From the Farne Islands blog...

When it all gets too much, try your hand at this fiendish Christmas Quiz, courtesy of Hildie's nephew Rob...

1  The 12 Days Of Christmas end on 6 January.  What is this day known as in the Christian calendar?
2  Which of these is a real village in the UK: Chipolata, Cranberry, Sprout, Tinsel or Stuffing?
3  In the book and film Polar Express, what does the boy choose when Santa invites him to ask for anything he wants?
4  Which Dickens novel features a Christmas party at Dingly Dell?
5  On the original ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, Paul Young sang the first line ‘It’s Christmas time, there’s no need to be afraid’. But who sang the first line on the 1989 version and the 2004 version?
6  According to tradition, which of Santa’s reindeer is Rudolph’s father?
7  In Scrabble, what is the face value in points of the word CHRISTMAS?
8  Who played the title role in the 1951 version of Scrooge?
9  In Raymond Briggs’s story The Snowman, what is the name of the little boy who flies through the air with him?
10  In which Bond film does the character of Christmas Jones appear?
11  When he ran into the village, what was Frosty The Snowman carrying with him?
12  Which animals pull Santa’s sleigh in Sweden?
13  Which Christmas story do these words come from: ‘Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store’
14  Why were Joseph and the expectant Mary on their way to Bethlehem in the first place?
15  Who released the Christmas single ‘I Believe In Father Christmas’?
16  Which festive character did Robert L May invent in 1939?
17  In the 1990 Christmas film ‘Home Alone’, where did the family go on holiday?
18  In the song ‘Jingle Bells’, what is the name of the horse?
19  What changed in 1752 which caused Britain to have a White Christmas less frequently thereafter?
20  Which of the three wise men brought gold as a gift to Jesus?

What lines follow these...
1  To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray
2  In fields where they lay, keeping their sheep
3  Joyful all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies, with the angelic host proclaim…
4  O come ye to Bethlehem. Come and behold him
5  Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel

There’s a tie-breaker, too..
Isaac Newton died on Christmas Day - in what year?

Answers on Boxing Day!

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I had the very great pleasure of meeting up with Hildie, Brenda and Dave yesterday - and was genuinely delighted finally to receive a Christmas letter that Hildie wrote in 2005 but didn't send.

Here are some of the cracker jokes it contained...

Who beats his chest and swings from Christmas cake to Christmas cake?

What do Eskimos sing when they get their Christmas dinner?
Whalemeat again

'That huge turkey must have cost a fortune!'
'Actually, I got it for a poultry amount'

What do you call people who are afraid of Santa Claus?

Why didn't the skeleton go to the Christmas party?
Because he had no body to go with

What do you get if you eat Christmas decorations?

How does Good King Wenceslas like his pizzas?
Deep and crisp and even

What do you give a Station Master for Christmas?
Platform shoes

How do sheep greet each other at Christmas?
A merry Christmas to ewe

What do Santa's elves learn at school?
The elf-abet

Who delivers presents to young sharks at Christmas?
Santa Jaws

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A VERY big thankyou to everyone who sent me birthday cards this year.  They eased the discomfort of my having reached 65 - and receiving my pension!

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Post comments on this blog or email me:  truckshunters@googlemail.com

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Things accumulate under my bed.  Every time I move it to do my hospital ends, some new piece of mouldering junk appears where I’m sure there was none before.  In the last week alone I’ve unearthed a small box marked ‘Photos of the Lake District’ ( - it was full of software for a computer I threw away 8 years ago - ), a plastic bag full of garden twine, a rug-making hook, a shoebox of old postcards, a book about the health-care of kittens and a packet of cheap crayons.

All of these things have been ruthlessly discarded without a second thought - except for the shoebox of postcards.  I discarded that, too, but only after I spent a very pleasant afternoon looking through its contents.

There were postcards from, seemingly, everybody and everywhere - and they were so dated that the identity of some of their senders was lost on me.  At least two of them have died.

A couple of the cards, though, caught my eye.

The first was a perfect gem of composition.  It was from someone whose name is familiar to us, although modesty and fear of litigation prevent me from revealing the sender’s identity.

The postcard was sent from Valencia in Spain.  This is what it said…

“It’s fiesta time!  Nights of wild fandango dancing - with my fan in one hand and my dango in the other.  All these gorgeous Spaniards about.  I gave my companion some castanets but he still didn’t click.  For lunch today we had Sausage España - a kind of Toad in the Olé.

