PC 23 Observations on shopping

Being a bit of a Metro Man, I went off with Celina to Waitrose the other afternoon to buy some bits and pieces for my birthday party – you know the sort of thing; wine offers, bubbly offers, cheese anyone, hummus (Oh! No! That will drop onto the carpet) still and sparkling water, cold meats and the makings of salads, as we have had some deliciously warm weather for late October. The cakes were already made.

Picked the wrong supermarket trolley, the one where one of its wheels does pirouettes completely independently of the other three, as if it is pleased to be used. The first decision to make is do you follow the store layout, fresh fruit and vegetables first and then at the far end, past the wines and spirits, the cleaning products or do it in reverse, as you want to get the heavy items, like a pack of 6 Evian water for the price of 5, into the trolley first. ….. and the salad bits on top? But then you reverse it when you unpack it at the check-out! I’m sure the supermarkets spend a fortune on researching just this sort of conundrum.

My dear mother sometimes comes to mind when I shop …… as in the days before our style of supermarkets, it was the local village shop that provided most basics. She would prepare a long list on the back of an old envelope, sit by the dial telephone, and ring Balcombe Stores – I think the number was Balcombe 258. She then dictated what she wanted, Mr Turner wrote it all down, and the next day his delivery van would arrive with a hamper or two full of the groceries. Once checked, and paid for, she then would take off all the price labels from the items, as she felt it was vulgar to show what you paid for things. But then the world’s turned full circle – I go online, no longer ‘dial-up’ but the parallel is there, find the Waitrose website, book a delivery slot, choose my items, pay ….. and the boxes arrive at my front door. And I can’t take the price stickers off because they are not there! Would I? Er! Funny life innit?

In Fleet in Hampshire, where I lived for a few years, there was the most delightful hardware store. It sold everything, its window full of boxes of fans, telephones, electric drills, security locks, fire alarms …. some so discoloured by the sun one wondered whether they had passed their sell-by date. Inside was an Aladdin’s cave of goodies for the house/home owner. But the most remarkable thing about the shop was the two white-haired old ladies who served behind the counter. Dressed in traditional brown coats, they had been there for many, many years, were probably a little dusty themselves ….. but consequently knew what the stock was and more importantly where it was. I watched with fascination; someone would come into the shop, hesitantly describe what they were looking for; some gadget, some tool, some fixture, some fitting, some screw or fastening – often they would draw a picture or produce a rusty broken piece from their pocket. “Ah! Yes!” Margaret would say, and shuffle off to the rear, put a wooden step-ladder up against the shelving, and climb to the top, showing to those of us watching out for her safety, her support stockings. Triumphant, she would reverse her journey, carrying a small cardboard box. Opening it in front of the expectant customer, unwrapping the oiled paper, she would display the item: “This is it, Sir!” ……. and sure enough it was!

Out on the waterways of England in a narrow boat some years ago, after a particularly rainy day I was drenched. Sam’s parents were joining for supper, and asked whether they could bring anything?  “A pair of dry trousers?” They arrived with a bag containing some new jeans. “How much do I owe you?” “Well, they were 25% off, so £3.00!” “£3?? It’s not possible!” Why pay £175 for a pair of designer jeans when you can get ones that do the job for £3 from Sainsburys Supermarket? They fitted! Perfect ….. and then actually I felt awful. How could a pair of trousers cost only £3. Child labour …. sweat shops ….. morally reprehensible ???? I still wear them 5 years on, and I still think we live in a crazy world.

I needed a large rug to go in our apartment …… and ‘large’ meant ‘enormous’ …. actually more than two and a half metres square. I looked locally … then looked online …….. found just what I wanted ….. ordered it, paid for it …… on a Thursday ……. and it arrived on the following Tuesday ….. air-freighted from …… Wisconsin!! Funny world, innit?

Many years ago I invested in a Gaggia coffee maker. I was reminded just how good an investment it was when our delightful neighbour admitted spending some £80 per month …. on her morning coffee at the café around the corner. Now I know that sitting in a café gives one the opportunity to people watch, and I love people watching ….. and that sitting in the comfort of one’s own home sipping a Latte or Americano isn’t the same but  ……

If I need something from John Lewis, a London-based department store, I can order it before 1600  ……… and collect it from its business partner, Waitrose’s local store, after 1400 the following day …. at no extra charge. Clever huh! My mother’s generation would have been flabbergasted

Stationed with the British Army in Germany in the 1970s, if we wanted to buy something British, we relied on an organisation called the NAAFI for our shopping. The NAAFI (Navy, Army & Air Force Institute) had large stores (hardly supermarkets!) where you would try and find it. I remember going to the Schloss Neuhaus one on a Saturday morning and, being unable to find what I wanted, ink cartridge refills for a fountain pen, went up to a member of ‘customer services’. Having described the ink cartridge and its make, the woman said “No! We don’t stock those; no demand!” And then, as she walked away, I overheard her mutter under her breath: “Funny, that’s the 5th time this week someone’s asked for that!” The irony was lost! Funny world, innit?

