Friday, June 28, 2013

Demographics of the day

The Japanese government estimates that the population is shrinking to the extent that today's infrastructure, built to service 128m people, will be used by only 43m in 2110. Unless there is a major change in the birth rate or to immigration laws, the size of the population in 2110 will be the same as it was in 1895, with one in four people being over 65 and under 10% under 15.
Compare that with India whose the workforce is on track to grow by 140m between 2000 and 2020. That increase is the equivalent of the combined workforces of the UK, Germany, France and Italy. Jim O'Neill reckons that with growth of 6% per year, India's economy could be 40 times larger in 2050 than it was in 2000. Nevertheless, India has many problems to address. Corruption is endemic, delaying badly needed improvements to infrastructure. Education needs investment. A large number of children get little or no schooling. It has only one university in the top 500 in the world. According to its share of global GDP, it should have 10. To feed its growing population, it needs to modernise its farming methods. It must also take steps to safeguard the environment (look at the mess China's got into after such a period of strong growth).

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Who's funeral is it anyway?

A glass carriage led by two gleaming black horses, black manes flowing, with a smart heraldic cross over their backs, stood outside the south door of Winchester Cathedral. It was clearly an important funeral.
The next day, I asked one of the cathedral staff whose funeral it had been.
"Nobody's!" was the reply. "It was a photo shoot for a funeral company. In fact, it caused quite a stir because some tourists were taking photographs and were really shocked when a white van drew up behind the carriage and the driver shoved  in the coffin. They thought it was very disrespectful and had to be told that the coffin was in fact empty!"

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Travels with my Aunt

I saw Giles Havergal's adaptation of  Graham Greene's Travels with my Aunt at the Meunier Chocolate Factory. All roles were brilliantly acted by four middle aged men: Jonathan Hyde, David Bamber, Iain Mitchell and Gregory Gudgeon, seamlessly transforming themselves from retired bank manager to elderly aunt or from gangster to Irish wolfhound. It's had rave reviews and ends on Saturday but if you can go you will howl with laughter.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Les Carmelites

The conditions were not auspicious: a bitter wind, dark skies, my hacking cough and a power cut. Nevertheless, once the generator was fixed, John Doyle's production of Poulenc's Les Carmelites at Grange Park Opera was well worth the three hour freezing wait in the outdoor picnic tent.
The opera, premiered at La Scala in 1957, tells the sad story of the sixteen matyrs of Compiegne. They were Carmelite nuns who refused to obey the order of the government of the French Revolution which demanded the suppression of their convent. Condemned to death as traitors, they were guillotined on 17 July 1794.
The Grange Park production is sparsely staged, making full use of light and shadow to emphasise the horrible fate awaiting the nuns as they debate their dilemma. Hye-Youn Lee is excellent in the main role of Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ and Anne-Marie Owens is very good as the Prioress. The last scene of the nuns following the prioress, one by one, to the guillotine (which was off stage but whose searing noise was chilling), chanting the Salve Regina, was very moving. Our final trial of dashing to the car after the performance in the horizontal rain didn't seem so bad in comparison.

Friday, June 21, 2013


Today is the summer solstice so we should raise a glass to Eratosthenes (c.282-194 BC) who used the day to calculate the circumference of the earth.
Aristotle had proved Pythagoras' assumption that the earth was spherical but establishing longitude without accurate clocks was tricky. Eratosthenes, Head of the Library at Alexandria, drew a meridien from Alexandria to Syrene (modern day Aswan) in Upper Egypt. He calculated that Syrene was on the Tropic of Cancer (in fact it's 70km north of the Tropic). He discovered that at Syrene, a vertical stick cast no shadow at midday on the summer solstice whereas another stick at the same time in Alexandria cast a small shadow. The angle of the Alexandrian stick's shadow to the sun's rays was 1/50th of a circle ie 7.2 degrees. Eratosthenes therefore concluded that the distance from Syrene to Alexandria must be 1/50th of the circumference of the earth. He calculated the distance between the cities to be 5000 stades and therefore the total circumference to be 250,000 stades which is only 1% out from the statistic we recognise today: 40,075 km.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Photo of the week

Here's my friends' beautiful daughter who bought her hat for £3 from a charity shop.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

(W)hat crisis?

