27 July, 2012

Brown Lettuce, Loyalty Cards and Life's Complications!

There was a time – not too long ago – when I thrilled to new things and loved getting to grips with them. When VHS recorders came out I quickly mastered how to tune them in, programme them, set the digital clocks and the like. When I bought a new hi-fi system I always wanted and loved the one with the most dials and knobs to twiddle and play with. I could spend hours setting it up and tinkering with them. And not for me a simple camera that automatically took great photographs – no, I wanted a camera with lots of settings to grapple with - a cameral where I was in control and which took some skill and expertise to handle! The oft used phrase "Toys for boys" might have been thought up with me in mind! But not any longer! As I get older I simply want things to work – "to do what it says on the tin”. I no longer want all the clever dials and switches. I become frustrated with complicated handbooks. Pat and I recently had new smart phones – wonderful machines but whereas Pat will patiently work her way through the instructions and get pleasure out of mastering these things I just want to press the button and make a call. I don't "do" instructions - Pat tells me that is a "man thing"! Our TV’s digital recorder is set by Pat and I stand by, hopelessly confused, watching her do it. It’s not, I think, that I can’t do these things – but simply that I have lost interest in doing them. What I once saw as a challenge, something to be mastered and some test of my innate male capacity to know about such things is now just a chore!
Jobs with one of his "must haves"

My declining interest in complicated new things and my lack of enthusiasm for mastering new ideas or objects  is slightly worrying. I have always prided myself in being “in touch” or “up to date” and felt that this was important. Increasingly, however, I perceive this change in my interests as a worrying sign that maybe “old age” is catching up with me! On the other hand, I comfort myself by simply reflecting that I am now simply more interested in other things and can become totally involved and engrossed in political, economic or philosophical debate or in writing gobbledegook such as this blog!. Maybe I have just “moved on”.

Maybe, however, I have just become a grumpy old man! Certainly, the world seems to have become a very complicated place. Let me explain.

When Steve Jobs, inventor, designer and founder of “Apple” died a few months ago I can remember reading one of the many obituaries of the man. One of these suggested that Jobs had the knack of inventing, designing and marketing things that you never knew that you needed.  When I read this, my initial reaction was, "well, that is what all inventors do – invent something that wasn’t there before and which people had not anticipated and therefore did not know they needed". On further reflection, however, I thought there might be a point – for example, transportable music in the form of (say) a ‘Walkman’ had been around for many years – people were quite happy with it, there was no need for anything else.  But then along came Jobs with his “i-pod” and cornered the market with a product that the whole world, it seemed, wanted  – a “must have”, an object of desire which for many (including myself) became a “need”. We didn’t know we needed or wanted it until Jobs produced it. I was reflecting on this the other day when I read an article in the Guardian asking the question what do we need for a “good life”? Much of the article was concerned with distinguishing between “need” and “want” – two differing concepts. The i-pod, the i-pad and the i-phone were mentioned together with many other objects of desire as expressed by people. 
Do I need this CC?

And as I read I reflected that recently I have thought that I would much like (want) a new car – not any car, but a VW CC.  I do not need it – my present VW Golf is still relatively new and so far as I know in the peak of condition and is more than adequate for my needs. And yet nibbling away in the background has been an unfulfilled desire to fulfil this inner “want” or maybe “need”. Indeed, a few weeks ago I sat in the said desired vehicle in my local VW showroom. I fantasised about sweeping down the motorway in this luxury machine – the envy of all. Only a year or two ago things would have been different.  I know that I would have taken the plunge – convinced myself, as I sat in the showroom, that I actually did need this thing – and I would have approached the salesman to do the deal. But not now. It’s not the money. It’s not about any reservations about the particular vehicle. It’s just that I increasingly find myself thinking “I don’t actually need it. And if I buy it, although I know that there will be an initial buzz of enthusiasm or joy, this, I know, will soon wear off and in the end it is only a lump of metal, rubber and plastic sitting on my drive that does exactly the same job as my current Golf!"   

