Sunday, 8 September 2019

Goodbye Summer

School holidays are over - youngest daughter started back at school on Wednesday - and the summer weather has gone with with them. The evenings are starting to get a cool and tomorrow is forecast to be 14 degrees (57F) and wet. So, hello autumn! I have always loved autumn, not just because I have an autumn birthday. I like the colder weather before we hit the long dark evenings of summer, autumn colours, leaves crunching with the first frosts, and that sense of new beginnings. I think even when I no longer have kids going back to school or uni, I will still think of September as a "new year" month.

This year student daughter is back from Italy and will be heading back to Yorkshire for her last year at uni. She is very on the ball with job hunting and is already beginning to get applications in for grad schemes - I'm not sure whether the US has a similar system, but here many large employers have training roles for new graduates and begin recruiting for these up to a year in advance. She has some ideas for the direction she would ultimately like to go in, but is keeping options open and casting her net fairly widely. She has a house share all sorted, is signed up for all her preferred courses, and has put in a proposal for her final year dissertation. I am looking forward to being able to see the floor in the garage once all the stuff she has left there for the last 15 months goes back up north!

Her younger sister is now thirteen and is now at upper school. We are in one of the very few places in the UK which operates a three tier schooling system with kids moving to middle school at nine and upper school at thirteen, rather than two tier with transfer from primary to secondary school at eleven. I actually prefer the three tier system, though I think it is doomed to disappear in the next few years. She seems happy enough after her first three days at her new school. She chose to go across town rather than to our nearest school, but quite a few of her friends made the same decision so she has enough familiar faces not to feel lonely. Our school exam system means that she will have to start making specific subject choices this year for exams to be taken at sixteen (GCSEs), then from sixteen to eighteen they usually only study three or four subjects, before narrowing to just one or two at university. She is also beginning to have ideas of the sort of things she would like to study - unlike her older sisters she leans to the science side. She is also keen on drama and musical theatre and wants to take part in both a school production and a youth theatre group this year, as well as continuing to dance a couple of evenings a week, so she will be busy.

Politics is utterly depressing, with the Brexit debacle now reaching crisis point and the government pushing the legal and constitutional boundaries to try to force it through at any cost. One positive is that it has forced the opposition parties to work together, and there have been a significant number of defections from the government leaving it powerless to get anything through Parliament. It should now legally be blocked from crashing the UK out of the European Union without any transitional arrangements, but will try anything it can to avoid or subvert the law. A general election is inevitable in the near future, which will I am afraid be both the most important and the most bitter and unpleasant of my lifetime. I am tempted to spend the next two months reading Terry Pratchett and avoiding all media, but my inner historian feels compelled to follow every stage of the whole wretched process.

If I could manage to ignore the whole sorry political mess I would be looking forward to this year's autumn reboot, but it does overshadow everything at the moment. That aside, I am looking forward to getting back into more of a routine, getting on with a couple of writing projects I am working on, getting outdoors and enjoying the autumn weather, and generally getting into my "new start" groove.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

100 Books for 2018: 31 to 35

Book 31 - Enchanted April (Elizabeth von Arnim)
I can't remember how I stumbled across this short 1920s classic about a group of four women who rent a castle in Italy for a holiday. I also didn't realise that there is a film version, which I now want to see. Well written and an enjoyable read.
**** 4 stars

Book 32 - Oxford (Jan Morris)
After a run of reading about Jan Morris (here and here) I read one of her classic books about a beloved city. Her style is a distinctive mix of erudite and personal, and takes a wide sweep over the history and "personality" of the city. I spent seven years at school in Oxford (high school, not university) so this had added appeal to me as a description of a place I know well.
**** 4 stars

Book 33 - Everywoman (Jess Phillips) [Audible]
Jess Phillips is a UK Labour Member of Parliament, a mother, an outspoken Brummie, and formerly worked with women escaping domestic abuse. I am not a Labour supporter - politically I swither between the Liberal Democrats and the Greens - but would be very happy to have Jess as my MP. Her book is a mix of autobiography and personal take on issues facing women. I very much enjoyed listening to it, particularly as she read it herself which gave the audio book extra authenticity.  
**** 4 stars