We’ve been to a restaurant next to the bullring with magnificent sweetbreads fresh from the bull after the fight.  However, this evening, the sweetbreads were absolutely tiny and I asked the waiter why they were so  small.  ‘Sometimes’ he said, ‘the bull wins!’

To get into the party spirit I’ve been wearing my bolero and crushed velvet matador pants - so practical for draughty rides in police vans.  We met Juan today.  My mate looked over the road and said ‘I think he’s Juan as well’.

The firework displays have been fantastic.  I put a banger down a Spanish lad’s trousers and we went off together…"

Any ideas about who could have sent it?

The second card was blushingly complimentary, which is why I’ve decided to keep it forever.  The problem is that I don’t know who sent it.

According to the postmark, it was sent from Newcastle on 18 August 2008.  The front is a picture of Tower Bridge at night with lots of bright, twinkling stars in the sky.

On the back, the sender has written simply ‘Best wishes from a silent listener’.

How flattering is that?  It’s the kind of response that made me feel that The Nightshift was a job worth doing.  So - belatedly, and in the hope that its sender might be reading this - THANKYOU!

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If proof were needed that the Honourable Company of Truckshunters includes folk of peculiar and esoteric interests (and it’s not), here’s a pangram.

A pangram is a sentence that contains all the letters of the language in which it’s written.

Pangrams in English are rare and difficult enough.  Ray Hobbs, though, has gone several steps further.  The one he sent me is in Welsh…

Mae'n peth erchyll a phwdr, lleddf, cloff, hen, rhudd, sengl, atgofus, blin.
'It is a horrible thing and rotten, crooked, lame, old, russet, single, haunting, angry.'

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The two photos of wonderful pavement art were sent to me by Dave Shannon; they were drawn by a man called Nikolaj Arndt, whom God preserve.
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Post comments on this blog or email me:  truckshunters@googlemail.com


In the Comments box of the last posting, Brenda commented on my inexplicable dislike of Bishop Auckland.  This is what she said…

‘I'm so glad I'm not the only person to take an unreasoning and unreasonable dislike to places. In 1987 I visited Turkey and disliked it from the moment I stepped off the aircraft - nothing had happened just a feeling of dislike that washed over me. And nothing that happened in the subsequent stay would tempt me back. 

Similarly Glasgow - lovely people - some great architecture - but overall I just don't like it. Might have something to do with being in the first trimester of pregnancy the first time I visited so felt continuously sick - but I've been back unpregnant and still didn't like it. 

Cardiff leaves me cold too.

Italy, Finland, Rotherham, Paris (except the Gare du Nord), Inverness, Sheffield and lots of other places I'd revisit at the drop of a hat.’

Let’s start from first principles….

You can’t like every place you visit and disliking places like Middlesbrough, Plymouth (God forbid) or Reading is perfectly understandable and thus perfectly excusable - they have no redeeming features at all.

The same applies to people, I suppose.  Loathing Simon Callow, Dale Winton or Piers Morgan is not unreasonable, and for fairly obvious reasons.

Sometimes, though - as Brenda so astutely points out - we question our innate dislike of a place or a person because it’s not immediately obvious why we don’t like them.  We even try to find explanations for our dislike, as Brenda does with Glasgow.

I’m calling this The Bentonbag Syndrome - an irrational and often unsettling dislike of a place or a person.

So, Brenda...let’s see now….

A genuine case of the Syndrome.

I’m with you on this one.  As you say, lots of lovely architecture (Charles Rennie Mackintosh and others) but...but… I’ve visited Glasgow several times and have never, ever, felt completely ‘safe’ or happy there.  I don’t know why - I just don’t.

So maybe another candidate for the Syndrome.

Good Syndrome stuff.  I can’t think of any reason in particular for you to dislike it.  Paris it aint - but it’s not Calcutta, either!

A country that seduces you into affection almost despite itself.  Disliking Italy would be like disliking chocolate - unthinkable.

