A Struggle too Long

One hundred years ago in the UK women got the right to vote. There! None of us can really imagine what a hard struggle it was to gain this crucial entitlement, but some brilliant, brave women strove for it and got it and we must never take it for granted.
There have, of course been many ‘watershed’ moments along the path to equality of gender but the most important thing to remember is that the path has not yet reached its destination. That is to say, women still have a long way to go before they can live lives as free and as privileged as men.
It seems to me that the principal reason for true gender equality taking such a long time to achieve is that, having enjoyed the benefits of privilege for centuries many men [not all] are unready and unwilling to give them up and the very fact of them being in positions of power and wealth [in boardrooms, for example] is self-maintaining.
You have only to glance at the vitriolic comments following any article on inequality to see how reluctant many are to surrender the superior lifestyles, the casual attitudes to degradation, the enhanced salaries and all-round benefits of not being a woman.
Here in the UK some areas are gradually improving. The number of women members of parliament has increased slowly over the years, although in 2017 the ratio was still 70:30 per cent in favour of men. There are some women cabinet ministers. The prime minister is a woman [although it is a downright shame that the only two women prime ministers in UK history are both from the political right].
But on the whole progress is slow. That even within the ongoing ‘me too’ campaign, an organisation [The President’s Club] sees no shame in staging a men-only night of debauchery in which women are paraded and objectified demonstrates how little men of certain wealth, status and notoriety care or notice. And until men [mainly white and older] begin to sit up and take notice and understand that they should not abuse their power in this way gender equality will continue to be an uphill slog.
Then in the wider world, daily, systematic abuse of women continues, with underage marriage [still legal in a number of US states], rape as a weapon of war, slavery and traffic endemic in many countries, repression and deprivation of rights rife in still more.
I had my own brush with the equal pay issue over 40 years ago when a student, working a summer job, nights in a soup factory, where we students manned machines packing powdered soup. Six or seven of us would work at the machine, moving place every hour in a non-discriminatory way. When I discovered the male students were paid more each week and asked why I was told that they ‘might be required to lift something’. Were they ever? What do you think?

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Grace’s Guide to Scones, for the Uninitiated.

scone

            You know you’re advancing in years when you begin to frequent coffee shops on a regular basis. You begin to have favourites. You get to know what’s on offer besides the coffee, too. For me this is likely to be a scone. For overseas readers here is an explanation of ‘scone’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scone
I consider myself to be something of an expert on scones and it is this, besides the quality of the tea or coffee that determines whether a coffee shop makes it onto the favourites list or if it is cast into the venues that are forever shunned. I have fond memories of scones in New Zealand, where the ubiquitous dairies produced substantial offerings boasting dried fruit in abundance, or made from wholemeal flour, often warmed and with ample butter on the side. Ireland also serves up generous, delicious scones in their many forms.
And yes, for the uninitiated there are several forms of scone, the most common being the fruit variety. This is best enjoyed with butter only but is too often used as part of a cream tea [that is to say, with jam and clotted cream: [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clotted_cream]. The most suitable scone for a cream tea is a plain or ‘Devon’ scone, since fruit detracts from the whole jam/cream experience. The best establishments may also offer cheese scones, which are a nod towards the less unhealthy option, being free of sugar, although it has to be said that dietary health is not a feature of this post.
Sometimes, having established that a café has scones before we select a table there is a prolonged wait for the scones to arrive. This is because the scones are already plated up and part of the [aforementioned] cream tea. Please note, café proprietors, that if we, the customers request a scone, this is not the same as a cream tea and while we are unlikely to turn it down we are not in the habit of devouring cream teas [treats that should be enjoyed on an infrequent basis].
Scones that do not pass muster tend to be dry, with a consistency akin to sawdust [such as those from a prestigious castle tea room in our locale] and too flat, with the appearance of an inflated biscuit. Mass produced scones may also have a slightly bitter taste, from having had too much raising agent added or with a leaden texture that sticks to the roof of the mouth and are sometimes available in the cafés of large department stores. Best are the offerings of small, independent coffee shops with their ranges of homemade cakes.
I am of course perfectly capable of baking scones at home and have done so in the past, but these days baking at home is an activity best avoided due to Husband and my propensity for eating the results.
For the foreseeable future, scone research has been put on hold. This, reader is due to the fact that overconsumption of scones has lead the researcher to begin to look like one. So having imparted what I know I leave you to pursue your own investigations. Enjoy!

