Sunday, October 26, 2008

Of Bridges and Baths

We have been walking in the country today. There is, just a few miles north of here, a 19thC iron railway bridge, which crosses what is left of the river (which isn't very much; most of the time you can cross without getting your feet wet). When the high speed line was built in 1992 the route was straightened, leaving part of the track dead, including this bridge, which was in any case incapable of taking the new trains and only had one line crossing it. I have always found railway lines fascinating. I trace then on maps, I follow them on Google Earth, I track them through countryside and then across towns, diving down alleyways or sneaking through gardens to reach them and see exactly how the space they occupy is cut out of the houses. There are areas where they cross each other, slide under or over streets, or form enclosed spaces where one can be completely surrounded by railway lines. (Why this should be interesting I couldn't say, I just like the feel of such places).

They seem to connect places in ways that roads don't. And there is a haunting feel about old lines, or the traces they have left when the tracks are removed, or the disused stations, or the old bridges. They are a reminder of a time long gone when people moved at high speed, through a spot you can now stand on calmly, on an infrastructure that is decayed, rusting, or simple not there.

I have always liked this bridge. It has a simple elegance, without being magnificent. I have a painting of it on my wall, done by my wife years ago. The views are attractive, and today was warm and sunny.

Nearby are the remains, apparently still usable, of old Roman baths. They are known as some combination of the Manantiales/Hervideros/Baños de Trujillo/Emperador, and two sinks remain, in which it is, they say, possible to dangle the feet or immerse the body in smelly, sulphurous mud. This is undoubtedly good for the body and soul, since there can be no other reason for doing it. I speak from hearsay as we have never actually reached that exact spot, for motives which are neither relevant not interesting. We intend to do so one day.

I mentioned the river. The Guadiana is dammed just a few miles downstream, making a reservoir used for irrigation, and also for fishing and occasionally swimming and boating. It is a beautiful body of water on a summer's day and you can watch varieties of duck and members of the heron family do the things that waterfowl do on fine days. Despite the dam and the body of water behind it by the time it reaches the bridge it is little more than a series of pools, although it does grow at times.

The new(ish) line and trains are fast, reliable, fairly comfortable and have a certain style, but what we have gained on these things we have lost on the bridges. The improvements in baths, I should say, are unqualifiedly good.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Home schooling

This article was published in El País two days ago. In Spain there is no recent concept of home schooling. The idea of children being educated other than under the control of the state, even if it is not directly by the state, in state schools, is hard for most people to understand. It simply isn't thought about. And this newspaper, and most of the popular press in this country, is broadly left wing. It is a serious newspaper, and it is true that the paper itself does not comment directly, except in the title, but the slant of the quotes is very clear. Stripped of the anti-Americanism, which is implicit only, and the socialist ideology, which is explicit, and the blinkers, which all papers have, we are left with the quotes, which are what I find interesting.

"Se trata de que coincidan edades distintas, culturas diferentes, gente con discapacidad, de otros países..., eso sólo lo puede dar la escuela", según Miguel Recio, ex miembro del Consejo Escolar del Estado. This Miguel Recio, who has been on the national school board, seems to think that the purpose of school is to expose children to immigrants and the disabled. I recognise the importance of a knowledge of the world and an understanding of those who are different, indeed things best learned in childhood, but they are certainly not the reason that people pay taxes for schools.

"La institución escolar contribuye a que los estudiantes aprendan a vivir juntos, a respetarse, a ser solidarios, a construir sus propios valores mediante la reflexión y el encuentro con los valores de los otros. La educación en casa tiene el serio riesgo de perder esa posibilidad enriquecedora", añade Álvaro Marchesi, catedrático de Psicología Evolutiva y Educación y ex secretario de Estado. Why does a Professor of Educational Psychology imagine that only by being lumped together in a school can a child be exposed to a variety of ideas, learn to live with others, and interpret his own values by contrast with those of others? And why does he think that this is what matters?

"No es lo mismo saber que saber enseñar, ningún padre tiene derecho a dar una asignatura de manera parcial a su hijo", añade Arturo Canalda, Defensor del Menor de la Comunidad de Madrid. This quote is from the 'children's ombudsman' of Madrid, a perfectly respectable position, but a political appointment, and held by a man who seems not to have thought about what he has said (I know nothing more about him.) What he seems to say, and I do not necessarily believe what I am told, even by journalists, of whatever persuasion (one day I shall speak of journalists)- What he seems to say is that parents have no right to express their opinions in front of their children. That is a very disturbing idea.