Sheffield, Rotherham, Inverness…
Personally, I would put Inverness on my Bentonbag Syndrome list.  For some reason, I couldn’t quite see the point of Inverness.  It’s not ugly or unfriendly, but I remember sitting by the river there and thinking how lovely it would be if Inverness was quietly washed away and whether anyone would notice.
Agreed.  Disliking Paris is like disliking Italy - unimaginable.  Anyone who doesn’t like Paris should seek help urgently.  Ironically, this includes a lot of non-Parisian French people, who detest it to its very core and never, ever, go there.

You’re right about the Gare du Nord, too.  For the uninitiated, this is the Paris terminal of Eurostar and it’s an absolute shithole.  It’s like stepping off the train straight into a lake of Parisian effluent through which you have to wade with a clothes-peg on your nose until you reach the fresh air and aggressive beggars outside.

Paris hasn’t yet mastered the art of important transport hubs.  Gare de Lyon and Charles de Gaulle Airport are just as bad.

You’re only the second person I’ve ever known who’s been to Finland.  When did you go?  What’s it like?

I am sooooo jealous!

My own Bentonbag Syndrome list would start with Bishop Auckland (naturally) but would also include…

As I said in the blog at the time, I felt uneasy and uncomfortable in Munich.  It’s a very grand and prosperous city but there was just ‘something in the air‘ that I didn’t like.  I’ve thought about this a lot and still can’t get to the bottom of it.

A victim of the ‘Inverness Effect’; I couldn’t stop myself wondering why it was there at all.

We took the Blue Bus to Liverpool a few years back and I hated it.  Part of an old job I had in the Civil Service ages ago involved visiting nearby Runcorn quite a lot and I didn’t like that, either.  Don’t ask me why, though.
Port Sunlight, however, is lovely.

So now - over to the truckshunters for further nominations for inexplicable dislikes.  Who else out there suffers from the Bentonbag Syndrome?

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My friend Sue recently remarked that she could remember the state I was in the very first time I flew.  It was in 1985 and the flight was from Luton (another place to be added to my Bentonbag Syndrome list) to the Greek island of Paros. 

I was genuinely petrified.  Then, as now, I couldn’t understand the physics or aerodynamics of it all.  Aeroplanes just look as if they shouldn’t be able to heave their huge bulks so gracefully and (seemingly) effortlessly off the ground and then lower them gently down again so that, most of the time at least, you don’t even know you’ve landed.

So Sue was right - that first flight was a deeply unsettling experience.  My then-partner, who was a very perceptive GP and who should therefore have known better, seated me next to a window so that I could get the full, stomach-churning effect of watching Luton recede rapidly beneath us.  Each jolt and shudder of the aircraft spelled impending catastrophe and my fists remained firmly clenched until the novelty of my first-ever view of the Greek islands scattered across the Aegean below us took over.

(Incidentally...why do aeroplanes shudder and shake like that?)

Sue made her remark because, in truth, I’ve become something of a seasoned flyer now.  There’s a certain amount of fatalism involved in the approach I take.  After all, once you’re up there, there’s not much you can do if something should go wrong.  Your fate rests in the hands of others so you may as well sit back and try to enjoy the experience; treat it as an adventure.

Custom and usage have a lot to do with it, too.  Since I retired, I’ve flown to and from France 25 times (lucky me!) as well as to New York and back.  So, when the time came to board the first flight of my round-the-world journey, there was no unease at all.  Only exuberance and excitement and anticipation of the 46 days ahead of me.

The only factor which essentially differentiates one flight from another (apart from the length of the flight, of course) is the airline that’s carrying you.  My frequent flights to France have been courtesy of easyJet (whom God preserve, and whom I honour by typing their name in that silly way they have).  This means that I’ve grown accustomed not only to their matter-of-fact friendliness but also to their garish orange cabin-crew uniforms, which should be abandoned forthwith and replaced with something less offensive - like bin bags and paper sacks.  As long as they are not orange as well.

My journey round the world involved flights with 5 different airlines.  And I guess it’s worthwhile bearing in mind how big a part airlines played during my journey and just how long I was in the air - over 54 hours.

So, just for the hell of it, I’ve ranked them here in order of ‘customer (me) satisfaction’.

At number 5…
Virgin Atlantic.
My first and last flights - to Hong Kong and from Boston - were with Virgin Atlantic and are chiefly memorable for being so forgettable.  The cabin crew looked bored both times, the food - never particularly good on an aeroplane - was indifferently tasteless and the cabin crew uniforms made them look as if blood had been spilt.