I find myself increasingly making this sort of  judgement with all things – do I, do we (as individuals or societies) actually need all that is on offer. Is it important? Is it better? Does it serve any useful purpose? Is it a “must have”? Or is it just a bauble to give, like the latest drug, another “kick” or “lift” to brighten the otherwise dull life of 21st century man.
Toilet paper is so very

Added to all this, it seems to me that the world is really now a very complicated place – even with the most humble of items. When I walk around the supermarket I have a huge choice of everything. “Go and get a pack of toilet rolls” Pat tells me so I take off in the direction of toilet rolls - what could be easier!  But when I get there, what to choose? What colour? Twelve pack or six pack? Quilted on not? Supermarket’s own brand or the proprietary brand ? Aloa vera enriched and scented or not................? And so it goes on. Life  isn’t simple anymore. Indeed, is an aloa vera enriched toilet roll a need or a want, an essential or an extravagance? And is it really any different in performing a pretty basic task? Am I lesser human being and will we be socially ostracised if I decide on basic toilet tissue? Is it really any better? Does it actually matter! It seems to me that so much of our world, and indeed so much the function of manufacturers and advertisers in the modern world, has become the fulfilment of the Jobs’ epitaph – convincing people that they need, and will thus desire, a particular item even though (until someone thought of the item) no-one ever knew that they had this need or desire.  Man (and woman) kind has had a basic need for bottom wiping since time began. But did we know that we needed quilted or aloa vera enriched tissue to do it............until some executive sat in an office and had a good idea!
A small selection of the decision
making process options when I
wipe the kitchen working surface!

Those of you who have read my blog before will know we recently had a bit of building work at home – amongst other things a new kitchen. We are delighted with the results but everyday jobs I used to perform very happily in the kitchen I now have to seek help with – so terrified am I (yes, I mean that!) of making some crucial faux pas or worse still using the wrong item and causing permanent damage to our sink, working surfaces, cupboards, cooker, tiling and the rest.   No longer can I simply wipe all the kitchen surfaces with the dish cloth and a bit of bleach or kitchen cleaner. We have a huge selection of different cloths – e-cloths for wiping the cupboard surfaces, e-cloths for polishing, jay cloths, cloths to soak up moisture, cloths for the stainless steel sink, window cleaning cloths.........the list is quite endless. We have cupboards full of cleaning fluids and creams for every possible scenario. I am truly terrified of mistakenly using the wrong cloth with the wrong cream. The disgrace and inadequacy of it would, I think, haunt me for the rest of my life!

Now, which programme do I need to
wash these underpants!
I dread the morning that Pat has to rush out and forgets to put on the washing machine and a later phone call tells me to do it. The new machine has so many programmes - which one to use!: dark wash, sportswear, sensitive, delicate, temperature, cotton, prewash........... I’ve seen higher degrees presented for less knowledge. Who are these super heroes who float downstairs in the morning, totally in control of life with the contents of the dirty washing basket and know intuitively the correct programme combination to ensure that each item is washed to perfection with correct temperature, spin, material programme etc. Are there really people on the planet who have the time or inclination to master all these wash programmes? Do these people have such empty vacuous lives that this is important to them. Which gene have I missed out on that means that I stand there bleary eyed in the morning looking at the various programmes and not having the faintest clue what I should do or which button I should press? How did my mother manage, for all those years, to turn us out with clean shirts day after day with only a sink and one cold water tap (hot water had to be boiled in a kettle or a pan)? And then, having done the scrubbing put the washing through the iron mangle in the yard, hang it on a washing line to dry or if wet on the ceiling “rack” in the kitchen. Of course, it was back breaking work but basically simple. Today, however, my washing machine tells me that this simple operation is the subject of advanced programming technology - much of which I guess has been developed as some sort of spin off from the space programme! I’m not against progress - but life has really become very complicated!

The final nail in the coffin of my feeling of total inadequacy in the face of “progress” came on our return from Suffolk last week. Whilst in Suffolk we visited a kitchen shop in the lovely resort of Southwold. Pat bought one or two items for the kitchen – one of them a green plastic knife. I thought no more about this until I noticed it in the drawer the other night and asked why she had bought it. To my amazement, I learned, it is to stop the lettuce going brown when we cut it! Now why didn’t I know that!? Pat told me this as if it was one of the world’s great truths that every life form on the planet is aware of! The sun will rise, the rivers will flow, the whole of creation will blossom – but your lettuce will go brown if you don’t cut it with a green plastic knife! Maybe she was having me on? How had my mother survived to her eighty odd years without this item of crucial information? Indeed, how had I survived and reach adulthood eating all that brown lettuce cut with an ordinary knife and tragically fed to me by my poor unsuspecting mother?  Could my mother’s lax approach to my welfare be construed as some form of abuse? And what about the rabbit kingdom – surely they should be told of this new essential for the consumption of their staple diet!
Ah! No more brown lettuce!

