Sunday, 15 December 2013

From the sublime to, well, modern catering

Going to the annual Christmas concert at Keble College is as much an experience as arriving and being there. Trudging the Oxford streets in the dark and damp is an extraordinary journey because despite the dark and dull of the present moment, Oxford being Oxford, you walk in expectation and anticipation of arriving somewhere quite extraordinary, often quite magical.

Christmas by Candlelight was given by one of Oxford's superb choirs, Jubilate. The city seems to exude musical richness, not least of course because many colleges have organ scholars, there is a music faculty, the cathedral is a centre of musical excellence, and a number of colleges have notable directors of music and even (Christ Church, Magdalen and New College) superlative boys' choirs fed by their own choir schools.

Keble College came out of the high church Anglican tractarian movement and the chapel exhibits characteristics which can be both absurd and magnificent. It is controversial, and that fact on its own infuriates me. People are so judgemental! The chapel towers into the sky as we would all love to do, and once inside you experience the extraordinary ambition and potential and (mediated by the giant Doom on the west wall) ambiguity of human existence. 

It's impossible to describe what you will find on entering this place. Lit with candles and nightlights, its murals aglow, it's better not to attempt it here! But thanks to Angela for the photo, taken just before the choir took their places in the chancel.

Afterwards at the Lebanese restaurant in Jericho, where we have often enjoyed excellent mezes and a surprising glass or two of Lebanese wine or beer, the scales suddenly fell from my eyes as I realised that much if not all of this food is bought in ready cooked. In fact, I did a little googling after we went to a pub in Shropshire and passed a stack of ready cooked lamb shank meals piled in cardboard boxes in the entrance. You suddenly realise that many, and almost certainly most, pubs these days buy in most of their menu in bulk from specialist suppliers. The menu at the Tite Inn in Chadlington is an example of this. The food is excellent, and I'm not complaining about the quality of many of the meals that come this way, some to be microwaved, some popped in the oven, and others to be vigorously 'boiled in the bag'. What I find hard to swallow (sorry!) is the fact that these establishments talk happily of their 'chef'. A plastic bag of frozen stew is immersed in boiling water for 25 minutes, plated with potatoes and a couple of vegetables (which may or may not have been 'prepared' in the kitchen) or a side salad, and delivered to the customer. 

I am sure, though I have yet to check this out, that most people believe there is a kitchen in the back of the pub where a chef and his team are preparing and cooking the dishes on the menu. 

Sorry, no. Google for pub or restaurant food suppliers and you will see how it works. And there are many suppliers you won't find that way, perhaps for obvious reasons. As one website explains, take over a pub or open a new restaurant or cafe and the company reps will be on your doorstep. 

Of course, establishments who buy in their food in this way can offer menus of often truly spectacular proportions. The size of the menu is really only constrained by the capacity of their freezer(s). So a pub with a very extensive and diverse menu may be working this way, especially if they don't appear to be terribly busy... Try checking round the back (if you can!) and see if there is sign or smell of a busy kitchen.

So who cooks their own food? Locally I am sure The Bull in Charlbury does, and the same goes for the Plough in Finstock and the Royal Oak in Ramsden. Do you know other places? Add your 'comment' below. 

Friday, 6 December 2013

Wines at the Coop

Two striking wine offers at the Co-op! Which? magazine has just tasted bubblies priced under £10 and top of its list is the Co-op own brand Prosecco at £9.99. We tried it on a couple of friends and we all enjoyed it greatly. I was afraid it would be rather sweet but no, just a gorgeous bubbly. The catch? It's on special offer till Christmas at a mere £5.99. Wow! And 5% off 6 or more bottles!! A real catch…

The other offer? Look in Waitrose or on their website and you'll find the IWC Bronze Award Wither Hills New Zealand sauvignon blanc going for £9.99. It's got a lovely fruity taste and a gorgeous smell (ok, aroma) and is perfectly placed for dry. The Co-op have it till Christmas at £4.99. Another wow. 

See, it's worth following this blog after all!

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Blue remembered hills

So wrote A E Housman:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

If you asked me for my blue remembered hills, they would not be the Shropshire hills of Housman, nor in fact the North Downs on the skyline of this photograph, though I wandered freely there as a child. They would be the South Downs seen across the Weald from Colley Hill, above Reigate, or from Leith Hill: a span of landscape that includes the birthplaces and workplaces of both sides of my family for centuries.

