Arab Spring

At the risk of appearing … er … irresponsible, and being shot down by those with greater knowledge I’m minded to vent my spleen.  Right now I’m feeling guilty.  If I were  Libyan I’d feel betrayed.  Downwind of continuing debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq, and dazzled by the speed of events, the international community is transfixed by the headlights of an oncoming disaster.

Determined not to repeat the mistakes of his predecessor Barack Obama hides behind righteous UN prevarication, too afraid his legacy may be tarnished by hypocrisy to be decisive.  Along with the usual suspects, despots and dimwits to a man, China and Russia, co-authors of ‘Corrupt and Antidemocratic Regimes for Dummies’, are playing their usual mannered game of passive self-interest.  And taking advantage of this moral vacuum Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich mediaevalist monarchy, has invaded its neighbour to facilitate the crushing of a popular movement for peaceful political modernisation and liberalisation – not in our backyard…

In the UK, political capital is made by opportunist opposition politicians rubbishing failed attempts by William Hague to do more than just talk to a revolutionary Libyan leadership – I’d call that a cheap shot.  The Arabs were betrayed by the French and the British once before, and the Middle East has been paying the price ever since.  On this occasion France and Britain, though impotent, appear at least unafraid to promote justice.

The 2011 Arab Spring may have sprung too soon, nipped in the bud by a late frost of violent repression.  While the world’s good men do nothing Libya’s stage is being set for an inevitable future conflict – echoes of Iraq and the betrayed uprising following Gulf War 1 are unavoidable.

Live Every Day

Live every day as thought it's your last, and one day you'll be right.
Live every day as though it's your last, and one day you'll be right.

A stooped old woman leans on her zimmer, eyes unfocused, mouth flapping like a clockwork tortoise – I doubt she knows where she’s going or why.  From an adjacent ‘activity’ room a painfully earnest piano hammers out All Things Bright and Beautiful, the chords mixing with an odour of stale urine that manages to overpower even repeated applications of shake ‘n vac.  I wheel my mother along the carpeted corridor past an inaudible flickering television playing to an audience of unoccupied high-backed winged armchairs.  ‘Thirlmere’, room 24 – we’ve arrived.

An efficient dark-haired woman with tombstone teeth ‘assesses’ my mother.  ‘So, you’re 86 Marjorie, how many grandchildren have you got?’, ‘Where were you born?’, ‘Did you have any pets, you know, before?’, ‘Do you want to be resuscitated?’ I can see my mother is bamboozled, and not a little irritated by these enquiries.  Perhaps she is railing against the superficial interest in her well being.

Two weeks respite care is what’s planned.  My sister is with me.  It is she who found my mother after the stroke, she who moved in to look after her, she who has borne the brunt of disrupted sleep and is now on the edge of reason.  To her the care home is a lifeline, to my mother it’s death row.

We leave together passing a marooned quartet of geriatrics.  Thinning hair, thickening ankles, slumped to their sides or heads down asleep.  They’re all women, presumably men for once have done the decent thing and died a decade or so earlier.

The next day my sister calls.  She’s distraught, exasperated, angry even.  My mother wants out.  I speak to Mum.  ‘It’s full of sick folk who’ve lost their marbles.  It’s depressing.  They say it’s all very nice but it’s all top show, they cut corners.  They wanted to serve us tea in plastic beakers last night.  I said no thank you, there are some nice china cups in that cupboard I’ll have one of those.  It’s depressing.  I’ll just have to manage at home.’

I drive over to Cumbria to pick her up.  ‘Sorry she didn’t like it.’ Says the receptionist as she hands over the bill.  They’ve charged for the full week despite Mum’s stay being six nights, ‘It’s all done automatically, by computer’ I’m advised – so ‘effing what I’m thinking.  ‘Thank you.’ Mother is just pleased to be leaving.  ‘See you… er later.’ Suggests the receptionist.  ‘Oh, I don’t think so.’ Replies mother.

My sister is moving out.  It’s the right thing to do.  A full care package has been instituted; visits at 5.30am, 8.30am, 11.00am, 12.30pm, 3.30pm, 6.00pm, 8.30pm, 12.30am.

Life goes on.

PS Apple’s Steve Jobs gave an inpirational speech to Stanford graduates not too long ago – ‘How to live before you die’ – see it here –

Italy With Kids, Without Sex

An early morning amore is arrested by three small children, only partly unaware of their poor timing, leaping onto the bed like puppies. ‘They’re becoming more intense aren’t they?’ remarks my wife in one sustained exhalation.  Time to get up and at least take pleasure in smelling the Segafredo.

