PC 48 Did you Notice that …….!!

Do you feel the same way as I do, that so much of life is immediately in front of us but sometimes we just don’t see it? Maybe you agree with the words of WH Davies “….. we don’t have time to stand and stare.”? In PC 19 (September 2014) I wrote about a number of coincidences that I have experienced. Prompted by a new one so bizarre, I have recalled a few more!

The other weekend we drove up the motorway to north London for lunch. On our way we were passed by a Range Rover with a distinctive number plate ‘1 BNT’. Vehicle number plates in the UK currently have two letters denoting place of registration, two numbers denoting year of manufacture, and three arbitrary letters. Older formats have simple numbers and letters, or letters and numbers. Some people pay huge sums of money to purchase a particular combination that might mean something to them, and clearly this owner had done so. What it stood for I am not sure, but ‘Number One Bint’ comes to mind. For those not familiar with the slang English vernacular ‘bint’ is a derogatory term for woman, but could in this case be the exact proud opposite! Anyway, having made some guesses, we thought nothing more of it as we journeyed onwards. We were later than planned in returning …… but you can imagine our complete amazement ….. to pass the same Range Rover traveling south later that evening. Here of course, in the same time and space, but recognising it purely because of its distinctive plate! What a coincidence! What a chance!

I am struggling to get to grips with Brazilian Portuguese, and currently have the benefit of a tutor here at home. We took a break while Celina and I went off to Alaska, but I did take some homework with me; good intentions etc … we all do it!! Day Two on the ferry on the inshore coastal passage on our way to Juneau, I’m sitting on the deck in the blazing sunshine trying to concentrate on ……. “Estar is used to express location and temporary qualities, while ser is used to express more permanent characteristics. Compare está frio (it’s cold – temporarily!) with Alaska é frio (Alaska is cold – permanently!)” But hang on, it’s 80F (27C) and it’s not cold!! Funny how these stereotypes get established in the belief system. But more importantly, what a coincidence to be in Alaska and read a comment about it in a book …… about the Brazilian language!

Back in May this year I noticed that The Times carried a photograph of a house being towed on a barge ‘down river to Putney’. As the picture was taken by Tower Bridge in London, my nautical knowledge told me that Putney is upriver by convention; so I wrote to the Editor to tell him!! It was not published! Unbeknown to me, my brother, who obviously shares with me a somewhat pedantic like for the correct English, had written in to remind the nation that in the Royal Navy the convention is you serve ‘in’ a ship and not ‘on’ a ship, after The Times got it wrong. His letter was not published either!! However, both our letters were referred to in the Saturday Feedback column with Rose Wild, without Ms Wild realising we were related. Now that’s a coincidence. We had a delightful email exchange!

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Read from the third paragraph until ‘ebb tide’.

I mentioned in PC 44 that when we were in Whitehorse, Alaska, we went to the Vaudeville show. The compere had a lovely practiced way of engaging with the audience; he leaned towards the front row and asked a lady sitting there: “Where are you from?” “Portland, Oregon.” “Sorry!” he said. (Note this is an exclamation mark and not a question mark) She repeated herself: “Portland Oregon.” as anyone would. “No, I heard you the first time! Just sorry for you!” (Note: Actually he might be right! The city has a bumper sticker – “Keep Portland Weird”!) Then he asked: “Actually, where are you from, Portland being a big place?” “Albany” the woman sheepishly replied” Celina and I live on a street in Hove, just under 5000 miles away, called Albany Villas!