Book 34 - Never Too Late to Go Vegan: The Over-50 Guide to Adopting and Thriving on a Plant-Based Diet (Carol J Adams, Patti Breitman, Ginny Messina)
My run of four star books (all of them probably more of a four-and-a-half) came to an end with this book. After doing Veganuary (going vegan for January) I was an over-50 still experimenting with plant-based eating so picked this up on Kindle. I don't remember any details but the title is self-explanatory! 
*** 3 stars

Book 35 - The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life is Worth More than Anything You Can Buy in a Store (Cait Flanders)
Another book I read hoping to inspire my inner minimalist. One day my inner minimalist will finally escape and get rid of all the clutter that bogs her down; until then I keep reading books and blogs. Somehow I fail to realise that reading and doing are not the same thing! This didn't inspire me and hasn't stuck in my mind, possibly because I didn't find it particularly relatable. Barely three stars.
*** 3 stars

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

100 Books for 2018: 26 to 30

Back to trying to write up the books I read last year before I completely forget them!

Book 26 - The Book of Separation: a Memoir (Tova Mirvis) [Audio]
As I am married to a Jew and had a Jewish grandfather (who died long before I was born) books about Jewish life interest me so I used one of my monthly Audible credits on The Book of Separation. Born and raised an orthodox Jew, Tova Mirvis married an orthodox man and continued to follow the way of life expected within that community. Over time, she came to chafe against the constraints imposed on her and to lose her faith. This eventually came to a head and she left her family to start a new, secular life. I found the book less interesting than I thought I would. I found it difficult to relate to her experiences, and I'm afraid I found her voice (she narrated the book herself) rather hard to listen to. Perhaps I expected a kind of modern, Jewish version of Monica Baldwin's I Leap Over the Wall which I had read a few weeks earlier, and the book didn't live up to that expectation.
*** 3 stars

Book 27 - Lincoln in the Bardo (George Saunders)
I picked this book as it had won the Man Booker Prize for 2017 and the premise sounded intriguing. Abraham Lincoln's son Willie has just died and his father visits him in the crypt where he is buried. Willie, however, is aware of these visits as he is in the "bardo", a kind of interim state between life and death (or rebirth?), along with many other residents of the graveyard. Much of the book is written in their voices. The tone is  very odd - the phrase "experimental novel" should have been a clue! I didn't love it and I didn't hate it. I also didn't struggle to get through it. Probably a three and a half star book for me.
*** 3 stars

Book 28 - The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science (Will Storr)
This exercise of writing book reviews over a year after I read the book is very good for me, forcing me to think hard to recall what I read. Sometimes I have to cheat and check the book description and this is one of those times. Will Storr travelled the world exploring why intelligent people believe the unbelievable, and concluded that many people are more likely to believe stories with which they identify than facts. I wish I remembered the book better, as I enjoyed reading it.
**** 4 stars

Book 29 - The Girls of Slender Means (Muriel Spark) [Audio]
I think the only other book by Muriel Spark I have read is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie which I very much enjoyed. The Girls of Slender Means was a bit of a disappointment. The "girls" are residents of a hostel for young working women in London in 1945, whose characters I mostly found rather irritating. I also felt I might have enjoyed this more in print than as an audio book.
*** 3 stars

Book 30 - I Shall Wear Midnight (Terry Pratchett)
I came late to Terry Pratchett, and I am working through his Discworld series as and when I feel in the mood for light fantasy reading. There are actually multiple Discworld sequences, as different characters and settings have their own individual series of books. I Shall Wear Midnight is the fourth book in what is probably my favourite sub-series, about young witch Tiffany Aching. In the first book, The Wee Free Men, the child Tiffany discovers both that she is a witch, that she has acquired a fan club of extremely combative and persistent miniature blue men who speak in Scottish accents and think she is the new leader of their clan. In I Shall Wear Midnight Tiffany visits the capital city of Ankh Morpork, is attacked by an evil spirit known as the Cunning Man, and is locked up in a dungeon. All typical, fast moving Terry Pratchett, readable and enjoyable.
**** 4 stars

Monday, 3 June 2019

Back to Genoa

I took advantage of last week's school half term holiday to take my youngest daughter over to Italy for a couple of days to visit her sister in Genoa - she will be back for good in a couple of weeks, and we wanted to see a bit more of the area while she was still there.