Here they are, blue and distant, behind Ben and me as we stood on Leith Hill tower (the top is just over 1000 feet above sea level, so a mountain in height!) during a great weekend away together in July 2009.

We all have our own blue remembered hills. When Dennis Potter gave the title to his television play, I assume he was thinking of the Forest of Dean. Potter reads the poem at the end of the play, and while you can watch it in seven videos uploaded on YouTube, you can cheat and jump to the last part here and enjoy his voice and his Forest of Dean accent. And reflect on the adult children in the play.

Such hills are not a cause for melancholy. We are not the happier for wanting to re-live the past. It's more a question of living the past into the future, holding a present moment that is in a creative and moving space between the two.

I love hills and mountains.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Scanning one's customers!

A couple of years ago a friend who then managed the Blackwell's flagship bookshop in Oxford told me how he had to restrain his staff when they found customers scanning books.

If you are not up to speed with such things, let me explain that what students (and others) were and are doing was not taking snaps of book covers. They use their smartphones to scan the barcodes with an Amazon app which immediately tells them the Amazon price and gives them the option of ordering a book there and then.

So anyone with a reading list can go into a bookshop, browse… and make their choice. They save money literally at the bookshop's expense.

Hence the anger of the Blackwell's staff. The practice threatens their jobs.

This is a problem all booksellers face. I haven't seen anyone actually scan a book in my shop, but I know it's happened at the Woodstock Bookshop.

Then the other day a woman came in and said she was fairly new to the area. She asked me about the shop and got quite sentimental, even emotional when I said it would close in January. She put a cheap book on the counter as if to buy it.

Then she asked me lots of detailed questions about local books. She repeated the names of titles with a concentrated frown as if committing them to memory. When I declined to accept her card for a payment under £10 and pointed out that she could withdraw the money from the post office 25 yards away at no cost, she said she would not do that and left.

You can see how my mind was working. I was certainly hoping she would not come back in the future as I really don't want this kind of customer.

Surprise surprise, though. She came back after a couple of hours and bought the book. Ho hum.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

The bookshop, internet culture, and change

I've been asked by Lynette, who edits the redoubtable quarterly magazine The Charlbury Chronicle, if I would like to write a piece for the next issue on the ending of an era at the bookshop. Of course the answer was 'yes', and I realise it gives me a chance to say thank you to all those extraordinary people I have met here who happily blur the distinction between customer and friend. Also to prod people into awareness of the problems many of their neighbours are facing as we all live in an internet-oriented society, where to be off-line can quickly make you vulnerable and disadvantaged.

Next year I want to see if other people are interested in enabling the digitally excluded to play a fuller part, and not to fall by the wayside when they become ill, elderly, or otherwise incapacitated.

Meanwhile, for the record, here's what I've written for the Chronicle:

• • • • •

As I write this at the end of October, it doesn't look as if anyone will be taking over the bookshop when I retire in January. I shall be sorry to be living in a town without a bookshop. I've been a bookseller for most of the last 45 years, but while most good things come to an end, others may start afresh! I have plenty to look forward to.

Unlike all or most other western European countries, Britain has chosen to place no restriction on the discounting of books, and together with the advent of the ebook this has made traditional 'bricks and mortar' bookshops increasingly vulnerable. As more and more people shop online, we've just been waiting for the tipping point to come. In France, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Holland and elsewhere they made different decisions. (And don't fall into the trap of just blaming the Tories.) The turnover at Evenlode Books is little more than half what it was 7 or 8 years ago, and falling year by year. We have to accept this state of affairs: as a community and as a country we have made our choice.

The eclectic and idiosyncratic stock of a 'real' bookshop is something quite special, but now increasingly hard to find. That is something you cannot replicate on a website. And if this shop closes, I urge you to transfer your allegiance to Rachel at the Woodstock Bookshop or Patrick and Polly at Jaffe and Neale in Chippy, if you travel in those directions.

