Sunday, September 28, 2014

A New Alcuin

It's been a bit quiet around here lately. The urge to write about the strange mishmash of things which occupy my mind at different times and to share the results with the world seems to have died. It could return, but I don't know when.

I have just started another blog, about education, the problems that exist, the causes of then and how they might be addressed, possibly solved. It cannot be what I would like it to be, as I don't have the time (and probably not the competence) to do the research and organization that would be necessary. So it will be a series of presentations of my ideas about large and small points related to education and teaching, comments on relevant news items, attempts to attract the interest of people who can change things, occasional ranting, both generalized and specific, and the odd piece about hedgehogs.

If you want to join in, please head over to A New Alcuin (there's a link on the blogroll, too) and agree, argue, correct, set straight, clarify, exemplify, add important detail, be it broadening or widening, or just give encouragement. Because education matters, and I can't change the world on my own.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Above and Beyond Llanes

We left Llanes this morning by the beach and went up into the hills. The path follows a back road then goes into the hills by the sea. Llanes was one of the great centres of emigration in the 19thC, and those who were successful came back from the Indies and built great houses in the town. Many can still be seen, along the channelled river and the road that lead down to the port. Some are ruined, some distressed, some maintained, some modernised. The great days of the Indiano are gone, but a part of his history and decline is told in the mix of styles, of sizes, of states of repair. Today's route was mostly about villages and beaches. The village of Niembru, reached ny a road that winds around its estuary, where boats lie in the mud. You walk almost completely around a large church and cemetery which abut the riverfront, for no obvious reason, as they are outside and below the town, and there should have been plenty of room. It looks as though they are placed there to more easily receive the bodies of dead sailors and fishermen, and it could well be true. We passed close to several beaches that looked fun to lie or swim on for a while. It was warm and sunny and the sand and the sea are very attractive then. Each has its associated camping and caravan site and its modern holiday apartments. Low, house-like buildings here, not the high, often ugly blocks of the south coasts. I have often wondered why it is that the camping type, usually young and with little money, seems more attracted by the north of Spain, where he is quite likely to waste his holiday watching it rain. From Niembru we climbed up above the beaches of Torimbia and San Antolín, which was our immediate goal. Torimbia is a famous nude beach, hard to reach, long, wide, fairly empty and very good for swimming and taking the sun on. We spent a day there about ten years ago. By nude, in this case I mean clothing optional. Mrs Hickory and I are tolerant of other people's nudity but are ourselves of the textile persuasion. Today we were, as I say, heading for San Antolìn, a long beach just by the road where the hill path we were on drops down agaon to sea level. The river Bedón flows out there, cutting a channel across the beach itself. This is common on these coasts. The shoreline is mostly cliffs, and the beaches are at the rias, the small estuaries where the many streams take advantage of the points where the rocks fold into the ground to break their way through to the sea. There are even inland beaches, like the Cobijeru that we saw the other day, and the Gulpiyuri, where we are now, where the sea comes through holes and channels in the rocks below the water level, creating pools and depositing sand, and creating a beach that has no waves, no horizon, and is completely enclosed by rock. Again we were accompanied at random points by the FEVE, the narrow gauge railway that operates along much of the north coast. It is perhaps unneeded now, but I am very fond of it. It is a bright, colourful railway, small yellow trains run fairly gently between small yellow stations on lines that cross and are crossed by paths and village roads, and you can share the lines if you wish, walk along them and go where the trains are going, as long as keep your eyes and ears open. They are friendly, humble trains, quite unlike the AVE'S and Talgos, trains with airs of superiority, which race past on segregated, fenced off tracks, and refuse to even notice you are there. The village we are staying in is called Naves. The hotel is aggressively modern and comfortable, the owner has an air of Norman Bates about him (if there is no blogpost tomorrow it might mean that we were right), and the village itself was 'Prettiest Village in Asturias in 1961'. It is still pretty, in a natural, upbeat, untwee kind of way. The right kind of stone and an interest in flowers add a great deal of prettiness to a place. So does the sun.

