Sunday, 9 June 2013

Villages for a Sustainable Future?

I was just reading that in Todmorden they were having a chicken map on the internet - where eggs were available for sale around the town, but not just that, all the nooks and crannies of council land and many gardens were being turned over to the growing of fruits and vegetables.  Even the herbs in planters on the railway station platforms can be picked for use for free.
In these times of credit crunch, just think about how much available land in villages that is public (parish council responsibility), and could be divided up for use as allotments for groups of houses for the growing of fruit,  vegetables and chickens?  Why do the trees on the recreation areas and parks have to be copper beech or other grand ornamental specimens?  Why not pear, apple cherry or plum, along with strawberries and raspberries?  I have seen many plain wooden fences or wire ones that could have soft fruits growing over them.
 The whole village (or other area) could become a vast orchard and vegetable plot.  Itc ould also stop/reduce the unnecessary and pointless grass cutting by the council workers or the private operators, as the locals would be tending it for free and cut the parish councils bills.  Manicured areas of grass are unproductive and expensive, especially in a time of financial hardship and of increasing food prices world-wide.  It could also improve the local shops' turn-over as people would not need to drive out as often to stock up on frozen fruit/vegetables that are available locally.  They would be less likely to drive to shop when they only needed a few extra items that wouldn't justify the expense of fuel usage.  The local butcher would certainly improve his business.
If the patches/ plots were leased to groups of houses with the same post codes on the basis that any food grown was available for anyone to pick in quantities required for their immediate family's needs for that day, it could improve community spirit and neighbourly awareness, sharing, and give the long-term unemployed something to use as work experience or a reason for the social security department to continue paying the money instead of insisting on evidence of reading newspapers and making job applications when they don't produce results.  These people could eventually (with the parish council) be employed as permanent agricultural workers at probably less cost to the exchequer than the current grass cutters, because the overall bills to the country for fuel would be reduced, even if the food is available for free.
What about theft and greedy people?  If this occurs all over the country the point of theft would be reduced.  There are those who like others to do the work and they reap the benefits, but the embarrassment of taking excess today when it is still free tomorrow should be enough to make the culprits social pariahs and a source of mocking down the pub.
Speaking of pubs why not set up a microbrewery there and reduce the transport costs for beer?  I like the idea of the courses being run at by Brewlab at Sunderland University.  The only things a parish should import are things it can't produce.
I think we should rebuild the villages of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland and reinvent them for a sustainable future as co-operatives, making the parish councils relevant to the villagers, and the places of worship (and pubs) the places for social activities and celebrating the passing of the seasons and great events. In fact, it should be an integrated system.  We shouldn't have to struggle along as individuals, but succeed together.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Fly Fishing

A new book on fly fishing has come through the pipeline.  The trout and instructional pictures are complete.  Its based on a poem I wrote to my daughter about her first fishing trip (which is hopefully to happen in the summer when I return home).  It gives brief instructions on the equipment to use and how to cast the line.

The one secret to fly fishing, however, is the method of retrieve of the line.  All the books and magazine articles assume understanding of jargon and never pass the information on correctly.  I stell in the book (in the simplest possible terms) the real method that allows you a fish (if one is there) almost every cast.

Brook Trout
She appears to be fascinated by the fish I return home with to gut and prepare for eating. She will hopefully will take up fly fishing when older and land plenty of trout.  Until that time, I shall show her the knots she will need, and also play and land fish.  Casting might take a while for her to master, but I'll not stop her trying.  Maybe she will better the 14lb 6oz lump of Rainbow Trout I'm holding in the picture after catching it in County Durham.  This one earned me a 2005 TroutMaster award.

Californian Golden Trout
The book has been typed up, the last few pieces of artwork, such as the images on this page have been added and it was uploaded to Amazon Kindle on the 14th April 2013.  Copies have been selling well so far.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Pleasantly surprised.