We had a very early flight on Tuesday morning and had to be at the airport soon after 4.00am. Fortunately we only live 25 minutes away! The early start meant we were in Genoa and checked into our hotel by 11am. We met up with the Genovese daughter at a railway station and caught a train to the Cinque Terre, an area I had been wanting to visit for a while. These five small towns are one of the most picturesque parts of the Italian coast, and in high season are swamped with tourists. In May they are busy, but not unmanageably so.


Riomaggiore

We didn't have time to visit all five towns, but managed three. We started at Monterosso where we spent an hour or so on the beach and ate ice cream (of course!). Next stop was Riomaggiore where we walked round the coast to reach a popular view point. Finally we went to Manorola where we ate dinner before catching the train back to Genoa. The weather forecast was dubious with the possibility of storms, but we hit lucky; the black clouds stayed over the hills behind the Cinque Terre and we stayed dry. There was even a bit of sunshine while we were on the beach. There was torrential rain while we were on the train, but it had stopped by the time we got back to Genoa.


Manorolo

On Wednesday we explored some of Genoa's palaces. The Nuove Strade and the palazzi dei rolli (palaces of the rolls) are considered such a unique example of early city planning that the are is on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites. We visited the Palazzo Reale (part palace and part museum) and walked down the Via Garibaldi, peering into some of the palaces which line the street. After a bit of shopping - I have daughters; they shop - we went to an eat-all-you-like sushi restaurant which had been recommended to H. This was definitely one of our highlights as we all three love Japanese food, and at €11.50 each it was a bargain.


Room of mirrors in the Palazzo Reale


Entrance courtyard of a palazzo in the Via Garibaldi

We walked off our lunch with a stroll along the sea front to Boccadasse, a small pebble beach to the south of the city. We sat on the beach playing cards and watching with fascinated horror as a group of small children, probably a nursery class as they were about 4 or 5 years old, entertained themselves throwing stones into the sea, often narrowly missing each other. As some of the stones were definitely more rock than pebble we were anticipating disaster, but nobody got damaged. Apparently "health and safety" hasn't reached Italy.


Walking along the sea front towards Boccadasse

We bought ice creams from an artisan gelateria by the beach. H is dairy free and I mostly avoid dairy so we went for the vegan options, pistachio and hazelnut. These were possibly the best ice creams I have ever tasted, with nut pieces (almond with the pistachio and peanut with the hazelnut) and marbled with chocolate fondant. We washed the ice creams down with a glass of beer (coke for the 12 year old) and caught the bus back into the city. A bit more shopping happened, then we went to the port area for a cocktail (or mocktail, according to age). H took us to a cafe-bar which sold cocktails for €8.50 and included access to a buffet with the drink making it incredibly good value.



The port of Genoa (no filter, the sun was beginning to set and the light was gorgeous)

On Thursday morning we had to leave for the airport straight after breakfast. I decided that as we only had light luggage, the easiest way to get there from our hotel would be to catch a standard service bus, followed by a short walk at the airport end. This was good in theory. Unfortunately when we got off the bus there was a confusion of busy roads, flyovers and railway tracks between us and the airport, and Google Maps was not being helpful. After using my extremely limited Italian to ask a policeman and some workmen for directions we managed to find our way, but it took 30 minutes rather than the 7 minutes Google Maps claimed. At one point I was beginning to fear we would still be wandering when our flight took off! Airport issues struck again at the other end. We had used meet and greet parking, and as I forgot to phone to say we had arrived we had a long wait for our car. Oops.

It really was a lovely trip, though thanks to the early start, two busy days and lots of walking I was definitely ready for a rest by the time I got home. An added bonus for me is seeing how much my daughters enjoy each other's company, even though there is an eight year age gap.



Sunday, 14 April 2019

Concrete Cows

The idea for this post was inspired by Emerrube's visit to Antoinette, the giant Holstein cow of Plymouth, Wisconsin. Not as large or in such good condition as Antoinette, but I present to you some local celebrities, the Concrete Cows of Milton Keynes ... 