On the one hand, what has particularly saddened me over the last thirteen years (I opened the shop on April Fool's Day 2000) has been the occasionally belligerent, more commonly just sadly negative attitude of some people to the internet. Proud not to be online, determined to remain aloof from the changes taking place in the world around them, as they get older these people are destined for increasing isolation and helplessness. Some are among the readers of this article. I know some octogenarians who shop online and have everything, groceries, clothing and all, delivered to their door, while their neighbours many years their junior complain of their problems accessing shops, services and information. Who will pick up the pieces?

I'd like to spend some time next year working on ways of contacting and educating our computerphobes, so they can participate in the ever-changing society most of us benefit from being part of. Are you interested in exploring the options?

By contrast, what has cheered me no end has been the extraordinary variety and number of people I have met here. I feel quite privileged as I walk to work each morning and exchange greetings with such remarkable and diverse people. Most of us speak to little more than a dozen local people at most: I get to speak to hundreds! As I look forward to my retirement, I want to say thank you to so many of you who have made working, and more recently living, in this remarkable town such an enjoyable experience.

Now to answer the questions people are asking me: yes, Christmas is business very much as usual in the shop, with the overnight delivery service on customer orders very much in place. Then, assuming no one comes forward, the bookshop will close with a big sale in mid-January. And Charlbury may lose yet another retail premises. You can keep up-to-date with any news at should circumstances change.

Looking further ahead, I'd love to keep in touch, and if you care to follow me on my blog at, I'll be very pleased to have your company and have the occasional chat and exchange of views.

Meanwhile, see you in the queue at the Co-op!

(And thanks to Sue Mynall for the lovely drawing!)

Saturday, 24 August 2013

More of a life

Having decided to retire, I can't wait for the day to come! People keep suggesting ways in which I could keep the shop going. That's very kind and some of the ideas could be very helpful. But they miss the point. I have to say to them, "I am retiring. Which of those three words do you not understand?!!"

That's a joke of course but I have to make the point that there can be — and for most people hopefully is — a time after stopping 'work' when we can fulfil some of the ambitions we had in earlier life and reflect upon and in some ways perhaps re-enact those years gone by.

I don't know whether we reincarnate and have a second life, and that seems to me to be one of those questions we simply cannot answer. I'm genuinely sorry that some people make this an article of faith, because I don't see that it's something you believe or disbelieve. Because I think it distracts them from the wonder and beauty of the life we are living here and now. So much of so-called Christianity of the past dwelt on assuring people of a wonderful afterlife as compensation for the grinding poverty they suffered at the hands of the church, the monarchy and the other landowners. The church managed to convince people that there was an intrinsic merit in poverty and suffering, because they led you to this beatific world beyond the grave. Some people still dwell on this hope. What a pity. 

I suppose that for those who sadly go through this life expecting the worst, it represents some kind of fulfilment. 

Monday, 22 July 2013

Tax and the pain of yoga

There's nothing like anxiety over tax to keep me awake at night expecting the worst. For about three months I've been waiting for HMRC to come and check my record keeping at the bookshop. The inspection took place this morning and I passed with flying colours. I shall sleep well tonight and there's an easy smile on my face as I write. 

While we waited Angela browsed a copy of a book about yoga by the master yoga teacher Iyengar. Interesting how he justifies the physical pain that is part of the yoga exercise process, on the grounds that without physical pain spiritual and mental progress are not possible. While he tells people not to overdo it, he also urges them to go as far as they possibly can. 

I find the implicit notion that there is something intrinsically good about pain a dangerous one. It reminds me of paintings of St Sebastian pierced with a score of arrows, apparently serving as an example to us all. There is a fine line between enjoying hurting yourself and enjoying hurting other people. Some people find masochism liberating. Unfortunately some people find sadism 'liberating' too. Practising yoga and deriving spiritual enlightenment from the physical extremes of that practice is one thing. Teaching others that this is a road to enlightenment for all is quite another matter. 

I see no merit in the pain and fear that tax affairs can cause me (though I can usefully examine why they do). Similarly I see no merit in moving my body in such a way as to cause me pain and I remain deeply suspicious of those who would have me do so. 

(I wrote this a few weeks ago but only just posted it. Some kind of slip up.)

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Politics of the absurd

Responses to my email announcing the probable closure of the bookshop continue to come in. So many people feel the shop to be an important and vital part of the town. 