The All-inclusive Trap

Searching for winter sun, an escape from the dreary, grey drizzle or the bitter winds of this UK winter means travelling long-haul. The options are: far east [Thailand etc], Africa [tried, tested and now not tempted] or Caribbean. We’ve sampled a few islands in the West Indies now, with pleasing results, Barbados and Antigua having proved particularly lovely destinations. Mexico, last year’s experiment boasted beautiful weather but was less fun in that there were few options outside of the hotel.
And here’s the difficulty. In choosing a Caribbean or most other long-haul destination you are stuck in the inevitable groove of ‘all-inclusive’ deal, as after intensive research we have found it to be cheaper than either flying and booking hotels separately or B&B. An all-inclusive deal is likely to mean a vast, corporate hotel sprawling on a coastal strip and boasting several restaurants, bars, pools, terraces, a spa, a gym, shops, ‘entertainment’, beach with loungers and umbrellas and the ubiquitous ‘buffet’.
Hotels like these are betting on the hunch that most guests prefer to stay within the confines of the hotel complex and couldn’t give a cow’s udder about setting foot outside the gate to meander in the environs and hobnob with the locals. And it is true for many, who like to get up, sling their beach towels on their preferred loungers, wander into breakfast, order a cocktail and slump then slump on their sun bed until a member of staff bearing a tray offers more refreshment. There’ll be a further stint of slumping followed by lunch…
For some with a more active schedule in mind there might be a short session of aquarobics or pool volleyball-but then it’s back to the more serious business of slumping, punctuated by propping up one of the many bars.
We can manage a day or so of this, given sunny weather and a beach walk. But after a while some ennui creeps in. This is when we need to get out.
On our recent trip to Cuba the few days in Havana was perfect. We had breakfast in the hotel, we were within walking distance of the delights of the city and had the remains of our days free, at liberty to explore. Once we’d moved to the beach hotel, however there was a short stretch of beach to walk and everything else required a taxi or a bus ride-both of which we did. In one direction lay a sterile and uninspiring marina; in the other the town yielded more sightseeing and entertainment and it was there that we avoided incarceration.
One of the reasons for avoiding cruises is the enforced imprisonment aboard a floating, all-inclusive hotel, with nothing to do but eat and drink.
Our next expedition, already in the planning stages will be very different, involving an extensive road trip by camper van. On our journey we’ll stay where we want for as long as we want, moving on when we’ve had enough of a place and opting to explore by foot or bicycle. What a pity we can’t take the van to winter sun destinations!


					

Fresh from Cuba-

P1040382

 

We have returned from ten days in Cuba, leaving the frozen, grey UK and taking almost ten hours to fly to a warm, bright and colourful Havana. After hearing about the plight of tourists to Jamaica, who must remain in hotel lock-down due to violent crime I’d advise anyone with Caribbean travel plans to choose Cuba-one of the safest holiday destinations in the world.

Even in my deprived-sleep-addled state, on the journey to the hotel I could see that there is NO advertising of any sort along the roads, not on the highway from the airport or in the suburban streets and nowhere in the bustle of the city. It is refreshing not to be faced with hoardings and neon everywhere.

Continuing this theme, there is nothing anywhere that resembles a ‘chain’ company. No Starbucks, MacDonalds, KFC, Wagamama, TGI Fridays, Specsavers, H&M, Monsoon, Wallmart, Top Shop or IKEA. Magic! It is, in fact difficult to determine where there are any shops at all. There are tiny corner kiosks nestling among crumbling facades or murky windows displaying manekins sporting faded, dusty outfits. There are also alleyways with market stalls touting Che Guevara T-shirts, baseball caps and a range of hand-made items. There is also a riot of lively, busy bars and restaurants thronged with tourists and locals alike and often alive with a band of musicians.

Bars. There is no shortage of these; some mere holes in the wall, others ornately panelled, art-deco monuments to a rum-and-salsa culture much celebrated by writer Ernest Hemingway [whose heritage is much exploited by Havana traders]. There is a limitless supply of musicians. In a small street outside a Hemingway-themed bar where exuberant music is entertaining the area an impromptu accompaniment was played on water bottles as several individuals ran fingernails up and down the furrowed sides [proving my theory that almost anything can be employed as a musical instrument].