When I first wrote the poem "Fishing Trip", it was done while I was working away from home in Abu Dhabi just for something to read to my then 2 year-old daughter.  By the time she had arrived to stay, so many other things happened, I forgot about it and only found it again while writing the second novel "Protective Craft- The Lost Diaries of Richard Buchanan".
By that point, Holly was 4 and I was in Mongolia and had published 3 books on Kindle.  I decided to polish up the poem and add images of trout to make it more interesting for her now she was able to read simple books and was showing an interest in my fishing "exploits", especially the catches of trout.
I needed an illustrator so my mum was again roped in for artist duties.  This had the benefit of "free artwork", but the problem of the paintings only becoming available when she had had the time to complete them.
Effectively, the main text of the book was completed by September 2012, but the illustrations weren't.  While waiting I decided to add the simple casting and fishing instructions too which I could draw on my own.
Eventually, almost a year after since accepting the "commission", the final picture was delivered and the book could be uploaded on to Kindle as "Fishing Trip - An Introduction to Fly Fishing and Trout".
This was not the original hope.  I had hoped that I would be able to find a publisher capable of turning it into a colour plate hardback for children to read, or for others to read to them to get them interested in fishing in general and fly fishing of trout in particular.  The nice thing about Kindle format is that the machine will read the book to the child and Holly has already done this, fascinated by being "in a book" where her father helps her catch a fish.  The really surprising thing about the whole affair is that, after writing it with a target audience of one, copies are being whisked of the electronic shelves at a rapid rate.
Not long now Holly.  I'll be home soon and we'll really catch one together.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

White Sands, Green Trees - Excerpt & Synopsis

White Sands, Green Trees

Top 100 Free in Kindle Store (as of 29th July 2017)

Humorous and true description of my travels and adventures around the Philippines and Malaysia during 1996-98.

An Excerpt

Ta'al Volcano
About two Sundays after arriving in Manila, a trip was organised by Bob Keen for the new staff of the school to visit the Ta’al volcano in Batangas.  This is about an hour’s drive south of Manila on an easy traffic day (but there aren’t many of those).

The driver we had for the minibus was Alfredo, with his gnarly hands and crumpled face.  It is obligatory for Alfredo to toot the horn after every gear change, a hangover from his days driving the indomitable jeepneys around Makati and Manila.  He’d been banned from driving once (no mean feat in the Philippines, and had to retake his test).    However, this meant that he’d passed his driving test twice more than an awful lot of other Fil drivers.  Off we set and soon we were passing out of the concrete of Manila and seeing a lot more greenery as we reached the outskirts of Ayala Alabang.  It was a sunny morning (aren’t they all), and we soon cut through what Sunday traffic there was to reach the Ta’al Vista Hotel.

This resort is perched on the rim of what was the side of the original volcano that had collapsed in on itself to form Lake Ta’al.  It was in the middle of this lake that the present day volcano was situated.  It was rather cool up in the Tagaytay heights and thick mists obscured the view of the volcano in the lake for a few minutes after we arrived at 1030.  All that could be seen were the tall grasses and palms disappearing down on precipitous slopes below us.  Obviously some fast food was required to kill the time, and so the nearby Jollibee outlet sufficed.

Once a few snaps of the scene had been achieved, we all bundled into the van for the drive down the crater sides to the lakeshore.  At the oddly named Yacht Club (?), we hired the services of a local banca (long narrow boat with outriggers) operator.  Here I learnt one of the first lessons for life in the Philippines – don’t pay up front.  Wait until you have been safely delivered before paying.  As it was a return journey, the boatman was going to wait at the volcano shore while we climbed it and came back.

It took about 20 minutes to cross the lake to the volcano and the village near the landing point.  Here we discovered we would each be charged for the use of the jetty (20 pesos), and were immediately accosted by women and children aiming to sell souvenirs and horse rides up to the top.  Judging by the condition of the horses, carrying someone was about the last thing they could be capable of.  Thin and emaciated, I thought they would be better off spending the time feeding and resting.

Working our way through the huddle of houses, we found the path up the volcano and proceeded at a reasonable pace.  The going was easy if only a little warm, and we soon found ourselves being passed at a rest point by some Oriental tourists on the sad horses.  Their riders were middle aged and overweight.  The horses must have suffered, as they were encouraged up the hill by the operators with their sticks.  Photos were taken as we marched up the hill amongst some rather curious plants.  Many of the surrounding slopes seemed to be cultivating these, although other ridges were devoid of vegetation, appearing whitish on pale green.  Within about an hour of setting off we were at the rim of the crater, having skidded up the last steep section over a few small smoking cracks.

