their duties perfectly, yet the meal was actually a failure.

I hope that the Masseria della Volpe continues to put its guests’ preferences first and I’ll go back to find out. I know that Charlie, thankfully, will continue to keep restaurants thinking about what their customers want and not what convention suggests. As for me, I still can’t get that flugelhorn nonsense out of my head.

 * This is a local speciality consisting of a whole sea bass baked in a herb-seasoned crust of sea salt.

if only the reason for the flugelforn was as clear as sea below the hotel

… if only the reason for the flugelforn was as clear as the sea below the hotel

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Sicily – gazing into the sunset

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Ragusa Ibla

Ragusa Ibla

Sometimes you just have to get away.

On more than a few occasions during this past year or so I’ve felt that sanity would only be preserved by getting into the car and heading for the sunset. Essential work on the house, on-off moving dates, packing crates, keeping the peripheral life-forms that are estate agents at arms-length and – perhaps worst of all – agonising over what to keep and what to dispose of have sometimes felt like insurmountable problems.

You get by it of course, but while squeezing the content of a four-hundred year old farmhouse into a much smaller and completely modern apartment remains a work in progress, life – at last – appears to be taking on a measure of control. That didn’t seem possible even a few weeks ago. Yes, luxury problems when you consider the unspeakable horrors that people are suffering around the world in Asia, north Africa and the Middle East but those are problems almost too big to comprehend and strangely, where one stores dozens of photo albums and what one does with a large portfolio of artwork of nothing more than sentimental value have taken on a disproportionate importance.

Now, with curtains hung, most of the boxes unpacked and some of the furniture relocated we have carved out a little space for ourselves and have, at last, got away – to Sicily, which is draped in wild flowers and the green of early summer. Days are now filled with the scent of wild fennel and orange blossom; nights with calling Scops owls and barking dogs. You feel history here and you find perspective; to be in Sicily is to immerse oneself in Baroque splendour and indulge in culinary delight so the hours spent seeking shade are punctuated with cous cous di pesce and moscato-flavoured granita.

There is a timelessness about this place that is almost somniferous. It’s in the decaying buildings and the muted colours; the easy friendliness of Sicilians and the undulating cultivation. And it’s in the food – a coalescence of influences that simultaneously stimulate the senses and calm the spirit. Essentially, a perfect place to take time, walk narrow streets and live life for a while without an agenda.

Long lunches, a glass of chilled grillo and the shadow of weathered stone give you time to ponder and absorb its essence but with it comes the realisation that, for all its history and all the influences that make it such a magical place, this most fascinating of islands remains ancient and unmoved by the comings and goings of its visitors. Occupation is transitory; Greeks and Romans to Byzantines and Muslims; Normans to Spanish and Bourbons have come, left their mark and eventually gone. Now it’s generation TripAdvisor, grading antiquity and hotels on a scale of five.

I guess the unique richness that permeates time here is the result of Sicily mellowing across eons and that was probably just fine until the advent of mass tourism and Sicily by Car. Lunch, in view of the sea or in a stone-paved piazza, is frequently memorable but the ingenuous mood it generates can evanesce quickly. Like the intricate details on balconies and hand-cultivation of steep hillside plots, Sicily’s road network – aside from a few kilometers in the north and east – belongs to a time past. Even the shortest of journeys requires an unreasonable degree of concentration as potholes, mis-aligned joints, adverse camber and seemingly random deposits of tarmac or concrete combine in common assault. Sicily doesn’t do maintenance – manutenzione – and, as though that weren’t enough, encounters with Sicilian drivers are often heart-stopping. No, Sicily isn’t the place to come to if you like to drive, need to be busy or move around a fair bit – this is the place to run to when you want new life breathed into you; what you get here is something else – ringiovanimento; rejuvenation.

