Category Archives: Europe

Hotel Don Juan, Benidorm 1977

Hotel Don Juan

We could have gone practically anywhere we liked, so long as it was within our restricted budget of course, but we choose to go to Benidorm on the Costa Blanca for two whole weeks and we selected the Don Juan hotel on Calle Gerona, just behind the Levante beach because Linda had been there some time before with her parents and had liked it.

Once in Benidorm we went through the tedious process of dropping people off at their hotels and as the Don Juan was at the far end of the eastern Levante beach we had to wait quite a while to arrive there.  Forty years or so later the Don Juan isn’t there anymore and I might be mistaken here but it might now be the refurbished Diplomatic Hotel.  It has a bigger swimming pool area and is dwarfed now by giant skyscrapers but it certainly looks similar and it is just about the right location.

The Don Juan was a typical 1970s Spanish seaside resort hotel with a cavernous reception and public area, a dining room that was little more than a school canteen and an entertainment room for evening activity.  The hotel was a six storey concrete and chrome building and we had a room on the front about half way to the top with a good view out to sea.  In the 1970s rooms could only be described as functional because these were the days before mini-bars, TVs, internet wifi access and complimentary cosmetics in the bathroom but it was nice enough and it was going to be our home for two weeks.

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Hotel Don Juan Multipic

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Entrance Tickets, The Budapest Parliament Building

Budapest parliament (1)

The five of us debated entrance to the Parliament building.  Even with half price entrance fees (2,000 Florints) for citizens of the European Union there wasn’t a great deal of enthusiasm to visit the interior and after a show of hands it was only Sue and I that paid up and waited in line to go inside while the others made their various ways back to the Hotel Gellért.

The forty minute tour took us up wide open staircases, through elaborately decorated corridors, magnificently appointed state rooms and into the debating chambers but the highlight was the central dome (ninety-six metres high, remember) and in pride of place the fabulous crown of Saint Stephen.

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50, Barmeston Road, Catford

Catford 1999

“(Catford) the only place in all of London and the south-east set to remain impervious to gentrification” – Lucy Mangan, Journalist (The Guardian)

One day in 1999 I was at work and driving through London and on impulse took a detour to Catford and to Barmerston Road where my grandparents used to live to see the house that I used to visit with my parents when I was a child.

It was having a bit of renovation work carried out to it at the time but although it seemed smaller (everything looks smaller as you grow older, especially Wagon Wheel biscuits) it looked almost as I remembered it and the memories came flooding back.

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The Blackbird – Sweden, A Nursery-Rhyme and A Saint

Blackbird

With its status as Britain’s favourite bird secure, the Robin cannot possibly be challenged for top spot (rather like Winston Churchill as the Greatest Briton) but coming second I would suggest is the sociable and friendly Blackbird.

Although the Robin is our favourite bird it has always been denied official National Bird status. Not so the Blackbird which, after a newspaper poll of readers in 1962 is honoured as the national bird of Sweden.  Although many World countries have national birds this is the only one that I can find that has chosen a bird that I have found in my garden.

Many countries, especially in the tropics prefer colourful specimens like parrots, the French have the Cockerel, Australia has the Emu, New Zealand the Kiwi and the USA has the Bald Eagle and others too like to choose something spectacular and powerful.  The most common national bird is the Golden Eagle which is claimed by Austria and Germany, Kazakhstan, Mexico and Scotland.

Sweden Blackbird Postage Stamp

In the Middle Ages the blackbird was known by the distinctive old English name of the Ousel and it is a pity that this has become obsolete, though it may still be referred to as such in Scotland.  The first recorded usage of blackbird was in 1486 and even though there are bigger black birds in Medieval England such as the Crow, Raven, Rook or Jackdaw, these were previously regarded as fowl so the Ouzel was simply the largest black bird at that time.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare describes the bird as ‘The Woosell cocke, so blacke of hew, With Orenge-tawny bill’.

In Scotland where linguistic relics of the old alliance with France still remain, the blackbird is sometimes known by its French name of le Merle.  A Blackbird is el Mirlo in Spanish and il Merlo in Italian, all of which are from the Latin Merula by the way.