I have been a teacher, among other things, for twenty years. I have no children, but if I had I would not send them to a school. I know state schools and private schools in two countries and I do not like what I have seen. Most schools have an ideology they wish to share which goes far beyond the sharing of knowledge. State schools have an ideology defined by the state. It may or may not be noisome. The details of the state eduaction system in Spain, and the philosophy behind it, happens to be something I know a lot about- I have written books about it- but I am not interested in doing politics here. I want to know what people think about education- whether it is something that the state must do for those who cannot do it for themselves or pay others to do it, or a right of the state to determine what children are taught and how.

I should imagine I have not hidden my own opinions very well, but, I repeat, I am not trying to express a conventional political opinion. I want to know why education is a right, rather than a duty, of the state

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Life of Ortigosa

We have just returned from Ortigosa. A weekend only, but enough to remember what the memory lets slip into the penumbra. That includes most of what matters, most of what gives life to a place, and what made those memories worth having in the first place. Here it the life that is to be remembered. Listed is a better word, since that is all that can be done here. But I can at least give an idea of what is there, and why it is worth seeing and feeling. And trying to remember.

Looking up it is the trees that take the eye. Most are holm oaks (Quercus ilex), thousands of them, covering the hills, dotting the fields, too, making the ploughing and the harvesting a bit more difficult. Their leaves are a dry green, like olives. Among the holm oaks are English oaks (Quercus robur), rather shorter, less majestic and with reduced foliage- you couldn't build a legend of dominion on these trees- and Savin junipers (Juniperus sabina), which are a much fresher green and a pleasant aroma. The study is panelled in savin wood, and after all these years it is still perfumed. Among the scrub are many Quercus coccifera, bright green also, and Quercus faginea, dull green again, and at the level of the ground there is in many areas a lot of rosemary- harvested from time to time to be burnt for the making of essential oils, there are two distilleries near the town- and other low herbs, thyme, sage, wormwood and so on at a length I cannot possibly do justice to. only the rosemary gives real colour, and that only briefly in spring, but the many shades of green against the many shades of red and brown of the earth, and the sprkling pale blue of the sky, give a sense of variety, more than you think natural in that place. It should be duller, more uniform. But there are vinyards close by, and a well tended vine is a fresh green, too.

In the sown areas the colour is mostly the yellow of wheat and barley, but now there are only stalks, sparsely populating the ground like the newly cut hair of young boys or old men.

More tomorrow.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


There are a number of phrases and expressions which seem to be used rather more frequently than their meaning or usefulness would require. In fact there are thousands, and lots of people complain about it very vehemently. Others keep lists of extraordinary length, mostly repeating each other and contributing little to the discussion. The list I offer here is short, does not, I hope, contain any chestnuts, and is confined to expressions I have seen recently and repeatedly used to hide the fact that the writer doesn't know exactly what he means or can't be bothered to think about it more fully.

Tipping point

Tinkering at the margins

Slippery slope

Perfect storm

Chilling effect

Double whammy


Wiggle room

Credit crunch

(term of art)



(least worst)

(singing from the same hymn sheet)

Any remarks on this list would be very welcome. I'm afraid I haven't kept the original contexts.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Tom T. Hall

"We never noticed when Wall Street fell,
So damned poor we couldn't even tell"

I think it was Tom T. Hall who said it in 'Song of the South.' I speak from memory. I shan't be addressing the current economic crisis. I know there is one because people keep telling me about it. Some of them even seem capable of explaining some aspects of it. Good luck to them. I don't think I shall try.

Purpose and Reason

I came across this the other day. I forget how I got there. It is worth reading them all. Most of them are cogently, simply and intelligently argued. It is not easy to find thought that is so obviously worth expressing. Most of them are also discreetly human. You feel you could actually learn from them. It is rare to feel peopel think.

Our reason is imperfect. We fondly imagine that the ability to make connections and to examine them, to conceive new things and relate them to old things, is the upper limit of intelligence, and that the most intelligent of us can do it perfectly. This is false, and for a very obvious reason. (God might have made our reason imperfect so that we are just capable of blind faith, but remove God and you merely have a faculty which has developed in a certain way to a certain point and no further.) We can no more reason absolutely than birds can fly absolutely. Or than we can see absolutely. We perceive and discriminate a very small part of the electromagnetic spectrum, and even if we could perceive and understand the images of all of it there are other forms of radiation, and other forms of interaction, totally different. If we could ‘see’ alpha and beta radiation, if we could obtain information from neutrinos, gravitons, or gluons would we then have perfect vision? Or would we need to process it all in a different way as well?