What direction is society taking? As a species are we capable of resisting the slide towards mediocrity, or will we choose the easier option and obliterate ourselves first?

I met Janet Alty today for the first time in maybe twenty years. A seasoned Green Party campaigner from Leamington. She says how difficult it is talking politically to young people in particular now that the tipping point of climate change is some six years behind us and no foreseeable change of policy by the world's governments can stem the tide. 

We have to hope because to be without hope is hopeless, yet the die is cast for us. What a truly absurd situation to be in. You have to laugh. Crying never got anyone anywhere. 

Turns in the road

I've just sent this email to my bookshop customers...

Dear friends,

I realise that I have been sharing my thoughts on the future of the bookshop with friends recently, and as a result I'll soon be guilty of starting my own rumours.

So here is the truth, unvarnished by rumour!

Not long ago, a good day's takings here were between £150 and £200. Sometimes a lot more. Nowadays a good day can be around £50, often a lot less. There are still a number of regulars who order their books from me, but the really noticeable and substantial difference is the disappearance of that very special variety of bookshopper, the browser.

And it is the browser who makes the bookseller's life worthwhile, both financially but also because the bookseller is always selecting and stocking new books (and backlist) to catch the eye of interested browser. It is enjoyable and challenging and fun. Take away the browser and the enjoyment, the challenge and the fun disappear too.

Although in financial terms, I don't lose money sitting here, it can get very quiet at times and I wonder what is the point. And if I pay someone to stand in for me on the occasional day off or holiday, then I do actually lose money every hour they are here.

I'd like to think -- as I once did -- that one day I'd retire, and that Charlbury is the kind of place where someone else might like to take the shop over. Perhaps that is still the case, and perhaps someone will come forward. Let's see.

I shall continue to Christmas and into January, and then make a strategic withdrawal! Angela and I have a month planned in South Africa, and I'd like to spend my 70th birthday in May covering at least a part of the Camino de Santiago (Well, maybe! Dream on!). Retirement is a time to explore, to expand one's horizons, to step out.

So there you are. It is impossible to predict the future of bookshops in this country. We are the only country in Western Europe that has voted (literally) to give a free rein to Amazon in the name of competition. Neither the French nor the Germans, the Dutch nor the Spanish, the Swedes nor the Swiss have taken this route to the future, and of course it shows in other ways too. I'd imagine that at least half the independent bookshops in the UK will have closed within a year, and Waterstones will keep shedding staff until all they have got left to shed are their shops.

But it is not just Amazon. There are good reasons too why bookshops will, even should, close. Ebooks are maintained at artificially high prices yet cost almost nothing to produce and sell. Prices will tumble when publishers no longer see any point in trying to shore up the price of the printed editions -- when so few people buy the paper copies that it no longer matters. It is all a question of tipping points. Thanks to ebooks prices should tumble and books become more accessible and affordable than ever. And the elderly can change the size of the print, while the reader itself is lighter than most books... There is good news here.

OK, so Charlbury keeps its bookshop at least until the new year. If you have any thoughts on how a bookshop might continue here beyond then, or whether it is even worth considering that option, let me know. But do remember that running a shop is not something you do in theory, it's something you do in practice.

That's all for now. There will be more on my blog in good time (see link below). Meanwhile all feedback welcome...


I'll have more to say about this here soon. And I'll report on what feedback I get...

Monday, 10 June 2013

The choice to stop

Well, it's been a kind of an addiction for three years!

When you are secretary of an organisation that puts on twelve (and occasionally more) films a year plus maybe four live entertainments (though these latter have been admirably and very competently managed by Jackie), the responsibilities are in the back of your mind day in, day out — and all too often in the front of your mind too.

This evening I walked out of the ChOC film after about twenty minutes. Argo seemed to be about Americans shouting at each other, but as I could hardly read the captions (possibly due to my tired eyes) and certainly couldn't follow most of the dialogue without subtitles, I really couldn't tell for sure. Suddenly I realised: I simply did not have to be here! I'd spent two hours helping with the setting up and would be back later for 45 minutes of chair stacking, floor mopping, loo cleaning, screen dismantling (that screen is seriously hard work to put up, take down and cart around: in its case it is too heavy for one person to carry but I have to get it in and out of the car), and helping trundle the kit out to Steve's car. (There are two speakers, each in its box: I can just, but only just, carry each one on its own.) Watching a film I didn't want to see for two hours in the middle of all that just seemed unnecessary!