Even the act of going shopping today is complicated and not easy! Gone are the days when you could pop into a shop with your purse or wallet and make a simple purchase, pay the cash and walkout with the task easily fulfilled.  When I visit the local  filling station or  supermarket I now get asked if I have a loyalty card or a reward card; do I want “cash back”; would I like a polythene bag costing 2p in which to carry my purchases? Would I like help with my packing? Do I want a VAT receipt? Would I like a bar of chocolate or a fluffy toy that is being promoted at the moment and which I can have for a discounted price? Did I realise that there is two for the price of one offer on that item? And so the list goes on. Then, having paid the till operator, the final demand......."as you haven't got your loyalty card with you would you like me to put the reward points on to the receipt so that your wife can have them added on to your account later". In response I nod dumbly take my receipt and in a final act of defiance drop it into the litter basket in the shop door way.  Totally dispirited I stand there like a confused nodding donkey saying yes to everything or confessing that I am some kind of sub human since I do not possess the required loyalty card or do not wish to buy the eco friendly shopping bag that the supermarket chain is promoting. When I return home I nod vigorously when asked the inevitable question......"did you use your loyalty card?"
I just love loyalty and reward cards!

Invariably, too, I feel that I have let the till operator down by not availing myself of the many attractions she has on offer. I fear that she will return home that night to tell her hungry young children, as she tucks them into bed, of the nasty old man who came into the shop today and wouldn’t buy an eco shopping bag. “My children”, she will tearfully say “the man wouldn’t buy a bag or a special promotion bar of chocolate and didn’t have a loyalty card so I didn’t get my bonus so there is no food to eat tonight..........” Like some kind of modern day Grimm’s Fairy tale – “The Old Man With No Loyalty Card” - she kisses her children goodnight and will say “Remember, don’t get like that grumpy old man, always buy two for one packs of quilted aloe vera enriched toilet paper. And make sure that you use your loyalty card or you won’t go to heaven.......”

I take no pride in this lack of modernity. I wish it were not thus. I accept it as my failing. Deep down, I know that I should be more "on the ball" but as each week and month goes by I seem to look a little more fretfully at the world. I have absolutely no doubt I could master the kitchen cloths, knives, loyalty cards - and yes even the washing machine and TV recorder. I know that I really would get pleasure out of that new VW CC. But in the end I am increasingly happy with my "lot" and feel less and less the need to continually seek to master things or experience the great and the new. Maybe I am just getting old - and this I do find worrying.

As I write that sentence I am taken back to my much loved and respected great uncle - John. He died when I was about twenty and always had a great capacity, although an old man, to be able to speak to the young. Only a week or two ago I read that this year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Rolling Stones group and I immediately thought of Uncle John. I pictured and remembered saying to me (I was about 16 at the time)  fifty plus years ago  "Now tell me Tony, what is it about these Rolling Stones that you youngsters like.......". At the time, half a century ago, the Stones were just breaking onto the pop scene and regarded as some dreadful influence on the young but I thought it was great - that I, a teenager, could talk to an old man who had fought in the Great War who was actually interested in what I had to say and what youngsters thought. He didn't seem at all like the other older people I knew who dismissed the Stones and the Beatles out of hand. Uncle John kept up to date - he kept a lifelong interest to the end -  a man ahead of his time. Had he been alive today I'm sure he would have had an i-phone or i-pad. He would certainly have got to grips with the washing machine programme and I bet his wallet would have been full of loyalty cards! So, maybe, for my own salvation and those around me I should take a leaf out of his book and  get to grips with these loyalty cards, the plastic green knife, the washing machine and all these other wants and needs of modern life! But, just don't hold your breath!

19 July, 2012

"The Right Stuff!"

Almost fifty years on - we meet again
in a small pub in Suffolk
When Pat and I left home early on Saturday morning the newspapers were still full of the Bob Diamond/Barclay's Libor fixing controversy. When we returned home yesterday and put on the TV news the agenda had moved on – the security company G4S was under the spotlight for its failure to meet obligations in respect of the Olympics security arrangements. It seems that a few capitalist/free market/outsourcing chickens are coming home to roost! Well, I could (and will) wax lyrical on all of these issues - but not today! Why spoil a very pleasant two or three days away by dwelling upon the devious dealings and downright immoral actions of our Conservative government and the higher echelons of the City. Life is too short!

