Thursday, 31 December 2015

My New Year Adventure

Last year my personal New Year's Day Adventure was to see the sun rise at Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, more than a hundred miles away to the west. I was up super-early and drove through half the night to be there.

This year I am looking to do the same, but in the opposite direction. I want to see the sun rise at North Foreland on Thanet, the easternmost tip of Kent. It's not the most easterly point in England - Lowestoft in East Anglia is that - but it will do; and, like Stonehenge, it will take me about three hours to reach. At the moment, the weather forecast indicates a cold and cloudy Kent dawn at 7.59am, but sunny within the hour, and if I'm lucky I will actually get a shot of the red sun as it comes up out of the sea.

I'll say, 'Hello, 2016!' and (if not already said) 'White rabbits!' for luck.

Then I shall look for a decent hotel for breakfast, explore Thanet, maybe take a butchers at Sandwich and Deal, but in any event gradually make my way to Canterbury for lunch, the shops, and the Cathedral. After that, a slow drive home. On last year's experience, I will feel dog-tired by the late afternoon, and I'll time my homeward departure accordingly.

I'm really looking forward to this. I haven't had such a long day out since the autumn, and although by no means stir-crazy, I do feel a great need to get off somewhere on my own.

The drive will do Fiona good too. She still hasn't done as much as a thousand miles with her new auto gearbox, and it remains a trifle stiff in comparison with the rest of her mechanical bits, which by now (at 85,000 miles) are nicely loose and floppy. By 'stiff' I specifically mean that although her gear changes are smooth, at town speeds the gearbox seems a thought sluggish at changing down to a lower gear - auto gearboxes like to change up, and then stay there for as long as they can. Flexibility is gradually coming, but it'll need a series of good runs over varied territory to get that box to the same pitch as the old one. A drive through half the night to North Foreland will definitely be a treat for her. Another lesser matter is the state of her battery. It's nearly six years old, and although I haven't yet experienced any problems with starting, it must be feeling its age. A long drive will keep it nicely charged up.

You might think that a trip like this requires no planning at all, apart from having fuel in the tank, going easy on (or even avoiding) any New Year's Eve celebrations, and setting the alarm for 3.00am. But there is a little more to it. Where can I go to the loo on the way, or once there? What about breakfast - will anything really be open for travellers before 9.00am? I can (and will) make myself some sandwiches to bring along, but something hot is another thing altogether. Tea, coffee and soup all present handling problems inside a car that has no flat surfaces to speak of; and I don't fancy pouring fluids out while standing in the dark by an open rear hatch - that would make me a target for any prowling weirdo or mad axeman. What? You can imagine the headlines:

Sussex Woman Hacked To Death at North Foreland. 
Blood-spattered Volvo. 
Empty Thermos Flask.
Sandwiches Missing.
Dismembered Body Found At Foot Of Cliff. 
Police Question All Thanet Axemen. 

No, thank you - not the way I want to spend New Year's Day, as a lurid news item.

All such problems would of course be solved by taking the caravan to some site in East Kent, and using it as my warm and comfortable base. But of course you can't do that without prior booking, such is the winter demand at the few sites available.

All this said, I'm sure good fortune and serendipity will be my friends. I didn't suffer any discomforts last year, and don't anticipate suffering tomorrow morning. The whole point is to make it seem like a mad adventure with a definite goal, and that means you need to wing it. Let the gods, or good luck, provide.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Cramp

On Boxing Day I drove down to Gosport (in Hampshire), to spend the afternoon and evening with my sister in law Glenda and her second husband Colin. My niece Jenny and husband Kieren were there too. We had a jolly time chatting and eating and playing a board game; and then in the early evening we settled down to watch a film. First, though, we had to decide on what to see. It had to be something we all might like. This meant something that was a bit sci-fi, a bit James Bondish, with action and lots of gadgetry. I suggested Kingsman, which I'd seen a few months before at a friend's. It was a good choice.

All the while I was in a reclining seat. It was very comfortable. The foot-rest was raised by releasing a lever on the side. The one I used at home, my 'green throne' that was once Dad's, was electronic, designed for old people, and it operated slowly and steadily. But this one must have used a very strong spring (or springs) instead. The footrest came up with a rush, rather suddenly, and you were sort of thrown back. Oooh! Well, that was a surprise! But not really much of a problem. Getting out of the recliner was another matter, though! I couldn't just press a button on a handset.

