Archive for society

Too long in the tooth

I stand condemned by my own memory.  I have just spent 15 minutes searching through all my applications for the blogging software I use—I could not remember what it was called.  So I have obviously been away from blogging too long.  For reference, it was called Qumana, and there was a very good reason I couldn’t find it—I decided, many moons ago, to uninstall it in favour of ScribeFire.

But why the mention of teeth?  Well, I have now lived half of my allotted threescore years and ten.  My legs are grey.  My ears are gnarled.  My eyes are old and bent.  So you will empathise with my utter embogglement when I say that I was asked for proof of age just yesterday when I tried to buy some wine.  I have not been asked for proof of age for seventeen years.

I went back with my driving licence, though I bitterly resented having to show it.  This feels like the thin end of the identity card wedge.  I thought that there were proof of age cards available that didn’t serve as identity cards, but a cursory search online revealed none.  After all, why would we have such a thing?  The alleged clamp-down on under-age drinking serves no real purpose in the public interest.  Children who are determined to drink will continue to obtain alcohol, just as easily as they obtain illegal drugs.  The identity card that is supposed to prove your age will also prove your name, your exact date of birth, and probably your address.

In case you remain unconvinced of the lunacy of this situation, consider the following actual proofs of age: my wedding band that has formed a groove in my burgeoning ring finger over five years of marriage; my wife by my side; my company ID card; my two credit cards; my thinning hair; my greying stubble; and my three wisdom teeth.  Apart from the teeth, all of these were available for inspection, but the shop assistant would not accept any of these as proof of age.  She had already been brainwashed into an unthinking automaton in this increasingly Orwellian society.

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Moving house is hard to do

At less than a mile this is the shortest house move we have ever made. We also had less stuff to move than ever before. Previous house moves have had their share of troubles. I especially remember the fateful day I got two friends to help us load up a big van with a fridge, a washing machine, a dryer, 6 dismantled wardrobe units, and assorted household stuff, only to crash the van within a few yards. Still smarting from past experiences, we decided for once to employ some professional movers.

However, this move has actually proved the most protracted and difficult yet. The council has created a legacy of pain for any prospective inhabitants by changing the address of the apartment (there are now two addresses and three postcodes for one dwelling). This made it difficult for the phone company to locate the records. A system outage, followed by general irresponsibility and incompetence meant that the phone line was made usable 2 weeks late. Poor customer service and even more incompetence then meant the broadband application was delayed by a further week. 24 days after moving house, I got Internet access. As a teleworker, this made life pretty difficult. And of course we are more dependent upon the Internet now than we have ever been before.

It was also our first move from a furnished property to an unfurnished one. I have spent much of the last month putting up furniture and re-arranging rooms. The various deliveries we have had, from hot food to furniture, have been fraught with difficulty because the address has two numbers in it, is rarely transmitted properly, and always foxes couriers. I have even had to help out two puzzled postmen with directions to the various mailboxes. Several would-be callers have failed to find the door and concluded that the apartment didn’t exist.

Despite the hassles, we are settling in and we are enjoying the new location. Although it is further from the city centre and further from any shops than our previous home, we are enjoying the space and the quiet. A lot. I’ve only had to visit the neighbours to plead for quiet once so far in 5 weeks. This bodes well.

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Le Métro vs The Tube

My first impressions of the transport system in Paris left me pining for the familiarity and reliability of London’s famous Tube. The Paris Métro and RER trains have more graffiti and less room to sit. Many of the entrances and walkways smell of urine. Quite often one must use the stairs, with no lift or elevator option. Even the buskers aren’t as good, I opined to my wife when we walked past some.

The very next day, we were treated to some cheery and heartening music from what sounded like a small orchestra and choir. This was much better than most of the music I have heard on the London Underground!

The same day, someone got onto the train with us and provided a stereotypically French-sounding accordion accompaniment to our entire journey.