At the top, locals selling water and coconuts from a stall greeted us.  This was when we discovered that we were glad we’d brought our own sealed mineral water bottles.  The ones these people were flogging had no seal.  The barrier to stop folks falling into the crater was a flimsy bamboo fence, but even though I’m terrified of heights, I did venture a peek over the edge to see the lake inside the volcano and the steaming vents around the sides and from the stack in the middle.
 Ta’al Volcano is the world’s smallest active volcano, and on the path up to the top several small fissures leaking smoke had been stepped over.  We hung around eating lunch for about an hour and then set off back to the banca.  It only took about half an hour to get back down to the waters edge, where again the vendors swooped and we had to pay to use the jetty again.  The boatman then wanted more money.  On the return journey on the banca, the rain started to fall and things started to turn miserable.  Undaunted by this, Bob’s filipina wife Lisa, was able to negotiate the price to what it had been and we were deposited only 200 metres along the palm-fronded shore from where we had started.

Trudging along the shore, I eventually espied Alfredo and the van, to which we duly hurried.  Climbing aboard, we found out that the boatman wasn’t one of the Yacht Club ones and as we hadn’t hired one of theirs, Alfredo shouldn’t have been parked there, so a fast exit was required.  ‘Fredo provided one, which was rather scary, being as it was up the precipitous sides of the old crater around some windy hairpins, with the road covering missing in places.

The visit was finished with a view back from the Dunkin’ Donuts just beside the Tagaytay roundabout (another rarity in the Philippines).  Plants were purchased for twice what the locals would pay at various “gardens” (nurseries) on the road out of Tagaytay towards the South Super Highway.

This was the real experience of the visit.  Being stuck in traffic returning to Manila after a weekend away.  It was a complete nightmare and took 3 hours to do.  However, this was by no means the worst traffic or even the usual for what I was yet to experience.
Boracay - dry season
A couple of weeks after my return to Manila, there were a group of teachers from the school, who announced they were off to Boracay.  I had heard of this place earlier in the year whilst still in Surrey, as my landlord had just returned from his world trip/year off and had said it was something to see.

The flight was arranged with Pacific Air.  To describe Pacific Air as cowboys would be unfair to unscrupulous operators the world over.  Most of the group of 13 went on a reasonably sized turboprop.  I, along with three teachers, was squashed into a six-seat single prop with the others’ and our luggage.  I was seated in the co-pilot’s seat and the view of Manila and Ta’al was good.  It was after that that I got nervous.  The pilot pulled out a map, and I assumed he was going to point out places below.  But no.  He unfolded it across the front window to “keep the sun out”.  He flew blind across the rest of Batangas and over the islands towards Boracay.  Nervously, I tried to see around the edge of the map hoping that no other Pacific Air planes were doing the same flying in the opposite direction.

About five miles out of Catlican airport the map was put away, much to the relief of all the passengers, as the air was getting disturbed as we got lower.  Dropping down along the coast of Panay, we descended parallel to beach and paddy, approaching the airstrip.  At the last minute the pilot bent down to fiddle with something on the floor, and only looked up seconds before touchdown.   This didn’t help overcome any worries I have about flying.

After a quick exit we joined with the teachers already landed and waiting for us to bring their luggage.  Sorting it out, and three or four to a tricycle, a race then ensued to the banca departure point down the road at Catlican.  First one and then another took the lead, bouncing in and out of potholes, all arriving safely at the quay.  The trikes were 40 pesos to hire and the banca cost about 15 pesos per person.

Bundling on to a banca, with what seems like the world and his dog, is another experience.  The only worry is that the boats are loaded down and go through the waves rather than over them.  Letting the driver know where you want to get off on the island helps, especially if there are a number of you wanting to get off at the same point.  It saves on lugging kit along in sand in searing temperatures.

This duly happened and I had to find a hotel to check into.  All the others had been booked into Nigi Nigi Nu Nu’s previously, but as I work at a different site I’d only found out a day before departure.  I went around the corner (so to speak) for the night to sleep (250 pesos), and checked into Nigi’s the next day when a room came available.