I struggled to see what to do. The lever on the side seemed to be only for releasing the mechanism, to recline you back, and not for setting you upright again. Help!

It was explained, with a demo. All I needed to do was pull my legs in sharply, and the footrest would then come down and click into position. Then I could stand up. I tried this tentatively. It didn't work for me. No, bring my legs in harder and more sharply. OK...

Oooooow! 'More force' induced sudden, devastating cramp in my right leg. The entire calf.

I won't say that it was like no pain I'd ever known, but it was severe enough to bring tears to my eyes, and force a great piercing sobbing wail of agony from me. Rubbing the calf gradually eased the problem, but I had a sore leg and a sick feeling inside. I wasn't used to hurting myself. Nor were my muscles used to sudden contractions. I limped a bit, and hobbled around until I felt confident again about moving my leg normally. I hadn't thought that I could feel such pain so easily. But cramp is always pretty awful.

By now the sick feeling had gone, and my right leg seemed all right to drive with, and so I said my late-evening goodbyes, got into Fiona, and set off back to Sussex. Fortunately the leg muscles had settled down, and pressing the accelerator pedal didn't set them off again. Nor did they cramp up again once home.

Relaxing in my own recliner, I pondered my physical state, and decided that although I might not quite look like an old age pensioner, I was nevertheless the owner of an ageing carcass, and I mustn't assume it would cope nonchalantly with unaccustomed movements - not without protest, and possible consequences. This episode wasn't a sign of mortality, but it was a sign of general bodily decrepitude. I must take heed, and not move so suddenly and unwarily in future! I had visions of pulled muscles and torn ligaments. And, who knows, snapped bones!

I'd always been afraid of cramp since childhood, particularly in connection with swimming. Not swimming in the sea - although I didn't care much for that because it was so cold - I mean swimming in public swimming baths. I associated swimming with humiliation and embarrassment. You must imagine me as a gawky and thin twelve year old, with a body I felt acutely uncomfortable with, and having to be in the same pool as lots of younger children who were already swimming like fishes, my young brother Wayne included. I'd been avoiding physical stuff for years, whenever I could get away with it, but I was still in the grip of a school regime that required me to swim. Mum and Dad were also keen to see me learn to swim and do well at it. Wayne loved swimming, in fact excelled at it, and they thought I should too.

But those visits to the evening Swimming Class at Southampton Baths terrified me. Quite apart from the misery of being forced to do something I hated, and the embarrassment of being the odd person out, I desperately didn't want anyone to stare at my body and my awkwardness. I screamed inside. Given all this, it wasn't surprising that I was in a state to get cramp. In fact, I expected to, and sure enough, I'd hardly enter the water before I'd get cramp in one leg or the other. It was agonising. And it drew attention to me, the very last thing I wanted. Nor did I get used to the swimming class and what I'd have to do. It never became a bearable routine. I felt a failure, a mockery. I also felt resentful. But I had no power to opt out. I came to loathe it all.

Thankfully, Mum and Dad realised quite soon that I wasn't going to be a swimming star. I still had to go along, because Wayne wanted to show what he could do. I sat silently, just watching, bored but clothed, and kept out of anyone's notice as much as possible. At least the cramps had magically vanished. Odd, that!

And even though I did, as an adult many years later, occasionally go to public swimming baths - not voluntarily, but as a tolerated lunchtime activity with work colleagues at Bromley - I never got cramp. But by then, I was far less sensitive about how I looked; and, as a big cheese in the office, nobody was going to say anything disrespectful.

Would I plunge into the water now, voluntarily? Not a chance! I still have no love of swimming. If my doctor insisted on my taking exercise that way, an hour twice a week say, I'd listen and probably do as she wanted me to. But unless there was the possibility of a social dimension - chatting while treading water comes to mind - the whole idea would get a big No Thank You from me. And that, for safety reasons, really debars me from all water-based activities excepts luxury cruising.

I do wonder what would now be the case, if instead of being forced to take those swimming lessons when young, I'd been allowed to discover swimming for myself, in my own good time, after perhaps realising that someone who looks confident in the water can look like Someone Well Worth Knowing. The same thinking with other things I was pushed into. The pushing put me off - permanently.

