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The Gift

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Anthony Trollope: Power, Land, and Society 1847 - 1980

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Thursday, 28 June 2018

Reykjavik here we come!








Friends know I have always wanted to go to sea. My dad was a Chief Officer in the Merchant navy and as a child I wanted to follow his footsteps . . . as a ship’s cook. Life took a different turn but the initial desire remained unchanged. I had reservations about ‘cruising’ – some of which were confirmed, but being now too old to cut the mustard in a ship’s galley it seemed the only way to get the sea out of my system. My dad was on the Atlantic convoys and did the Murmansk run during World War II, so going to Iceland was in a sense a pilgrimage too.

We chose Fred Olsen because ‘The Black Watch’ was a smallish ship with the bonus of starting from and returning to Liverpool. But what was it like? The demographic was a bit on the old side. Walking through the various lounges after or before lunch was – on occasions - like walking through a care home, and many of those sitting there looked like they didn’t have long to go before they were in one for real. An insensitive statement, also a melancholy one since we're all heading in the same direction. It’s a one-dimensional statement too. 

One of the great pleasures, I discovered was talking to random strangers. Some were peculiar or boring as hell. Most were fascinating with stories to match, and suddenly age ceased to matter. Having said that, there were an alarming number of ‘Fred Olsen’ obsessives. It would begin with an innocent question: Was this our first cruise? And then you’d catch the missionary glint and within moments you’d hear how wonderful ‘Fred’ was. How this was their ninth or tenth cruise with ‘Fred.’ After a time I had this image of ‘Fred’ as Nordic Colonel Sanders figure, avuncular and benign. I think they probably prayed to him at night.*

Even so, in terms of drawbacks, age wasn’t really a factor, and there was more than a sprinkling of younger people with curious minds.

When we talked about it afterwards, the main reservation proved to be the ‘lack of control.’ The cruise was hassle free with none of the stress of airport travel and nothing at all to worry about, and the Filipino waiters and staff were beyond criticism. They worked twelve-hour shifts at peak efficiency and radiated charm and good humour throughout. Unbelievable.

 For the younger ones, it was a way of seeing the world with full board and lodgings, and a tax-free wage they could save or send home. Our waiter was supporting three sons studying computer science, dentistry and medicine, his greatest lament being he only saw them three months a year.

And that in itself was a source of guilt. We’d paid a large sum in advance —one meant to cover all our tips—and yet it didn’t seem large enough. The other source of guilt, which is strange coming from a Catholic, was the relentless consumption of food and drink.

 We were always eating, always drinking. Why? Because we’d spent (for us) a king’s ransom on merely being there, as well as on an extra £200 all-inclusive drinks’ package. (You’ll be relieved to know I made £75. 50 profit on that one, though it was hard work and my liver needs time to recover.)

As for the food – huge breakfasts of incredible variety, mid morning tea and biscuits, three course lunches, full mid-afternoon teas with every kind of cake, three course dinners – and for the truly Falstaffian, late night supper buffets ranging from German sausages to Indian curries.
The chart below is a breakdown of the food consumed though, unfortunately, it doesn’t indicate whether it is a daily breakdown or the totality of the 10 day cruise. Either way it confirmed my youthful decision not to follow a career in catering.  Too much hard work.


Right, Iceland next week but as a taster the ship berthed at Akureyri – unbelievably Iceland’s largest town after Reykjavik



(The real Fredis fascinating)


Thursday, 14 June 2018

Fruit flies don't procrastinate


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Writers procrastinate. When I find myself cleaning the toilets, I know I’m in trouble. Recent procrastination has been more pleasant but equally pernicious. I’ve been reading about fruit flies and sex in the undergrowth. I can’t even say it was in the interests of research, but it might come in useful one day.

Next time you hear a fly buzz, you may decide to pause before swatting. The fruit fly buzzes to mate. It attracts the female and makes her . . . receptive, which is a nice way of putting it.

 As I  read on, I became equally intrigued by the minds of those doing the studying. Do we need to know that the fruit fly indulges in foreplay, licking its mate’s genitalia or that at this very moment, scientists are trying to pinpoint which part of the fly’s brain or ‘reward centres’ are turned on by certain sexual acts? Worse, there are scientists encouraging orgasms in flies. They have created sex clubs for them, where masturbation is encouraged. It all sounds very dry but not presumably for the fly.

It’s a process called optogenetics. This modifies an insect so that specific neurons can be activated using light. Neurons involved in ejaculation can be activated by using red light, which the insect cannot see. Given the choice between a neutral zone and the red light district, it is a no brainer even for a fruit fly. The fear was that once in the red zone, they wouldn’t be able to stop. It didn’t seem to bother flies, however, most staying seven minutes or longer. As one of the scientists said, ‘The flies preferred to self administer and be in the activation zone.’ Who’d a thunk?

Mind you, it’s not all ‘self administering.’  Insects have their darker side, too. I’d never regarded bees as male chauvinists before——insects in general for that matter—not until I read about ‘mating plugs.’ These ensure that after mating, the female is prevented from re-mating; a retrospective chastity belt if you will. Fruit flies, bless them, use toxic seminal fluid guaranteed to put off those who come after. The human male is governed by much the same urge to procreate, but his instinct remains more generous than that of the insect.


Friday, 8 June 2018

I had my eyes on Mouldy Mabel




Napoleon said an army marches on its stomach. I perambulated Abergavenny on mine. It started innocently enough. My wife asked me whether I was hungry. I hadn’t especially thought of it until the question was asked, but with the thought came hunger. My stomach reacts to prompts like that like a small dog eager for scraps. If it had a tail it would wag every time we passed a pie shop.
On this occasion, we were walking past the Angel Bakery. 




The smell was irresistible and my stomach growled. And then it spoke, using my mouth as its own. “If we buy freshly baked bread we need cheese.”
So off we went through some interesting side streets in search of a cheese shop. We could have gone to a supermarket, Tescos or Sainsburys, but we were buying artisan bread, and my stomach was adamant. It had to be artisan cheese.
And then we found it. And what cheeses there were! The vendor welcomed us with a smile. My dog smiled back unnoticed. We talked cheeses, me studying the Welsh Cheese map behind him. 



Occasionally he left us browsing as customers drifted in and out buying mysterious, over-priced condiments, slivers of ham, and very small pots of jam. Eventually we decided, a 100g each of  Caerphilly, Little Hereford, and Rhydydelyn. The price shocked me £13. The dog was ecstatic. My wife less so, but I was already eying up ‘Mouldy Mabel’ and ‘Rachel’.