This was low season (November), so rooms were available all over the island, and the White Beach (in front of Nigi’s) was very quiet indeed.  I again only had a short time  (the Friday, Saturday and Sunday) of this break generated by All Saint’s Holiday on the Friday.  Hunting around I decided to get a haircut, do a boat ride around the island and go on ride in a glass-bottomed boat.  The latter I found out about on the Friday while having the haircut, and was set for Saturday afternoon.  The circuit of the island was set for Sunday morning, with the company of Ian and Catherine.

MTV were in town that weekend, with their Beach Craze, of volleyball, and fashion parades at the Cocomangas Bar at the northern end of the White Beach.  Friday night was spent at the Sandcastles Thai restaurant and the cuisine was excellent.  Saturday night involved an Indian restaurant where the service was incredibly slow, and the food, when some of what was ordered arrived, was mediocre to say the least.  While waiting, however, conversations were being oiled with plenty of San Miguel and wine.  This may have had something to do with Richard idly flicking a cigarette butt away, that then landed on the next door neighbour’s roof still glowing.  The roof, being dry palm leaves posed a slight fire risk.  I thought my aim with his glass of red wine was quite superb, neatly extinguishing the stub and saving the building a surprise.  After that and the annoyance with the food it was time to leave.  The group left en-mass, paying for the drink and the food that had been eaten, only to find ourselves being pursued by an irate owner claiming non-payment.  As armed guards are an ever-present trigger happy group in the Philippines, his ire was quickly soothed with explanation by one or two of the girls in the party and the rest of us hurried of to Beachcomber and Cocomangas bars, just as on the previous nights.

There are two bars to visit on Boracay, and these are they.  Cocomangas also has rooms that are cheap, but is probably more famous for its shot drinking competition for those fool enough to try to down 30 and keep them in their stomach, as well as stay standing.  It is also to be noted for the method of serving drinks in jam jars, now copied by other bars on the island.  With the presence of MTV for a fashion show a catwalk had been constructed inside the bar and various models had walked down it the previous night.  On the Saturday, it was the turn of the tribal costumes and local Ati-Atihan dancers.  These were duly filmed and then the crowd was invited to dance around and on the catwalk.


With the approaching Turkic New Year and "spring holiday", the school erected its yurt in the atrium.  During the last week, classes have been held inside it, plus other meetings.
The Yurt
It is surprising spacious; accommodating nearly 30 adults sitting inside.  Clearly, that would be fine for temporary shelter for a short meal or gathering, but that number would be a tight fit if they were to lie down and try to sleep in the yurt in the countryside.
The Area for Women in the Yurt
This was a "show" yurt not designed for the weather and rigours of outdoor life in the steppe.  Its function is to educate the students and the visiting overseas teaching staff about the heritage and culture of Kazakhstan.
The Area for the men in the Yurt
The items are laid out as they should be in a true "working" yurt which do still exist and get used further away from the urban centres.  The shape is supposed to represent the universe, the links in the ceiling linking the people of the world together.
The bed and Cradle in the Yurt

The Mongolian ger is similar in structure if not the same apart from its name.  The Mongolians, however do not like the word yurt, which they said was the Russian for tent, and their ger was nothing like a tent!  Semantics aside, both habitations are very similar in construction and purpose and have served the nomads well for generations in the steppes and mountains of central Asia.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Leadership and Pirates