Huh. 'Compulsory games' - the phrase that blighted my childhood.

Wiping music off the PC

In my 11th December post Changing habits I'd explained how I had now switched to buying mp3 music tracks from Amazon using my phone, and downloading them directly to my phone for storage and all listening. This bypassed the desktop PC entirely. It was another way in which modern mobile technology had eliminated the need to use an old-fashioned fixed-location computer with an annoyingly long start-up time.

Despite the phone becoming my music machine of choice, all the many tracks in the Music folder on the PC were still there. They were not now being added to, and I did not need to access them, but I hadn't got rid of them. These music tracks took up 8GB of storage space on the PC. Not a great amount really, but as the purchase of a new super-capable laptop with at least 2TB of storage on it had been put back to 2017, I really needed to free up space on my PC for all the photos I'd be taking in the next year or so. Even 8GB would help.

And yet it felt like an enormous step to expunge all my music from the PC! Even though all of it, and more besides, was on the phone, and it was all backed up. I couldn't possibly 'lose' any of this music. At the very worse - if both PC and phone were destroyed while I slept by aliens, or marauding pirates, I could reinstall it all onto another device from (a) the backup on an external hard drive, or (b) the CD collection, and of course (c) Amazon. Common sense said do it - wipe it off the PC. I just had to navigate to the Music folder on the PC, select all, and then delete.

But I hesitated. This was psychologically difficult! It felt like hanging from a rope over a void, and then deliberately cutting the rope to supposedly fall into oblivion. Fancifully, a form of suicide.

But I screwed up my resolve, and did it in the end. And life went on.

I now have 97GB of storage left on the C: drive of the PC, and 40GB left on the D: drive. This ought to get me through to the end of 2017, when my PC will be ten years old. There is a different danger, however. By then Microsoft may have pulled the plug on support for computers running Windows Vista. I rather think that will force me into buying a replacement super-duper laptop, rather than simple memory-saturation on the old PC.

Hmm. All the more reason to save those pennies, and put sufficient by. Who knows when the blow may fall.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Twenty years after a father's funeral service

Yesterday went well. My nephew and I went to the church in Upper Sydenham where his father was such an important and well-regarded figure until his sudden death it Christmastime 1995. Michael spent almost three hours discussing the impact of that death with the priest, Father Paul, at the church itself and then at the rectory, before we came away.

Obviously I can't write here of matters very personal to my nephew. I will simply say that he regarded it as a very important event, to go back after twenty years to see where his father's ashes were buried; and then to speak to the very man who had been his father's friend and spiritual confidant, and who had officiated at the funeral service. I would not be at all surprised to see Michael return, and take that conversation a little further. I can fully see why Wayne trusted Father Paul - a big, warm, welcoming man who showed us humanity, breadth of mind, and helpful insight, but did not judge.

So I'll stick to what I myself did and thought.

We arrived only a few minutes late, despite the unpredictable south London traffic, and were met at the church entrance by Father Paul. We sat informally in the front pews. Fortunately Father Paul was well up to speed concerning my own personal history, and appreciated my wish to be there in support of Michael. I insisted however that the focus should be on whatever my nephew felt he needed to see and discuss. It was essential that the visit covered more than just Dommett family happenings since 1995.

Both Michael and myself felt that we had deferred the visit much too long. This was an opportunity to find out more about Wayne's life, and what he had thought most important. Michael had long imagined that I knew all about my brother, and was simply not telling. It was not so at all. After his teens my brother's life went off in a very different direction from my own, and when we ever met - not more than three or four times a year - we did not speak about anything serious. So in fact Michael already knew much more about my brother than I did.

We both - separately - went out into the private enclosed courtyard to see the unmarked stone slab under which Wayne's ashes had been buried. Father Paul confirmed the correct slab by reference to a 'legal book' which identified who was buried where, with a diagram, which he showed to us. There were no inscriptions on any of these slabs. Having asked Father Paul's permission, I took some photographs to visually identify 'Wayne's slab' for future generations. They would be filed away with the rest of my genealogical material.