I light the gas and charge the pot.  A gecko patrols airside on the flyscreen, each jerky advance consuming moths still dazed and confused by last night’s lights.  Outside, splashes confirm that childish obsession with parental chastity, not flushing the lav, supporting the Chinese plastic toy industry, losing my tools and creating global entropy has now shifted towards maintaining the swimming pool as an adult-free zone.

Job Done...

My wife drags a chair into some shade and loses herself in a novel written for the blind, at least that’s what the heavily embossed cover suggests.  In the kitchen half a dozen bottles of alarmingly modest Italian wine stand reassuringly shoulder to shoulder – I can lose myself later.

This early the World Service is still audible above static whistles and clicks and with ears plugged and a thumb on the tuning knob I follow the story of a man in a shed who believes that 1936 marked the pinnacle of British endeavour.  He cites automotive manufacturing, scientific prowess, and the quality of valve radio sets to support his assertion – I don’t think he’s got a girlfriend.

I’ve just been shot in the neck by ‘the boy with the plastic air pistol’ – my time is up…

If you’re still inclined to take a family holiday in Italy, even after my recollections, a friend of mine has good quality apartments to let near Montone, Umbria – see As well as excellent olive oil and er… characterful red wine, both produced on site, Ben is happy to expound dryly on life as a foreigner in Umbria.

If you’re after something a little more modest then there’s our place

Curry Paste to Italy

Curry PasteMango chutney – twelve jars, curry paste – ten jars, HP sauce – twelve bottles, basmati rice – 25kg, mature cheddar – a box, baked beans – an entire shelf, brussels sprouts – a sack, dog wormer… don’t ask.  You’d be forgiven for thinking our next stop was a local newspaper photo call followed by a date with an orphanage in eastern Europe.  However, dog wormer excepted, the modest philanthropy of our various Red-Cross-style parcels was destined for Italy and expatriate friends still harbouring a vestigial taste for ‘Britain’.

Like many with continental holiday homes, this time of year heralds MOT runs back and forth to the UK keeping villa cars legally on the road.  In our case a Brit can’t buy a car in Italy without residency and an Italian revisione (MOT) isn’t valid on a UK registered vehicle.  If your MOT expires whilst your car is abroad insurance becomes invalid and the only legal solution is to trailer the vehicle back to Britain.  Internet expat forums are filled by dubiously imaginative solutions to this problem but the most common course of action remains a long drive home.

For Martin and I this year’s MOT Gumball was a reciprocal event.  His car was freshly MOTd and in the UK, mine was in Italy with its ticket fast approaching expiry.  We would be doing each other a favour and free from the metaphorical treacle of encumbering children and delightful though complicating spouses the task was a simple one – drive to Umbria as quickly and cheaply as possible, turn around, drive back to Leicester and Newcastle in similar fashion.

Despite the unexpected ritual suicide of three jars of Pataks whilst loading, after a quick dive into Tesco for replacements we were soon in the outside lane and up to speed.  In Martin’s left hand drive Espace, ‘Daphne’, the sat nav was doing her best to keep us right, and had laid in a course for the Alps, the Frèjus Tunnel and Italy.

Soon our thirst for miles was slaked by kilometres of rainy péage, the companionable reassurance of Radio 4 smothered beneath comic bursts of maniacal accordion music.  However, sustained by podcasts of the News Quiz and carefully selected jazz classics, at around 10 PM we were south of Reims.  Pulling off the road in Chaumont, both Martin and I eagerly tucked in to hearty repast of a shared bowl of peanuts, two beers and the winter Olympics on TV – Hotel L’Etoile D’Or really knew how to put on a welcome.

Leaving before dawn, ‘Daphne’s’ clipped consonants urged us ever southwards, and it was only when Nice began to feature with increasing frequency we noticed our Fréjus and hers were not coincident.  A sharp left turn, an extra hour, and amidst the sodium-lit subterranean gloom of the tunnel a diminutive Euro-starred flag nodded us into Piedmont.
Emerging into brilliant Alpine light, a morning of exquisite caffeine-denial was finally consummated at the counter of the first Autogrill  – queuing, paying, then ordering, due cappuccini e due panini, and that was just ‘Martino’ as he thenceforth preferred to be addressed…

Leaving the autostrada at Cesena, through darkness familiar potholes in the E45 maintained our alertness along the Upper Tiber Valley into Umbria.  As fatigue gnawed hard at our competency (which way around the roundabout?) familiar waymarks saw us through – the dormant emergency mobile kitchen – Italians have their priorities, the everlasting haystack, the empty church of Santa Maria, and atop a final precipitous stretch of strada bianca, with two flat tyres, la macchina vecchia, my venerable Subaru estate parked where I’d left it in October.