At number 4…
United Airlines - with whom I travelled from Victoria to San Francisco, and from there to New York City.  During the second of these flights, I was chatting to my neighbour about the apparent lack of interest the crew were showing toward their charges and was told I was applying European standards to an American institution, which surprised me.

UA food was better but there wasn’t nearly enough of it.  I disembarked and dashed straight to an airport café.

The only reason UA are not at number 5 is that their uniforms are nicer to look at.

At number 3…
Virgin Australia, with whom I flew between Perth and Sydney.  Their only sin was that of being stultifyingly formal and dull - and they wore the same, blood-soaked uniforms as their Virgin Atlantic colleagues.

At number 2…
Air New Zealand.
I flew with them from Sydney to Queenstown and between Auckland and Vancouver.  I know I shouldn’t judge an airline by something as superficial as the design of its livery or the cut of its cabin-crews’ jib but - as I said earlier - these are often the only things that differentiate one airline from another.  And Air NZ scored heavily here.

The Maori-inspired design of its logo, the handsome and elegant uniforms its staff wear, the quality of the food ( - the best airline food of the whole trip - ) and the jaunty, kiwi friendliness of everyone involved, lifts it almost to number 1.  Almost, but not quite…

And the winner is….
Singapore Airlines, whose reputation for elegant efficiency, personal attention and smiling assistance goes before it - and is thoroughly deserved.  I travelled with them from Hong Kong to Singapore, and from there to Perth, and actually enjoyed the experience in a positive, non-passive, way.

For a start, the cabin crew looked lovely.  The women wore dark, long, patterned dresses with a kind of ‘Singapore slit’.  The men were a perfect match - simple, dark suits and ties.  And they seemed to have the knack of being wherever they were needed - all the time.  They were by your side with whatever you wanted before you knew you wanted it.

And the seductive, typically Far East, deference they brought to their dealings with customers, was very nice indeed!

And finally….there’s a curious postscript to this assessment of air travel.

Those of you who’ve used an aircraft’s toilet will know that it’s a completely different animal to the contraption we’re used to at home.  Instead of being flushed out by the simple force of gravity, whatever’s in the bowl is sucked out worryingly quickly and in a matter of a few milliseconds - with a satisfyingly final-sounding gulping noise.

Well, I was surprised to find that toilets like these are now being installed in private houses and hotels - at least, in the places I visited.  And a good thing, too.  They’re more efficient, more hygienic and more ‘planet friendly’ in their use of water.

And I want one.

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Post comments on this blog or email me:  truckshunters@googlemail.com
One of the few genuinely eccentric things I found in Auckland, 'The White Lady' burger van 
has been parked here for 68 years.  The burgers are absolutely delicious - although the van is typically difficult to find!
So what to say about Auckland - my last melancholy destination in New Zealand…

Well, up here in north-east England we have our very own Auckland, of course.  Except that it’s not so much a ‘place’, more of a vast mediaeval estate with a mysterious name and places ending in ‘Auckland’ planted on it here and there.  West Auckland, St Helens Auckland, St Andrew Auckland (more usually called South Church) and - wait for it - Bishop Auckland.

I’ve never really known why Bishop Auckland sets my teeth on edge quite as much as it does.  I lived and worked in that area of County Durham for a few years and have nothing but unqualified praise and admiration for, for example, the beautiful ancient churches of St Helen and St Andrew, the ruins of the Roman fort of Vinovia (with a hypocaust and a stretch of Roman road still intact), the neglected national gem at Escomb…

Unalloyed encomiums (encomia?) like that always have a downside, though.  And, in this case, the downside is Bishop Auckland.  It stands as the main town on the ancient Auckland estate, it contains Auckland Palace - the sumptuous and rather too worldly residence of the Bishops of Durham - and yet...and yet…

I think that, lying at the base of my dislike is a simple feeling of disappointment.  Bishop Auckland ought to be a lot more than it actually is - a dull, pedestrian, ‘narrow-minded‘ little town with nothing to offer a visitor but po-faced people who resemble the pitbull terriers they all own - in looks and temperament.

Bishop Auckland commits the unforgivable sin of being boring.  Not exactly ugly, like Middlesbrough or Plymouth (God forbid) - just plain boring.  Plain and boring.