We have been away for a day or two to Suffolk – one of my favourite bits of England. We had been invited to a retirement celebration near Colchester of a friend we were at teacher training college with almost fifty years ago and thought this was a good enough reason to have a day or two by the sea. Elaine spent many years teaching maths  at Colchester Girls’ High school one of the highest performing schools in the country and  we met in a little country pub together with other ex-college friends and spent a few hours reminiscing and catching up with each other’s news over a beer and a pleasant meal. After a pleasant afternoon, Pat and I set off for a short drive to Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast were we planned to spend our little seaside getaway.
"Tirah" - our super B&B

We stayed in a wonderful bed and breakfast guest house – ( “Tirah” - http://www.tirahguesthouse.com/)   close to the picturesque village of Thorpness and just a short drive from Aldburgh. We have stayed at many B&Bs over the years – this ranked with the very best. The sign outside said it was judged to be four star accommodation - I would give it many more stars!    Beautiful house, outstanding room facilities, welcoming hosts and what must surely be one of the best breakfasts available in the whole of England – and all at a very reasonable cost. Mr & Mrs Lucock, the proprietors, were delightful hosts, made us feel completely at home and were a fund of information when we asked about the area. Pat and I said on several occasions during the three or four days that we were there that when we next visit the area we would not consider anywhere else for our accommodation!
Chuck Yeager - test pilot supreme
and "the right stuff"

Interestingly, on the kitchen wall there hung a signed photo of an elderly, but bronzed and fit looking man standing in front of a U.S. Stealth Bomber. He wore flying overalls and military beret. The signature read “Best wishes from Chuck Yeager” - a name which meant nothing to us. When we asked, Mr Lucock told us that Chuck Yeager was a famous U.S. test pilot who had been stationed at the nearby Leiston airfield as a young U.S. pilot during the 2nd World War. He was a skilled and highly  decorated pilot. At the conclusion of the war he rose to become a high ranking general, was on first name terms with numerous American Presidents, achieved fame as the first man to break the sound barrier, was involved in the space programme and, so Google tells me, ultimately the subject of the Oscar winning 1980’s film “The Right Stuff”. He had recently stayed at the B&B when last on a visit to the U.K. to visit his old haunts around Leiston airfield – and (wait for it)......... we were sleeping in the same room that he had used! Now, there’s a claim to fame – not at all what we expected when we set off for sleepy, rural Suffolk, that we would be following in the footsteps of war heroes, test pilots and Hollywood superstars! It added a bit of interest and a talking point to our little break. And, over the next two or three days as we enjoyed Suffolk, I reflected on several occasions that just as Chuck Yeager was judged to be "the right stuff" so we too were indeed enjoying “the right stuff”! 
Thorpness Mere - with the
house in the clouds in the background

Thorpness itself is delightful – quiet, pretty and evocative. As with all Suffolk coastal areas there is a certain beautiful bleakness and silence about it. As we stood on the deserted shingle  beach on the Saturday evening the haunting tones of Benjamin Britten’s “Sea Interludes” from his Suffolk based opera “Peter Grimes” seemed very much in place – “the right stuff” again, you might say!  Brittten settled with his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, in nearby Aldeburgh and composed some of his greatest works there. He established the world famous Aldeburgh Music Festival at the Snape Maltings just outside the town. Later on Sunday we enjoyed a cup of tea at the Maltings while listening to the sound of an oboe and cello wafting out of the windows of some of the recital rooms there. Britten and Pears are buried side by side in the local Aldeburgh churchyard and close by lies Imogen Holst the composer and musician daughter of the great English composer Gustav Holst. Holst, of course, composed the “Planets Suite” - one of the movements being “Jupiter” which has become closely associated with the patriotic hymn “I vow to thee my country” – a piece that many (including myself) believe would make a more acceptable National Anthem than the jingoistic "God save the Queen" that we are blessed with. As someone once rightly said "God Save the Queen" is a plea to an entity that doesn't exist to preserve an entity that shouldn't exist". Quite!
Thorpness beach