We bought 7 days’ unlimited travel through the whole Métro system, the buses, and much of the RER for around €16 each (starting on a Monday, mind!). The trains are fast and smooth, and they link a lot of Paris very well. The major tourist attractions are helpfully labelled on Métro maps. Twice, someone gave up their seat just so I could sit next to my wife. One person stopped to help me when I had trouble with a machine. Another just shrugged when I unwittingly pushed in front of him in a queue. A member of staff shared my frustration when I spoiled my ticket, and helpfully provided me enough passes to get me through the day.

So I take it all back. I prefer Le Métro, even with its occasional whiff of wee.


After spending longer in Paris, I realized that it isn’t the Métro that smells bad. In fact, they keep it much cleaner than any underground passages in London. The problem with pee is above ground, and all over Paris. If London is The Great Wen (open sewer), then Paris should be Le Grand Pissoir.

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Vegan surprise

I have come to take some things about vegans for granted. For example, wherever two or more of them are gathered will be some sort of New Age mysticism or Oriental religion. It’s hard to find a vegan café or wholefoods shop without adverts for Yoga, Meditation, Spirit Healing, Aura Massage, and other arcane groups or classes . What is it that binds all these things together with veganism? Above all, I feel, it is the decision to move away from the consumer society and the norms of life in a modern Western democracy.

It is ironic then that same market principles should apply. First of all, many of these advertisers have chosen these fora because they are targetting a particular niche—the very people who have come there because of their objections to consumerism. However, this is a minor point. The advertisers are genuinely offering services, some free and mostly ethical in their intentions.

Of much greater concern is the marketing of harmful products as food to vegans. Allow me to illustrate.

If the intent is genuinely to provide food suitable for vegans and thereby make a living, then the products would be made from natural, wholesome ingredients. A fantastic example is Booja Booja’s Stuff in a Tub ice cream alternative. I just tried the vanilla version yesterday and it was delicious. The ingredients: water, agave syrup, cashew nuts, vanilla oil. That’s all! Compare this to the ingredient list on a luxury ice cream from a supermarket. Well done, Booja Booja! Go to the top of the class, you swots.

If the intent is to make money by selling things vegans will eat, then the products will be made from the cheapest non-animal ingredients available, even, it seems, if those things are not real food. An example is Tofutti’s Creamy Smooth cream cheese alternative. The second ingredient is “partially hydrogenated soybean oil”—a trans fat. The process of hydrogenation reduces the melting point of oils, changing the texture and increasing the shelf life. Sadly, it also renders them of little nutritional value, and increases the consumer’s chances of contracting coronary heart disease. Sainsbury, Tesco, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, and even Asda have all made moves to remove trans fats from their shelves. The City of New York has banned trans fats. Why are vegans buying and eating it? Why are supposedly ethical retailers selling it?

I contacted Tofutti to ask about their product range. They said only two of their products use PHO (partially hydrogenated oil). They even produce a PHO-free version of the cream cheese, but this is only available in health food stores (try Holland & Barrett).

So Tofutti know how to make cream cheese without this slow-acting poison, but only as a “health food”? What are all the other products—sickness foods? The very concept of having a special shop for foods that don’t kill you is outrageous.

So, this was my rude awakening. I was lulled into a false sense of security by the general preponderance of good and healthy foods on offer. But I am new to this whole vegan thing. What’s everyone else’s excuse? Come on, you vegans—start living up to my stereotypical expectations of you! Stop buying this thing that isn’t even food, and complain to the people who stock it. And as for you ethical food retailers, you can get your acts together too.

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Farewell to fussy friends

For a long time I have idly wondered about writing The Fussy Friends Cookbook, to help people when entertaining those with dietary restrictions.  I’ve certainly had enough experience.  For someone who eats most foods it takes a conscious effort to discover and satisfy the requirements of people who do not.  I have catered to Hindus, Muslims, vegetarians, pescetarians and teetotallers.  I have even found some unusal quirks:

“I won’t eat chicken unless it is breast meat and I can cut it up myself.”

“I won’t eat beef that isn’t from New Zealand.”

“I don’t like vegetables when they’re cooked.”