In the mid-1990s I spent one evening a week attending a Philosophy course at the School of Economic Science. Each week we would look at a particular topic: consciousness, mind/body/nature, beauty – for example, with a facilitator guiding the discussion, and looking at various texts and comments from writers across the centuries. The three hour session would finish with a self-centring exercise and the facilitator then closed the evening with some pertinent quotation. The quotations were from various sources, from poets and Greek philosophers, from playwrights such as Shakespeare to religious texts from the great religions of the world. One evening in early January, having just come back from a Christmas spent in Sydney Australia, I couldn’t keep my attention centred on my ‘self’ during these quiet few minutes at the end. I found my mind drifting around the world, like that DHL TV advertisement of a red tape wrapping the world. At the end of the tape was ……. Sydney, and I imagined myself walking up Darling Street, past a church. In the churchyard was one of those large advertising boards; it carried a quotation from St Matthew: “Come unto me all ye who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

I am brought back into the philosophy session with a jolt. Robin is reading that evening’s quotation: “Come unto me all ……” Now that is very, very spooky!!

Our minds generalise for us, cutting out much of what we see. For instance, we might see a tree, the mind having decided we don’t need to see the individual leaves, twigs, bark etc. So when we want to look at what is before us, we need to concentrate, to look, to observe, with every joule of our energy; the result is very enriching.

Just some scribbles for the end of the English summer.

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

PC 47 Loo Paper!

It was Mark Twain who observed that travel broadens the mind; you don’t have to go far, however, even the local streets are full of rich pickings, if you care to look! I thought my own mind fairly broad, but it’s been stretched further by our recent North America travels, experiencing other places and other cultures. So when I encountered the thinnest, no, I really mean thinnest, loo paper in my life in Seattle, I thought this could be the subject of another PC ….. although it might need a little delicate handling ….. know what I mean? And if you had a rather prudish upbringing, maybe it’s best not to read any further!!

When I refer to ‘loo’ paper I encompass all the various descriptions of the genre; ‘toilet’ paper, ‘lavatory’ paper (very old fashioned maybe) …. and now the word ‘tissue’ is common-place. In France they refer to loo paper as PQ (a contraction of ‘papier cul’- ‘cul’ meaning ‘bum’ or ‘arse’); in German it’s ‘klopapier’ and in Portuguese ‘papel higiênico’. A couple of hundred years ago you might only have had the option of using some torn grass or old newspaper, but now the options are endless. The manufacturers of the ubiquitous ‘Wipes’, available for every cleaning job, have even developed the ‘toilet wipe’, which is ‘flushable’. Oh! Joy!

Back in the days of a less sensitive nation, in Britain there was ‘Jeyes Toilet Tissue’. Jeyes is now synonymous with cleaning products that get around the U-Bend but back then …. here was a cardboard pack of folded sheets of hard paper. The paper was a light brown in colour. It was neither absorbent nor comfortable; fortunately we have moved on. All loo paper used to be white, then coloured bathroom suites came into vogue and the manufacturers made a fortune in making loo paper that matched the various colours on offer – Avocardo, Peach etc. And we all know Andrex’s playful little puppy …… to advertise loo paper! I’m sorry, I simply do not see the connection here; what is the association between a sweet, soft, cuddly, youngster, having fun …. and wiping your bum?

If you worked for Her Majesty, as I did during my time in the British Army, we had ‘Government Issue’ loo paper; like the Jeyes stuff, but on every sheet it said ‘Government Issue’! If you were not a fan of a particular Government, the joke was obvious! And the ration that came in the ‘field pack’ had three small sheets per day; the common thought was ‘one up, one down, one polish’!

In Waitrose, an upmarket British supermarket, you can buy ‘Bathroom Tissue’ scented/coated in Aloe Vera, Jojoba or Cashmere. Do you sniff it before you use it, or do you really appreciate the difference in texture ……. by touching it? The mind boggles! In Yukon Territories, Canada, in a small place called Carmacks, a tourist emporium had a stack of loo paper wrapped as ‘Up North Toilet Paper’!?