Merle is a traditional French name although not so popular now it seems and it certainly doesn’t feature in a current list of top one hundred (the most common French names are Marie for a girl and Thomas for a boy).  Famous Merles have been the actress Merle Oberon and the US country singer Merle Haggard.  One interesting piece of trivia is that there was a character in the film Godfather Part II, a lover of Connie Corleone, called Merle Johnson (Troy Donahue played the part).

Merle Johnson

On the Fourth Day of Christmas My Truelove sent to me… “Four Colly Birds etc. etc.”

Yes, you read it correctly. Colly birds, not calling birds.  So maybe we have been singing the song all wrong!  It would seem that nobody knows for sure how we got from colly bird to calling bird, but some people think it is likely to be an Americanisation of the traditional verse; Colly is an Old English term for ‘black’ from the word ‘colliery’ meaning coal mine and colly birds refer to the common blackbird.

A common view is that ‘colly bird’ was a term specific to England and that England’s former colonies dropped the word in favour of ‘blackbirds.’ In fact, ‘colly birds’ have pretty much dropped out of the English language altogether today and, in this Christmas song, it has been completely replaced by the ‘calling bird’ in the US Australia, Canada and many other former English colonies.

Postage Stamp designers seem to know about this…

Four Colly Birds

Which leaves the obvious question – why would someone send their lover four blackbirds?  Perhaps this is the answer…

“Sing a song of sixpence,

A pocket full of rye.

Four and twenty blackbirds,

Baked in a pie.”

800px-SingSong6dcaldecott

An interesting nursery ryme based on fact as it happens.  From the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century blackbirds were sometimes used as a substitute meat to make a poor man’s pie. Rich people liked blackbird pie as well but with a bit of a twist. For amusement, after a pie was baked the live birds were placed under the pie crust and served at the table and when the pie was ‘opened’ the birds would escape and fly about the room for the entertainment of the guests.

To be honest I can’t help thinking that four and twenty blackbirds swooping about the room might become a bit of a distraction at a dinner party!

blackbirdpie

The concept of a Blackbird in a pie remains with us even now and I can remember my Mum having one of these pie funnels when I was a boy living at home…

Berry_Pie-535x356

These days all wild birds in the UK are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 so catching them to eat is against the law. It is however permissible to eat them if they have died and fallen into the back garden but as you are likely to need a lot of Blackbirds to make a reasonably sized pie it might take a very long time to collect enough of them unless there were to be a catastrophic incident that you could get enough in one go but then I would advise caution in considering eating them if ever such a grisly event happened!

I have saved my favourite and most unlikely blackbird story until the end.

St Kevin

St Kevin of Glendalough (Ireland) is the Patron Saint of the Blackbird and according to legend this came about because one day he was praying with outstretched arms and a Blackbird landed in his hand, built a nest, laid eggs and St Glendalough sat there all the time in the same position until the eggs hatched and the birds were fledged and flew safely away.

A bit far-fetched do you think? I should say so. It takes a pair of Blackbirds about a week to build a nest, then they have to do the mating stuff, the eggs take on average fourteen days to hatch and it is then another fourteen days or so before the chicks are ready to leave. Call me a sceptic if you like but I find the story hard to believe because surely poor old St. Glendalogh would have had to have wriggled about a little bit and after six weeks or so that arm is going to be completely dead and useless. I can only hold a glass of wine for a few minutes before having to put it down!

I told you before about my Dad’s scrapbook of birds.  This was his blackbird page…

Dads Blackbird page

Scrapbook Project – Humans v Robots

Magic Robot

Deep Blue was a chess-playing computer developed by IBM and on February 10th 1996 it defeated Garry Kimovich Kasparov a Russian chess grandmaster and a player many consider to be the greatest World champion chess player of all time.  Here finally was proof that robots were cleverer than humans.

I had grown up with robots of course and throughout my childhood and adolescence it was in the certain knowledge that one day robots would take over and mankind would be declared redundant.  Every week from 1965 the BBC television programme ‘Tomorrow’s World’ with Raymond Baxter presented new technology and inventions and made extravagant predictions (usually wrong) about what life would be like in the future and this generally involved a robot or a computer or both.

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Another Strange Bird Story – Vinkenzetting

vinkenzetting2

This is a story that I find almost unbelievable but I swear that it is true and if there was a list of pointless things that mankind has thought up to amuse itself then this would be close to the top of the list.