Cars. Cuba is well-known for its old, American classic cars. I was unprepared for the number of them [allegedly 150, 000].They range from lovingly restored, smooth, gleaming limousines to pitted, filled and battered jalopies. All, however spew out a filthy, noxious cloud of lung-clogging fumes which requires some adjustment of the respiratory passages when out walking.

People are friendly, happy and not above exploitative. We were offered welcome, advice, conversation and cigars or a visit to an outlet. We were never, at any time hassled or pursued. Rejection was accepted with relaxed, good-natured smiles. There were a small number of beggars, some of which had gone to lengths to create artful outfits to enhance their plight-a frayed and patched jacket or [in one case] a masterpiece of sackcloth trousers. There was no evidence at all of rough sleeping.

There was an overall sense of well being. Nobody appeared embittered or unhappy with their lot. The population is a mixture of black and white with all groups of diners, musicians, shoppers and travellers joining in together as one, never allied to one or other ethnic type. It is safe; a tourist could walk alone anywhere at any time of day or night without fear of molestation. We were unlucky with the weather, which was uncharacteristically overcast and windy. Otherwise it was a fun-filled and happy experience. Thank-you Cuba!

 

 

 

Ripple [Part 2]

Part One of ‘Ripple’ can be found in last week’s post [January 7th]. In this concluding episode Oliver is drawn to the canal he’s avoided for so long…

Ripple

            …His phone rings. Wrenching his eyes from the laptop he dives from the swivel chair and snaps the lid down on the device.
“Oliver Grantley” he croaks into his phone.
“Olly it’s only me, Mel! What’s with the formality?”
There is a pause. “Nothing. It’s nothing. I was working. The phone has broken my train of thought.” Oliver doesn’t want this. Doesn’t want his sister to know what he’s seen. She will think he’s lost it. Maybe he has lost it.
“I’m really sorry, Olly. It’s good that you’re working though. Are you sure you won’t change your mind and come round tonight?”
“I’m busy tonight, meeting a friend. We’re going for a drink.”
“Oh Olly! That’s great! Is it anyone we know? Male or female?”
Oliver stutters, frowning. “No. No one you know. It’s someone from work.”
“What’s her name then?”
Now all he wants is to tell his sister to get lost. “Paula. Her name’s Paula. Look, I have to go. I have a report to finish.”
“Alright Olly. But I want to know how it goes tonight. Call me back tomorrow!”
At last she hangs up. He tosses the phone on to the sofa, folds his arms and looks out at the city. After a moment he goes to the kitchen and swallows a couple more pills before going to his desk and glowering at the offending computer. He lunges forward, snatches it and stuffs it into his bag.
Outside the breeze has stiffened, whipping up eddies of litter and dust and tugging harder at his collar as he strides along. His deceased wife’s throaty laugh swirls around him in the wind. How many nights had he spent in the guest room after her claims of feeling ‘too exhausted for company’? How many times had he put his hand in his pocket to fund yet another ‘night out with a friend’? He could stand these deceits, and more if she’d shown him some affection instead of scornful jibes and mocking laughter.
He’s walked half a mile or so before he realises where he is; on the tow path. He stops, hitching the bag higher on his shoulder, takes a few steps to a bench and sits. The flowing canal is mesmerising, travelling along in it’s relentless passage to the harbour, carrying small islands of detritus-tangled sticks, discarded coffee cups and bits of polystyrene packaging or plastic bottles. He shivers. When they’d walked here last summer it had seemed romantic. He’d felt proud showing her the waterside. There had been swans bobbing on the water and a kingfisher darting amongst the willow trees that hung over the bank trailing leafy fronds, leaving ripples.
Today’s ripples are from the insistent, blustery wind. Beneath the surface there are dark, wavy shapes like hair; like black, glossy hair and the air is rank with an earthy smell of rotting vegetation. He leaves his bag on the bench and shuffles towards the canal side, drawn by the undulating contours below the water. He peers down. She’d asked him if there were fish he remembers and they’d leaned down to see. He’d put a restraining arm around her for protection. Weeks later he’d followed her, watching her swaying hips as she made her way down to the canal, hiding in the lush undergrowth while she lay on the bench with her lover, her skirt pushed up and her head thrown back as the other man drew his lips along her long, white throat.
Afterwards the man had left without a backward glance, striding away on the path, smoothing his hair and tucking his shirt in.
Under the wrinkly surface there are pale shapes, sometimes still, sometimes moving like soft, creamy limbs in the flow. This is where they’d found her. Oliver had been in the flat when they came to tell him how they’d pulled her from the canal, speaking in hushed voices, solicitous, offering counselling, offering to call someone. He shouldn’t be on his own, they’d said.
Later he’d had to go and identify her as she lay on a slab, her cold features bleached, her ivory skin blue-tinged; no trace of scorn remained on her pale lips, no remnant of guile under her dark eyelashes.
They’d traced the man from forensic traces along the path.
“He got what he deserved” Mel had said when Nerina’s lover was sentenced to life.            But Oliver knows better.
He is on the edge now, leaning forwards towards the shapes, drawn by them. She’d stood on the verge, her back to him as he’d emerged from his hiding place. He’d only meant to shock her, to make her see sense, to see how angry he was. She’d hit the water without much of a splash and the sounds were more like strangled squeaks than a scream, her slender arms flaying a little, making circles of ripples that radiated out from her head as it sank. A steady flow of bubbles rose to the surface, slowing after a couple of minutes then the brown, snaking canal had continued on as before.
A white hand flutters among the weed, beckoning. On the surface her face is appearing again, swaying in the ripples, mouth half open, smiling. A gust of wind rushes through the trees on the bank, roaring in his ears as he takes another step towards the undulating shape, where her arms are open to receive him.
In the bag on the bench Oliver’s laptop is wide awake, its blue screen oscillating as a gentle stream of bubbles rises from the bottom to the top in a never-ending stream.
 