Following our hosts recommendation we ate a superb meal in the local pub in Thorpness, “The Dolphin” – and indeed returned there each night to eat it was so good. Next day, on a sunny Sunday morning we wandered around Thorpness’ quiet streets and alleyways. We sat and read the newspaper and enjoyed a coffee at the side of the village mere – an extensive area of water where people take out rowing boats and every kind of swan and duck glide across its placid surface. We enjoyed the quirky buildings – from tiny fishermen’s cottages to large Tudor style residences and looked at the famous “House in the Clouds” standing above all on the edge of the village. There can be few pleasanter spots.
Harley-Davidson in
The Scallop on Aldeburgh beach
And on Sunday afternoon we wondered around Aldeburgh – busy with day trippers like ourselves but still peaceful. Even a gathering of Harley-Davidson motor cyclists proudly displaying their magnificent, highly polished machines did not disturb the calmness of the place. We gazed at the magnificent “shell” sculpture – the “Scallop” – which dominates the beach on the edge of the town and is dedicated to the memory of Benjamin Britten. Although the monument has attracted some local criticism we found it wonderful. At four metres high it is meant to be enjoyed both visually and tactilely – and when we stood at its base there were a number young children sliding down its shining ridges. The “Scallop” bears the legend “I hear those voices that will not be drowned” – words taken from Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and  again, just as with Thorpness beach, there was a quiet calmness, dignity and bleakness about it all – no seaside fun fairs, no amusement arcades or fast food joints – just a beautiful calm emptiness, even though there were many people like us quietly wondering along enjoying the sun, the sea and the scenery. We walked along the edge of the beach stopping occasionally to peep at the freshly caught fish and seafood stalls – all with their adjacent fishing boats dragged up on the shingle beach.
Peter Pears and
Benjamin Britten
And then it was on to Snape to wander around the Maltings – a venue for some of the world’s great musicians. The rambling buildings of the Maltings – old nineteenth century structures used for the malting of barley used in the brewing of beer – are now converted into world class concert hall, recital and practice rooms, art galleries, little boutiques and the like – all in all making it a very pleasant place on the banks of the River Alde. We sat in the sun enjoying our cup of tea enjoying the Sunday afternoon. Above us the famous “big skies” of East Anglia whose quality of light had inspired musicians like Britten and artists like Constable looked down on us – it was indeed “the right stuff”!
And so to Monday.  A dull start to the day but a lovely morning spent wandering around the nearby picturesque resort of Southwold -  a town with the same quiet, dignified charm as Aldeburgh. Southwold is a popular – and perhaps upwardly mobile – resort, filled with slightly up market shops and hotels. It’s the home of the famous Adnam’s Brewery – one of the best English pints of beer that one can buy.  We wondered around the Adnam’s shop selling beers and wines as well as kitchen items of various kinds. Dutifully, I stood outside a series of  women’s clothes shops and boutique on the High Street as Pat went on a quest for a new “top” – in the end we got two at half price in the sale! And then, as lunchtime approached I sat reading my paper on a rather blustery promenade as Pat went for a walk along the pier. By late morning a drizzle was setting in and we ate our lunchtime sandwich in the car as the rain became more insistent.
Southwold from the pier

So, where to go? We plumped for Framlingham – to visit the castle there. Although the rain scudded down we enjoyed the across country drive through Suffolk’s rolling countryside – along narrow lanes, past vast expanses of farmland and through tiny remote villages and hamlets. One sensed that this was an area that in many ways had changed little in hundreds of years. As when we have visited the area before we noticed that often in the smallest of villages there would be a huge church – quite disproportionate to the size of village or possible size of congregation. This a reminder that in medieval times the area was wealthy on the back of the wool trade Sheep farmers and local landowners  made wealthy by the exporting of their wool to Europe through the nearby ports of Ipswich, Felixstowe and Harwich would fund the building of a great church in their area for the glory of God and perhaps more importantly  for their own glory and salvation! And the great churches remain, standing out against the East Anglian sky and surrounded by the few houses of the village or hamlet.
Framlingham castle