Imagine walking down a street. We know that there is something ahead of us because our reason (in the basic form of ‘memory’ at least) tells us this is so. If we stop walking we are no longer aware even of that. While we move, most of us can dimly perceive the next flagstone, but no more. The greatest minds among us can conceive the existence of streets leading off it and can imagine how they might be. That is our supposedly perfect reason; no further dimensions, no notion of what is not like what we have seen, nothing beyond a very small surface, not even the conception that it might exist. We cannot conceive what greater intelligence might mean in practice. One day it may exist on earth, and it will be unlike anything we can imagine.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Tate's Bird

It's too late to write what I was thinking about, so here's something silly I knocked out a few years ago:

Harry Tate was dead morose
‘Cos ‘is bird was adipose.
He said it like he didn’t care,
But we all knew of ‘is despair.
He told ‘er, ‘Lass, you’ve got to slim,
You’ve got to work and get in trim.’
And she said like she’d find a diet,
Buy the book and maybe try it,
But ‘er ‘eart it said what problem’s ‘is?
Don’t ‘e love me like I is?
She cut out sweets and starchy foods,
But Harry said it gave ‘er moods.
She tried to live on veg and fruit
‘Cos she’d heard there were nothing to’t.
They was wrong, she had to stop,
She tried to eat the cotton crop.
So down the gym to work with weight-
No worries ‘bout what’s on her plate-
Just every night a little more
Of pumpin’ iron and poundin’ floor.
The fat came off like meltin’ snow
That tummy was the first to go
And Harry said, dear ‘eart, it’s true,
I love you more the less of you.
She kept on trainin’, ‘tweren´t no hastle
Till all the fat had turned to muscle
And she could take an iron band
And rip it up with just one hand.
Got herself a job, she did,
Payin’ her a good few quid,
But Harry Tate ‘e’s dead irate
‘Cos ‘is bird’s a brickie’s mate.

If it's going to work at all it needs a Scouse accent, I think.

Tomorrow, the purpose of the universe.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


A few months ago my wife decided she wanted a hedgehog, having fallen in love with one she saw in a pet shop. So, naturally, we bought a hedgehog. A prickly creature, but a friendly character. Rather nervous, and it moves like a clockwork train, pattering briskly along on feet that seem to twinkle.

This is not the European hedgehog, Erinaceus europaeus, but the much smaller domesticated cross of two species of Atelerix. He runs around the house all night, then at dawn curls up somewhere quiet and warm and sleeps soundly all day. Clearly an animal that is not concerned with the more complex material of existence. This summer he left the farmhouse free of spiders, ants, and beetles, but in town, in a flat, he is, I am sure, disappointed that his nightly ramblings give up nothing more than meal pellets and the occasional bit of cat food. (We tried letting crickets loose around the house, but while he enjoyed it, we didn't; until he had found the last one they screeched all night, and it took him a few days.)

Has anyone tried other foods? What else might he like as a treat? How can we help him to greater success in his search for a varied diet, and his battle with the living world? I should like to have a happy hedgehog in the home.

These are not Random Thoughts

I don't know what the purpose of this blog is. Not just to offer a few random thoughts. Not to try to comment on great events of the moment, most of which I don't understand. Not to persuade the world of a truth that only I have been able to see. Not to swear at people I dislike. Not to believe the whole world is reading what I write. They are all good reasons for writing a blog, and I may do all of them from time to time, but they are not, I think, the point.

They are some ideas, observations, aperçus, discoveries, verbal felicities and absurdities which it seems a pity not to share with random individuals. They might enjoy them. Better still, they might remark on them and make them more than you realized they were.

So I shall probably place here old and new things which I would like to hear someone's reaction to; old and new writings, odd paragraphs, short stories, essays on various subjects (it's the easiest way to publish, and you don't get rejection slips) things I have been surprised or delighted to discover, and anything else I hope someone, somewhere, might like to know.

To start, I offer the following (because I needed a starting point, and I'm in a hurry): I have an actress friend who speaks of the importance of being oneself. I'm not sure that people who say that know what they mean by it, but assuming she does, does she realize that most people aren't anything in particular, and many of the rest are something you wish they weren't? And that 'being oneself' doesn't put food on your plate?

If you have stumbled across this blog, you probably hoped for something better. But if you stay just long enough to comment, you may inspire me.