Over the centuries, this didn’t stop its ruling family - the Edens - from becoming immensely rich by exploiting the area’s coal deposits; a charmless characteristic they shared with all of County Durham’s coal-owners.  That’s why the splendid coaching inn at Rushyford is called The Eden Arms.

Sir Anthony Eden - a scion of the same family (isn’t ‘scion‘ a lovely word?) became Prime Minister in the 1950s and managed to make a complete pig’s breakfast of the Suez Crisis.

And one of his pre-Victorian ancestors was honoured in a much more grandiose way than merely having a roadside pub named after him.  When George, the first Earl of Auckland (no less), was viceroy of India in the 1840s, the new Governor of New Zealand (a man called William Hobson) decided to name that country’s new capital city after him for reasons best known to himself.

The Treaty of Waitangi had just been signed; this was the agreement that was supposed to settle the differences between European settlers in New Zealand and the native Maoris.  It didn’t - and modern kiwis are still suffering its consequences.

Governor Hobson wanted to celebrate this pyrrhic victory by building a new city.  And the result was Auckland.

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Whatever else he was, Governor Hobson was no fool.  Auckland sits on a wide isthmus that links both ends of North Island and therefore faces seaward in two directions.  Its climate is balmy and welcoming (except in summer, when it’s steamy, and in winter, when it rains stair-rods).  Its bays are dotted with gorgeous, beach-girt islets full of yachts and second homes, it’s prosperous and wealthy.  And yet….and yet…

It has something in common with the place from which it ultimately derives its name.

Auckland is dull.
This lad was arrested, handcuffed and marched away right in front of me.  I keep wondering what his crime was and what happened to him.

Although it's no longer a capital city, it’s New Zealand’s largest city by far - almost a third of the country’s entire population lives here.  It has an extraordinarily rich ethnic mix, too; ‘pukeha’, the descendants of European settlers, mingle happily with Maoris and with the biggest Polynesian population on Earth (including Polynesia).
The National Theatre in Auckland

It has fine parks, bustling and prosperous shopping streets, high-rise office blocks, a terrific Art Gallery and Museum, two busy work-and-leisure seafronts, a big university - and three (count them) active volcanoes, one of which is called Mount Eden.

All of which should make Auckland a thriving city of excitement, innovation and adventure.

How the sum of all these parts contrives to be a city quite so dull is anyone’s guess.

It’s a ‘scrappy’ sort of city - the Lonely Planet guide’s words, not mine.  You can walk and walk along street after street and nothing in particular catches your eye.  Featureless roads rise and fall and cross in straight lines.  The main harbour area is windily fronted by ghastly 1950s offices.
I had to compose this harbour-front photo carefully in order to avoid including the dreary architecture to left and right.

Anything of any interest - the Art Gallery, the Sky Tower - either entails a long, dreary walk along streets of faceless, cheapjack shops or is hidden away somewhere.  I discovered the best Swiss ice-cream parlour outside Switzerland squeezed in between two tatty souvenir shops; and one of my more enjoyable experiences in Auckland - the Saturday morning food market - was initially marred because I couldn’t actually find it.
The Saturday morning food market.  
The buildings you can see give an idea of what the city looks like.

I was only in Auckland for one day and perhaps I took my anti-Auckland prejudices with me from County Durham.  Perhaps I was simply expecting too much. 

Or perhaps I was just feeling so sorry for myself that nowhere in the world could have alleviated my melancholy.  I’d just abandoned my campervan to its fate - it had been my wonderful, fancy-free home for two weeks - and was spending my final few hours in this astonishing country.

Slurping Swiss ice-cream in Ordinary Auckland, I still understood why so many, many people have fallen in love with New Zealand.  I looked out over the harbour and felt something akin, I think, to grief that I would probably never be going back.

I hoped I had done New Zealand justice and had made the most of my time there.

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That the Earth turns on its axis - and thus presents a slightly different face to the Sun at any given time - is not of itself a Bad Thing.  It gets tricky, though, when you take into consideration that this happens every 24 hours - that is, once a day.

I’m well-used to the mere facts of time-differences.  As I write, it’s 1900 in England.  In Auckland, it’s already 0800 tomorrow morning.  In San Francisco, on the other hand, it’s just coming up to lunchtime earlier today. 

As long as this is so, it follows that someone must have decided where on Earth today ends and tomorrow starts.  And they have.  It’s called the International Date Line and it’s been running plumb down the centre of the Pacific Ocean since 1884.  To its right is yesterday, to its left, tomorrow.