Monday, June 30, 2014

What is Left When the Present is Gone

The road, like life, for which it is such a perfect metaphor, is as much about the past as the present. What remains when the rest of the journey has vanished are the good times, the many moments which made the road worth walking. Much of the labour, the drudgery, is lost to the mind, and only the beautiful, the striking, thecurious, the great, the baffling, the monumental, the surprisingly satisfying, the unexpectedly perfect, is left in the mind. The 'lubina' I had for dinner in a cider house in Pendueles last night, caught that morning with a line by a man from the village who still makes his living thay way, and grilled to perfection over the charcoal. The bull that blocked our path on the hills near Andrín this morning. Andrín itself, beautifully kept, the newcomers building in the old style, clean and colourful, and with wonderful views of the mountains rising opposite. The bufones near Llanes, sinkholes in the karstic formations of the area, some almost perfect circles, apparently bottomless cylinders going deep into the earth, throwing out sprays of seawater when the high tide forces its way in and under then. The river Purón, ankle-deep and clear and cold, running to the sea just there between high cliffs, looking as though it were a thousand miles from the sea, a pure, green, gurgling stream that you cross on an old wooden bridge. And although it is the road itself that matters, you remember the joy of getting somewhere, when you thought you never would. The path from Andrín to Llanes rose higher and highe and turned ever more away from the town it was supposed to take us too. A strong wind was blowing and I had the feeling we would never arrive, but be forever taunted by the unattainable town we could seen beneath us on the shore, and we would be forever rising and turning away until from fatigue or desperation or dramatic necessity we would reach an edge that we must fall from. The water at the beach of El Sablón felt that much better this evening, because we had arrived.

Friday, June 27, 2014

On The Road Again...

Yesterday we arrived at San Vicente de La Barquera, a pretty fishing village on the coast of Cantabria, on the Bay of Biscay, and one of favourite places anywhere. The old castle is high on a rock between the two arms of the river,closing and dominating the oldest, walled part of the town. Below is the old port, now with as many small pleasure boats as fishing craft. They come in a great variety of colours, but bright blues, greens and reds are popular, and they are moored not just in the port, but along the seawall, off the bridge and into the estuary. This, and the habit of painting houses in similar colours, those that are'n t made of stone and wood, give a slightly chsotic brilliance to the scene. Behind the port the main street has stone collonades all along it and the buildings are mostly attractive and powerful, looking as though they have always been there and always will be. Apart from the beauty of the village itself, iit has a long wide beach bounded by high green cliffs, good for swimming and surfing, across the estuary, a short walk over the bridge, and many paths along the river and through other villages or into the hills. By walking beyond the beach up and over the headland you can, in a couple of hours of pathswith beautiful views and details of evrything that makes the area woryh seeing, reach Comillas, where Gaudí has a number of curious structures and Alfonso XII had his holiday palace. Not too far away are Santillana del Mar, a village that is as it was in the late middle ages, bright and lively in the sun, and still lived-in, the Caves of Altamira, some if the oldest and best preserved of all cave paintings, and the caves of El Soplao, also fascinating to anyone with imagination and an interest in what we once were. We swam at the beach to refresh the limbs from the journey, then had dinner in the Boga Boga, which is the best place to eat if the reader ever finds himself there. The percebes were caught that morning, the nécora, a kind of crab, was grilled to perfection and the turbot, which had also been happily swimming that same morning before it was suddenly interrupted by a fisherman, was also perfectly done. It seemed a shame to leave this morning, but we had come to walk, to continue where we stopped two years ago, and so we hoiked on our rucksacks and set off. The route I had planned took us over the cliffs, through a handful of small villages, past fields of orange and purple cows, horses, donkeys, sheep and very small goats (you don't tend to think of goats as pretty, but these are, especially the kids). When I say fields, I mean any patch of hillside without too many trees that can be fenced off and where a sufficiently expert driver can handle a tractor without sliding backwards into the sea. This is not the broad, flat, dry landscape of Castille. The village we are in now, in a small and comfortable rural hotel specially built to look as though it has been here forever, is called Pechón and is high on a headland between two of the estuaries which break upthe cliffs every few miles all along this coast. You reach it by walking a couple of miles up a steep road that climbs beside one estuary, and going halfway across the headland. You could also get there by doing something exactly symmetrical from the other side. It is one of the things I like about, pleasing to the mathematical mind. From the balcony we can see the village below and the see, and the showers sweeping in one agter the other from the north. Green places are green for a reason. Where the road crosses the ría, before the climb begins, you can look to the left and see, within a hundred yards, the old road bridge, still used for some reason, the bridge where the narrow-gauge railway crosses, and the little station beside it, and high above it, the new bridge where the motorway crosses and buries itself in a tunnel through the hills. And the coloured boats on the water, of course. A living vignette of human movement and ingenuity through the centuries. It should have been a photo, not just a memory, but it started raining at that moment and I got distracted. Mrs Hickory is always determined to swim, especially on a new beach, whatever the weather and the attendant circumstances. I approve of thishabit in general. This afternoon that meant walking down- down being the significamt word- through a light drizzle to a rocky brach with a dangerous undertow to stroll bravely into the chilly water, do a few strokes back and forth to make it worthwhile, and then trying to get dry in the rain before climbing back up again to the village. This is fun, really it is. The beach is characterful and atmospheric, small and shut in by tough looking rocks, giving you the sense of being alone against the Atlantic and the whole of nature. That's why it's fun. Blogging by phone, apologies for typos etc