The novels "Any Means to an End" and "Protective Craft" describe the life of a ship's master from mid-1679 to late 1680.  He is in absolute command and only during the second book does he show a semblance of allegiance to the naval authorities.  He is a leader whom his men follow.
Over this past year especially I have attended several meetings designed to lay out what leadership is and contrast that with managerial offices.  There are many instances where people are labelled "captains of industry" and lauded for their roles of leadership.  There are many who would, in my opinion, fit that description, but they are few compared to the total given that description in the press and other media.
My reasons are this.  The boss of a utility company is really the manager appointed by the state.  Heads of banks usually fit the same bill, where the banks and institutions have a long history and the appointments are made.  In those situations, the company has probably grown as much as it can and is in a monopoly position or is part of a cartel of interests that cannot really fail.
The real "captains" of industry build up from scratch and face failure on a daily basis at the beginning or they take over a company in serious decline and turn it around.
I believe those who think leadership can be taught, should turn their ideas into an algorithm and program a robot to be a leader, and see if that works!
How can one learn to inspire?  Neville Chamberlain couldn't learn to inspire! Managers with vested interests will rarely see true leadership or will seek to suppress the people would who surpass them.  Churchill was willing to think bold thoughts and take chances.  Radical ideas do threaten the status quo but that doesn't mean they should be suppressed or excluded.  Leaders are born, not made.  The view about learning to become a leader, should be modified.  Managers should learn to recognise and promote the leaders from within.  Delegation of the leadership roles is part of this process, allowing the true leaders to shine.
But who gets to be a leader these days?  In Europe it seems to be appointed, unelected beaurocrats.  Often they have been de-selected in their home countries. Now we find them trying to dip into the savings accounts of the elderly, the children and the poor.  Their poor historical regulation and management of financial institutions has lead to this attempted robbery. Bank accounts already taxed, full of currency losing value, in an inflationary climate are to be taxed again. The governments and banks were complicit in the financial collapse.  The time for fining banks and financial companies has passed.  All they do is get the government to use the tax-payers money to bail them out.  If fined, they charge the customer (tax-payer) more.  Its time for criminal responsibility and prison sentences instead of fines.
The pirates on the sea today are small beer compared to those who wear suits in the financial districts.  There are leaders around today, but not much morale leadership.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Messy Spring!

It was exciting at first.  I hadn't seen a decent fall of snow for years while living either in the UK or elsewhere around the globe.  Even in Mongolia last year it had just been cold with light dusting of snow that evaporated quickly. Here in Eastern Kazakhstan the snow fell and remained.
The first falls were in early October, but after 24th of that month the snow continued to lie as the temperatures plummeted to the -40sC in mid-December.  Generally, the trend in temperatures has been upward, but as soon as the thermometer gets to the 0 to -12C range, the snow falls and  the drifts and banks get deeper and thicker.
Now, the temperatures are breaking through zero every now and then and the melt-water is causing the base layers of ice to be exposed, polished and lubricated for maximum slipperiness. Metal spikes/ crampons/studs in boots are essential for pavement walking.  The softening snow allows cars and trucks to sink deeper and create huge trenches that during the day fill with water and then freeze overnight.  There is no salt being spread to assist the melting, for if it was repeated for every town and city along the Irtysh and Ob rivers the amount of salt would kill all the wildlife therein all the way to the Arctic Ocean.  Thus, great care is required when walking, and, given the number of people on crutches I have seen, not everyone gets it right all of the time.  Old folks in particular do not seem to dare to venture out and who can blame them.  The rain earlier in the week has stopped and the freezing nights and snow have returned.  This new snow layer gives a bit more grip on the ice but has just prolonged the time to wait for the final thaw.  That will bring its own problems.
Earlier this week when snow did melt to soil level, all that was produced was a quagmire and with it the season of bad roads (распутица).  It seems odd that buses and cars easily coped with the temperatures below -20C, but the wet snow around zero caused them to slide and not get up steep roads.  Dry cold Winter isn't a problem.  Water is the problem - slippy ice, slippy mud.  Roll on a dry hot Summer!  Wet Autumns and wet Springs - not nice when there are few paved paths and roads.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Snow Day

I left work early yesterday to go to the bank.  I was a fortuitous move as the weather was closing in further.  The snow had started to fall as I arrived at the school in the morning and fell steadily such that about 20+ cm had built up against the window by the time this picture was taken about 1030 later that morning.
Oskemen Street Scene
Heading in the town, it was difficult to see far ahead through the bus windscreen and stepping off, I encountered first hand the drifts that the traffic had been bursting through.  The snow was light and dry and, even though the drifts were thigh deep in places across pavements, it was easy to walk through.  The difficulty was in making out where to go.  Park benches and road edges could not be seen and the surface was a uniform smooth white.  Looking at the entrance covers over doors to apartment blocks, I could see that by 4pm almost two feet or 50cm had built up in the day on flat surfaces sheltered by the trees from the wind blasts.
Blizzard at Irtysh Hotel
After finalising preparations for the next school day, I received a text at 9pm while the storm still continued, telling me that the schools would be shut today in the city and not to bother turning up to work.  Snow Day!
 Snow piled up!
The clearing of snow has started this morning.  There is a lot of the white stuff to move. Down by the River Irtysh, the promenade is covered in drifts and the river bed has white ice on it and little ice flows on the surface.
Icy River Irtysh