(There are various, hopelessly confusing anomalies.  The Polynesian island groups known as Kiribati and French Polynesia are within a few hundred miles of each other; at their closest, they are as far apart as Edinburgh and London.  When Kiribati gained independence, it asked to be moved to the other side of the International Date Line.  Thus, even though the sun rises at exactly the same moment on both island groups, in Kiribati it’s, say, Friday morning whilst in French Polynesia, it’s Thursday morning.

I couldn’t live like that.)

I was about to fall victim to this clumsy arrangement.  The next stage of my journey involved a flight from Auckland to Vancouver - across the Date Line.  I would therefore be travelling - Doctor Who style - backwards in time; from today to yesterday.

My flight from New Zealand to Canada lasted 14 hours.  It left Auckland at 2000 on Sunday evening.  It arrived in Vancouver at 1400 the same day; that is, it landed 6 hours before it took off.

Go figure.
 This splendid airport sculpture of a Lord of the Rings dwarf was just about the last thing I saw of Auckland and New Zealand.

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Post comments on this blog or email me:  truckshunters@googlemail.com

Two more images of the cross-cultural pavilion at Te Kuiti.
The sculpture of the Maori man, and of the Maori 'totem', made powerful impressions.

On my 64th birthday, a well-meaning but ultimately misguided friend sent me a link to a special kind of website.   It's one of many that offer a deceptively simple 'service' to their users.  You write an email and send it to yourself.

You can, of course, do this at any time.  The seductive aspect of the linked site is that you can specify the date on which you want the email sent to you.  Which means that, on some future date, you receive an email that will remind you of how you felt the day you wrote it and - depending on how seriously you take these things - one that will give you a self-penned catalogue of how you saw your hopes and fears and challenges at the time.

So...I sat right down and wrote myself an email.  I received it yesterday, on the morning of my 65th birthday - exactly one year after I wrote it.

It makes sobering reading - which, I guess, they usually do.  After all, nothing really goes to the design you set for it, feelings don't last forever and our perceptions of people, events and 'things' change, even slightly, as time passes.

It would be unwise to the point of folly for me fully to reveal the contents of my email.  That way lies perdition and humiliation, both of which stalk the ageing and unwary and both of which should therefore be avoided at all costs by the wary (ageing or not).

The email is an inventory of sentimentality, misplaced priorities, unattainable ambitions, frankly bizarre observations and hopeless misperceptions.  I must be getting old.

'Dear FutureMe,
Yesterday was your 64th birthday.  You met up with Hildie, talked way too much about Serge (again) then went to see Skyfall....
...this year you managed to get to Berlin and Munster - so did Barry and Jean.  That all made you very happy.  It was the natural thing to do...
...you spent your first Christmas in France....
So here we are....
You met up with Paul today....he has sold The Quadfather. Watch this space!
It took you 2 hours and more to get home from Paul's in the blizzard....
You are going to Paris for Saint-Saëns anniversary next weekend - then on to Beaujolais to bring Serge here for Christmas.
We are meeting up with Susan in Edinburgh.
As for plans...'

Which is where it got really embarrassing.


I've just written another.  It will be sent to me on my 66th birthday.

If you want to risk a little self-revelation, try it.

http://ohlife.com/timecapsule/splash - or try FutureMe.org

(If the links don't work, copy and paste them into the Search box of your browser.)

Go on...I dare you...

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Does anybody know when the next AGM is?

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Post comments on this blog or email me:  truckshunters@googlemail.com
Papamoa Beach, looking north-west

The world is too much with us...

That may seem like a tritely unoriginal thought - and indeed it is.  William Wordsworth thought it as long ago as 1806.  And if he found fit to bemoan all the ‘getting and spending’ in 1806, it’s difficult to imagine what he would have made of the world that is with us even more over 200 years later.

The notion that we’re all far too busy doing things to ‘stop and stare’ applies specially, I think, to those who spend their lives in cities - people like me.  Urban dwellers live in an environment of permanently available - or at least desirable - acquisitions and tend to be helplessly enticed into believing that having things is not a means but an end.