We had thought about buying some flowers on the way over, but ran out of time for it. Alone in the courtyard, I cast around in the flower beds for something suitable. But it was two days before Christmas, of course, and there were only leaves. I settled on a small yellow leaf - the simplest of wreaths - but knowing that my brother would have scorned anything elaborate or fussy, counting sincere intention far higher than any kind of purchased display. A humble marker, reverently chosen and placed, was more than enough. It clearly identified the slab in a wider view of the courtyard.


Wayne's ashes were there, under that leaf. Where was my brother himself? Was he looking on, or at least somehow aware of our pilgrimage? Unanswerable questions. I wasn't religious, not even moderately spiritual; I had no faith to provide a positive, assured response.

But later on, when Father Paul asked me as we left for home, I did say sincerely that I thought Wayne 'knew' we had been to his church, and had seen where his ashes were. It didn't feel untruthful to say so. Without specifically speaking of souls and spirits, I did feel that our visit had been noticed. In the same way, I was always aware of Dad whenever I went to Kentisbeare church in Devon. It was a place where we could still meet up. Even though Dad had been agnostic to the end. And myself, although not dogmatically 'atheist on principle', nevertheless taking nothing for granted in the absence of rational evidence, content instead to feel personally responsible for what I made of my own life, without a spiritual safety net to save me from my errors.

Father Paul showed us the Book of Remembrance, in which Wayne's name was written in a fine italic hand with a quotation from an early medieval cleric who was praising those who bear the likeness and manner of saints.

Then we adjourned to the rectory for tea and more talk. We had two generous hours of his time there. He, who must have important things to do at the church so close to Christmas. All I can say is that if most contemporary priests are like him, then Christianity will remain alive and kicking in England. And had he lived, I'm sure that by now my brother would have joined the clergy and made it his true life's work. No doubt we would have been slightly at odds, as siblings will be, but also united as the years drew us closer, as eternity loomed at us both, a black pit of Unknown.

Coincidentally, I caught an interview on The World At One on BBC Radio 4 today, with Ronald Blythe, editor, writer, and author of the 1969 book Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village, which became a successful documentary film-without-professional-actors about traditional rural life, in which Blythe took the role of vicar. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronald_Blythe. I imagine that my brother knew of him. They would have had much to say to each other. Wayne was good with words. He was both a reader and thinker.

And above all, he was an idealist, who expended his main energies on practical pastoral care. So very different from myself! Rightly or wrongly, he put the needs of the community before the needs of his own household. I refuse to judge him on that. If a man follows his nature, and commits himself to good causes on his doorstep, and is inspirational and commendable to those others who share his inclinations, should he be blamed for whatever he neglects? Are not selfishness and selflessness two sides of the same coin, and it all depends on your viewpoint?

Is that the awful sin of saints, to be different, to follow a calling wherever it may lead them, to abandon the ordinary things that ordinary people want?


Monday, 21 December 2015

Mission Accomplished

I've done it. I've finished writing my Christmas cards. I know I intended to try a radical solution to this pre-Christmas chore, but in the end it was simplest to knuckle down to the task as traditionally tackled. I had several stacks of cards, each of a different design, and just got on with it. It took three sessions, but then it was suddenly all done. Fifty-five cards. Family, friends, neighbours, and my 'staff'. All handwritten. I didn't bother with sending emails, except for a handful of people who must have them. I even sent a card - not a mere email - to my step-daughter in New Zealand. A proper job, then.

That notion of emailing a print-out card of my own design proved to be a non-starter. The program I'd thought of using saved the designs in its own special format, which was useless to anyone else (it was a very old program). No doubt I could have worked around this, but time was pressing and I quickly gave up.

Hand-writing things isn't so bad, not if you have a flowing, cursive hand as I have. I'm not saying mine is the best and clearest handwriting there is, but it can be read easily enough. For instance, my doctor had no trouble this morning reading the list of blood tests that I'd prepared for her and wanted her to authorise (I'm very pro-active where my health checks are concerned). And something handwritten is undoubtedly very personal, which is highly appropriate for a greetings card. Indeed, handwriting confers a much more personal touch than any kind of typewritten communication. A pity it's getting rarer.