The establishment of the new town of Milton Keynes was part of the post-war expansion of housing in England. A large area was designated for the town, which swallowed up the existing towns of Bletchley, Stony Stratford and Newport Pagnell and a number of villages, including the village of Milton Keynes from which the new town took its name. Building began soon after the Development Corporation was established in 1967 and the town is still expanding. According to Wikipedia by 2011 it had a population of nearly 250,000, compared to around 53,000 in the same area in 1961. Milton Keynes is often called a city rather than a town but this is technically incorrect as it has never been granted city status.  

In 1978 Liz Leyh, a Canadian artist working in the town, created a set of six concrete cows - three adult cows and three calves - which quickly became identified with the town. Both Milton Keynes and its concrete cows have tended to be seen as something of a joke, and people who don't know it imagine a highly developed characterless modern town pretending to be rural. In fact from the beginning the town was planned with the intention that there would be large amounts of green space. Linear parks connect different parts of Milton Keynes, and it is supposed to be possible to walk pretty much anywhere in the town without having to leave the network of footpaths (or redways) which run through these. Milton Keynes still divides opinion, but everyone I know who lives there (including my eldest daughter) enjoys the mix of good facilities and countryside on their doorstep. This article from 2017 celebrating the town's 50th anniversary lists 50 reasons to love Milton Keynes, some more tongue-in-cheek than others. 

The concrete cows have been the victims of various pranks and vandalism over the years, and there are now two sets, the originals and a set of replicas. The cows in my photographs are the replicas, which live in a field somewhere in the town (I can't actually remember where!) doing their concrete bovine thing. The originals were for some time on display in the centre of the shopping centre (mall if you are American) and are now at the Milton Keynes Museum. 


Most of Milton Keynes may be modern but once you start exploring there is plenty of history still to be found. We started the walk during which we stumbled across the concrete cows (we weren't looking for them!) at Bradwell Abbey, a former medieval Benedictine priory which is now the home of the Milton Keynes City Discovery Centre and of this statue of a medieval monk.


Later on the same walk we found the remains of Roman villa.


Typical of the Milton Keynes mix of old and new is that when we got back to Bradwell Abbey we found these sculptures by German designer and sculptor Bernard Schottlander.


It seems that some of the planners within the Milton Keynes Development Corporation were in tune with the 60s zeitgeist.  One of the town's quirks is that Midsummer Boulevard, the central road running through what is now the shopping centre and the main city park, was designed so that it lines up exactly with the rising sun on the summer solstice. 

Friday, 5 April 2019

Day Trip to Pompeii

Both H and I had been wanting to visit Pompeii and we decided it was manageable as a day trip from Rome. There are three ways to do this - as part of an organised tour, or independently by train or bus.  Using H's local knowledge from her time in Italy we decided to go with the bus option. She and her student friends regularly use Flixbus, which operates services across Europe. Their buses are comfortable and reliable, plus she gets a student discount. We booked direct from Rome to Pompeii, then a return trip from Naples to Rome. As we didn't know how long we would want to spend at Pompeii we booked our return coach for 8pm, thinking we could explore Naples a bit and eat there before heading back to Rome. Naples and Pompeii are linked by a small Metro-like local train line, which runs regularly and only takes about 30 minutes.


Our bus from Rome took three and a half hours, so we arrived at Pompeii late morning. It was about ten to fifteen minutes walk from the bus stop to the back entrance of the archaeological site. Modern Pompei seemed quite a nice little town, and we stopped off on the walk to Roman Pompeii to buy a gigantic doughnut and almost-as-gigantic savoury pastry to share for our lunch. The gate we used took us into Pompeii near the amphitheatre, at the opposite end of the site to the main entrance. I imagine that in the peak tourist season it would save quite a bit of time by avoiding the hordes of tour groups. As it was we were able to walk straight in - free! 


I had been listening to Professor Mary Beard's Pompeii on Audible so this time I did have some context for what I was seeing. I also read this Pompeii guide she wrote for the Daily Telegraph (I think you have to register to be able read it as a free article on the website), which was incredibly helpful. She advises not getting bogged down trying to identify every building, and to wander as you please and take advantage of serendipity rather than join a guided tour. She suggests six "essential sights" and we decided a good manageable plan would be to focus on finding all of these while stopping off to look at anything else that took our fancy. It very quickly becomes obvious that it is not possible to see everything in one trip. Pompeii is huge. 