At Framlingham we wandered around the castle – walking round the high walls being followed by a crowd of chattering teenagers from, I think, Spain. From high up we could see for miles across the Suffolk countryside – it was clearly a great fortification which, we were reminded, on  reading the various signs was a 12th century Norman motte and bailey castle. The history of the castle is woven into the fabric of English history – Henry of Anjou, Richard the Lionheart, the Wars of the Roses, Bosworth Field, the great families of England such as the Howards and the Dudleys, Lady Jane Grey and Mary Tudor all figured somewhere in its history. In 1553, Framlingham castle was given by King Edward VI to his sister Mary Tudor. She stayed there while waiting her succession to the crown, which hung in the balance.  Mary had proclaimed herself queen whilst at Framlingham and raised her standard and rallied her troops together. Thousands came to the castle. Defections increased in her favour, troops arrived with the earls of Sussex and Bath, and elsewhere in Suffolk, ships in Ipswich harbour mutinied in her support. Her standards were unfurled and military colours were set up. Everyone was armed and ready to fight with pikes, lances and bows. Mary, it is said, rode out from Framlingham Castle at about four o'clock on a Thursday to muster and inspect her loyal army in waiting. Eventually, the Earl of Arundel arrived to inform her she was Queen. Unfortunately, she reigned for only five years until her  early death in 1558 from influenza -  but it is also thought that she may have been suffering from ovarian cancer.  Her Roman Catholic reign was followed  by the  Protestant reign of her half sister Elizabeth 1 and ironically it is estimated that some 280 dissenters to Mary’s Roman Catholic beliefs  were burned at the stake – but during Elizabeth’s reign the situation was reversed and  Framlingham was used as a prison for Roman Catholic priests who defied the Elizabeth’s Church of England!
St. Edmundsbury Cathedral

On Tuesday we packed up our car, said goodbye to our hosts  and set off for a meander through East Anglia – homeward bound. Cutting across country we meandered through Suffolk and eventually into the great flat fenlands of Cambridgeshire – huge expanses of rich farmland. We often found ourselves following slow moving farm vehicles as they moved from farm to farm. We passed though the great race horse centre of England, and indeed the world - Newmarket – past the National Stud and a magnificent racehorse and jockey statue and later we passed close to Ely with its magnificent cathedral standing upright and almost sentry like guarding the miles of fenland around it. But before all this another gem – Bury St Edmunds. We wondered around the great Cathedral of St Edmundsbury – one of the great buildings of England - and around the cathedral gardens. There has been a church on the site since before William the Conqueror -1065  at least - and in 1959 Benjamin Britten wrote “Fanfare for St Edmundsbury” – part of a “Pageant for Magna Carta” held in the cathedral grounds. English history in a nutshell! We sipped a coffee opposite the cathedral and then wandered up the main shopping streets to buy a sandwich for lunch. We loved Bury St Edmunds – another trip seems a good idea and is definitely on the cards
Newmarket - centre
of the horse racing world

And, as we at last got nearer home in the late afternoon, the car radio told us the sorry tale of the G4S Olympic security fiasco – bringing us back down to reality. We hadn’t really followed the news for three or four days – and perhaps felt better for it!  The sights and sounds, the people and the places that we had visited and seen seemed a much better option than the underhanded dealings of the City, bankers, politicians and modern society! 

With its English musical associations, its rolling countryside and seascapes, its tiny hamlets and great churches, its fine food and  good English beer, its reflection of English history and heritage and its strong links with the sea, this part of the world can justifiably claim to be part of John O’Gaunt’s “sceptred isle” as it juts out into the North Sea. And the “Scallop” with its haunting legend seems somehow appropriate – in some way reflecting another traditional English virtue or characteristic – free thought and free speech and a liberal outlook which is strongly rooted in our nation’s history and national psyche from Magna Carta  and the early establishment of parliamentary democracy to today.  Perhaps it is more under threat today than ever before as global economics, power politics, a powerful media and big business threaten to overwhelm the individual - so maybe the words on the “Scallop” on Aldeburgh beach - “I will hear those voices that will not be drowned” -  are an important commentary and a timely reminder not only of what Suffolk and England’s heritage is about but also of what should be our values and what we should all fight to protect and maintain.

It was indeed “the right stuff”

08 July, 2012

Footprints of the Past

As I sit writing this blog, the rain trickles down my office window and drums on the roof over my head, great puddles cover my driveway and a small river runs down the edge of my road. It is a very wet day in Nottingham and across much of England – and not unexpected. There are flood alerts across the whole country and the weather forecast has been telling us for days that this wet English summer will continue at least for the foreseeable future.