But the 21st-century has added a new, regrettable and even ominous twist to the cycle of urban ‘busy-ness’:  most of us are now in a position to be permanently in touch with each other. The final part of David Attenborough’s Life on Earth - the part about human beings - was called The Compulsive Communicator and, as in all things, he managed to hit the evolutionary nail on the head.

If towns and cities represent the finest flowering of human culture and civilisation, then the now constant babble of endless communication should be the accompanying sound-effect.  We have forgotten what it means not just to be silent but to be incommunicado - even for a while.  And I’m as much a part of this foreground noise as anyone else.  After all, until recently, I worked in a business - radio - where silence was regarded dangerously as ‘empty air’.  As if there’s something inherently wrong with empty air.

Mobile phones and their ilk have transformed our daily lives to such an extent that we are now able to be in contact with almost everyone we know - and many other people we don’t know - all the time, wherever we are.  Which is comforting and reassuring and makes us feel less insecure and alone.

At least, that’s the theory.  On my journey round New Zealand in my isolated, lonely little campervan - holed up in remote campsites for which the phrase ‘off the beaten track’ could have been invented - I was able to put this theory to the test.  For there, far away from my natural and customary urban environment, I dared to (wait for it) ....switch off my phone.

There was often no point in leaving it on - there was often no signal.  And there were many times when my laptop computer was next to useless, too - there was no wifi worth the name.  Over the course of my two-week meander, I became not only used to being out of touch; I actually, and quite seriously, grew to relish it.  I found myself deciding to switch off my phone even where there was a usable signal (which is in most of New Zealand, amazingly).  I didn’t bother to look for campsites with wifi.  I wallowed in the pleasure of nobody knowing exactly where I was - me included - and of knowing that nobody could get in touch with me to find out.

I re-acquainted myself with the concept of ‘aloneness’ and thoroughly enjoyed it.

For most of the time, I had no-one to talk to so I talked to myself.  I loudly reassured myself that I was on the right road; confirmed with myself that the view off to the left was spectacular; reminded myself to fill the diesel tank; and - in the evening - conversed with myself over a coffee about what a splendid day it had been.

And I didn’t even notice all this was happening until I arrived in Auckland at the end of my time in New Zealand.  Having been away from towns and cities of any size for (only) two weeks, the hurry and the bustle - and the constant babbling into mobile phones - was like being taken from a world that wasn’t quite with us a lot of the time to one that was with us far, far too much.

All these people compulsively communicating.  But with who?  About what, exactly?

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My last two nights in the campervan had been truly and beautifully lonely.  I’d spent the penultimate night at Papamoa Beach - or rather, on Papamoa Beach.  The campsite edge was just feet away from the high-tide mark and the wonderful Julie - yes, another Julie - had given me the prime plot; atop the dunes with an endless view over sand and rocks and headlands to a distant island called Motiti, which appeared as a thin, grey-blue, strip on the sunset horizon.


In just a few steps from my dune-top, campsite plot, I was wandering along the foreshore - quite alone - thinking deep, unworldly, thoughts and regretting that I had only one more night in my mobile nest; my cocoon that kept the world away.

Papamoa Beach was awesomely beautiful and there was, quite genuinely, nowhere else on Earth I’d rather have been.  Nowhere else could possibly match that darkling, oceanic majesty.  I was still outside looking at it long after the sun had set and the unfamiliar southern stars were shining down on me.

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New Zealand’s longest river is the Waikato.  I had seen the river at the Huka Falls, where it leaves Lake Taupo to begin its journey to the sea.  (Incidentally, someone called Aiko visited the same spot the following day...)

I decided that it would be poetic and romantic to end my kiwi journey where the river enters the sea, 200 miles away at Port Waikato.
 The River Waikato, near its jouney's end

It’s a lonely, lost and quite forgotten little village at the end of a ‘road to nowhere’.  A few scraps of houses huddle under a headland and envelope the campsite, where I was almost the only inhabitant.  It was so lost and lonely that, the following morning, I couldn’t even remember arriving there.

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Distance travelled from Newcastle:  16,648m / 26,792km

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Mount Doom

Let’s talk about the two towns I visited over the next couple of days.

Firstly, Rotorua.

Rotorua is famed throughout the world for being in the middle of some of the most spectacularly active thermal scenery on the planet.  It’s got the lot:  enormous orange-blue lakes of boiling water; vast, gloopy ponds of bubbling mud; geysers you can set your watch by;  rising mists of steam and vapour bursting through the paper-thin crust of the earth.

