Monday, April 30, 2007

The End Of The Road For 'Old Red'

I bought a new car over the weekend. I'd had my last one for exactly 10 years and in total, it was 15 years old. I keep things a long time.

I never really liked my previous car as I'd had to buy it in a rush and it would never have been my car of choice if I'd had more time and money available. I guess this made me resent it a bit - although the old girl rarely let me down and hadn't a drop of rust on her. In a previous post, I documented when it reached the magical 100,000 mile mark so although I didn't put many of those miles on her, the previous owner travelled daily from Manchester to Leeds and back and he certainly get her off to a 'good start' so to speak.

I'd had to buy it in a rush as my previous car, my beloved Ford Mondeo, had been stolen from the forecourt of a petrol station while I was inside paying for the petrol. I'd foolishly left the keys in the ignition and some yob who had been waiting and watching for just such an idiot, jumped in and drove off while I watched in stunned disbelief from 20 ft away.

Initially my insurance company refused to pay me as they said my policy clearly stated that the owner must take due care of the car at all times. This would normally relate to leaving the doors open and the engine running while nipping into the chippie but they said it also covered leaving the keys in the ignition of an unlocked car.

I saw their point, of course, but given that I'd just 'lost' a very expensive car and couldn't afford to just go out and buy another one, I fought the insurance company and with the ombudsman in my corner, I won and ended up with more than the value of the car. Victory for the little guy.

Sadly this all took time and in the meantime I needed a car for work. When the news went around the office the day after the theft, a colleague a few desks from mine came and said he was getting a company car in a few days and so needed to sell his current car. I had a look at it in the car park and although it was not the most ugly car in the world, I would never have bought it under normal circumstances. I was a Ford man through and through and this was a Peugeot !! It was also RED - my most loathed car colour.

But it was cheap (as he wanted a quick sale) and he had to be honest about any faults as I worked with him. I was also seduced by all the electric goodies from windows to sun roof which helped offset the fact that it was 5 years old with a lot of miles on it. I bought it there and then.

10 years later and it was time to say goodbye. It's MOT had just run out and I knew it would cost a lot to get it through this year. It hadn't been serviced for 2 years and strange knocking sounds were coming from more than one location. It was a large saloon that guzzled petrol at a frightening and wallet busting rate around town and I rarely went on long drives where it did at least manage a very respectable mpg.

So a new small car was needed. This idea didn't excite me one little bit. I've always dreaded buying cars, new or used. I hate haggling for anything. It's not in my nature and I'm just no good at it. I enter a car dealership as if I'm wearing a t-shirt with "I'm A Mug So Feel Free To Rob Me Blind" written across it.

No, a car is a means to an end for me and although I might sneak a peek at the odd episode of Top Gear, I'm as far from being a petrolhead as you can get. So I did what I do best and did nothing for weeks. I'll do something tomorrow became my mantra. Now and then I'd surf for top 10 lists on various car review sites and narrowed my choice down to a handful of cars.......but did nothing about it.

Then last Thursday I decided I'd REALLY better do something before the DVLA computer spewed out my details and Mr. Plod came knocking on my door asking for non existent paperwork. I went to a Renault dealership as the Clio was top of my list as it ticked most of my boxes, if you follow me. Ok, it mostly ticked the 'cheap enough to buy new' box and the 'economical to run' box just below it. I took one for a test run and when I headed onto the M621, I think the salesman thought he was being kidnapped.

I might not be able to haggle, but I do like to drive !!!

When we got back it started.

"What will it take to get you to buy it ?" he asked.

"Making it a Ford would be a great start" I replied.

While he rolled on the floor and mentally added £100 to the price, I thought it over.

Did I really want to go through this with other dealers ? Hell no.
Did I like the Clio ? Actually, yes.
Was I secure in my own sexuality to get over the fact it's a girlie car ? Not sure.
Did they have one in my first choice of blue ? No.
When would they have one in blue for me ? 6-8 weeks.

Dang it.

To get me to wait the 6-8 weeks for a blue car, the price was dropped and a few goodies were offered to soften the delay. Protective coating on the paintwork and some sort of fabric guard on the upholstery. Whoop-di-do. Now if a pigeon crapped on the passenger seat, the mess would just slide off like a turd on an ice rink.

I said I'd take the deal and wait the 6 weeks. I'd just hide if Mr. Plod came a-calling and plead insanity if he gained entry. I'd use Leeds United's plummet into Division 1 as the obvious cause for this insanity and I'm sure I'd be treated sympathetically.