Clover field at Enna

Clover field at Enna

Duomo in Ragusa

Duomo in Ragusa

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Down the toilet

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A secretary supporting us in the office a while back took it upon himself to let us all know, each morning, that the day we were embarking upon had been given a special designation. This, I suspect, was his way of brightening our day with a moment of levity as we set about dealing with the usual succession of design issues, project delays and cost overruns. It meant that the first thing we’d see on our screens as we logged in was a message imploring us to smile because ‘today is national moustache day’ or urging us to endorse ‘international flat feet awareness day’. After being encouraged to provide twenty-four hours of moral support to the suffers of haemorrhoids, transgender single parents or the collection of fancy teapots I was forced, despite being an accommodating sort of chap, to call a halt to his daily well-meaning but unsettling nonsense. There are some things that I simply can’t take before coffee and I have an aversion to half-arsed good causes.

Those early-morning entreaties are history now but this week the memories were brought into sharp focus when I read that 19 November had been designated ‘World Toilet Day’ and found that its campaign slogan was ‘We can’t wait’. My initial reaction was to dismiss it as both unimportant and awkwardly pitched as my usual reaction to any ‘commemorative’ day is less than sympathetic, advocating as it usually does yet another example of questionable self-indulgence or unhealthy interest in an obscure subject. This month has already delivered us ‘button day’, ‘Origami day’ and, would you believe, ‘sandwich day’. But this one intrigued me and I found myself wondering who had thought it up and if there might even be a World Toilet Day Committee.

Well, it turns out that someone did think it up and there is – more or less – a committee. In 2001 someone called Jack Sim founded the World Toilet Organisation [WTO] through the World Toilet Summit. Now here is guy with an enthusiasm for restrooms, sanitation, the sustainable disposal of waste and all manner of things smelly that transcends the boundaries of normal curiosity. The WTO now has its own college – yes, it is called the World Toilet College but it isn’t about learning how to sit on the throne. It convenes an annual summit and has set in motion a campaign that is now supported internationally. The overriding issue, I read this week, remains the ubiquitous problem of open defecation. That didn’t come as news to someone who has travelled a fair bit in the third world and is on record as ranting about India developing a space program while almost half its population still sh*ts in the woods. What was surprising, though, was learning of other equally serious concerns that flow from it, so to speak.

Something like 2.5 billion people worldwide don’t have access to what we think of as a toilet and nearly half just defecate in the open. We ‘civilised’ people in the west tend not to think or, worse, speak about toilets and sanitation – aside, that is, from some services engineers I have worked with who took on a dreamy look as they discussed the intricacy of sewerage design. The implications for health, however, are obvious. In addition, there is also a correlation to be drawn between a lack of sanitation, failing education and violence towards women. I was blissfully unaware that menstruating girls in some parts of Africa avoided school where no facilities existed and that there were increased levels of violence and intimidation towards women in India where they had to find a place to defecate after dark. This is all a very long and frightening distance from the extensive range of novelty toilet seats you can buy on Amazon.

It seems to me that anything that raises the profile of this issue – even dedicating a day to the toilet – has to be worthwhile. So, instead of casting a wry smile at World Toilet Day I suggest you take a look at what they say at UN-Water. A huge improvement can be achieved with little effort; toilets that pay you to use them, biodegradable ‘Peepoo’ bags, composting toilets and – something in which I take a big interest – biogas generation can provide multiple environmental and social benefits where the will exists.

I wonder how much money has been spent this week on space in my newspaper, the colour supplement, pop-ups on web pages and unsolicited junk mail that encourages us to go out and get the latest smart phone. It’s working in Africa, where uptake is phenomenal*; in India, more people own a mobile phone than own a toilet. After all, the capability of apps in all manner of tasks just keeps increasing and there will soon be nothing your phone can’t do. Except, that is, to wipe your bum.

*John Evans’ article in TechCrunch can be found here.

Dust in the attic; full of memories

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Arthur William Eldridge: 'Bill' or 'Will' in a photo taken in 1914 just prior to mobilisation

Arthur William Eldridge: ‘Bill’ or ‘Will’ in a photo taken in 1914 just prior to mobilisation

At last; I’ve thrown out the oar. It’s been gathering dust and cobwebs in the shed ever since we moved here and, before that, it languished in the loft of the coach-house. I forget why I carried it out of a party at Hampton Wick as a cocky and irrepressible youth and have even less idea of how such a useless object – I’ve done enough boating to know you need two oars unless you’re a gondolier – took up space for so many years. I can’t remember now whose party it was so there’s no possibility of returning it but I wondered, just for a moment before I hurled it into the skip at the recycling centre, if someone, somewhere is hanging on to the other one in the hope of one day finding it’s partner at the back of their shed.