Talking about ChOC to friends is gradually crystallising my view. I think I'm burned out. I'm also irritated and frustrated. Which is not a good way to be, and it's no one's fault but mine. Retiring will be good for me, but good for ChOC too.

Being secretary is a particular kind of job. The buck always stops with me. Someone can't help this week? They know they are supposed to find their own replacement but no one ever does: they just email me and leave me to sort it. A publicity breakdown? That's because I've missed a deadline: remember to write monthly items for The Leaflet and the quarterly report for the Chronicle. Can we book such and such a film for September? I have to look up when is the earliest we can screen it and who holds the rights, and remember to book it once we've decided. Don't forget to buy the next DVD in time or there won't be a film show at all! Update the ChOC and Charlbury websites. Get out our monthly pre-film reminders to members. Maintain the 300-strong members' email list. Get the next posters designed and printed in time and put them up (oh yes, and laminate them.) And so on. Month after month. 

Sitting here at home while Argo plays on noisily in the Memorial Hall, I look out at the light slowly fading over the cool and now calm garden. The colours are less vibrant but no less beautiful in the less assertive light. The wind has fallen and after several gusty days the trees and their leaves have achieved a visible peace. This is more true to life than (almost) any film. I'm looking forward to walking back to the hall now and breathing in the calm and relaxing air outside. I just hope the forty-odd people in there are enjoying the film as much as I'm enjoying not being there. 

I only hear later than four other people walked out after me, and are to be offered refunds…

Saturday, 8 June 2013

European fences

I keep finding myself on the wrong side of the European fence. I ought to be pro-European and against the kind of nationalism that has led to world wars. Yet I have a certain pride in my ancestry and forbears and I enjoy some of the associations to which this leads. I enjoy my own and other people's idiosyncrasies and I believe that our (my) elected government should have full decision making authority and powers. Even when I disagree with it. Yet holding such views makes me feel an extremist.  

Last week I photographed two roads. One is wide with a heavy Tarmac surface and apparently  substantial foundations. The other is an unmade track undergoing subsidence probably because heavy winter rains are washing it away. The former road was built with EU funds. The second obviously was not. 
The trick question is, What do these two roads have in common? The answer is that neither leads to any human habitation, business or agricultural site. In other words the EU funded road serves almost no practical purpose. It does run to some kind of Greek Orthodox establishment seemingly used occasionally for outdoor celebrations and incorporating a tiny chapel that might accommodate half a dozen people. I've seen several similar places around, all empty and with no sign of recent use. Do the Orthodox here hold such sway over the government that they can have millions of EU money spent on such projects?

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Ouzo and dereliction

Sitting sipping ouzo outside the Mikro Cafe on the waterfront here. Sixties music a speciality but not to deafen, starlit sky, lights twinkling from the tavernas round the bay and on the island-hopping yachts.

This is the life.
Behind us is one of the many grey, brieze block and concrete aborted buildings on the island. In very recent years people have embarked on various building projects, from small extensions to modest homes to entire glossy and glassy hotels with incomplete electrics and still barren gardens. Money obviously ran out. The hotel sign, with its ironic name, remains unconnected.

Another abandoned block of holiday apartments lies yards away.

I think the devastated island agriculture is relevant here. Tilos' verdant beauty springs from the terraced strips that ascend every hillside to the foot of high cliff faces and rocky crags (I've mentioned them before), an enormous feat of agricultural engineering over centuries that employed and fed a large population. Nowadays, since the massive depopulation that followed WW2, virtually all the productive land here lies unused and locals prefer – or are obliged – to cater to tourism. This activity is only really getting going now after a very poor May, with empty tavernas beginning to be less common of an evening and more people coming off the ferries. By the end of September it will be getting quiet again and the resident islanders will have to live on their modest store of fat till next May. Or do what the majority do, and simply lock up and leave.