Then the salesman said they had a white one upstairs that was being prepared for the showroom. This was news to me as all the reviews I'd read online had claimed the only solid colour for this model was blue. Apparently not. So although I said no to this idea, I'd nothing better to do at 5pm on a Thursday afternoon so I went upstairs with him to have a gander at this white version.

It was like a scene from a Disney movie from yesteryear. Right in the far corner of this huge cavernous floor (can a floor be said to be cavernous ? Well you get the picture) sat a brilliant white Clio. It called to me. Being a Renault I'd no idea what it was saying of course but a bond was made and I wanted it.....or her. Whatever.

Of course I kept my excitement well hidden so as not to show my hand - but my girlie screams and cartwheels around the floor kind of attracted attention.

I beamed.

The salesman beamed.

My bank manager tut-tutted.

Sod him. I wanted whitey.

Emboldened by all this haggling, I said I'd take it if I could still have the deal I was offered downstairs.......the one that was meant to sweeten the 6 week wait for a blue model. Obviously worn down by such professional haggling, the salesman gave in and like his colleague from Del Monte, he say YES.

That was Thursday evening and it took a couple of days to sort out the paperwork, registration, insurance and of course, to slap on the paint protector and fabric turd suppressant. So at noon last Saturday I drove 'old red' on it's last short trip (by me anyway) and handed her over in part exchange. The paperwork showed that the dealership had finangled the figures to show that they had paid me a token £1 for her. I knew that wasn't true but I didn't mind.

I may not have liked her as much as I should but she'd given me 10 years excellent service.

So now I've embarked on a new wise. Me and whitey. The odometer has changed from 100127 to 9 so we have a long ways to go.

I've a couple of trips coming up (Nottingham and mid Wales) so will get a better idea if I've made a good choice.

Am I excited ?

Sure I am. I can now relax and not rush upstairs and hide everytime someone knocks at the door - well unless they're Jehovah's Witnesses of course !!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Holy Water - A Blessing In Disguise ?

I read an article today which dragged up many almost forgotten religious memories from my childhood and early adulthood as, being raised in N. Ireland, I had a fairly strict Catholic upbringing.

One can create quite a long list of 'hard to fathom' rules, regulations and beliefs from any religion, but Catholicism must be up there with one of the longest.

From confession to communion, I'd be here all day if I went through all of the ones on my personal list - but holy water has always been one of my favourites.

I must say I'd never considered the use of holy water as being potentially dangerous to your health before. Then again I guess I never thought of anyone taking it internally either. No, I'd enough on just getting my head around the idea that it was holy at all and who or what had bestowed this holiness upon it ? I mean couldn't a sweeping worldwide blessing be made so that all water is holy ? I may be missing the point here I guess and certainly missing a commercial opportunity.

Now it's not my intention to belittle or ridicule the beliefs of anyone, but it's always been MY way to look at things with a cynical eye and most religious beliefs have always been a struggle for me - the struggle to have faith in those things that you cannot prove exist.

I remember in my mid teens, we all set off for a family trip to Knock in Southern Ireland. Now THERE is a place which stretches faith to it's limits. Like the more famous sites of Lourdes and Fatima and others, Knock is a Marion shrine which gets almost 2 million visitors every year. I've no problem with that as such as even I can get special vibes and feelings of serenity when in certain locations. No, not the pub, you philistines.

But Knock is like a religious Disney site with everyone wanting a cut of the action. When a Papal visit was on the cards in 1979, an international airport was built to cater for the increase in visitors this would bring about. So what ? Well glance at the palm of your right hand (which roughly resembles a map of Ireland) and focus on the knuckle of your pinkie finger. That's where Knock is and given the remoteness of the area, could be the reason for the birth of the expression 'middle of nowhere'.

So this airport was built and was capable of dealing with the largest commercial plane of the day......the Boeing 747 or Jumbo Jet. Once the Pope had left and the fuss and excitement died down, this airport, built at a cost of many millions of punts (pre Euro days) dealt mostly with light aircraft and the odd small jet and was seen by everyone as the biggest 'white elephant' in Europe. A Jumbo landing on a white elephant.........gotta love our language !!

But then something amazing happened - well maybe not so amazing to anyone who knows what certain people will do to make a pilgrimage to a religious site. In a sort of 'build it and they will come' scenario worthy of Kevin Costner, people started to flock in increasing numbers to Knock and soon the sheep were moved off the runway as the big planes flew in. The airport now deals with 250,000 passengers a year and has direct flights to New York and, naturally, Boston.
Never disregard the power and commercial implications of faith.