When I look back on 2014 I’ll think about the oar. I won’t think about the floor we relaid, the plasterboard we fitted in the loft room or the new partition we built and I’ve already expunged recollections of the painting and decorating. No, what I’ll remember in the year we fixed, closed and prepared to sell our farmhouse and move to a less encumbered life are the memories that the exercise evoked. The musty collection of boxes, old cupboards and dust-sheeted piles in the attic and those big storage boxes that we never open have been brushed-off, sorted and their contents assessed for moving, selling, recycling or, like the oar, dumping. Today I have busy accounts on e-bay and Gumtree; I know the local charity driver and enjoy first-name banter with the bloke at the Council dump. It’s been a long year.

This still incomplete exercise has taken me out of circulation for months at a time and it has manifested itself in a reverie of nostalgia that has frequently been overwhelming. The dust has been blown off old photos of the family and adventures abroad, model trains, a colour TV, school report cards, tape decks, a turntable, empty suitcases, an uncle’s stamp collection, parents albums, yellowing letters from colleagues to a twenty-something exile in the middle east, a baby chair, carpets, clothes racks, a darkroom kit. Under dust sheets my grandmother’s sideboard, my mother’s secret hoard of postcards from her boys, my old Etienne Aigner briefcase, Ikea’s coat stand and my grandfather’s ‘diddybox’, still holding a cache from the first world war that includes his new testament and a couple of bullets, are among the surprises. We’ve been hoarding junk with little value but a wealth of memories.

Arthur William Eldridge: probably just before the Great War - 1913 0r 1914

Arthur William Eldridge: probably just before the Great War – 1913 0r 1914

Mobilization

In the years we’ve been here we’ve made some good friends and lost touch with others; we’ve seen parents leave us, children born and youngsters grow to start their own families; we’ve agonised through divorces and danced at weddings. Memories of occasions down the years materialised as bits and pieces were turned over in the attic and as we sifted through curling photos younger versions of people we know smiled at us from long-forgotten dinner parties and lunches in the garden.

It’s come as something of a surprise to me that so much has accrued so going through this process has been cathartic and, to some extent, energising. It’s felt good to shed detritus that, in some cases, hasn’t seen the light of day for decades but it poses a difficult question – should one keep something just because of it’s association, because of the memories? Throwing out some junk this year made me feel I was committing wanton acts of disloyalty but how much do you keep, how long do you keep it and how much is enough to preserve a memory?

Havre theatre programme

 

 

Demob account

The first world war was the biggest event in my grandfather’s life. Not the most important – he survived Ypres and came home to marry and have three children – but it was something he wouldn’t forget. I can understand why some papers and a few small keepsakes were put into a box and allowed to gather dust under his stairs for seventy years. I don’t think he looked at it unless he was pestered by us grandchildren. Now that dusty box is mine and it’s been a joy – and a little sad – to recall my memories of him as his ‘diddybox’ reaches its centenary.

Today is Armistice Day and marks a hundred years since the start of the great war. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to be ‘called up’ and shipped off to war. Rupert Brooke’s poem, written in 1915, captures something of that.

The soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a
foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

 

 

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Summer’s lease – thank you for the music

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Benny Andersson giving his best

Benny Andersson giving his best

Over the years we’ve been to some celebrated concerts at a country house not far from where we live in England; they are held in the park during the summer on the gently sloping lawns above restored Jacobean gardens. It’s a well-tried formula – a good Pinot, picnic snacks, portable camping chairs and umbrellas; sit back, enjoy the music, get a little mellow. Well, that’s the plan but if I’m honest it really only worked out like that for us once. Mostly it has been cold and dull and twice it rained so heavily that we chucked it in, wet through to our underwear, before the concert started.