And they will continue to import almost all their fruit and veg and cheese and milk by ferry from Rhodes. Apart from honey (where the bees do most of the work!) they will have grown nothing for themselves. I'm surprised that people from elsewhere on Greece, let alone the rest of Europe, are not leaving unemployment and misery behind them to come and cultivate the derelict fields here. Or that the island itself seems not to see a future for itself outside tourism. EU money went into infrastructure such as roads (there are almost no vehicles on them) and someone funded the creation of a national park and conservation project (the explanatory leaflet cum guide in English ran out a year ago and has not been reprinted, presumably for lack of funds).

Civil servants have taken a 50% salary cut. Householders paid a 'tax' of around €300-400 to the government on their electricity bills (clever: if you didn't pay, your electricity was cut off). This was to be a one-off but I'm told its now being collected for the third year running.

There is something terribly wrong.

Litter and class

I think it was on our seventh day on Tilos that I saw my second piece of litter. It was a crushed and empty Marlboro packet. Rubbish dumped on vacant plots, yes. Street litter, no.

It would be a fag packet of course. The Greeks are Europe's heaviest smokers and smoke their way to an early death in the way that we drink our way to ours. This emerged from a conversation with an extremely thoughtful taverna/hotel owner, age 34, who has never been to the UK, studied the Cambridge certificate (?) between the ages of 6 and 16, and speaks better English than many or most Brits. 

We had a discussion about class, and without going into details, let me just say that he used the films of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to illustrate different attitudes to class found in northern England compared with London. 

He remembers the travel company Laskarina who did so much to make the quieter Greek islands accessible to British holidaymakers, and also to explain to Greek hotel and villa owners what the basic needs of a civilised Brit are when on holiday. Laskarina closed down some years ago, but our friend remembered their clients mainly for their use of the word 'splendid'. Everything, he said, was absolutely splendid. 

As others hear us!

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Flags of (in)convenience

The blue box pictured here continues the island theme. In it is a Greek flag. We are on an inter-island ferry in waters claimed by both Greece and Turkey. The (Greek) ferry flies the Greek flag in the port. A few hundred yards out to sea and it is taken down and stuffed into this box. 

An island has many boundaries. 

And from one island the next land mass may be invisible. Or culturally so. On a clear day, looking out from the harbour here at Livadia, a considerable stretch of land pretty much fills the horizon from left to right of the bay. I ask the barman which island this is. He looks puzzled and says he doesn't know. He consults his girlfriend (local born and bred with a degree in business management and the hotel owner's daughter) and they cannot come up with an answer. 

So to the Rough Guide and Google maps for a solution. And the answer is very simple. We are very close to the Turkish coast here and wherever you are, on sea or land, Turkey is often nearer than the next bit of Greece. But invisible to the local Greeks. 

But they still take their flags down rather than appear provocative. 

Friday, 31 May 2013


Well, somehow a trip to another island challenges and potentially changes so many preconceptions. True metaphorically of life in general, of course. 

So heading to Nissyros on the ferry – for an overnight stay and an early start to see the volcano before the day trippers arrived from Kos – proved something of a culture shock. Tourist tat lines the road into the port town, and you just don't see that kind of thing on Tilos! We hoped to bus up to the crater's edge village of Emborios but I found the idea of a 7.30 bus departure after no breakfast a bit too much of a good thing and we hired a car instead. €25 changed hands with no paperwork in sight, and we were off. 

And we just made it. The crater and the sulfurous plumes of smoke were truly spectacular. Equally spectacular, from our vantage point down in the 'caldera', ahead of the crowds, was the snaking line of the occupants of eight tourist buses descending the path down the crater's edge towards us:

Ironically, having gone under our own steam, rather than being restricted to the stingy 45 minutes allocated to the coach hordes to dash down and scramble back on board, we were able to venture further afield and 'discovered' a second caldera a few hundred yards away which offered a far more exciting and challenging experience, not least because out of the perhaps 300 people in the volcano, we were two of only four visitors to see and enjoy the second crater and its extraordinary colours, shapes and depths. Like a miniature Grand Canyon I guess (I've never been there).