The view from my office on a
very wet Friday
How very different from last week! Only one week ago – last Friday afternoon at this time - Pat and I were wandering around the ancient city of Syracuse in Sicily. Temperatures were in the mid to upper thirties and the brilliant Mediterranean sun burnt down on us. In truth we had spent the day (as we had every other day last week) seeking shade and cold drinks in wayside cafes or churches or narrow shady streets! Our week in Sicily was filled with wall to wall sunshine  - a wonderful change from the wet UK! Pat firmly believes that a bit of sunshine is the solution to all life’s aches and pains and most if not all of the world’s problems – she makes a convincing case for global warming!  It was rather too hot for me, but I have to say, very pleasant!
The Valley of the Temples, Agrigento
We loved our trip to the sun. To be fair, we have visited Italy on many occasions and perhaps of all countries love it the most – the lifestyle, the heritage, the food, the music, the people. I could happily sit and listen to an Italian speak whilst understanding not a word – the rhythm, the cadence and the musical rise and fall of the speech is a thing of beauty.  But Sicily was a new venture.

I can remember many years ago at school looking at maps and hearing Sicily described as the football at the end of the toe of Italy but knew absolutely nothing about it. The island tends to look quite small when placed at the side of the Italian mainland – but it is in fact a large island and so to see it involves much travelling. We bobbed about all over the island packing as much into every day as was possible: Palermo, Agrigento, Taormina, Syracuse..... and what seemed a million other places.....the great cathedral of Monreale with its world famous medieval mosaics, the Valley of the Temples, Greek and Roman amphitheatres, the wonderfully preserved Roman Villa at Piazza Armerina......and so it goes on. Our hotel balcony looked out onto the brooding and smouldering Mount Etna, we travelled through the middle of the island with its lush and fertile rolling countryside and dotted with tiny villages which looked as if they had changed little for hundreds of years. And late each afternoon we struggled back to our hotel to grab an hour or so by the pool in the late afternoon or early evening sun!
A typical Sicilian hill top town
Sicily, we learned, has been a coveted place for thousands of years and undergone waves of invaders – ancient Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Spanish and others – and each left their marks on the island – in its architecture, its culture, its place names, its food and the like. The two hotels that we stayed in reflected the mixed heritage of the island – one in Agrigento a city whose name is a mixture of Greek, Latin and Arabic and the other in Giardini Naxos – a Greek name if ever there was one! Sicily has always been a meeting point and melting pot of cultures – east to west across the Mediterranean and north to south from Europe to North Africa. A wonderful place full of history and tradition.

Restoring the wonderful Roman
mosaics at    Piazza Armerina 
Whenever I go on holiday – and wherever I go, be it a day trip to the seaside or a more exotic trip to some foreign shore I am always intrigued as I wonder about all the people who have, in the past and are at the present, carrying on their lives in these places just as I do here in Nottingham. A useless bit of idle thought, of course,  but I still find it fascinating that people have been carrying on their lives with their hopes and fears, their dreams and ambitions, their great joys and great sadnesses, each day fulfilling their daily grind of work and play, each day being part of a family, having friends and neighbours, bringing up children, losing loved ones and all the other everyday bits of ordinary life that all people, no matter who they are and where they live, go through and experience  every day.  And all quite oblivious of  me and my little life and, similarly, me to them. As we travelled through Sicily I reflected on the millions of people who had been part of the island’s history and who had made it what it is today – each in their own way leaving their impression. As  we looked in awe at the mosaics in Monreale Cathedral, or as we drove through some ancient and timeless Sicilian village deep in the countryside or as we looked down on the Roman mosaics or the Greek amphitheatres I wondered to myself about the millions of people in the past and the present for whom this was their world.  As always it reminded me of how very interdependent we all are and how all human society is a complex web of mankind’s dreams, drives, ambitions, skills, beliefs, hopes, fears, traditions and the rest. As John Donne famously argued in his “Meditation”: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee”.
The Corleone connection!
Of course, when one today talks of Sicily it is not long before the word “mafia” comes into the conversation. Indeed, as we travelled around one could not ignore it. I commented to Pat that the wonderful 1970’s trilogy of “The Godfather” films must have made a very significant contribution to the island’s development and economy. Wherever we seemed to go it was not long before we heard the strains of the theme music from those films wafting down streets. At each tourist venue and in each town and village one would soon spot souvenirs and memorabilia celebrating “The Godfather”, the face of Marlon Brando as Don Corleone glaring down from T shirts, tea towels, drinking mugs and the rest. So often the immortal words from the film crept into my mind and mouth “I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse” – more than once we heard other tourists talking about waking up in bed at the side of a horse’s head! As we drove to Palermo we passed the signpost to the village of Corleone, home of the fictional mafia don and the radio played the Godfather theme and it seemed as if for a few minutes a sense of foreboding crept over the coach as we half expected men with guns to stride into the middle of the road and ask us to stop and show respect for the Don!
Sicily's rolling, lush and fertile
landscape filled with corn fields -
the "bread basket of Rome" it was
known as two thousand years ago.
Etna's brooding presence from
our balcony
The ancient Greeks and Romans who populated the island two millennia ago could, surely, never have conceived that in time a Hollywood film would have such an impact on the island and be such a major element in its economy –  an impact perhaps almost as great as theirs – and certainly one of the defining  features of the island. I wondered what some ancient Roman general and his lady would have made of it as they sat in their mosaic decorated villa at  Piazza Armerina if they had known that two thousand years on their home  would be surrounded by souvenir filled tents and workshops each selling children’s mosaic making kits, plastic Roman soldiers (often made in China!), guide books about their home or beach and tea towels showing maps of Sicily and the like. And from all of these tents would peer the face of Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone – the face of Sicily and yet a man who never actually existed except on the pages of a book or on Hollywood celluloid!  It almost makes Donne’s poem even more resonant today when fictional characters can be part of and influence the lives of ordinary people and even nations!
The stunning mosaics of