I’m not the best supporter of summer concerts – if plans are being hatched my preparations centre on the logistics of managing waterproofs, rubber boots and sufficient weather protection to see that drinks remain hot and food dry. Not so Mission Control, who is optimistic to the point of distraction. Her approach involves chilling wine, selecting an appropriate table setting and choosing which open sandals to wear. You’d have thought by now she knew that it always rains at outdoor concerts and as for me, my days of believing that wet feet are a prerequisite of musical appreciation have gone the way of my kipper ties.  

As summer reached its height and it really began to look as if you could plan an outdoor event more than 24 hours in advance the summer open-air concert agenda became a topic of conversation. I was immediately faced with a dilemma. From a point somewhere back in the seventies I have been a fan of Abba although I wouldn’t have admitted that before Mama Mia! took off. The success of the show and movie together with near-universal appreciation of the music has made it more or less acceptable to ‘fess up to a fondness for badly-rhyming lyrics and a chequered sartorial history that included stacked shoes and flared trousers. In Sweden Abba are something more than national icons, perhaps because they seem so normal and, in a manner that is intrinsically Swedish, anti-celebrity. Mission Control exchanged a few words with Björn Ulvaeus as he was loading beer into his car in Stockholm once and another time, in a traffic jam outside the city, Anni-Frid Lynstad was stationary right alongside me and smiled and waved as I recognised her. Such humility, although I secretly wished it had been Agnetha Fältskog. [That’s the blond one.]

Benny Andersson appears these days with a motley band of troubadours known collectively as Benny Andersson’s Orkester – BAO for short – and with them two vocalists; Helen Sjöholm and Tommy Körberg. The music they play is unashamedly popular and appeals to audiences, shall we say, of a mature and genteel disposition. It’s immensely popular – one song stayed in the charts for 278 weeks – but that disguises the fact that he’s a strong advocate for traditional folk music. For several reasons, but mostly because I like that they enjoy playing so much, I’ve been keen to see them for some time but our travel schedule and the brevity of their concert tour in Sweden – they play eight or so concerts a year – have minimised my chances. Added to that, most venues are a long way from where we stay and by the time we hear about a concert all the tickets are long gone. Frustrating, but what could you do? The concerts are in the open air and I’d expect it to rain anyway.

Helen Sjöholm  and accompaniment

Helen Sjöholm and accompaniment

Helen Sjöholm and Tommy Körberg

Helen Sjöholm and Tommy Körberg

And there was my dilemma; BAO were to play an open-air concert just up the road in Helsingborg and the weather was just about guaranteed to be good. No reason not to go, really – aside from the fact that it had been sold out for nine months. Would I rethink my aversion to open-air concerts, Mission Control asked?

I can’t recall if I did agree to soften my attitude but, a few days later and in blazing sunshine, I was at the VIP guest entrance at Sofiero Slott, chairs under one arm, a chilled Orvieto and an excellent picnic under the other. Quite how Mission Control managed to place us just below the stage and ahead of a few thousand people, some of whom had been queuing all day with tickets they had purchased months before, is a secret I’m asked not to divulge but there we were and there was Benny. Doing what he does best and smiling for the camera.

A bucket-list box ticked and how about that – it didn’t rain.

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Summer’s lease – what a state we’re in

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Red kite inspecting us

Red kite inspecting us

Golden eagles over the garden

Golden eagles over the garden

I felt the first icy grip of winter this week as I was wandering along the River Blackwater. Although it was bright and clear the temperature resolutely refused to move into double figures and I found myself reflecting on the warm, sunny days that 2013’s record-breaking summer eventually brought us. I’ve been walking the coastal marshes since I was a boy and, for me, they evoke the very essence of winter. The skies, big over the maze of winding channels and muted colours, were filled with hundreds of Brent Geese and golden plover; ducks and godwits; avocets; egrets and huge flocks of waders, panicked into a cacophony of whirring wings and alarm calls by a peregrine falcon. As background, robins and Cetti’s warblers sang in the shrubs behind the sea wall. Put simply, it was a spectacular experience.