Next year I'll be better prepared. I really will look into the possibility of luxurious and beautiful Christmas cards, specially ordered well before Christmas, and pre-printed with a festive message of my own devising. Each card could be 'finished off' with extra words or kisses in my fair hand. Taken as a whole, I think the job of sending as many cards as this year would definitely be simplified and shortened. I'm sure it wouldn't be made cheaper, but cost is not the issue. Or at least I wouldn't personally begrudge the expense of ordering a supply of very nice bespoke cards, and sending them to my chosen victims by first class post. (Said in complete innocence of what this might really filch from my pensioner's purse. I may change my tune when I find out!)

Still, for now the task is over and I can relax.

Tomorrow promises to be something of a bacchanalia, walking to Ditchling, having a boozy lunch there, walking back, then staggering out again in the evening, this time down to Brighton - I'd better do that by train, and try hard not to fall asleep on the return trip!

The day after will be interesting. My nephew Michael reminded me recently that his father (my younger brother Wayne) was killed twenty years ago, and he wanted to see the spot where Wayne was buried. This isn't in a public place. It's in the private inner courtyard of the High Anglican church Wayne used to attend in Upper Sydenham in south London. My nephew contacted the priest - it was the same man as back in 1995, known to us as Father Paul. Wayne had been a star member of the congregation.

The precise twentieth anniversary was yesterday, the 20th December - a Sunday - and therefore the priest was keen to arrange a special memorial service to be shared with the entire congregation. But Michael didn't want that; it would be way too stressful to endure a lengthy and formal service, which specifically might not allow him to contemplate the burial place alone and peacefully. He wanted something far more private, devoid of ritual and the sincere attentions of well-wishers. Just him and his father. This was exactly in accord with my own ideas.

So at 2.30pm two days hence, we will be welcomed privately by Father Paul, and Michael can commune with his father in his own way. As I shall too, but separately. I also want to sneak a photo or two - shots to record the exact location of where Wayne's ashes were interred. As a genealogical fact.

I wonder what kind of memory Father Paul has. I last saw him in 1995, and I can hardly remember what he looks like. He will have aged by twenty years, of course, and might seem rather different, even unrecognisable. As will indeed have happened in my own case. I very much doubt if he will remember me when we meet! But I'll explain that I was indeed there, with Adrienne my step-daughter holding fast onto my hand. It doesn't matter anyway. The focus must be on memories of Wayne, and letting Michael salute his half-remembered father. He was young when Wayne was killed, and he may feel tearful at bringing the loss into such a sharp focus. I may too, but for Michael's sake I will hold my own tears back if I possibly can. I think Michael's wife Cheryl is coming (though not their child): perhaps we, Cheryl and I, can talk quietly at a distance while Michael stands alone, staring at a stone slab in a hushed courtyard that few non-churchgoers ever see.

And then we will leave. No doubt Father Paul will entreat us to come again, and soon, but I'll leave that up to Michael. We will have managed to make the pilgrimage just this once in twenty long years. It will be a singularity, an event that may never be repeated. Certainly an exhausting occasion. If we come away satisfied with what we saw and felt, and not too disturbed emotionally, then that will indeed be Mission Accomplished.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

A friend's change of direction

I had lunch yesterday with a friend I'd not spent much time with since last Spring. Oh, we'd said hello several times since then, but we'd not set up a one-to-one day together. Now we had. We had a long and enjoyable lunch at a pub down on the coast.

My friend (I won't name her) confessed to feeling tired and somewhat weighed down by the demands made on her from all sides. She had a family to think about, and never ceased to keep them in mind. She had been writing poetry and giving readings on stage in Brighton and London for at least three years. Lately she had started to make a mark in film-making, as an actress, involving travel to Prague and elsewhere. 'Only walk-on parts,' she hastened to add, deprecatingly. And yet, when I pressed her, she admitted to saying yes to a speaking part in a film to be made. The producer had been so impressed with her persona, and her self-expression, that she had landed the part of an Irishwoman. Nobody else would do. It will be a drama dealing with a social evil. I was typically flippant about the Irishwoman bit.

'Bejasus!' I jested.
'Oh shut up, nobody says that in Ireland.'
'But look, you haven't got an Irish accent.'
'I won't need much of one. Anyway, my family do have an Irish connection, even if I'm all Sussex. I can be genuine enough. They want me for my particular appearance, the way I move, and what I can say with my eyes and my face.'