And yet is it so surprising? – the mafia are as much part of Sicily’s heritage and past as any other aspect. Indeed they are a product of it. Its seeds were planted in the upheaval of Sicily's transition out of feudalism and its later annexation by mainland Italy.  Under feudalism, the nobility owned most of the land and enforced law and order through their private armies but by the early nineteenth century land was steadily sold off to private citizens.  After Italy annexed Sicily in 1860 there was a huge boom in landowners: from 2,000 in 1812 to 20,000 by 1861.The nobles also released their private armies to let the state take over the task of law enforcement. However, with less than 350 policemen for the entire island. Some towns did not have any permanent police force leaving criminals to operate with impunity. With more property owners came more disputes that needed settling, contracts that needed enforcing, and properties that needed protecting. Because the authorities were undermanned and unreliable, property new landowners turned to quasi-legal arbitrators and protectors. These “protectors” would eventually organize themselves into the first Mafia clans.
The Greek amphitheatre at Taormina
being made ready for a modern
day pop concert!
All this, of course, is a long way from a Hollywood blockbuster – but it is the root from which it came – and re-affirms, perhaps, the interdependence of time and space – in Sicily’s and indeed all our pasts and futures. The mafia grew out of the situation as was – dependent and interdependent – and Don Corleone’s story merely built upon this. As Donne reminded us we are not islands!
And within all this there is another dimension that I pondered as we travelled around. I read, as we journeyed, Colin Thubron’s wonderful travel book “To a Mountain in  Tibet” – the tale of Thubron’s very personal “pilgrimage” to the holy Mount Kailas the spiritual home of the world’s Hindus and Buddhists – about one fifth of the world’s population. Thubron discusses the  underlying beliefs of these religious groups. A key theme running through much Buddhist philosophy and belief is the transitory nature of life and being. Buddha taught that all life and being is impermanent and largely an illusion and in a strange way all the invaders and settlers who came to and moulded Sicily’s culture and landscape might prove that. At the time, like us, they, and their way of life was real and supreme.........and yet, and yet, it passed and has gone forever so that today it is difficult for us to imaging their lives and dreams. People and the world “moved on”.  Only the stones remain as memories and reminders of their lives and their passing. We see in Sicily and the rest of the world physical manifestations of what was the past........a great cathedral here, a roman amphitheatre there, a “t shirt” celebrating some fictional character who in turn reflects a way of life that is part of the islands very real history but now gone forever.

And so back each night to the pool!
Nothing is permanent, nothing is forever. We are all transitory.......but, as the cathedrals and amphitheatres show, as the landscape evolves, as language is formed and changes reflecting the users and their interests and worlds, as traditions and diet and indeed culture become intermixed and develop into something quite new  then we all leave a small footprint..............as John Donne reminded us, we are not islands.