The Essex coast doesn’t feel very different from when I first experienced it – a little more developed, a few more people, less wild perhaps – but essentially much the same. Change, though, is inexorable and often only noticed when we pause and take stock. Experiencing the sight and sound of those thousands of wintering birds was exhilarating but were there as many golden plover or redshank that held me in awe on my first visit there? Were the dunlin or geese as numerous?

In Sweden we’re privileged in living above a valley where golden eagles nest so it’s not unusual to see them – frequently with red kites – wheeling in languorous circles high over the garden. Last year a decision was taken to reduce disturbance in the valley and a project to reinvigorate the disused railway was abandoned, allowing the start of improvements to the landscape that reversed unsympathetic drainage in the grazing meadows. It was a bonus for an area that already has a rich ecology. The environment gets a very fair shout in Sweden, perhaps because it has the fourth lowest density of population in Europe or perhaps because there is less pressure on the land than in England. Whatever the reason, we’re used to big birds of prey in the sky and the thought that they might not be there one day doesn’t register as a possibility.     

Not so in the UK, where my summer was disrupted in late May by the publication of a report called The State of Nature. It’s a sobering document and requires a philosophical frame of mind – or a large Scotch – to read. It comprises collected overviews of twenty-five British conservation bodies that together provide an outline of the changing status of habitat and species in the United Kingdom and its Overseas Territories. It reports on the dire status of some species and highlights some of the successes that conservation can achieve. The headline conclusion, though, is that the UK’s wildlife has suffered a serious decline and is continuing to do so at a very alarming rate.

Egrets on the Blackwater

Egrets on the Blackwater

Wintering wading birds on the Blackwater

Wintering wading birds on the Blackwater

Reading the report raises conflicting emotions; on one hand the loss of habitat and once-familiar animals and birds is depressing whereas on the other, the gains are uplifting. Targeted conservation meant that a wintering flock of around fifty avocets graced the Blackwater margins, a bird that was once extinct as a UK breeding species. In sharp contrast, the losses of recent years are widespread and extensive – butterflies down by 72%, 40 million birds lost and 80% of lowland heath gone or degraded. The statistics paint a very disheartening picture. I rarely see House Sparrows these days yet they were ubiquitous when I was younger; recently, hedgehogs have declined by nearly 50% and could become extinct in some areas of the UK. The story is similar across a broad spectrum and one fears for less iconic species of plant or insect that lack popular appeal.

The State of Nature is upbeat and provides scope for optimism but it left me with a feeling of how little individuals can do in the face of such massive and apparently continuous loss. Anything, of course, is always better than nothing even if an individual contribution appears as insignificant as signing a petition or joining a conservation organisation.

Only this month and after fifteen years’ management of a site that contributed toward maintaining a viable population of Cirl Buntings in southern England the area has been deliberately degraded at the behest of the local NHS Trust so as to facilitate a housing development. I’m aghast that it can happen – you can read about it here – and yet not entirely surprised when considering the attitude adopted by a weak and unprincipled government that acts in a manner suggesting it is both in hock to business and detached from the long-term implications of its own ineptitude. A report from Wildlife and Countryside Link – *Nature Check 2013 – has looked at how the government is matching up to its promise to be the ‘greenest government ever’, as set out in the Prime Minister’s speech in May 2010. If you’ve caught my drift thus far you’ll know what conclusions are drawn.Red Kite, Golden Eagle, 

Next summer – when I hope it’ll be just as sunny – I’ll be checking the sky in Sweden to see how many young eagles fledge in our valley; in England I anticipate that I’ll be writing another rant as yet another misguided example of the government’s expediency comes to light. 

*Read a synopsis of the report in the Huffington Post here or read the full report here.