All in all, then, it’s a shame that Rotorua itself is such a shithole.

When I passed through it, gawping at its unbelievable tawdriness, I was barely able to resist closing my eyes as I drove - and was silently very grateful indeed that I’d already been able to tick the ‘must see some thermal activity’ box at Tokaanu.

The other town, though, was much more fun.  It was called Te Kuiti and it lay just a few miles from the campsite at Waitomo Caves.  It was the sans-pareil of New Zealand sheep-farming towns and I fell in love with it at once.  How can you not be enamoured of a place that acknowledges the source of its wealth and fame by erecting a statue of a sheep-shearer - complete with sheep - big enough to dwarf a double-decker bus; big enough to stand comparison to the Angel, in its own, awesomely ovine way?

The nearby information board says the sculpture is 7 metres tall and weighs 7.5 tonnes.  In fact, the same panel has lots of interesting things to say about sheep and sheep-shearing hereabouts and beyond...

* There are over 48 million sheep in New Zealand..
* There were almost 71 million in 1982...
* New Zealand is the world's largest producer of strong wool - used in carpets, upholstery, furnishings, rugs, bedding, blankets and knitting yarns...
* On its own, New Zealand produces more than a quarter of the world's wool...
* There are 14 sheep to every person in New Zealand...

Every April, the New Zealand Shearing and Wool Handling Championships and Sheep Muster are held in Te Kuiti.  Just imagine it - a Sheep Muster!

In the 1990s, new world records were set there:  702 ewes shorn in 9 hours; that’s almost 80 an hour.

The record set for lambs was even more impressive - presumably because they’re smaller.  831 lambs shorn in 9 hours - that’s more than 90 an hour or 3 lambs every couple of minutes or so. 

I should add here that, unlikely as it sounds, I’ve shorn a sheep myself.  I was intrepid enough to volunteer to make this new kind of fool of myself at the Northumberland County Show in Corbridge a few years back for the Blue Bus programme and can confirm that it’s not exactly easy to hold your sheep still and denude it of its fleece.  It took me about 10 minutes, in which time a seasoned Te Kuiti champion could have done a dozen.
The Sheep Muster ends with The Running of the Sheep.  More than 2,000 of them are herded at speed down the town’s main street and then back up again - a self-deferential, kiwi version of Pamplona, I suppose - and all the more fun for that.  (If you don’t believe me, look on YouTube and elsewhere.)    

As the sheep hurry along the street, they probably don’t notice the other striking feature of this fascinating little town - Te Kuititanga O Nga Whakaaro; ‘the gathering of thoughts and ideas’.  It’s a wooden-framed pavilion set with sparkling stained-glass.  Built for the millennium, it celebrates the many influences - and the many people - that have made the town such a gem of a place.
Loggers arrive in the locality...

 The extraction of minerals...

 The railway arrives from Auckland and Hamilton...

 The local countryside...

 The pavilion roof, inspired by Maori designs

It’s been wonderfully and thoughtfully designed as a space to concentrate the mind and to reflect on Te Kuiti’s past, present and future.

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I had time to explore the town fully because Hobbiton was closed.

Lord of the Rings was famously - and magnificently - filmed in New Zealand so you’d expect a few references to the films’ locations in tourist guidebooks and on road signs.  And, of course, there are - though far fewer than I was expecting.  I had almost certainly passed through, or at least close to, Rohan, Helm’s Deep, the Shire and Moria without realising it.

It was the fine ladies at the Taumarunui i-Site (the government’s ubiquitous and startlingly friendly tourist information offices) who told me that, on my way there from Taupo, I had looked into the fiery jaws of Mordor.  I remembered the view because it was one of those endless occasions when you turn a corner and the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention.

Three volcanoes are perfectly lined up to lead the eye away into a horizon of violent, geological complexity.  The closest is Mt Tongariro; behind it and slightly to the right is Mt Ngauruhoe; bringing up the rear is the highest of the three - Mt Ruapehu - which Peter Jackson chose to be his Mt Doom in Lord of the Rings.

The same ladies also told me about Hobbiton, constructed for the film on low hills outside Matamata, just to the north of Te Kuiti.  I was looking forward to having my photo taken outside Frodo’s house - but Hobbiton was closed...

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