Monday, 31 August 2009


When I had an aquarium, some 30 years ago, I used to bake all our bread. I know, that sounds like a very strange juxtaposition, but I found the light-cap which was used to illuminate the aquarium made an excellent surface on which to prove the bread-dough.

Of course, in those days I needed to knead the dough by hand and this had to be repeated until the final rise was completed and the bread could be baked. Usually I baked five or six loaves at a time. The dough was made with flour freshly ground at our local windmill. I kid you not! Just up the road from where we lived in Horebeke, a small village between Oudenaarde and Zottegem, in East Flanders (Oost Vlaanderen), was a wooden windmill, called the Tissenhovemolen. Such a chance could not be missed, of course—be honest, how often have you seen the flour you use actually as grains poured into a funnel to find their way between the massive grinding millstones, all the while surrounded by the creakings and rumblings of a wonderful wooden windmill? Good flour it was, too!

We moved away from Horebeke in the mid-1990s, by which time the aquarium was long gone and the only bread we baked was made in a bread machine. It was good bread, nevertheless (or so Elise tells me; I have little time for the actual process of eating anything, let alone bread). Eventually the bread machine went the way of all modern machines and wasn't replaced as by then we lived close to a real baker—someone whose shop had a full bakery behind it and who got up at about two in the morning to have fresh bread ready for his early morning customers. I must admit that I was more interested in his Tom Poesen (large custard cream slices) than in his bread, and his eclairs were also quite exquisite.

Anyway, we're here in Spain now and the idea of a bread machine appealed to Elise again some months ago. Not that there's anything wrong with the bread that is available here: for me, the barras are perfectly good and there are more "wholesome" loaves to choose from, too. But She Who Is To Be Obeyed had decided that we should have a bread machine, so a bread machine we bought. I started with the few basic recipes that were provided in the instruction booklet, and they worked fine, but lately I have been experimenting with my own mixtures and some of these produce good results, so here's one you might wish to try if you, too, have a bread machine.

Perhaps I should first mention that the machine I use is a Moulinex Home Bread. Whatever machine you have, it is important to add the ingredients in the same order in which they are listed:

2 teaspoons of olive oil (or sunflower oil);
295 ml of liquid (I use half milk and half water);
2 teaspoons of salt;
2 teaspoons of sugar (I use dark brown sugar and tend to add a bit for luck);
125 gr plain white flour;
175 gr wholemeal flour;
200 gr strong white flour;
a handful of quite finely chopped nuts (I use walnuts, hazelnuts and pumpkin seeds);
1 teaspoon of bakers yeast (I use half a sachet of Maizena Levadura de panadería, which is equivalent to 7 gr of fresh yeast)

Simply put the ingredients in the machine's baking pan in the above sequence, finally sprinkling the yeast over the whole surface. I then use the programme for wholemeal bread (on our machine, that's programme 4), with the browning setting at maximum.


Friday, 14 August 2009

Slippin' and Slidin'

The recent flash floods in parts of Spain, most notably in Jaén, where rivers of mud flowed through a number of villages, and the terrible mudslides in Taiwan, brought to mind the coaltip slide in the Welsh village of Aberfan.

The problems in Spain and Taiwan were almost unavoidable, caused by highly unusual weather conditions and with no warning. Aberfan was different. There, 144 people, including 116 children were killed in 1966 because of the stubbornness of the National Coal Board and, more specifically, the chairman of that organisation, Lord Robens of Woldingham.

Aberfan is a small village situated in one of the former coalmining valleys of South Wales, a few kilometres south of Merthyr Tydfil. Like most (all?) mining villages at the time, the slopes of its valley were dominated by coal tips. When I lived in Gelli, in the Rhondda Valley, during the 1950s, I would climb up the valley sides to play on the tips—they made great slides and you could get really dirty. (Heaven only knows what else was tipped there, but the lake (it was probably no more than a pond, but it seemed like a lake in the eyes of the child) in one of the tips contained a red liquid.) At the time, too, we were used to tips creeping down the valley sides, gradually approaching the rows of houses towards the bottom of the valley. There were no safety precautions for these tips, neither for their placement, nor for their further exploitation. Several of the tips above Aberfan had been built up over a number of springs, that were clearly marked on maps made prior to the initiation of tipping.

The seepage of water from the springs below the tips, combined with effects of several days of rain, had already caused warnings to be raised about the possibility of an imminent tip slide. The warnings were ignored. On the morning of 21 October 1966, just as the children of the Pantglas junior school had finished assembly and were starting classes, a huge mass of rocks and slag separated from the tip and bore down onto the school itself and the houses of Moy Road, 20 of which were literally demolished. Part of the school was simply wiped out as the slide surged into the classrooms, killing some instantly, while others had a slower death under the blackness. Despite frantic rescue efforts that went on for hours and hours, no child was found alive after 11 o'clock that morning.