The chaffinch is a popular pet bird in many countries because of its beautiful song.  In the Flanders region of Belgium, the four hundred year old sport of vinkenzetting (finch-sitting) is a competition that pits male chaffinches against one another in a contest for the most bird calls in an hour.  The sport was first recorded in 1596 and currently it is estimated that there are over thirteen thousand vinkeniers breeding ten thousand birds every year.

This is a sport even more pointless than fishing and this is how the contest works – a row of cages, each housing a single male finch, are lined up approximately two metres apart along a street, the close proximity is important because it increases the number of calls, as the birds sing to attract a mate and to establish its territory, and every time the bird sings this is recorded as a score by making a chalk mark on a pole.  A timekeeper begins and ends the contest with a red flag and the bird singing its song the most times in one hour wins the contest.

Chaffinch

According to the organisers of the sport finches from the different regions of Belgium sing in different dialects. Flemish finchers insist that only Flemish chaffinches chirp the susk-e-wiet and that Wallonian finches, found a few miles away, sing in a dialect closer to French. If a bird fails to sing in the Flemish style then its tweets may not be counted.  Any bird singing in French is immediately disqualified with no right of appeal.  I imagine the French are not happy about that knowing how precious they are about their language.

In my opinion this must surely be a something that should be stopped immediately because why would anyone want to put a wild bird as beautiful as this into a wooden box simply for their own amusement?

As with other sports, vinkenzetting has had its cheating scandals and in one competition a champion finch sang 1,278 correct songs (that’s one every three seconds or so) but the owner was later accused of doping the bird with testosterone.  At another contest after one finch sang the exact same number of calls in two rounds the box was opened and a mini CD player was discovered inside.  I hope the owners were appropriately punished.

This man looks like the Diego Maradonna of vinkenzetting…

Vikenzetting 1

How a Starling Wrote a Piano Concerto

Mozart's Starling

These days it  is totally illegal to keep wild birds as pets as this is in contravention of the Protection of Birds Act of 1954 and what’s more, under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, there is a potential fine of up to £5,000, and or six months imprisonment.

Until we realised that we had made a mess of the natural biodiversity of the world and started getting precious about birds and wildlife it wasn’t unusual at all to keep wild birds as caged pets and of the most famous pet birds of all was a starling that belonged to the composer Mozart who died on 5th December 1791.

The story goes that he had just been writing a new piano concerto and feeling rather pleased with himself he went out for as walk and was whistling the catchy little tune as he passed through the city of Vienna.  As he went by a pet shop he heard his new masterpiece being whistled back, which must have surprised him somewhat because it hadn’t yet been finished or published.   As he tried to find the source of the whistling he apparently looked up at a bird cage outside a pet shop and in it was a starling mimicking the composer perfectly and joining him in a duet rendition of his new work.

Starling singing

Now this does seem rather far-fetched and might be hard to believe but I have discovered an interesting fact. The starling is in fact a relation of the Myna Bird, which is well known for its ability to mimic. The starling too is accomplished at copying other birds and other quite complex sounds, so perhaps it isn’t so unbelievable after all.

William Shakespeare knew that Starlings are accomplished mimics and in Henry IV Part I Hotspur is in rebellion against the King and is thinking of ways to torment him. In Act 1 Scene III he fantasizes about teaching a starling to say “Mortimer” – one of the king’s enemies.

“Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion”.

When I was at school I used to have a friend called Roderick Bull (really) who had a pet myna bird who lived in a cage in the hall of his house and who was trained to scream ’Bugger off’ (or something similar) whenever the doorbell rang.

Anyway, to go with the story, Mozart was so impressed that he immediately purchased the bird and went home with his new pet starling. Apparently (and quite frankly this is a bit hard to believe) the bird assisted him in making some final improvements to the concerto and thereafter its party piece was to sing the beginning of the last movement of the piano concerto K453 in G major.

The bird and composer remained close friends for three years but eventually the bird died and the grief-stricken composer had to compose his own music again without avian assistance. After the bird’s death, Mozart gave him a first-class funeral and wrote a poem as his eulogy.

Mozart it seems was rather fond of wild birds, this is a portrait of him, aged eight with a bird’s nest ( I know it looks like a pork pie), by the artist Johann Zoffany.

Young Mozart with Bird's Nest