But back to our family trip - a trip taken long before the airport was built and when the runway was still just a field of dreams. Literally.

At that time the commercial interests weren't so 'in your face' and you actually had to seek out the sellers of rosary beads, scapulas, glow-in-the-dark statues and crucifixes. Ahhhhh innocent times indeed.

What has always stuck in my mind though, is when my mother wanted to fill up her numerous plastic bottles with holy water to keep our house well supplied for decades to come. As a slight aside, I wonder how many thousands of little bottles of holy water were taken from pilgrims flying out of Knock airport last year when the restrictions on liquids in your carry on luggage came into force ??? I bet that caused some interesting conversations with the security staff !!

"But it's HOLY water I tell you"

"Well I've only your word for that, sir"

"Look, it says Product Of Knock on the label"

"So, big deal, you still can't take it onboard. Why not just drink it ?"

"Are you mad !! I said it was Holy, not Hygenic"

So we glanced at our "Guide to Knock" map and set off to find some holy water. If memory serves me right, and increasingly these days it doesn't, we followed the map and came to a low wall with a simple tap set into it. A sign above the tap said "Holy Water" and there was a short line of people ahead of us waiting to fill up their containers.

It was a singular moment of supreme faith that my mother said nothing at all and calmly joined the line and filled up her bottles when the time came. Me ? Well the whole situation had set my inquisitive mind working overtime. I mean I'd seen small pools of water blessed and so 'made' holy from time to time but to see a constant supply from a tap classed as holy........well it blew me away. Was the tap blessed so that any water it delivered would be holy by default ? Had the water tank serving the tap been blessed ? If so, what about new water to replace it....was it blessed every Wednesday morning or something just to be on the safe side ?

I just remember making the suggestion that if our local parish priest came round to our house and blessed the tap in our kitchen, then we'd never have to visit Knock again AND it had to increase the value of our property !!

I had to live with the guilt of THAT suggestion for a loooooong time.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

I'm In The Money. The Noo

Like most people, I get those wonderful African emails from time to time telling me I can go out and buy a row of terrace houses in Leeds or a garage in Mayfair as oooddles of money is coming my way thanks to some............well some total stranger usually.

Bless these wonderful unknown humanitarians but enough already. Give someone else a chance now. Share the wealth I say. The only slight quibble is that I just feel so darn letdown when no money arrives. Indeed in some sort of spooky coincidence, my bank account actually goes down soon after.

Haven't worked that one out yet.

Anyooo I got a lovely one today from closer to home. At least I think so. Hard to tell really but who cares as £1million is heading my way........again. I just can't believe how fortunate I am to keep winning money like this.

I've noticed that the grammar and general syntax is a bit off but then it's probably been translated from the original fair enough. Jimmy.

In gratitude, I'm going to become a Dundee United season ticket holder.

As a Leeds fan, it's about time I watched some half decent football !!

Ref: BT:12052005/21
Batch: 12/25/0034
APRIL 13, 2007

We are pleased to inform you of the result of the just concluded annual final draws of the Dundeeeunited lottery. This is to inform you that you have been selected for a cash prize of L1,000,000,00 (One Million, Great Britain Pounds) , International programs .
The online draws was conducted by a random selection of email addresses from an exclusive list of 29,031 E-mail addresses of individuals and corporate bodies picked by an advanced automated random computer search from the internet. However, no tickets were sold but all email addresses were assigned to different ticket numbers for representation and privacy.
The selection process was carried out through random selection in our computerized email selection machine (TOPAZ) from a database of over 250,000 email addresses drawn from all the continents of the world. This Promo is approved by the Gaming Board and also Licensed by the The International Association of Gaming Regulators (IAGR). This lottery is the 3rd of its kind and we intend to sensitize the public to begin the processing of your prize you are to contact your claims officer through our accredited Prize Transfer agents as stated below:

Mr. Gregory Carter,
Tel: 447045704944

Contact him, Kindly provide him with your Secret pin code (x7pwyz2006), Amount won (L1,000,000,00 ) and your Reference number (BT:12052005/21).
You are adviced to provide the underlisted claims requirement to the transfer agent.

Friday, April 13, 2007

A Knee Jerk Reaction ?