Space precludes sounding off about Lakeland, a shop where you buy things you never thought you needed, but I should mention a Sunday Times piece (28th October 2014) by Matt Rudd, who had been to Homebase, a ‘Do-It-Yourself’ store, to buy a lightbulb*, a pot of paint and a screw. Bamboozled by the huge variety and type of each …… he left with nothing! Funny World Innit?

Richard richardyates24@gmail.com

*“    “I wanted a screw-fit light bulb. Nothing more , nothing less. But there were 9367 screw-fit lightbulbs. Did I want 700 lumens or 1240? Did I want an eco-bulb, a very eco-bulb or a bulb that would light our bathroom? Did I want it to last 2 years, 5 years, 10 years or “up to 25 years”? The two year one cost £5, or £2.50 a year. The 25 year bulb cost £15, just 60 pence a year. Bargain. But what if we move house in seven years? Could we take the 18 year bulb with us? What if we decided to change the lighting in the bathroom in 2029? It might happen. I have no way of knowing – so I left the lightbulb section with nothing.”








PC 22 Life is uncertain, huh!

The English countryside is often defined by small villages and their Norman church, dating from the eleven or twelfth century. This particular Norman church is rather hidden behind thatched cottages in the tiny Hampshire village. Ancient carvings feature in the stonework of the arched doorway; ghosts of old paintings and fragments of the Ten Commandments are visible on the flaking plastered walls. The stone steps of the doorway have been worn away by the footfall of the faithful and they’re delightfully uneven; a beautiful alabaster monument to a long forgotten Tudor knight and his wife lies to the right of the altar. This church stands witness to both joy and sadness, to both hope and fear, to both faith and dedication, through its congregations over the centuries and, if you sit in a pew…… and pause ….. and imagine, you can hear some snippets of conversations, of sermons, of music from the little organ, of laughter and of silence. Some of those who have worshiped here lie at peace in amongst the rough grass around the solid building.

I sit on a hard wooden pew, close to where I had witnessed the marriage of her sister back in 1971. That was a joyous uplifting occasion, full of hope and happiness and the future. This is an extremely sad occasion, full of disbelief and finality; the falling rain and cold add their influence. Family and friends have come together in common grief, to acknowledge a life well lived but too short; no future. We’ve got rather used to an ever increasing life span in the Western developed world, so it’s hard to believe that at the beginning of the C20th life expectancy in the USA was a mere 49 ……  and in some parts of the world it probably still is! So now we expect to not only live longer but also live with better health. All the more shocking when someone close dies too soon; she was 60. Don’t be macho; listen to your body!

Working in a GPs’ practice must have given her huge understanding of the symptoms of heart disease; so she obviously didn’t have sense she had any, or maybe she just didn’t recognise them, didn’t think “It will happen to me.” The news reminded me of my own saga from last year! What if I hadn’t listened to my body and gone to the doctor to have the tightness in my chest checked out? I might not have had the Angiogram that found the blockage and might not have had the bypass. I might have joined the 60,000 people in the UK who have a heart attack every year, away from hospital – of whom 5% survive!! I could have been one of those 57,000 – I could have died, like my dear friend! Lucky, huh! (And do you remember, I had had a ‘Well Man Check Up’ a few weeks before and been told I had an 83% chance of not having a heart attack!)

But of course there are no guarantees in life! Educated, you keep fit, eat sensibly, drink in moderation, try to keep the weight off ……. and suddenly death comes and kicks you up the bum. A business chum, fit and healthy, died running the Humber Bridge half marathon four years ago, aged, er, 34! There are of course only two certainties in life – the event that starts it and the one that ends it. All the stuff in the middle depends on a multitude of circumstances.  One isn’t really aware of the beginning and maybe one won’t be aware of the end – so it’s all to play for in the middle!

With the certainty of life and death one can of course take a somewhat lighthearted view of this human experience.

“I think that the life cycle is all backwards.

You should die first, get it out of the way,

then you live 20 years in an old age home.

You get kicked out when you are too young,

you get a gold watch, you go to work.

You work 40 years until you are young enough

to enjoy your retirement.

You go to college, you do drugs, you do alcohol,

you party until you are ready for Public School.

You go to Public School, you go to Prep School,

you become a little kid, you play,

you have no responsibilities,

you become a little baby,

you go back into the womb,

you spend the last nine months floating,

and you finish off as a gleam in somebody’s eye.”

And then these words of Canon Henry Scott Holland rang out across the church, read by a nephew and my Godson:  “ ….. I have only slipped away into the next room. I am still what I am and you are still what you are. Whatever we were to each other that we still are. Call me by my old familiar name.  ….  All is well.”

The rain fell outside as the coffin was lowered, out of sight, into the cold ground. But our memories of her will remain, ‘gleaming in our eyes’, for many many years to come. Dwelling on the good and the happy, not the poor and sad.

Just some thoughts on this life of ours.

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

PC21 What’s going on?