Blackbirds feeling the heat in 2013's record breaking summer

Blackbirds feeling the heat in 2013’s record breaking summer

Brown hare enjoys the sunshine

Brown hare enjoys the sunshine

 

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Summer’s lease – sing, dammit-it’s a tradition

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March in England was the coldest since 1962 and the second coldest since records began so April’s first warm, sunny days were very welcome. Ann and Lars were over from Denmark and even though it was still too cold to sit outside in comfort a visit to the east coast and the West Mersea Oyster Bar enabled us say thanks and goodbye to the native oyster season. This is becoming a tradition for Mission Control and me; the oysters are matchless and the fish and chips pretty good too, especially after a bracing walk along the Mersea seawall or beside the Blackwater.

Black-headed gulls loafing at Mersea

Black-headed gulls loafing at Mersea

Blackwater barges

Blackwater barges

Mudflats on the Blackwater

Mudflats on the Blackwater

I like traditions and believe they can have great value even if, in some respects, we’ve lost sight of what we are celebrating. Mark Twain reflected on it in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when he wrote “The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it” and so it appears in real life.  In Sweden traditions are important; anything that attracts more than three people becomes a celebration and any celebration that’s repeated becomes a tradition. As a consequence, the calendar overflows with them and, not content with those they have, more are being added. We find our travel is often framed around one particular gathering or another.

We never miss Fettisdagen – Fat Tuesday – at the start of lent, where the tradition is celebrated with fastlagsbulle or semla – delicious buns filled with cream and almond paste. Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras is an old tradition with roots in the Middle Ages. It gets a ‘thumbs-up’ from me on the merits of these scrummy little treats alone but at the other end of the dental cavity scale the new kid on the block is Kanelbullens dag. This piece of nonsense, which was started in 1999, is a tribute to the cinnamon bun and while accepting that it’s a staple of any coffee morning in Sweden I wonder if it really justifies its own web page. In between Valborgsmässoafton, when the evil spirits are driven out and fertility is invoked with bonfires, singing and drinking and Kräftskiva, when we eat crayfish, sing more songs and get hideously drunk, bookend Midsommarafton, the most celebrated of Swedish traditions.

April’s weather was fine but cool although summer really started for us on 1 May, where the tradition of heralding the arrival of long, light evenings, deserted offices and phones switched to voice-mail, needs a bonfire. So a few days after the oyster season closed we were in Sweden celebrating Valborg or Walpurgis Night, as it’s known in England. The village turns out to light an enormous and – it has to be said – dangerous fire, sing folk songs and offer a few prayers for a plentiful bounty in the coming year. Actually, warding-off evil spirits and invoking fertility come a poor second to alcohol on these occasions so we were inside drinking elderberry flower and gin cocktails long before there was any danger of having to deal with first-degree burns.  The singing – as always – was led by our local patriarch Henry Ekelund, who has been warding-off evil spirits since he was born in the village over ninety years ago. It was clear and cold that evening; perfect for our fire but a night of contrasts. I recall hearing the first nightingale of the summer and seeing Henry’s wife, our beloved Signe, for the last time; she passed away shortly after.

My Swedish is little better than my knowledge of brain surgery but every year they give me song-sheets and every year I stumble through lyrics about buds bursting into leaf that I don’t quite understand while trying to carry tunes I don’t really know. The important thing, of course, is being there, sharing the occasion and contributing to the friendship and community spirit that pervades the evening. I’ve found it helps if you can hold your drink, too, so I practice at every opportunity. Rejoicing in the invention of the cinnamon bun seems a little silly by comparison.

Spring and early summer in Sweden can be a mixed blessing. Time spent in the wide open spaces and lengthening days are often tempered with a chill in the air. May was cold but with clearer weather, on balance, than in England so we ended up spending most of the month there, indulging ourselves in the richness of Sweden coming to life, anticipating a warm June and looking forward to the next celebration.

As a measure of how important the return of the long, light days are midsummer’s day was at one point considered a candidate for National Day. It’s always a very social occasion but dancing around the maypole, singing traditional songs and holding hands with people you’re normally only on nodding terms with doesn’t come easily to a bloke from London’s east end. Prodigious amounts of alcohol can be consumed but tales of drunken abandon and debauchery tend to mythologise a national treasure and are not entirely true. That being said, anyone with a modicum of concern for their liver will avoid the traditional celebration of Midsommarafton. Anecdotes involving alcohol tend to define the occasion, the essence of which was captured perfectly in Ikea’s German TV ad. It was banned on the grounds of implying inappropriate rectitude but, that aside, most celebrations are far less riotous. Nonetheless, each of Sweden’s traditions is observed with great seriousness.