Robens, an Englishman, was informed of the disaster, but instead chose to go to his own investiture as chancellor of the University of Surrey, putting a silly ceremony at an English university before the lives of the Welsh schoolchildren. The NCB's attitude was further demonstrated by its officials when the Secretary of State for Wales tried to contact Robens in Aberfan, only to be told by them that Robens was personally directing rescue work, when he simply wasn't there. He turned up during the evening of the next day, and then took cynicism a step further by telling a reporter that the accident was unavoidable and attributing it to natural and unknown springs below the tip—a blatant lie, as the springs were shown on maps and the locals remembered them from before the time that tipping started on them.

During one of the inquests, the coroner wanted to note the cause of death for thirty of the victims as "asphyxia". Amidst calls of "murderers," one father stood up and said, "I want it recorded: Buried alive by the National Coal Board. That is what I want to see on the record. That is the feeling of those present. Those are the words we want to go on the certificate." I suspect that this is not what was recorded, but it is most certainly the truth.

Robens went on to steal £150,000 from the disaster fund (almost £2 million had been collected), which he used to comply with an order to remove the tips above the school. You can just imagine him chuckling about his cleverness, together with his lordly chums in their London club (no women or Welsh admitted, no doubt). Unbelievably, the Labour government of Harold Wilson allowed this monstrosity to stay on as chairman of the NCB. The Labour Party! Brought to power largely thanks to the efforts of Welsh coalminers, now turning against their very own at a moment of high personal crisis. This might well be the moment when the Labour Party moved away from their socialist ideals and took a right fork towards capitalism.

Further information about the Aberfan disaster can be found at
The Aberfan Disaster
Wikipedia article on Aberfan
British Pathé archives: This Is Tragedy (other films available)

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

High Noon

As mentioned in my previous post, Passport Control, the email from DHL contained the promise that my passport "will be delivered tomorrow (11/08/09) before 12 pm."

I didn't fully understand the reference to 12 pm, but quietly hoped that it meant noon rather than midnight.

Well, it is now about a quarter past twelve o'clock noon and no sighting of a DHL delivery van has been reported, so I think we can safely assume that "noon" was not the intended hour.

Mind you, according the the DHL online tracking service, the package has been in the possession of the DHL courier in Alicante since 09.58, so they have had plenty of time to travel the 35 Km or so from Alicante to El Campo de Guardamar, even assuming a few other drop-offs along the way.

Isn't waiting exciting?

Update: It's ten to one and DHL has just delivered my passport! Foolish me, thinking that 12 pm meant 12 noon CET. After all, this is a British passport, so clearly the time was given in UK time (whatever that's called -- I don't think it's GMT), meaning that 12 noon was really 1 pm or 13.00 CET.

The new passport is quite posh and is filled with representations of birds. Perhaps Bill Oddie had a part in designing it. What do they call them: twitters, tweeters…? You know what I mean, "bird-watchers" in old currency.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Passport Control

I have to say that I didn't believe anything about the delay in receiving my passport was because the Passport (dis)Service had to get my details from Brussels. Ten weeks? Come off it. We live in an age of rapid communication. If the excuse was true, then it is an indication of the poor state of the service (my details should be electronically stored and accessible; if they're not, then they should be retrievable in a matter of hours, not weeks); if the excuse was untrue, then somebody needs to be removed from the service for telling porkies to a member of the public.

Anyway, progress at last, for this afternoon I received an email from DHL:

The following 1 piece(s) have been sent via DHL International GmbH on
10/08/2009 on Shipment Number 4600619542.

Dear Sir/Madam
DHL inform you that your documents from the British Consulate General will be delivered tomorrow (11/08/09) before 12 pm.

[etc. with details of receiver, sender and package reference]

Exactly when 12 pm is remains a mystery. I've heard of 12 noon and 12 midnight; I've heard of 12.00 and of 12 hours, but 12 pm is a puzzle. I'd guess 12 midnight (12 hours post meridian is, after all, 12 midnight), but why then a specification of time?

Generally when someone has to deliver a package on the urbanisation where we live, they are unable to find the address. The urbanisation is new and there are many little roads; there is also no street map at the entrance to the urbanisation. The passport renewal request form I filled in foresaw this sort of problem (good marks!) and asked that delivery instructions be provided. With my renewal request, then, I included very detailed instructions and a street map, indicating the exact position of the house.

I wonder if DHL received this information (or did it go to Brussels…?).

We'll see tomorrow.

Before 12 pm…

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

UK Passport Service (or is it?)

We UK citizens do not enjoy the luxury of an identity card, more's the pity. Having lived in Belgium for 35 years and in Spain for three, I realise just how useful an ID card is, as I was able to use one in Belgium and can now carry one in Spain. Unfortunately, these ID cards are limited in their usefulness, as I remain a "foreigner" and so cannot use the ID card to cross borders. For this I still need a UK passport, which is far too big and far too expensive simply for travelling through the EU. Being islanders (I assume that's the reason), the British still seem to consider "international" travel as something really special. Heck, when we lived in Belgium, Elise and I would often do the shopping in the Netherlands -- the "border" (blink and you missed it) was only some 20Km from us, so it required no planning to do so. And a trip to France was equally easy, with Lille only some 50Km away and even Paris just 300Km.