By the headlights of the Espace I rummaged for a miniature Leaning Tower of Pisa keyring, turned the ignition, and the engine thrummed into life.  Okay, so the clutch was stuck, there was an issue of pneumatic incontinence and mice had eaten both the still-valid MOT and logbook, but otherwise tutto bene.

After a morning checking over the car, a considered circuit of the local supermercato, and an evening in Umbertide appreciating wine and cuisine offered by a former mortuary, with the steering wheel on the right side the morning saw Martino and I heading north once more.

Blue skies and sharp snow-covered peaks larger by the kilometre preluded ritual last orders of cappuccini and panini before 13km of the Fréjus expectorated us into the damp grey gloom of France.  Narrowly avoiding the parsimony of another Swiss motorway vignette adding to my already brightly coloured windscreen collection, we pushed on as far as Châlons-en-Champagne.  A beer amidst the oil-rig chic of nearby La Taverne led to a second in only marginally improved ambience followed by a disorientation tour of the centre-ville.  Smuggling a fragrant bag of frites back into our hotel we surveyed the ‘deux lits monsieur’ but one coverlet.  Sleep was fitful, perhaps I was simply unused to being in close proximity to such hairy eyebrows.  Anyhow, at some point before six AM I turned over, bleary eyes finally focussing on a recumbent, fully clothed and hatted Martino.  What was his problem?

On the road again, a ten o’clock ferry taunted us as Belgium-plated saloons zipped past in fast and furious formation, and as Dunkirk grew closer we merged into the ubiquitous traffic of retreating Brits… the rest is history.

Fact Box

Stuart Collins & Co ( 01792 655 563) is a specialist insurance broker covering extended foreign use for UK registered cars.

The RAC ( via its website, provides a free European route planning service for those who prefer to eschew the siren call of ‘Daphne’ and her ilk.

Norfolk Line ( regularly offer the best value one way ferry crossings Dover to Dunkirk and vice versa.  Prices start from £17 for a car and four passengers.  Those in the north may want to consider DFDS ( overnight sailings from Newcastle to Amsterdam.

French budget hotels close to main arterial routes include, and Booking is recommended during peak times.  Advance rates from £24 per room per night.

Railsavers ( 0845 293 2715) has the solution for those who can travel June to September and prefer to let the train take the strain.  Autoslaap motorail trains run from Den Bosch on the Dutch Belgium border, within easy striking distance of Channel ports, to Livorno and Alessandria.  The cost of taking the car on the train is higher than self-driving but when fuel, accommodation, and fatigue are all factored in there’s a strong case to be made.  Early season prices start from £199 per car and from £74 per couchette.

My Gaff in Italy

It’s All Nick Clegg’s Fault

Dunroamin Chez Eric
Dunroamin Chez Eric

A long-awaited child-free few days in Malta with the girlfriend I married has turned into one night in Eric Tweddle’s caravan over in the Lakes.  Now, not that I have anything against Cumbria, but swapping a 5-star press junket for a night in a stationary tin tent located in England’s wettest county doesn’t seem the most equitable exchange.  OK I know, mustn’t grumble, at least we’re not stuck in Bangkok, Bishkek or  Ballarat – though two of those would at least have offered the sniff of a good story and taken my mind off the oncoming train of an impending tax bill.  I have to admit feeling not a little satisfied that the wind has now changed and those cod-swaggering sons and dottirs of Iceland are now ash-bound themselves – see how they like it.

However, all this aerial drama has spawned a thought.  How about amalgamating a few of the year’s Bank Holidays into  an annual no-fly week?  Advance notice and the occasional exception for emergencies would turn an uncomfortable and inconvenient drama into a celebration of our island nation.  Timed accordingly it’d give domestic tourism a boost, increase consumption of local-produce, cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, lend those Radio 4 listeners living under a flight path the chance to listen to the Archers uninterrupted and allow pilots and cabin crew the rare chance to have a few drinks and party…  In addition, consider the collective benefit to the mental and physical health of low-cost air travellers by eschewing, even for a short time, exposure to yellow and orange aircraft cabins, just saying ‘No’ to metallised ‘baggies’ of vodka, and kicking the scratchcard-eating habit – Britain  would surely be a better place.  Perhaps I should suggest Nick Clegg adds my no-fly initiative to the Lib-Dem’s election manifesto, somewhere between pledges for a rural fuel duty discount and scrapping council tax.