We checked off one of our six sights immediately, which was the amphitheatre. The rest took a bit more hunting down. The little fresco below was an early bit of serendipity. Unfortunately I can't remember where I found it, except that it was in a villa, but I thought it was a lovely bit of detail.


The second of our six sights was the Temple of Isis. According to Professor Beard it was visited by Mozart in 1769 and gave him ideas for the Magic Flute.


Another bit of serendipity was this Roman oven in what had been a row of small shops, opposite the pavement where we sat down on a step to eat our lunch.  


After lunch we wandered through the forum and on to the  third of our target sights: the House of the Tragic Poet, best known for its CANE CANEM ("beware of the dog") mosaic. The house itself was not open - or if it was, we didn't manage to find a way in! 


From the House of the Tragic Poet we walked down to the Villa of the Mysteries, which is about as far as it is possible to get from the amphitheatre where we began. This villa is best known for its extraordinary wall paintings.  


After walking back to the forum we got slightly lost trying to find our last two sights. One was the brothel, which attracts far more visitors than it can easily accommodate so has a one way system through the small building. We found the exit easily enough but took a while to find our way round to the entrance. After filing through the brothel (never thought I would find myself typing that!) we looked for the sixth and last place on Professor Beard's list, the Stabian baths. Quite how we struggled to find these I have no idea as the baths are one of the largest buildings in the entire city. They were also only a few yards away from where we ate our lunch.


By this time we were flagging, so we explored the baths and then headed for the train and Naples.  I think we spent about four and a half hours inside the Roman city altogether, which was as much as our legs and brains could handle in one go. It would take many visits to get thoroughly acquainted with Pompeii.

Naples was generally not a success. We made the mistake of trying to walk from the station to the historic city centre. The area round Naples station is grim - very dirty and it felt none too safe. We are quite experienced, street wise travellers and blend in pretty well (H in particular looks Italian), but we were definitely uncomfortable. We should have done a bit more homework and taken the Metro to where we wanted to go. We also got our timing wrong and realised after walking for a while that by the time we got to where we were heading we wouldn't have long there before we needed to set off back to the station area if we wanted to get dinner. In the end we decided to just give up on trying to see anything of Naples and retraced our steps back to the station. The exception to avoiding this area is that there are some cafes and restaurants on the left side of the square in front of the station. We ate in one of these and had the best, proper Neapolitan pizza in a cozy and friendly little restaurant. This went some way to redeeming Naples in our eyes.

It was a long and tiring day - we left our hotel at 7.30 in the morning and didn't get back until 11pm - but absolutely worth it. If you ever get the chance to visit Pompeii, go!


Thursday, 4 April 2019

The Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill

Our (free) ticket to the Colosseum also gave us free entry to the Forum and Palatine Hill, a short walk from the Colosseum.

This is the view looking down on the Forum from the Palatine Hill, which gives some idea of its scale - this is just part of the complex.


The 16th century Farnese gardens and aviaries at the top of the hill have recently been restored and only reopened to the public last year after being closed for 30 years. This view could come straight out of a Renaissance painting.  


We could have seen a lot more of ancient Rome on the Palatine Hill, but the Forum itself was large enough to keep us occupied for quite some time, and our minds were turning towards lunch.   


The most impressive thing about the Forum was its sheer size. In its heyday it must have been absolutely extraordinary. Rome was certainly built to impress! The columns below are part of the Temple of Castor and Pollux.


The Temple of Antoninus Pius below was converted into a church in the twelfth century. Like the Colosseum, the Forum gets pretty crowded, with a lot of tour groups.


And finally, the Temple of Vesta on the left with white House of the Vestals to the right. I wish I knew more about the history and context, and should really have done more homework before we went. At least if I read up on it now I will be able to visualise the site.


As you can see, it was Roman early spring weather. When we arrived at the Forum it threatened rain, but it held off despite the grey skies, and it brightened up later in the day. We did spot the occasional tourist wearing shorts - inevitably British, clothing chosen on the basis of wishful thinking that as they are in Italy, it must therefore be hot and sunny.