Ripple [Part 1]

While I am away and  doing internet cold turkey for a couple of weeks I’ve left you a brand new two-part story. Is Oliver delusional? Or is there really something sinister happening on his computer?

Ripple

             It is there again, rippling the surface; an outline surfacing and receding against the background. Oliver rubs his eyes and peers again at the blue screen. Now there is nothing under the desktop shortcuts. He makes a mental note to take the laptop into town.
He stretches, rises and walks to the tall wall of glass where he gazes out over the cityscape. It is an arresting view, even for one who lives such a large part of his life in front of a screen. The city stretches away, a pleasing mix of old and new dotted with ancient steepled churches and elegant, high rise skyscrapers and further away the sweep of the harbour with a variety of shipping docking and embarking day and night. Immediately below his block the silver snake of the canal winds its way around the parks and estates on its way out to port. But Oliver does not glance down, ever. He prefers to see further into the distance and away.
His phone buzzes, breaking into his thoughts.
“Are you ok?”
Melanie. She has assumed responsibility for his wellbeing despite his protests that he is fine.
“Yes. I’m alright. You don’t need to keep ringing.”
Mel laughs. “You’re such a charmer, Olly! I’m only looking out for you.”
“You don’t need to.”
“Have you been out today? You should get out. It isn’t good to sit at home brooding.”
“I’m not brooding. I’m working. And I do have to go out because my laptop’s playing up. I may need to get a new one.”
His sister sighs. “Is that the only reason to go out? You could just walk! How about meeting for lunch somewhere? Or come here to eat this evening?”
Oliver shudders. He’d have to sit around the table with noisy, prattling kids, make small talk, Mel and Charlie tiptoeing around his feelings like bomb disposal experts.
He grabs a jacket, stuffs the errant laptop and lead into its bag, grabs his keys and steps out of the apartment to summon the lift. In the lobby he grunts a peremptory reply to the doorman’s greeting before exiting through the revolving glass door and down the steps to the street. Pulling his collar together tight against the blustery wind he turns left and left again rather than continuing along to Canal Street, which would be the shortest route into town. Oliver has not walked along the towpath for eight months and has no intention of going there again, ever.
Nerina haunts his thoughts as always, day and night. As he walks he tries to picture her but succeeds only in conjuring parts of his wife- her smooth, white throat as she laughed, the black curls that fell down her back, the velvet soft touch of her and her husky voice as she spoke in her accented English. How she’d mocked him, her sly, sideways look as she posed in front of their mirror before telling him she had to go out. The way she dressed, a sensuous smile as she pulled on a sheer stocking or applied glossy, red lipstick.
At the store counter he unpacks the laptop, explaining the issue with its screen. The assistant, Paula according to her badge, turns the screen to the side for him to show her the fault. But there is nothing; no vestige of the movement he’d been witnessing. Oliver frowns, feeling a heat rise to his face. Paula smiles an open, sympathetic grin.
“Don’t be embarrassed! It’s common for devices’ faults to disappear like magic as soon as customers step through the doors with them. It’s almost as if the threat of repair is enough to make them behave!” She laughs; a deep, throaty bellow that forces Oliver to stare up into her face. It is a broad, guileless face, not pretty but honest; a face accustomed to laughter. For a moment he feels his shoulders relaxing, feels the tension draining down towards his feet. He nods at Paula, stows the errant laptop in the bag and thanks her.
“Bring it back if it starts playing up again” she advises him, before turning to another customer.
Oliver feels lighter as he exits the store and heads for home. He’ll try and eat something then get on with the figures he is supposed to be producing for a company report.
In his kitchen he can think of nothing he wants to eat and opts instead for a couple of the prescription tablets, standing at the sink, pressing the tiny, white capsules from their foil wrapping and swilling them down with a mouthful of water.
At his desk he opens the laptop lid and switches on, waiting for his password prompt and taking the deep breaths he’s been coached to employ if he feels a sense of panic. As he taps in the password his palms grow damp and he wipes them on his jeans as he waits for everything to load. The desktop shortcuts appear, nothing else. He exhales and thinks of Paula’s kind, friendly face as he clicks on his work folder and scans the files for his current spreadsheet. The white screen underneath the figures is flat and stable. Oliver breathes, closing his eyes to relish the relief.
He begins to work, clicking on each cell, highlighting, deleting and replacing. Needing to refer to some previous notes he rifles through some papers in a cardboard folder beside the laptop. Sheet in hand he turns back to the screen. It is heart-stopping. Oliver feels his pulse thumping as he takes short, shallow breaths, the blood draining from his face. He stares. The outline has reappeared, more defined now, undulating but clear. It is a face; a face he knows; the pronounced cheek bones, almond-shaped eyes and full lips. Nerina. He starts as her eyes flash open, the paper dropping to the floor. Her sensual lips part in the shape of a word as the image floats on the screen. She smiles, continues to mouth the word.
Oliver has dreamed of hearing Nerina’s husky voice; has lain awake at night bathed in perspiration, longing for her but now he dreads to turn on the volume switch, fearful of listening, although he knows what it is she is saying. He should switch off. He should shut down, power off, pull the plug. He shudders, transfixed by her rippling features, strands of her curls drifting in a rectangular pool…