Anyhow, all these televised political sideshows are enough to drive a man to Dushanbe, which is exactly where I’ll be on the 6th May.

Have a good weekend.

Weblink of the week is…

Fair Lady?

Until recently my only sighting of The Lady was a glimpse of a mid-September edition which had filtered down though the mixed media detritus of our verging-on-the-out-of-control home, to reside semi-permanently on the cistern of the downstairs lav.  This was a one off voucher copy following the placing of a speculative small ad describing our Umbrian holiday apartment.  Two enquiries resulted, each spawning a flurry of email exchanges, then… in true ‘Lady‘ style our little Italy was deemed ‘not quite what we want’.

The current television ‘documentary’ following The Lady’s travails borrows from Big Brother – new editor Rachel’s big brother is Boris Johnson – all that’s missing is a hot tub and tattoos.  ‘Pfeffel!’ I hear you say, but there  are evictions – a ‘too-loud’ literary editor was the first; housemate jungle trials – rodent infestation and leaky roofs; and then public votes where, according to Rachel, circulation figures reflect the reality of  ‘a piddling magazine that nobody cares about or buys…. (er) sorry, I didn’t mean that.’

All in all, The Lady’s gaga combination of politicking, claustrophobia, and the need to keep a straight face whilst believing in the kabala of business, makes me glad I’ve chosen freelance penury – or perhaps it’s chosen me.

See new Lady Ed Rachel Johnson’s Channel 4 interview here –

Counting Holes

Any Glass, Any Car‘ say Autoglass… er… well, not a Tata Safari, Puna’s finest, and if the Indian promotional literature is to be believed ‘a premium MUV targeted at the upper strata of society.‘  However monsoon-proof Tatas purport to be, it has to said that their windscreens are not best suited to the cracking northern winter we’ve just experienced.   Thus it was that I found myself in a steady descent from the rarefied upper stratum of Northumberland heading towards Blackburn where, in between rounds of uncontrolled clog dancing, a couple of Lancashire lads were happily occupied unscrewing the oily bits from a car similar to mine – the windscreen was ‘champion’ apparently.

As usual the sat nav issued instructions on where to go, without offering a sense of where I was.  Passing signs for Samlesbury Hall, Church and C of E School, I realised this was the scene of my father’s childhood.  Here the Graf Spee ruled the sawmill pond, pram wheels came off runaway bogies and zeppelins hung in the sky – escape from a lifetime on the home farm came courtesy of Adolph Hitler – my dad never hated the Germans, he had a good war.

‘You have arrived at your destination.’ Amongst steep streets of red brick houses Blackburn was a scene from ‘the day after’.  After what I couldn’t be sure, though there was certainly a sense of being too late and of having missed it.  White youths paraded jarhead haircuts that framed faces too old for their years, uncertain Pakistani patriarchs rode similarly elderly Mercedes, and uniformed Asian kids filled the pavements by a string of halal snack bars.

Miraculously the cheery chappies from Lancashire Windscreens were expecting me, having successfully removed the ‘champion’ windscreen from the wreck, and were primed with glue to replace the existing crazed glass .  While the adhesive went off and whilst the law still allowed, I took the opportunity to have a quick pint – the Griffin – ‘grand pub, lovely inside.’

‘Psychic Night’ announced a board propped by the door,  and even without ‘the gift’ I had a premonition of what lay within… Tortured whispers strained across the bar, ‘What you ‘aving in there Al?’ It seemed that Sheffield style guru John Shuttleworth been here first, offering a range of services from feng shui to fashion makeover and elocution lessons.  ‘No, were not doing food.  Just ‘ad to make a call t’ospital.’ I made do with a packet of crisps and supped my pint of Thwaites, waiting patiently for the certainty of death along with the other afternoon regulars.

How many holes are there in Blackburn, Lancashire?  Maybe that’s the wrong question…

This post’s weblink reminds me of finding Jilted John on cassette in a field and having evicted the nest of earwigs, playing Gordon is a Moron to destruction on a friend’s state-of-the-art ‘music centre’ –