And so a star is born. I shall certainly be keen to find out how she handles the part. No fears, anyway, about her not showing enough sensitivity for the role. She is now busy researching first-hand accounts concerning the social issue that will be explored in the film. (It's vile, and it's now past ignoring it as a topic to bury, so you may guess what it is; but I promised not to be specific about the issue - nor the plot - at this stage) She wants to really 'know' about the malpractice that is the subject of the film; to really understand what the precise social context is; why mothers countenance it for their children; and if possible to get an emotional grip on how it must feel to be personally affected. For although she has been aware of this bad thing for some time, it hasn't come within her own experience. No blame to her - not many ordinary people have yet been face-to-face with it in this country. But it's clearly essential to delve, and get some raw facts from real people, and not just read about it. Filming begins in a couple of months. She hasn't got a lot of time to prepare.

This could of course be the start of a fresh and time-consuming career, whatever the outcome. Her name and face will be kept in mind. She could easily get further offers.

What about the existing stuff - the poetry, the performances? I wondered whether those things might have to recede, and even be abandoned. You can't do it all. You need a little time time for an ordinary social life, anyway.

She said she had come to a crossroads. She'd had a few years of hectic fun, very little of it regretted. She had made many connections, and was well known as a Brighton personality. But some background issues in her life had not been settled. It was time to reorganise. To address some fundamental matters. She was going to move her main home out of Brighton, retaining only a cheaply-rented room as a pied-à-terre so that she could keep up some kind of regular presence in the city without having to live there expensively. She'd miss the constant buzz of Brighton - certainly a city that never sleeps - including the after-midnight nightlife she still treated herself to three times a week. But she missed the simple pleasures of out-of-town life too, such as songbirds twittering at dawn, and the rustling of tall trees in the wind. It wasn't quite the Ca' o' the Cuillins, but it was at least the sunny call of East Sussex, where she retained a large house.

She would not say that the clubbing and bright lights were altogether behind her. But she wanted to go back to living in a proper house with a garden, an upstairs and a downstairs, and many rooms; to regroup, to have her family around her; maybe to buy a small caravan like mine, and do what I do. To get away, now and then, from the pressures of her life and just disappear for a while. In the past she'd seen much of the world, for months on end. She needn't be absent so long in the future. She'd try to see places like Australia once more, but realised also that much of this country was unknown to her, and demanded to be visited too.

I felt good about that. Her wanting some basic things again, which might resolve many problems. And her moving away from the fickle and hard-to-satisfy Brighton spotlight. It would however be ironic if she left the dazzle of one spotlight (the poetry scene in Brighton) only to step into another (the film world).

At any rate all this was her own idea, her own decision, an exercise of free will. Egotistically I hoped that my own history had counted in there as a possible example of how another person could - post relationship trauma, post crippling financial loss - build an entirely new life that clearly had some good points.

Maybe it had, maybe it hadn't. At any rate, my friend's enthusiasm for enjoying the wind and sea at Cuckmere Haven was undimmed. She was so cheerful. And how little she complained. She valued all her family, despite the lack of recognition for good deeds done, and the unkindnesses, sleights and perverse misunderstandings that had come her way from some of them. It made me ponder as never before the pointlessness of family feuding, and how wrong it is to erect walls and barriers between family members.

All of us grow old. All of us will grow frail in the end. Many of us will become bitter, if only from the knowledge that our time is almost up, with so much left undone and beyond doing. And bitter all the more if we were proud and principled and stiff-necked, and thrust offered love and affection far away in disgust, leaving it to wither and die.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Pay by phone car parking

The battle to park one's car just got one step more complicated in Brighton. Brighton and Hove City Council, faced with on-street parking machines that have mostly reached the end of their life, and need an expensive overhaul or complete replacement, have decided to switch over to paying by phone. Paying that way isn't a new thing, but it's new to Brighton. Living outside the city, I hadn't heard that they were going to introduce it. Yesterday I was confronted with this in White Street, a place fairly convenient for the city centre, where hitherto I have been able to park up to four hours on a coin-operated meter:


The adjacent coin-operated machine had been sealed and could not be used. There was another one some distance down the road that would still accept coins.