We walked along the line of the surf of the crowded beach on a Sunday in September in Barra da Tijuca, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro; the sun was warm on our backs. I looked at the carefree groups of families and friends, at children playing either in the surf or with a football (this is Brazil, after all!) and at other adults, just splashing in the shallows. It was totally divorced from the obscene photograph of a black figure brandishing a knife in front of a kneeling orange-suited human that had appeared on the front page of my digital Times that morning.

I had looked at the photo of the latest British hostage, a 44 year old man with a family, with friends, with loved ones. It was so surreal. I knew from the news report that, moments after the photo was taken, he would be murdered, in cold blood, in the most barbaric and inhuman way. The British Press seem to suggest that because the killer was a British citizen, that it was somehow worse than if he had been an Iraqi, Syrian, Pakistani. Murder is murder. The photos of Iraqi prisoners of war shot in ISIS-controlled territory, simply because they belonged to a different branch of Islam, produces the same sense the outrage that every like-minded human must feel, revulsion, disgust, huge sadness. However it seems that those who carried out these murders do not feel anything but pleasure, of satisfaction that the infidel is dead.

Interconnected thoughts run through my brain, with no sense of cohesion.

Isn’t this a rerun of the Crusades, white Christians battling the ‘infidels’ (that name again!) just updated by 700 years?

Is a man being shot, and I remember a horrific photograph of a South Vietnamese Army officer firing a pistol against the head of a suspected Viet Cong, any worse than a man being beheaded? Somehow I feel it is, but it’s hardly a rational thought, balancing one way of killing someone with another. In the Middle Ages people in England were ‘hung, drawn and quartered’; how barbaric! We’ve developed, I guess, more sophisticated ways of killing people – so that’s good, is it? But actually we are repulsed by what ISIS is doing now!

In an effort to define the ‘laws for conflict’, The 1899 Hague Convention specifies “the treatment of prisoners of war, includes the provisions of the Geneva Convention of 1864 for the treatment of the wounded, and forbids the use of poisons, the killing of enemy combatants who have surrendered, the looting of a town or place, and the attack or bombardment of undefended towns or habitations.” It was often ignored in World War Two and the countries in the present conflict in the Middle East, and in particular ISIS, clearly didn’t ratify it. I wonder whether they have read it!

During The Cold War the opposing power blocks of the USA and the USSR insured, through an unthinkable alternative of a nuclear exchange, peace; the tensions remained, but there was peace. And at the end of the Cold War everyone imagined that there would be a peace dividend, that the money spent on armaments could be channelled into education and health, two basic requirements of our societies. It hasn’t happened and it seems that the whole world has become unbalanced, fault lines opening up in every continent.

Jenni Russell, in a Times’ article about the Scottish Referendum, wrote:

“Afghanistan, al-Qaeda, Islamic State, Syria, Libya, Boko Haram, Ukraine. These are not just troubling diversions on the way to a better future. They remind us that there’s nothing inevitable about the victory of enlightened values, the spread of secularism or the appeal of democracy. Raw power and brutality are flourishing ……. and we need to work out how to deal with it.” She quotes the American Jonathan Haidt who argues that “institutions such as the UN and the EU have evolved to allow us to live together without turning on anyone who is not our kin. They are barriers against chaos and won’t work if we chose to follow the narcissism of small differences and become a group of fractured squabbling nations.”

Here in Brazil, despite a great deal of internal focus with a Presidential election this coming weekend, in our C21st interconnected world where for example Brazil sends millions of chickens to McDonalds in Russia every month, one can’t ignore what’s happening elsewhere. The Pope has called the current conflicts in the world a ‘piecemeal World War Three’. Certainly the liberal values by which we live are under threat, but we have a propensity to celebrate our differences in a tragic way and forget to rejoice in the potential for our common future.

……….. The sun continues to shine, the sea continues to break on the warm sand ……. and the world of conflict seems remote  …… but my feeling of helplessness remains. Is man destined to always be in conflict with himself?

As I said, just some scribbles about what seems to be going on inside my head!

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

P.S. South America’s geographical position in relation to the other continents has, for some reason, meant it has stayed apart from global conflicts in the past, most governments maintaining a policy of non-interventionism. Pressure from the USA after 1942 meant Brazil leant towards the Allies cause, and after some of its merchant ships were sunk by German U boats, Brazil joined the Allies. In 1944 a Brazilian Division (some 25,000 men) was eventually established in Italy and saw action in the Allied forces’ drive north. Pilots of its Air Force flew combat missions in the Italian campaign whilst its navy also took action against German U boats.

And of course there was the Battle of the River Plate, off Argentina/Uruguay, when three Royal Navy cruisers cornered the German battleship Admiral Graf Spee in December 1939, three months into the war. After an hour of fighting, with damage being sustained on both sides, the Admiral Graf Spee retreated into the neutral port of Montevideo for essential repairs. The Hague Convention required the German ship to leave within 24 hours, but the British encouraged it to stay whilst they tried to gather more warships offshore. They fed disinformation about the size of this Royal Naval task force, so that the German captain, Captain Langsdorff, decided to scuttle his battleship in the shallow waters of the estuary of the River Plate, rather than face the imagined enemy offshore. Recovery of the wreck started in 2005 as it’s become a hazard to shipping!