The large, round container with a commercial-sized roll means less checking for cleaning staff , but have you ever found that the ‘free’ end is somewhere inside, almost stuck to the whole roll, and getting the free end usable takes forever? The ‘Seattle’ loo paper I think was designed for two (or more?) uses. The first is obvious, but the second? Well, it could easily have been used for tracing paper, it was so thin. And actually very difficult to take off the roll if the end was not obvious; a little like cling film/kitchen wrap when the effing end is completely invisible/undiscoverable!

One of the loos I use regularly (no pun intended!) is in our Bikram Studio complex. The overhead light is motion-activated (I’m sorry, this is just the way it comes to mind) which is fine unless you sit for longer than the timer allows – and the light goes off ….. and stays off until your flailing arms get noticed. In the Riverside Cottages we stayed in in Fairbanks, Alaska, they went one better, or worse! The shower/loo room had a timer for both light and extractor fan, and was customer-operated before you went in and locked the door. Well, here’s a conundrum. How long do you set it for before you enter? Get it wrong and you might end up in the dark, with your knickers around your ankles and …….

Bikram Yoga is practised in a studio where at least two walls have floor to ceiling mirrors. That’s fine, as part of the practice is to observed one’s half-hearted attempts to get into a certain posture; ‘must do better’, the voice in my head is often shouting! But in Brazil I encountered a mirrored wall …. in the loo! Aaaggghhhhh! The first time I used it, I was only wearing my Bikram shorts, ready for the session that would started shortly. After a minute or so sitting down, I suddenly looked to the right and ……. saw ……. well, Rodin’s Thinker is good to contemplate …… this sight was not! It sure hurried up my visit.

Recently I went into a loo, a rather narrow little room, sat down, did what I wanted to do, and then looked for the loo paper. After about 30 seconds, I located the roll, behind my shoulder. I almost dislocated said shoulder in trying to release a few sheets of paper; should I put my arm under my shoulder or above? Eventually the only way was to physically swivel on the loo seat through about 160°.

I don’t think we British have really got into using a Bidet, but I can understand its raison d’être! In an imagined nightmare scenario, you use the bidet ….. and look for a towel. There isn’t one! OK! There are probably some paper towels somewhere ….. but then you realise that in the C21st paper towels have been replaced by a Dyson Hot Air drier, fixed up on the wall. Success in the subsequent physical gymnastics required might guarantee you a place in the 2016 Olympics!!

Very mundane musings for a summer afternoon!

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

PC 46 A Tale of Three Cities

Sandwiched either side of our trip to Alaska in June, we visited three cities in North America; Seattle, Vancouver and San Francisco, all part of great grandfather George’s travels. I know there are many of you who will know these cities intimately, some of you living there as I write, but I thought I could just record my own observations.

I think Seattle, up there in the top left corner of Washington State, is unknown to most Europeans – or perhaps that’s the way those that live here want it to be. It’s simply gorgeous, a city astride sea inlets and overshadowed by a huge mountain, Mount Rainier. I say ‘overshadowed’ but this is not strictly true as the highest mountain of the Cascade Range lies some 60 miles to the south; the snow-caped peak of this active volcano is clearly visible from the city – providing it’s not raining, and apparently it rains a lot in Seattle!

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Mount Rainier

Seattle is the home of large American corporations such as Boeing, of Microsoft, of Starbucks …….. and of Nordstrom. Who? Nordstrom! Founded in 1901 by Swede John Nordstrom, it’s told that Swedish immigrants in America found it difficult to buy shoes big enough; maybe you didn’t know that they have big feet? Nordstrom started as a shoe shop but now has over 300 department stores in 38 states in the USA. It has an enviable reputation for exceptional customer service.

All waterfront cities offer their inhabitants the option to commute to work by boat and Seattle is no exception; ferries crisscross the harbour and even connect with Victoria, on the south end of Vancouver Island in Canada. On Puget Sound, Seattle’s surrounded by islands, evergreen forests and to the west the enormous Olympus National Park. It rains a lot in Seattle but they make good coffee; I have a T shirt from Seattle: “When it rains, we pour!” (Ho! Ho!) We were extremely lucky and had hot, dry sunny weather. Near the city waterfront is Pike’s Place Market, a jumble of little stalls and shops over three floors, and a magnet for tourists. On the street level there’s a fish stall where staff physically throw huge salmon between them, and rig fish with wires so that, when tweeked, they appear alive, much to the horror, and amusement, of the watching crowds.