Last summer I stepped up my exercise walking, so to speak, and would go out for 5 or 6 mile walks every day.

Sometimes I'd be enjoying it so much I'd go 7 or more miles.

Every so often my left knee would give me a sharp pain and as a result, my leg would semi crumple and I'd stumble for a pace or two. It didn't happen on every walk and as I was leaving for my 6 months in America, I didn't want to see my doctor about it then. I also got the odd pain going up and down the stairs and this wasn't good as a crumple on the stairs would have risked potentially serious consequences.

While over in the US I continued my walking most days and once again, every so often the knee would give the same sharp pain. After Christmas, even though I was in Florida. I wasn't walking as much and I wasn't getting any pains either. On my return in February this year, I mostly gave up on walking and noticed I wasn't getting any pains when using the stairs.

However I did go to my doctor and he said he'd make an appointment for me to see a physiotherapist at the local hospital and that took place yesterday. Gotta love the NHS.

Anyway as I'd not had a pain of any sort all year, I felt a bit of a cheat in the physio dept when everyone else was in a wheelchair, on crutches, using walking sticks or pushing walkers.

The lovely physio (Katie) said I'd done the right thing and after a chat and an exam, she said my left knee was slightly 'wasted' (trust me to have a drunk knee !!) and the pain was caused when some of the cartilage between the bones had been trapped or nipped.

So in order to strengthen the poor old knee, she showed me 3 easy exercises which I was to do several times a day and she'd see me again in 2 weeks time.

Well I started them this morning and also did them just before setting out on my walk today. I did my usual 3 mile easy route and guess which was the only part of my body to give me some discomfort by the end.........yes the part that I'd exercised prior to my walk - my left knee !

Go figure.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Golden Acre Park

As I've said many times before, I'm very fortunate to have countryside almost on my doorstep and even when that's not enough, there are several beautiful parks within a few minutes drive.

Today was a stunning Spring day with a cloudless sky and temps good enough for a t-shirt if you were under 30 or so.......and a light jacket or a fleece if like me, you've not seen 30 for a decade or two.

In my case, I also blame the blood thinners !!

I wanted a change from my normal walking routes around the estate and so I drove 10 minutes to Golden Acre Park which is 137 acres of park, lake, forest and floral gardens about 6 miles north of Leeds city centre.

One of the first species of flower or plant you come across in the park is the aptly named Yellow Skunk Cabbage which is normally found in the northern and eastern states of America - hence it's 'proper' name of Lysichiton Americanus.

Don't worry, this is the first and last time I'll identify anything on this post as I don't want it to be a serious or educational entry.

God forbid.

Ok it's more because I can't identify anything else and I'm only able to talk about this one because there was a sign giving it's name AND it gave off a nasty smell just like....a skunk. I say, it, but there were dozens of them in a small pool area just at the entrance to the park.

So much for getting fresh air on this walk !

I'll have to just line up the rest of the
non animal photos now as I've no idea what they are.

None are flowers of course and so I guess they'd come under the general classification of blossoms.

As it's only early April, the park is still coming out of it's winter hibernation and it'll be a while before the flower beds burst forth in a stunning display of colours and variety.

Click on any of the photos to enlarge them - and you might need to do that with the one above as it does look like it's got a covering of snow.

The trees and bushes were doing their best to compensate for the lack of colour elsewhere. This was great from a visual point of view but not good from a photographic point of view. Everytime I tried to compose my shots, the wind would pick up and gently move the branches - making my life that much more difficult.

Sometimes a lack of colour can be just as pleasing to the eye as vibrant reds and greens and yellows.

I know white IS a colour but you know what I mean.

Once again I'd taken my monopod with me instead of my tripod and it came in very useful at times.

It gives a degree of stability without taking a long time to set up. In fact, I leave it connected to the camera most of the time and simply compress it down to it's minimum length when taking action photos.

The park has several hills and steep climbs and the monopod came in handy as a walking stick.

I'm not quite at THAT age but after walking around for about 3 hours, I was happy to have it for the final climb back up to the car !!

Golden Acre Park can be entered from the top or the bottom and today I'd driven to the top car park which meant I had a downward walk to start with, which is what I wanted.

This walk is along an unpaved but smooth path that winds it's way down to the edge of the forest area and on towards the lake.

Well it's a bit of a fib to call it a forest as it's really just a wood at best.

The path then takes you over a narrow bridge and on along the edge of the lake to an area where the visitors congregate to feed the assorted wildlife which treat the lake as home at this time of year.