“I won’t eat cheese if it has been melted.”

“I won’t eat Waitrose Caesar Salad unless I am at John’s house.”

Please don’t think I am complaining.  Most of these “fussy” friends would quite happily have put up with whatever I made, but they would have picked out the things they didn’t like and left them on the side of the plate.  I hate that.  It was far better then that I should exercise my creativity in preparing a meal that suited all the attendant palates.  The culinary contortions required would certainly have made an interesting writing project.

So why farewell?  I did leave these friends behind when I left Hampshire, but it is not the friends to whom I bid farewell, but the book idea.  It’s true that I entertain far less now than I did in Hampshire, at least until I make more friends in Sheffield.  The more compelling reason though is that I have chosen to surpass them all in fussiness, and can no longer describe my friends as fussy without provoking cries of “Pot!” and “Kettle!”  I have decided not to eat meat or dairy products.

I had been fasting for a few days and was slowly re-introducing food. This is best done by starting with juices, then progressing to fruits and vegetables. The complexity of the foods consumed is to be increased gradually, to give the digestive system time to recover. As I was doing this, it suddenly occurred to me that I need not re-introduce meat, milk, coffee, or tea to my diet at all. I am still trying this out now, one month later. Since this diet aligned closely with a vegan diet, I naturally gravitated to that. This includes cutting out anything made using animal byproducts as well. In some countries, even white sugar is made using animal bits! Probably the hardest things to refrain from were cheese and coffee. One because it is so tasty and the other because I had become reliant on it to stay awake!

Just to be clear, here are some things I don’t eat: meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, honey, coffee, tea, or anything made from them.  I should confess that I am not restricting my diet out of a sense of compassion.  Here are some of my reasons:

Modern livestock farming methods are unhealthy.

The BSE crisis revealed that it had become standard practice to feed sheep’s brains to cows.  That should have been enough to make every one of us suspicious.  Even a child would know better, surely?  A slow and stupid child, at that.  Admittedly some cows are reared as vegetarians, but a walk through a pasture will reveal that something is very wrong with the digestive systems of many cows.  No healthy animal should leave long trails of slurry-like dung.  Look at animals in the wild, or domestic animals that are well looked after.  Even the ones that eat meat have healthier looking stools.  Most herbivores have dung that is hardly offensive at all, and I am sure cows should not be any different.

BSE aside, the number of other recent scares that suggest malpractice in animal husbandry is overwhelming.  This includes diseases arising from unhygienic farming and slaughtering practices, such as blue tongue, foot and mouth, bird flu, and salmonella.  A scarier story still reveals the well researched but previously little publicized dangers of recombinant bovine growth hormone.

How many other stories are yet to be told of ways in which farming has led—and has yet to lead—to terrible diseases of animals and humans.

Meat is an inefficient way of providing energy to humans.

More and more authors are now propounding the fairly obvious point that eating grain-fed animals is considerably less efficient that consuming that same grain ourselves.  The per capita grain consumption of the US is four times that of India, due largely to the preponderance of vegetarians in India.  This year, grain shortages are evident, and grain prices are climbing.  This includes wheat, rice, and maize.  This hardly affects the affluent middle classes in the West, but it can make the difference between life and death for much of the world’s population.  In his blog, George Monbiot points out that all this is in a year of record harvests; what will happen when climate change—as it inevitably will—causes harvests to fail?

Water as a resource is becoming more and more scarce.  Many countries are able to offset their water shortages by importing water-intensive products.  As such, the virtual water content of food items is a useful indicator of their relative efficiency.  Although the plants vary quite a lot, nothing comes close to the meat and dairy products:

  • 15,500 litres of water for 1 kg of beef
  • 5,000 litres of water for 1 kg of cheese
  • 3,900 litres of water for 1 kg of chicken
  • 1,300 litres of water for 1 kg of wheat

It is clear that in a world without enough water for drinking and agriculture, eating meat is just plain greedy.

Some of these foods are just addictive.