"I know what I'll do," my old schoolfriend C exclaimed in October 2012, "I'll make you a hat for Ascot next year!" She's been on a hat making course in between scribbling gossipy articles for national newspapers. I was both grateful and impressed.
We discussed designs and colour in December. However, by May 2013 there had been no word from C and I was slightly worried. I called her.
"I've been meaning to call you," she began. "Sorry WW, I've been really busy. When do you need the hat?"
"18 June," I said.
"Let me come to Winchester to see your outfit. Then I can plan the right colours."
She duly arrived and outlined her ideas for her millinery marvel. It sounded wonderful. I was to collect it last Thursday.
I did think that such a creation may take quite some time to perfect, particularly when one has editorial deadlines to meet and guests staying.
C called on Wednesday, "WW, I'm so sorry but there's no way that the hat will be ready on time!"
"No problem," I said. "I can wear it next year!"
Another year, another Ascot, another hat crisis, I thought. I dashed off to the Harvey Nicks sale. Their hat department which used to be on the ground floor, no longer exists. They had seven hats on sale on the second floor, all half price, all ghastly and none under £300. I went to Fortnum's where there was no sale and saw one of the HN hats sitting there with a price tag of £1200! I eventually bought a plain pink hat which I thought was bargain in the circumstances (the madness of crowds?) and I got various flowers and butterflies from a haberdasher's which I sewed on to it.
"Fascinators are no longer permitted in the Royal Enclosure; neither are headpieces which do not have a base covering a sufficient area of the head (4 inches/10cm)"  states the Royal Enclosure Dress Code. Do you think there'll be invigilators with rulers at the entrance? Anyway, it doesn't mention low-qual home made hats.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Welcome home!

We arrived home from Italy at 9.45pm and there was a surprise waiting: a pigeon had fallen down the chimney in our bedroom, leaving a wide trail of soot and detritus all over the carpet and was calmly sitting on the window sill, looking me in the eye as I breezed through the doorway. I gasped, closed the door and called my dearly beloved.
MDB is a cerebral being. He swiftly drafted a plan of action. We had to get the pigeon out of the bedroom window without causing it to panic and fly around destroying ornaments on surfaces. Therefore the first step was to persuade the bird to move calmly to the other side of the room so that MDB could open the window. He would place a plate of breadcrumbs on the opposite side of the room, exit and wait for 20 minutes. He entered the room with the plate but, as he was placing it on the floor, the pigeon took off, hitting its head on the ceiling and came to rest on the mantelpiece next to the window, knocking into a jade box in the process whose top smashed on the stone hearth. MDB made a swift exit, grabbing various precious objects from the dressing table en route.
Twenty minutes later, he returned. His plan had worked: the pigeon had moved to perch on the chest on chest opposite the window. MDB opened the window and left the room. We gave the bird another 20 minutes to leave. It did not. Indeed, it seemed to prefer the warm dry chest on chest to the howling gale and pouring rain outside. We decided to leave it for the night and hoped that the dawn chorus would entice it outside in the morning.
At 6.30am MDB peeped around the door into the bedroom. He went in, closing the door behind him. A minute later, he emerged announcing, "I have some good new and some bad news, my darling!"
"The bad news is that the window slammed shut in the night and one of the panes has broken. The good news is the pigeon has left!"
"Really?" I said, impressed by the success of MDB's campaign plan. "Do you think the pigeon closed the window behind him? Could you please do me a favour? Could you look under the bed, just to make sure it's not hiding there?"
He did as I asked and assured me that there were no furtive feathery foes beneath the mattress.
"Hurrah!" I cried and marched into the room, MDB following.
I heard a shout from behind, "Oh no! There he is!"
The pigeon was perched on the chandelier. I expect it must have been quite amused to have seen MDB crawling around the floor. Elephants spring to mind.
We eventually shooed it out of the window with the aid of a broom.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

William Dalrymple

I have been reading From the Holy Mountain, written in 1994 by William Dalrymple. He traces the steps of the sixth century monk, John Moschos across Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt and provides some fascinating anecdotes, Byzantine and contemporary. Dalrymple heard this story from his driver in Aleppo:

"In 1929 my father bought 60,000 acres of desert near Hassake on the Khabur River. The area was deserted except for Bedouin but the French offered land to anyone who would irrigate it and grow crops. After five years of hard work, my father finally had a very successful harvest and made a big profit: fifty gold pounds, more than enough to repay the loan for the land. But he had a problem: he didn't know how to get the gold from Hassake to Aleppo as the road was beset by brigands. He asked an Armenian driver with an old model T Ford to take him the next time he was going to Aleppo. The day came. He put the money under his girdle and set off with the Armenian.
Halfway along the road, in the early evening, in the middle of the desert, they saw a very old Bedu hitchhiking. My father wanted to pick him up but the Armenian said he never took strangers. They drove on but began to feel guilty about leaving the man in the desert so they turned around and got him. The Bedu was very grateful and sat smiling in the back.
Ten minutes later, the old man pulled out two revolvers and ordered them to stop the car. He told them to undress and to give him their money. As my father took off his trousers, fifty gold pounds fell out and rolled onto the ground.
The Bedu could hardly believe his eyes and ran after the coins. As he did so, my father kicked him in the face and the Armenian got him into an armlock while my father got the guns. The Bedu produced a knife with his other hand. My father punched him and the Armenian tried to strangle him. After a while the Bedu was overpowered but all three men were covered in blood.
"We can't leave him here," said the Armenian. "Tomorrow he'll be waiting for us to return and will have 40 more tribesmen with him. We must kill him." Before my father had time to answer, the man collapsed, stone dead.
"What did you do?" the Armenian asked.
"You killed him," said my father.
"No! You killed him!" replied the Armenian.
They argued and then drove on in silence, leaving the corpse on the road.
After 15 minutes they came to a French patrol. The officer ordered them to stop and asked what they were doing so late on the road. They were nervous and the officer was suspicious and ordered them to get out of the car. He then saw the blood on their clothes.
"It was his idea," said the Armenian. "He just killed a Bedu hitchhiker."
"No, no," said my father. "It was him!"
The Frenchman searched the car and found the Bedu's ID. "Was this the man you killed?" he asked. The men were silent. "Perhaps I should tell you that this is Ali ibn Mohammed, the most wanted brigand in the Near East. There is a reward of one hundred gold pounds for anyone who finds him, dead or alive.
"It was me who killed him," said my father.
"He's lying," said the Armenian. "I killed him."
In the end, after much argument, they split the reward.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Molecular cooking

Never having managed to secure a table at a Heston Blumenthal establishment in England, I was delighted to experience my first taste of molecular cooking at Ettore Bocchia's restaurant at Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio on Lake Como. Here are Signor Bocchia's guiding principles as translated by his restaurant:

1. Each new recipe will have to enlarge, not destroy, the Italian gastronomical tradition.

2. The new techniques and dishes will have to accentuate the natural ingredient and the high quality raw materials.

3. The Italian molecular cooking will take into consideration the nutritional values for the consumer, besides the esthetic and organoleptic aspects of the dish.

4. The cook will reach his goals by creating new textures with ingredients chosen by the criteria indicated above, studying their physical and chemical properties and planning new microscopic architectures.

I was impressed by his adjectives, even more by the feast we were served. The raw Sicilian red prawns with guacamole ice cream, coconut cream and cuttlefish ink waffles, and the mint meringue filled with wild berries, marinated exotic fruits and chocolate sauce were my favourite courses. I avoided the speciality of the day on the non-molecular menu: tortellini stuffed with peacock breast. I didn't know peacocks were farmed...

Wednesday, June 05, 2013


Back next Wednesday - have fun!

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Sixty years

 Congratulations to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II who was crowned on this day sixty years ago!

in memoriam

Today I salute the suffragette Emily Davison whose actions at The Derby on this day 100 years ago resulted in her death. There has been much debate about whether she intended to commit suicide. People say she must have known that to run out in front of the horses during the race would be fatal. Hwever, she had bought a return ticket from London to Epsom and in her bag she had a suffragette banner and a pass to a suffragette party on the night of 4 June 1913. In her home town, Morpeth, she and fellow suffragettes had been practising approaching horses as they walked around a parade ring. My favourite theory is that she'd wanted to attach the suffragette banner to the King's horse in the Parade Ring at Epsom but hadn't been able to do so. She therefore decided to try to disrupt the race for the King's horse instead as a publicity stunt, whatever the consequences.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Lunatic idea of the day

An article in yesterday's Times says that our perceptions of the size of the moon are dominated by the "Moon illusion", a quirk of psychology which makes the moon look larger when it is low in the sky. It claims that if you look at the moon standing on your head, its size will appear to be smaller. If you are inclined to try this experiment, a good evening for it would be 23 June when the full moon will be at its closest point to Earth.