Anyway, as a UK citizen (for whatever that's worth), I am required to carry a UK passport when I cross borders. Such a passport has only a ten-year validity and so I recently had to fill out a renewal request form (together with two photos, signed by a fine and upstanding citizen, who has known me for at least two years -- I ask you! Presumably this is part of the high tech battle against international terrorism) and return it to an address in Madrid. This was done by registered mail, sent on 4 June 2009; it arrived at its destination on 6 June and within two days the exorbitant charge for the renewal of my passport (some 150 euro) was charged to my Visa account.

After a few weeks of hearing nothing, I phoned the "help line". (Bear in mind that the help line is located in the UK and that a further exorbitant charge of over 1 euro a minute has to be paid in order to use this service.) This was on 7 July and I was told not to worry, as it was quite normal to have to wait so long, but that I should soon receive my passport. Do you know at what stage of the process my passport is? I wondered. No, that information was not available.

Two weeks later, on 21 July, having still heard nothing about my new passport, I phoned the help line again. The pleasant Scottish young lady with whom I spoke agreed that this was a long time to wait and promised to get in touch with Madrid to see what was wrong. She took all my details again (all the details which were already on the passport request and which she, apparently, could see on her computer), thereby costing me about 15 euro in phone costs.

Another week passed by with no news. Back to the "help line" and another Scot, though this time of masculine gender. Yes, indeed, most strange that the passport has not been delivered, as the charge has been made. Can you see if the passport has actually been sent? I asked. Er, no, that information isn't shown. Tell you what, I'll copy all your details and email Madrid again to ask them to get in touch with you. And, of course, I had to give all my details again, even though they obviously could be seen on the computer that Michael (the Scot) was using. Anyway, old Mike assured me not to worry and that Madrid would soon be in touch with me and, in case not, he gave me a case number which I should use in future enquiries (like many Scots, I suspect Michael to be a tad clairvoyant).

Madrid remained silent.

Yesterday, 4 August, I phoned the help desk again. Surprise, surprise, it was old Michael again. Aha, I thought, use the case number and this time I won't be so much out of pocket spending time giving my full name, date of birth, full address, etc. Foolish me. Michael was most surprised to hear that I had heard nothing from Madrid (Er, Michael, can I phone Madrid myself? No, no, that's not possible -- that would be too much like offering a decent customer service (that's my comment, not Michael's)). He said that he would email Madrid again, but would, of course, have to fill out another request form to do so. Oh, and the new computer system had a new template layout that he was not yet familiar with, so this might take a time, but stay on the line and bear with me. (Here you might ask why a button hadn't been scripted to copy the basic information required in every such request -- I asked that very question, but only to myself, as I figured that Michael already had enough on his mind, copying field by field.) Right, Madrid should get in touch with me very soon and I should also have my new passport in the shortest delay.

By now, I'm over 30 euro out in phone calls.

Still, bully for Michael, as today I received an email from the "Passport Support Office" located in Madrid, here in Spain. It read:

Dear customer
Further to your previous phone call to Passport Advice Line, just to let you know that your passport will be issued shortly. Then DHL Express will contact with you to arrange the delivery.

You have to note that the renewal of a lost & stolen passport take more than 10 working days because it needs extra checks. This situation has delayed the issue of the new passport.

Best regards

Hang on! My request was not for the renewal of a "lost & stolen" passport. Heck, I returned my passport with my renewal request, so it was hardly "lost & stolen". So a quick email back to the Passport Support Office to point this out:

There seems to be some confusion.

My passport request was not for the renewal of a lost or stolen passport. It was for the renewal of an existing passport, which was included with my request, sent by registered mail on 4 June 2009 and received in your offices (according to the Correos) on 6 June.

And lo and behold, a reply within the hour:

I am sorry for the confusion.

Your previous passport needed extra checks because it wasn't an machine readable passport instead of a lost & stolen passport. So, we had to request the previous file to Brussels where it was issued in 1999.

I hope that your new passport will be issued shortly.

If I read this correctly, it is quicker to get a replacement for a "lost & stolen" passport than for a standard passport issued outside the UK (in Brussels -- now that really is exotic).

At least the Passport Support Office "hopes" that my new passport "will be issued shortly".

So do I.

But this is hardly a Passport Service. Pathetic.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Man of Mystery

I've been an Elvis Presley fan for over fifty years and have my own set of Elvis-related sites, including one about Elvis books, another about original versions of songs also sung by Elvis, a catalogue of Elvis fan clubs around the world, and a list of Elvis events, as well as a few other subsites. Here, however, is something that doesn't fit into any category, but perhaps you can help.

A long-term Norwegian Elvis fan recently visited me and one of the things he brought with him was a photo of Elvis taken in about 1969. The photograph also shows a fan who looks very starry-eyed, meeting his idol. Just who is this man? Looking at his dress and the noticing that he is wearing an Elvis badge on his lapel -- the type of Elvis badge sold by fan clubs in Europe -- I would suggest that the fellow is a European on an early trip to see Elvis in Las Vegas. I might be way out, of course, so are you able to identify this mystery fan? If so, please reply using a comment to this blog.

Many thanks.