Like Tilos, Nissyros was once densely populated, sustaining considerable populations because its hillsides were lined to extraordinary heights with fertile man-made terraces. Both islands have plenty of fresh water, and in any case the terraces clearly tended to retain what rainwater there is rather than letting it all run off. The terraced fertile strips are still there with their countless hundreds of miles of retaining walls, but the agricultural practices were abandoned in the last century mainly it seems in the fifties and the islands depopulated. Whole villages were abandoned and people emigrated en masse. But these smaller islands have a pride about them, and both the elderly residents and the new young generations of those who stayed on are working hard to make their islands capable of surviving into the future in a responsible way while appealing to more intelligent and sensitive tourists. 

Descendants of the Germans who starved many villagers to death and burned out villages where they found resistance to the occupation now come as holidaymakers to Greece and the islands and sail their yachts into these Greek harbours. 

Monday, 27 May 2013

A proud island

Well, joining the euro and being told how to run its economy has seriously damaged life here and it's obvious at every turn. 

Expensive to fly to and with taverna meals only a little cheaper on average than in pubs in the UK, though here on Tilos at least cooked to a far higher standard for the money and with better ingredients, Greece has lost a lot of its monetary competitive edge in the holiday market. 

On the other hand, book your own flights and arrange accommodation with local agents or direct with owners, and you can halve the cost of a holiday booked with a travel company. Very attractive studios for 2 with balcony and air con, sea view and simple cooking facilities are available here in May and June for 30 euros a night per room. Above is the view from our balcony: an almost private beach is just below!

At the moment, though, it's hard not to gloat when using the wifi in the bar to check the weather back home. It's wall to wall sun here with light warm breezes and temperatures around 21—24 degC. The restful and relaxed feel to the place comes partly from the fact that the 600+ islanders mostly know one another, partly from the fact that they are very proud of their island and what makes it different. They have an intelligent and imaginative mayor who has banned hunting and created nature reserves and encouraged walking while restricting new building in Livadia to two storeys. 

When the hunting ban was announced, hunters from Rhodes announced their intention to flaunt it and came over on the ferry. The islanders formed a human chain to  keep them away and they had to return. That's an island I'm proud to be staying on!

Friday, 17 May 2013

Three and a half weeks

This is going to be the longest holiday from work I've ever had! Of course going to a tiny Greek island these days (Tilos has a local population of 750) doesn't actually cut you off from much: wifi is everywhere and the mobile signal covers much of the island. Last time I was in Greece was so long ago I took a shortwave radio with me and certainly no mobile!

Surprisingly two people have told me they have been to Tilos. Small world.

Still, we've arranged with Angela's brother in South Africa to spend a month with him early next year, so that may be an even longer break. Life is becoming one long holiday. Well, let's hope so!

Walking across the fields a couple of evenings ago we looked again in vain for swallows or swifts. Will they ever make it? Will we ever hear a cuckoo? The skylarks are there aplenty. I hope they can raise their young and protect their eggs between downpours and frosts.

To the Memorial Hall this evening and a performance by the Charlbury Community Choir and Kismet. A real feel-good musical evening. Charlbury feels really warm and vibrant on occasions like this and it's as if all your friends are there. You can't believe, just for a moment, that anyone could be absent. Then you pinch yourself and realise that of the 3000 people who live here, well over 2900 will have stayed away. Such is life and such are communities.

Next morning — well, good news on the swallow front. Heard last night that they have been skimming the lakes in Cornbury since mid April. And someone has heard a cuckoo. 

Concert lived up to expectations. Lovely to be in such an upbeat and happy place.  

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

One swallow would make my summer

The lateness of this summer fills me with some foreboding. Nearly the middle of May and still no swallows, martins or swifts. And I haven't seen a bat, though I heard today that they are out nearby — or one is.

And I haven't heard a cuckoo yet either, though we've been walking far and wide locally this past week.

My worry is that if the migrants are so late arriving, they and their offspring will be as late leaving, when the weather will be changing and their food supplies dwindling so that the birds cannot fuel themselves adequately for their transcontinental flights home. They will be trapped here to die.

Not a cheery thought.

Onward and upward

A couple of weeks ago I went to a meditation in Oxford Town Hall. It was led by Sharon Salzberg, and the photo of her here is taken from her website.