As a foreigner I’m very happy to go with the flow but somehow, though, I don’t think I’ll ever get the hang of that singing.

The village invokes fertility

The village invokes fertility

Signe and Henry Ekelund and our magnificent fire

Signe and Henry Ekelund and our magnificent fire

Visitors drop in

Visitors drop in

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Summer’s lease – I remember 2013

Early summer rapefield in Skåne

Early summer rape-field in Skåne

Sitting here looking out at the rain I still hold autumn as the season I enjoy most and anticipate its misty, scented days with enthusiasm. That doesn’t mean I wish the warmer weather away but it was only a short time ago, when someone asked me if I’d had a ‘good summer’, that it occurred to me the salad days were over. We were still basking in above-average temperatures then but further south in Europe last week I watched the year’s first snow appear on mountain tops and here, in southern Sweden, we had our first frost.

The summer of 2013 was, indeed, a good one but the manner in which we’ll remember it intrigues me; do we remember the sunny days and balmy evenings that the ‘best summer for seven years’ brought us or do we recall the events and occasions that collectively make a summer memorable? I can remember only one day this year when rain stopped play, but not that it was the best summer for ages; I recall the absence of yearning to get away and feel the sun on my face and also that the months between April and September were filled with being outside, enjoying long lunches in the garden and spending time in the countryside. So, yes, it was a good summer.

Anemone carpet Fyledalen in Skåne

Anemone carpet Fyledalen in Skåne

Because it was so pleasant and because we weren’t victims of sudden climatic depressions my travel was limited to what has become a pretty routine commute between Sweden and England. As sunny day followed sunny day from about May onward there was no desire to search abroad for a cool drink in dappled shade when it could be found at home. It seems, however, that many people felt the same way. Despite having made early plans to escape England’s normally disappointing weather holidaymakers began cancelling paid-for trips to warmer climes as an unusually high number of ‘medical’ emergencies occurred. The temperature soared; with it the annual pilgrimage to the beaches and Irish pubs of the Mediterranean diminished and insurance firms found they were dealing with an increasing level of ‘hot weather’ fraud.

Well, I guess you could blame the heat. People do funny things when they get hot but did the grave words from the superfluity of experts on You and Yours and The World at One contribute to all those claims? In order to avoid the dire consequences of the hot spell we were advised to listen to level three heat wave alerts on the radio, stay inside and – here’s the key – avoid unnecessary travel. We were also advised to draw the curtains and shade the room but I’m thinking that part went unheeded as most of the Nation was either lying on their backs in the garden or standing outside the pub with a pint.

I admit to having had one or two at the Axe and Compasses in Arkesden myself [both outside and inside] but as far as remembering the summer is concerned, it was certainly more about memorable occasions and less about a statistically high level of sunshine. And for the record, some aspects of these together with a few random thoughts, are set out in the following posts.

Paragliding at Ales Stenar above Kåseberga in Skåne

Paragliding at Ales Stenar above Kåseberga in Skåne

Wild flowers at Stenshuvud National Park in Skåne

Wild flowers at Stenshuvud National Park in Skåne

Thames barge rigging River Blackwater Essex

Thames barge rigging River Blackwater Essex

Maldon Essex

Maldon Essex

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The camera never lies…or does it?

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Thanks to the good guys at Photobots [find them here] and for the kind comments sent to me. I guess next time I should provide an image that hasn’t been altered but anyway, here’s the sparrowhawk again.

Fyledalen sparrowhawk

A sparrowhawk glides low through a sunlit clearing in Fyledalen southern Sweden.