Hmm. The one functioning machine left in use was a clapped-out thing prone to jamming. And it was a hundred yards away down the hill. Did I want to chance it? Leave my car on a spot I hadn't yet paid for, and dash two hundred yards there and back, on the off-chance of the other machine working?

I had never paid by phone before, and didn't have the necessary app installed on my phone. It would involve too much fiddling around in public, with phone and credit card exposed to passers-by, while I registered and entered my car and credit card details, prior to actually buying some time. I couldn't sit in my car and do it all from there, safely behind locked doors. I wouldn't be able to read the notice and the details on it. (That was Fiona, the dark blue car behind the notice in the picture)

Well, I scurried downhill, successfully obtained a two-hour paper ticket, panted uphill again, and displayed it inside Fiona. Now I was parked legally. All this had wasted time. I had a hair appointment at Trevor Sorbie. I'd driven into Brighton with a fifteen-minute time margin for parking. It had now melted away, and I was in my usual panic rush to be somewhere on time. I did make it, but only just.

Even so, problems remained for the future. This upper part of White Street had now been converted to parking by phone only, meaning that for the future I must remember that Fiona could be left there for a maximum of two hours only, not four as before. This had consequences for my Tuesday late-afternoon trips into town, to meet up with friends. Street parking was free after 8.00pm, and up to now I'd been able to arrive and park from 4.00pm on a four-hour ticket. But now it couldn't be before 6.00pm. I would probably be forced to give up tripping into Brighton on Tuesdays, unless there were a definite event to attend, not just a casual drink. Thanks, Brighton and Hove Council, for impairing my social life.

And in order to park on-street anywhere at all, in or near the city centre, I'd have to get to grips with this app. Sigh.

Hair cut and styled, I nipped into a pub - The Sussex Arms in The Lanes - ordered some lunch and a gin-and-tonic, and addressed myself to downloading the app and setting myself up on it. The promise was that once set up, the app would make paying for parking easy. Hah.

The Council use PayByPhone.co.uk as their appointed phone-payment company. I took the precaution of looking at the Council's website and following the link to the right payment company, rather than just searching for it on Google Play Store. There are of course a number of different companies, all with similar names. It was wise indeed to take the installation of the correct app slowly and carefully in the quiet of a pub, and not attempt to do it standing in the street!

Well, setting-up went pretty easily, I have to admit. So I'm now ready to go. My first pay by phone parking session will be next Tuesday, when I have a last pre-Christmas drink with the girls in Brighton. If all goes to plan, I simply find a convenient space, fire up the app, and enter what I want.


Say I use the same space as yesterday. I'll need to enter my parking location (84878), the amount of time I want to buy (2 hours for £2.00, to take me up to 8.00pm), confirm that I am parking the car with the registration SC10 CUR and no other, and then OK all that. I should get an on-screen confirmation, and can then walk away. My credit card account will be charged, and a message will be sent to the mobile device carried by the Council Parking Officer, confirming that SC10 CUR has that space for the next two hours. And I can view the details of what I've bought on the app. In fact I will build up an online record of my phone-paid parking in Brighton, viewable on my phone at any time, which could well be very useful. The fee for all this is 10p each time I park, so I will actually pay £2.10 next Tuesday, not just £2.00.

There are two major refinements. I can if I wish arrange to have a text message sent to me, to remind me when the parking time is nearing expiry, which could be useful if engaged in Deep Conversation in some pub, but at 10p a pop it's just too expensive. So I haven't signed up for that. The other thing is that I can extend the parking time, using the app, without having to go back to the parking place - which is obviously a great convenience. I can't do it, however, if I have already bought the maximum parking time allowed.

The nagging worry is that the technology won't work as advertised. Either I won't be able to connect and buy parking time; or I can, but the message won't get through to the Council's Parking Officer and he'll give me a Parking Fine Notice. Apparently a Notice erroneously given can be rescinded, but that will involve writing to the Council with evidence of payment, and some hassle.

Do you feel, like me, that it would all be much more straightforward just to insert a few coins in a machine?

I know what will happen. Daily visitors to Brighton, who know what's what, will seek out the few parking spaces near coin-operated machines, because you can buy more parking time using a machine, in addition to the sheer convenience of using coins. People like me will be left with only the limited-time pay by phone spaces. The Council's multi-story car parks will still be coin and card operated, but they will now become much busier, making it harder to park there.