Sharon is described on her website as "one of America's leading insight meditation teachers and spirituality writers". She was in Oxford between a week's teaching in Ireland, and further teaching in London from where, if I remember rightly, she was going to France. 

There were about 100 people in the hall and I'm reliably told that the average 'dana' or voluntary contribution per person would be £10, so £1000 in all. (This is given directly to her in cash: the expenses of hiring the hall, putting her up and paying her travel were met by the organisers by charging participants £20 each.)

Born in New York City in 1952 to a Jewish family, Sharon had a troubled early life (in the words of Wikipedia). Her parents divorced when she was four, and her father abandoned the family. At nine, her mother died and she went to live with her father's parents. Though her father returned when she was eleven, he soon overdosed and was subsequently hospitalized. He was soon placed in the mental health system, where he remained until his death. By 16, Sharon had lived with five different families.

At the State University of New York in 1969, Salzberg encountered Buddhism during a course in Asian philosophy. The following year, she took an independent study trip to India, and in January 1971 attended her first intensive meditation course at Bodh Gaya. After returning to the US in 1974, she began teaching vipassana (insight) meditation.

A tough start to life, and it is easy to see how Buddhism and meditation would have given her a foundation on which to build a more stable life and create a more loving environment. 'Lovingkindness' is a word that recurs frequently in what she says and writes. She has said herself that the meditation community is her family, and makes up for the broken family of her childhood and the partner and children she has not had since.

It's not entirely surprising that Sharon teaching today, age 61, looks as in the second photo here: a tad dishevelled and certainly obese. But this is quite unlike the photograph above that she puts on her website. I admit I was rather surprised, less with how she looked than with her apparent reluctance to come to terms with the changes we undergo as we get older. On the other hand, part of me is secretly pleased that a teacher and practitioner of Buddhist meditation should be vain enough to dye her hair!!

I'd like to know more about what she has learnt about her childhood traumas (if that is what they were) in her subsequent 40 years of meditation and Buddhist practice. What has the growing process been like? How has it informed her meditation practice and teaching? The Wikipedia article on her has a link to
Sharon Salzberg talks about her childhood and early life, June 2011. Unfortunately the interview, originally posted on Vimeo, was deleted in February this year, as you will see. I wonder what she said that she no longer wishes to say? The only clue to the power of that early background that I can find is on DharmaWeb: 'An early realization of the power of meditation to overcome personal suffering determined her life direction. Her teaching and writing now communicates that power to a worldwide audience of practitioners.'

Yet that first hour was as basic and introductory as it comes. Although there was a forest of hands raised when she asked who had practised meditation before, I heard nothing new and was taken to no new places. Sadly I didn't stay.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

New beginnings

Is it auspicious to begin a blog on one's birthday? In a way I'm celebrating not being 70 (yet!), because I'm uncertain how that will feel. At the same time I'm enjoying life more than ever and feeling younger than ever in all the ways that matter. Thanks, Angela! (The picture below is hers too, from a long time back.) Life is starting over, as an American would put it.

I find the first months of the year an exciting time. There is so much hope and rebirth in the air, starting right from Christmas. We forget that after midwinter the world around us is looking forward, whether it's the badgers mating and gestating underground, or the catkins swelling on the hazels, or dog's mercury peeping up beneath the hedges. We poor humans, on the other hand, just get depressed and miserable, failing to see the signs of hope and promise and dwelling on the cold, the damp, the flooding rivers, all of which we turn into bad news, but which are all essential for the success of the year and the seasons ahead.

Last evening we walked up to the Plough in Finstock for a meal. It was so good. If only other locals would give their food the thought and care that Joe devotes to his cooking in Finstock. And Martin keeps great beer and wine. There was a group of folk musicians casually playing round a table in the back bar, while we tucked into succulently tender local lamb and a superb raspberry cheesecake. It helps that it is a small pub and the two owners are very hands-on, not paying other people to cook the food and provide the ambience, but doing it (and enjoying it) themselves.

On my way in to the shop this morning I found myself chatting to someone who had been pulling up the wild garlic in his garden, treating it as a weed. His neighbour, he told me, does the same. I begged him to save the next lot for me so I can plant it out at home, and extolled the virtues of the leaves (and flowers) in salads and chopped into stews, couscous, omelettes and so on. He was unimpressed.