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year Hedgehog

Galatea and Hickory wish readers a very Happy New Year, for your own value of happiness.

The Holy Family, for some reason, are not amused by baby hedgehogs, but they'll get used to her in time for next Christmas.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

On the Purpose of Dictionaries

Do not pay attention, child, to the Academics (of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language). They are theologians of language, restricting, confining, limiting, fearing change, without art or imagination. Read the great writers, listen to the great orators, learn from the great communicators, see as great artists have seen. They are the mystics of language, and they will teach you what the inbred pseudo-knowledge of the instructors cannot.

There is an article in El País about the new edition of the  DRAE, which will be published next year. It starts off rather stupidly but in fact it's quite good. It praises it for being 'less sexist', apparently thinking that a dictionary which reflects what some people think language should be and how it should be used is better than one that reflects how it really is and how it is really used. 'Gozar' is still used to mean 'have sex with a woman' and a dictionary that fails to recognize that is not a good dictionary. The editor, Pedro Álvarez de Miranda, states that the point of the new dictionary is to be better, not less sexist, which is a good start. Then the article goes on to acknowledge that language is not what the RAE decrees it to be, and that no one looks at what the Academy has said before speaking or writing. On the whole, as I say, a good article.

The Dictionary has always tried to teach people how it thinks they should speak, and has been largely ignored other than by writers of style manuals and professors of language, who tend to use it as a reference (perhaps because they have to). It does not have anything like the scope of the Oxford English Dictionary, which is a magnificent work of scholarship and, like a swimming pool in Bali with pretty young waitresses serving chilled rum as you float by; once dipped into it's hard to get out of.

There are better dictionaries of the Spanish language. María Moliner's is probably the best, and for etymology the six volumes of Corominas are unequalled. The DRAE, on the other hand, is for people who want their homework to get a good grade, or their article to be accepted by a newspaper. A fine and useful work, but with a specific purpose to define what is good and evil in language.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Aboriginal Nimbys

I read this a few weeks ago (here, in the National Geographic), and I think it is worth a few observations from left field.

It is interesting in its assumptions,  both journalistic and anthropological. It starts off with, in fact it mostly consists of, a series of anecdotic little details, probably largely invented, about the lives of the people Michael Finkel was talking to and about. This is what journalists do, they call it human interest and learn it the first day on the job. The fact that a supposed science article is not tabloid journalism is rather lost on this chap, who probably isn't a scientist anyway. He's just a writer, he doesn't seem to have any other relevant background. He has some curiosity, which is something, but too many preconceptions and not enough ability to observe.

What is described is presented uncritically, as good, virtuous, a model for the rest of us. But if you set aside the casual racism which treats Aborigines, in the category of those who live differently and take their traditions more seriously than we do, as simple but exotic animals, and actually see them as people, they come across, as transmitted to us by Michael Finkel, as selfish and arrogant.

They do not live in harmony with nature. That is a silly idea peddled by hippies and believed by the ignorant. Primitive peoples live at the mercy of nature, and survive, to the extent that they do, by holding it off as long as possible. They live as they do because they can't live better.


The  village described is a dictatorship in which the tyrant is an old woman. Her right to arbitrarily control what happens and  what people can do is accepted not only by the villagers but also by those outside, who should know better. They appear to do no work, but live from other people's efforts, for which they show no gratitude. They have, they demand, that other people provide electricity for them, but they will not allow mining in their area. No planning process, no quid pro quo. Just the ukase of the matriarch. Classic nimbyism. They demand that others work for them and provide them with things, but it must be other people's land that is spoilt to provide it. And apparently this makes them virtuous. The writer has not thought this through.