I have cousins in Vancouver who are descendants of great grandfather George’s brother Arthur, so we could not visit Alaska without dropping in here. A flight from Anchorage took us to Vancouver, and a short ride on the Skytrain dropped us close to our hotel on the harbour. Vancouver is a bustling coastal city of some 600,000 people of every colour and creed; there is a young vibrant feel about the place. Five years ago it hosted the Winter Olympics, and its location, surrounded by sea and mountains, invites outdoor pursuits of every variety. After a lovely catch-up over dinner, a 90 minute ferry ride the following morning took us to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, home to a first cousin whom I had not seen for 40 years or so!

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It was here I saw for the first time George’s original ‘My Darling Eva’ letters; my photocopies do not do justice to this wonderful personal treasure trove of local news, thoughts, feelings, worries and inquisitive questions about his family back in London. I forgave my hand for shaking slightly as I held these family heirlooms from over 100 years ago.

Vancouver Island is an absolute delight; it’s ‘Chill Out’ Island – with kayaking, sailing, flying, trekking, yoga (even Bikram!) and the like – but little swimming as the water is just too cold. We flew back to Vancouver after two nights by float plane; what a way to travel!

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The historic octagonal Hudson’s Bay Company Fort, the Nanaimo Bastion, dating from 1854

George had lived in Reno, Nevada and in San Francisco from 1880 for at least a decade, working in the gold mines and sharing with Eva the joy of having their three children born here. When we were in the Pantanal in Brazil last year, we met a delightful American couple who said: “Do drop in if you’re passing San Francisco!” (as if!!) When we looked at some maps San Francisco seemed quite close to Vancouver; and I had a first cousin (once removed) living here …… so it seemed a good idea to tack onto this Alaskan trip another city connected with George, San Francisco.

We stayed downtown, and on the first morning hired bikes and rode out over a fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. We were not alone (!) and it’s the only place I have been where they have a huge carpark …… for bicycles! A light lunch and we were back on a bike-friendly ferry to the city. Some shopping and then dinner with my relative; interesting to learn of the opportunities of internet-savvy businessmen in this city. The following morning, up the hill, down the hill ….. to Fisherman’s Wharf, which was the jumping off point for the tour of Alcatraz, the notorious historic prison sitting on an island in the bay. Strange to stroll around a complex that once housed some of America’s most hardened criminals from 1934-1963, and was now a major tourist attraction. Remember the films, ‘The Birdman of Alcatraz’, ‘The Rock’ and ‘Escape from Alcatraz’? Well, the birdman was a psycho who had no birds in the prison …… and no one escaped and remained alive.

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A fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge

We met our ‘Pantanal’ chums, had some lunch, drifted about Telegraph Hill, admiring the stunning views in all directions, and then drove inland to where they lived, a quaint little place called ‘Alamo’, (See PS below) about 30 miles east of San Francisco, near Walnut Creek. So nice to see where others live, away from a tourist city. After dinner we caught the Bay Area Rapid Transit back into the city centre and prepared for our flight back to the UK the following day.

So there you have it, memories of people, places and things from this summer; mere scribbles you might say.

Richard Yates – richaryates24@gmail.com

P.S. As a young boy I read about The Alamo, of Davey Crocket with his Racoon-skin hat and Jim Bowie with his knife; they were our comic book folk heroes, even if we weren’t American! In fact The Battle of The Alamo, a fort in the city of San Antonio, was between rebellious Texans and the Mexican Army. Fought in March 1836, all the 200 defenders of the fort were killed within 2 hours.