      Check in to Anecdotage next week for Part 2 of ‘Ripple’.

Goodbye 2017…

So how was 2017 for you? Did you achieve goals, fulfil your resolutions, make a fortune and experience satisfactory or heart-warming life events? Or were you mired in failure, misery and crashes and burns?
Most years, of course are a mixture of these experiences, both in our personal lives and out in the wider world.
In our own little bubble 2017 was mostly a great year. We had adventures, travelling first to Mexico [underwhelming], later to Italy in an extensive and audacious camper-van journey involving numerous ferries and taking in a number of different countries en route; we made our familiar late summer trip to South West France.
Then our family was expanded by a new member, an event that few could consider anything but joyous.
The negative aspects of 2017 consist mainly of those health issues which come to be such a feature of ageing and which [of we are not careful] become the mainstay of discussions between ourselves and friends of a similar age. Even Husband, who, in his typical male way likes to brush ill-health under a proverbial rug has succumbed to medical intervention. Matters of corporal dysfunction must be accepted, acted upon and then shrugged off.
In 2017 events in the world arena were disquieting. Despite progress against extremists the world became a more brooding, xenophobic and intolerant planet as global threats, hatred and prejudice jostled with polluted atmospheres, floating ocean debris and catastrophic weather events.
World problems often seem too huge to contemplate. We re-post information about beach clean-ups and re-using plastic bottles. We add our digital signatures to campaigns about famines. We make contributions to crisis funds like homelessness. And yet the problems persist, reminding us of how insignificant we all are, how helpless.
But it is always best to look forward and to be optimistic. I’ve long ago given up making resolutions, although I am determined to complete a project I began two years ago and to get it out into the public domain in some respect. I’ve high hopes for a return to my gym regime once a certain foot issue has been resolved and in the meantime we are busy planning 2018’s round of expeditions, the first of which takes place next week. We’ll be without access to internet for a couple of weeks, conditions which will certainly do us a power of good!
The next two blog posts will consist of a brand new two-part story. This is my new year gift to you, readers. If you enjoy it, please let me know in the comments [and share it with others]. If you don’t, please let me know that, too-and why. After that we will have returned and hopefully with more traveller tales! Happy New Year to all my readers, old and new!