Despite it being a few days before Easter, the park was relatively quiet and almost free of visitors.

Apart from loving couples who were lying on the grass all over the park discussing world events (yeah right !!) , there were a few families with young children who were enjoying feeding the ducks and swans. Well they were throwing bread crumbs AT the ducks and swans who were ignoring them for the most part as they are probably the best fed wildlife outside of a zoo.

I love how they glide over the water. For a change the park lake is very clean and you can clearly see their 'feet' working away like motorised paddles under the water while above, all is calm and serene.

There was a delightful family unit with mom and dad and about 8 or 9 cute little ducklings in tow.

As with the lambs I photographed a few weeks ago, these young 'uns never strayed far from their parents and it was funny to see them all wheel around as one unit any time someone or something came too close to them.

What they lacked in size, they more than made up for in speed and mom and dad had a hard time keeping up.

Control was maintained by a series of alert quacks but also aided by the inbred sense that the ducklings had to not go off too far from their parents while wanting to explore their big new world.

As in the human world, everything can't be peaceful and harmonious all the time and fights do break out.

I've no idea what caused the big fracas while I was there but I'm sure it had more to do with raging hormones than empty stomachs.

It was certainly a sight to behold as about 6 swans tore into each other for a good 30 seconds - it started on dry land and then progressed onto the water, at which point I took a series of photos.

I'd no idea what I'd got as, for the most part, all I could see were flapping wings and a melee worthy of a bunch of fighting soccer hooligans.

When the dust (and the water) settled, I checked the photos and realised most weren't worth keeping as they just showed a huge mass of intertwinned swan bodies. This one I liked though, even though it was at the end of the skirmish when only 2 swans were still nipping at each other.

Now we all know that swans have short fuses and can be threatening when they themselves feel threatened, but I certainly had never thought of ducks as being ill tempered.

I was sitting on a bench near the lake reviewing my photos to that point, when two ducks approached with little or no fear of me.

Suddenly one of them lost it's cool and basically attacked the other one. In a rare example of animal bullying, it pinned it's colleague 's head to the ground and kept it there for some time.

I just couldn't sit and watch this injustice anymore and having taken the photo, I calmly, and with no thought of my personal safety, told the bully to behave and let the other one go.

Sadly just like when I did the same at school, I was totally ignored so I stood up and this did the trick. The ducks parted........turned and savagely attacked me leaving me bleeding and close to death by the side of the lake.

Oh I'm only joking of course. No, I killed them both and will have them tomorrow for supper.
Death to all bullies.

There was a large information board nearby with images of all the waterfowl likely to be spotted on or around the lake and I wish now that I'd taken a photograph of it......cause then I might know just what the hell I DID photograph.

This fella was quite unmoved, literally, by my presence as I crept, ninja-like, closer and closer to him....or her.

By now it was after 6pm and the birds were settling down for the evening.

All over the park, they were meeting up with their buddies and sitting, if that's the right term, on the grass.

The ducks just sat......and closed their eyes. The swans had a much more impressive and elaborate ritual where they did a lot of preening, followed by a bit of neck and wing stretching and would finally squat down on the grass and lower their long necks down onto the tops of their bodies and end up like a large white bowling ball. Well only the white swans could do this of course !

This is a photo of such a white swan just on it's way down, so to speak.

One leg has already been lifted upwards and the whole body is now on it's way down to the ground.

The neck is also on the way to ending up nestled on top of it's body and in about 2 seconds, the long necked, graceful creature I'd seen gliding over the water was effectively curled up like a huge marshmallow for the evening.

Isn't nature wonderful ??

I felt like an intruder in some sort of vast countryside bedroom, so I tiptoed away and headed back to the car.

Just to prove there is other wildlife in the park apart from those of the watery persuasion, here is a final shot I took on the way out.

I'm not quite sure what he has in his paws but he was pretty skittish and didn't care for my approach.

I guess the squirrels in Buttonwood Bay are much more used to humans and maybe this one had good reason to be suspicious of me.

It certainly wasn't going to approach me and as such, this was as close as I got. After this photo, he scampered off into the woods.

Maybe it was past his bedtime too.

I got to the car and 10 minutes later I was back home. It may not have been as energetic a walk as I'm used to, but I think it's good to throw in something different now and then.

I didn't work up a sweat or anything. I'd even taken the hills slowly so as not to get out of breath.

In fact, all in all, you could say it was just......a walk in the park.

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