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Beam me up, Rakesh

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Pristine forest near Thekkady

I like India a great deal and love travelling there but it’s been difficult to whip-up enthusiasm for my recent sojourn amongst friends and acquaintances. Despite everything the sub-continent has on offer a fear of flying is commonplace; one said that he’ll only go if he carries his own food and another that he feared he’d be injured in a traffic accident and die in a foreign land surrounded by flip-flops. On the other hand, birders warmed to reports of my seeing 125 species in two days – including the very hard-to-see Wynaad Laughingthrush – whilst justifying their own reservations on the absence of cornflakes. By and large, though, the mere mention of the place evokes visions of chaos and a foreboding of parting company with bowel control.

I readily agree that standards of hygiene and driving are not what many of us are used to but both dangers can be avoided with a little care. After many visits and a reasonable amount of immersion in the culture, I’ve never felt that either presented a terminal threat. No, the thing that distresses me each time I visit is India’s apparent inability – and this is putting it simply – to sort itself out. Poverty is still rife, infrastructure is inadequate or absent and the consequences of corruption are widespread but the thing that irks me most; the issue that has me ranting into my masala dosa and coconut chutney is the ever-increasing and ubiquitous spread of garbage. It doesn’t seem to matter where you are in India but all around you, in the streets, beside the buildings, lying in heaps and just getting under your feet is the detritus of 1.2 billion people. In Kerala alone an estimated 6000 tonnes is generated daily and most of it is apparently lying around.

It was alarming to find plastic in the dung of wild elephants and plastic bottles, paper plates and food wrappers deep in pristine evergreen forest. When I asked about it friends and even individuals involved in the management of national parks shrugged their shoulders at failed collection legislation and offered rueful excuses. Most blamed corrupt local government; local government apparently blames the State. In 2000 the Supreme Court of India issued a directive based on advice provided by the Centre for Science and Environment in Dehli. This called for all local governments to set up proper waste processing facilities by the end of 2003. Whilst several took some action the majority merely ignored both the directive and their garbage-strewn fiefdoms. In Kerala, NGOs and Community organizations such as Kudumbasrees* have been motivated with initiatives such as the ‘Clean Kerala Mission’ but despite success in some areas such as Paravur and Kozhikode [which was declared India’s first litter-free city in 2004] the heaps of solid waste and their associated pollution continue to increase.  

Black-shouldered kite

Sundown in Kochi

I took to browsing ‘The Hindu’ while I was in there. The local English language newspaper is a serious publication and a good read, with a history going back some 130 years and a circulation of nearly 1.5 million. It reports on issues like the problem of garbage, fly-tipping and landfill disputes in a fair and balanced manner as well as other aspects of life in southern India; fascinating stories of Bollywood stars sat alongside vacuous promises from government officials and reports of yet more fatal road traffic accidents. The seriousness of the reporting and the depth of detail were seductive – from reading the accounts of how problems were being identified and how officialdom was dealing with them I was beginning to  think that there was real concern for getting to grips with the carpet of plastic bags and bottles. That was until another report caught my attention and I’ve been wondering about it ever since. There was positive and expansive news that India is progressing well with its planned mission to Mars. Yes, Mars. Out of the heaps on non-biodegradable waste and open sewers is emerging an orbiter that will be sent to Mars in October to survey the Martian atmosphere. In collaboration with NASA it will attempt to detect the presence of methane, which I found ironic given the mountains of waste generating it down here.

Try as I may I can’t understand why India, with its breathtaking cultural diversity but so many earth-bound problems, is spending billions on a space programme – and one that is hell-bent on exploring Mars, too – when so many of its populace have to crap on the ground that the water table is being polluted. Could it be possible that the search for methane is just a ruse and that this mission is really a disguised effort to find the ultimate landfill in the sky?

Space might be the Final Frontier but I hope by the time India’s base on Mars is in operation the Intergalactic Garbage Police are fully in control.

*Kudumbsree – this is a worthy initiative set up by the Keralan government in 1998 with the aim of eradicating poverty through the empowerment of women. Its literal meaning is ‘prosperity of the family’ and it enshrines microcredit, empowerment and entrepreneurship.

View inside the Biodome of India’s Mars base