You might think that the astonishingly high virtual water content for coffee—140 litres for just one cup—prompted me to give that up too.  It played a part.  It was a New Scientist cover story mentioning coffee that first made me think in these terms.  However, the occasional cup of coffee could probably be excused.  I used to drink 2–8 cups of coffee every day.  When I stopped drinking coffee, the initial withdrawal symptoms lasted less than a week.  It took more than a month before I was able to go a whole day without feeling drowsy.  It is only on reflection that I realized how dependent I had become.

Meat falls into a similar category for me.  I think fried chicken is probably the best example.  When I was used to eating it, it tasted really good.  Just seeing it would make me want some, and it was always easy to eat another piece.  Avoiding intense, rich foods like meat, cheese and milk chocolate (plain chocolate is nice but far less enticing) is much, much healthier for me.

Now that I have adjusted my diet, I find my tastes have changed.  I don’t crave unhealthy foods the way I used to, and I appreciate simpler foods much more.  (Have you ever tried raw corn cobs?)  I still eat a lot and don’t exercise enough, but it’s a start along the road to a new lifestyle.  I don’t think it will be long before we all have to make changes—I’m just trying to stay ahead of the game.

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The City of Burning Clutches

“Sheffield is a city—like Rome—built on seven hills.”

This introduction to Sheffield from a leaflet I picked up on my first visit to the city has stuck in my mind.  I was disappointed not to see a corollary statement when visiting Rome.  I can attest that Sheffield is indeed a city with some fairly steep ascents.  I feel this quite keenly when cycling, though I have as yet been spared some of the meaner hills.

More surprisingly, the effect on cars is quite noticeable, too.  A neighbour’s visitors requested that I leave them three car lengths so they could pull out from their parking space on our 20° hill.  (I saw them use all of this space too!)  And it is the rare, brave motorist who reverses into a parking space on this hill.  Although the spaces here are hard-won, mine is usually safe if no-one else moves.  Most striking of all, though is the unmistakably acrid and cloying smell of the super-heated clutch.  I have had some trouble with this when driving a moving van,  Yesterday and today I realized that I was not alone.  Large stretches of the city reek of burnt clutch.  Throughout the day traffic inches up the Netherthorpe Road to Brook Hill, and many, many drivers simply don’t know how to drive slowly and jerkily up a hill.

It’s rare that I wish this country were more like the US, but I wish more of the cars on the road had automatic transmission or automatic clutches.

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Never do I ever want to hear another word

I sometimes wonder what it must be like to find the conversation of your friends intolerably dull. Why else would you take them where normal conversation is made impossible by the volume of the music? I refer, of course, to those many bars and pubs where blaring, tinny pop dribbles incessantly from the speakers.

In contrast, there are some venues where people go to enjoy the music. There is a pub near my home that hosts a range of bands. Some of them even appeal to my eclectic taste. It also hosts DJs for events that carry on until the small hours. The music can be almost hypnotic, and there is clearly skill and artistry in good mixing. Since I am not a fan of this scene, I find it irritating that the walls and spaces between the pub and my bedroom fail to filter the lowest bass notes. I often lie awake at night musing on the deafening effects of being in the same room as the speakers that are delivering these beats through the pub’s specially sound-proofed walls to my flat, nearly a hundred yards away.

Are the punters unwitting victims of a loudness-obsessed culture that must surely damage their hearing? I used to pity them their obsession, thinking we might one day see a series of lawsuits against the entertainers for inflicting this damage, much like the tobacco cases still raging today. Surely no-one would self-harm in this way without reason?

Well, now I know better. In Sheffield, at least, the risks are well advertised—far in advance of any legislation to mandate it. With names like “Tinnitus”, and a website called “My Ears Are Bleeding” no-one is left in ignorance. Far from fighting shy of the worrying truth, the culture seems to revel in it.

In conclusion, I am left to assume that the club culture is actually for the hardcore [no pun intended] pessimists. It’s not just that their current life is so dull they need to drown out the audio: they want to make sure it is turned off permanently. Perhaps I should try not to lose sleep over it.

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