All of it will make visiting Brighton city centre harder, more of a mission than it is even now. It's never been a joyride to drive into Brighton. The blanket 20 mph speed limit as you approach the city centre may keep the traffic flowing, but only at a maddening crawl - and it's difficult to keep within that limit when you want to go uphill, when the car needs some momentum; and Brighton is a very hilly place. And now this latest decision to enforce parking payments by phone...

There isn't much that takes me into Brighton. Granted, the shops are good, the restaurants are brilliant, and I have my hair done there. I can, if it's a daytime visit, and I have time to spare, and the weather is clement, use the train. Otherwise I can see myself giving Brighton the finger. It'll be just too much trouble to go there.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Summoned to Jury Service


Well I never! I was thinking only this morning about Jury Service, and how odd it was that, at the venerable age of sixty-three, and having been a householder for thirty-five of those years, I had never so far been selected for this most important civic duty. And then I come home to find this Summons waiting for me!

It really was on pink paper, by the way. How very girly! Presumably men get a Summons on blue paper.

I had long resigned myself to never serving on a jury. And yet I'd always badly wanted to. It had always seemed like an honour to be selected, an acknowledgement that you were deemed fit to decide the guilt or innocence of others - surely the very essence of Responsible Citizenship. Despite dying young at thirty-nine, my brother had been able to serve, no doubt with distinction. But not me. I'd felt overlooked. In fact, I'd begun to wonder whether I'd somehow slipped through whatever net they use to find jurors. Surely they'd choose me one day, a woman of unblemished good standing? And not make do with the devious, the unwilling and the unfit? But the years had passed, the disqualifying age of seventy had drifted ever closer, and I gave up worrying about it.

But all that is now changed.

I have filled in the reply form and will post it back tomorrow. Nothing on that form, nor the Guide to Jury Service that came with it, suggests that a reason will yet be found to disqualify me from doing my bit for justice. So I expect to have the Summons confirmed.

At the moment, I am bound to turn up at Hove Crown Court on Monday 8th February, and then every day for a period that may last two weeks, but could be longer. Hmm, that'll mean catching a train around 8.00am each day. In winter. Well, when working I used to catch one around 7.00am, so what am I complaining about? And they do reimburse the cost of second-class rail fares. And they'll pay me a small amount for subsistence each day. What's there not to like?

I will go prepared with home-made sandwiches and a book or two to read. Back in 2005, some months after retirement, I agreed to be a witness in a Revenue tax case at Bromley Crown Court. I was there all day, and called to give evidence only at 4.30pm. That was a long and rather boring wait. And the catering arrangements were not optimal. Nor was it possible to chat much. I expect broadly the same this time.

I won't be able to discuss the cases of course. Not with anyone. Not ever. I expect the defendants will be a string of petty thieves and fraudsters, nothing very exciting. But I will never be able to say. I will however give the evidence my full attention, however unsavoury it is, and hope to learn more about human nature. So if I emerge from this experience sadder and wiser, and sighing a lot, you'll know that I learned much.

I am methodical and alert to what matters. I'd say I'm pretty good at separating the believable from the incredible, hard fact from mere persuasion, and arriving at a conclusion based on proper evidence, not just a hunch, nor on too fine a balance of probabilities. And I will certainly speak up while we ponder the evidence. But I hope that someone else in the jury will display the right qualities to be Foreman or Forelady - I don't want that vital job. I wouldn't feel fitted for it. I haven't got the gift of being a good chairperson.

In fact, if I want to take an active part at all, I must try not to appear too intelligent. Barristers don't want jurors who are obviously very clever: they want impressionable minds that can follow an argument, but can't pick it apart. So I shall be quiet and subtly ditsy. Until assessing the evidence that has been presented.

You can tell that I'm looking forward to this, and mean to be conscientious. I feel I've now made it as a full member of society. It's a very important thing for me.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Christmas Cards

If it were just a case of sending and receiving a dozen or so Christmas Cards, all would be pure pleasure. But it often has to be done on an industrial scale, and that turns it into a massive logistical exercise that not everyone can do well. I am, unfortunately, one of those who fail to organise the task in the best way - for instance leaving it all until the middle of December.


I have at least written out my Christmas Card list. That's Stage One accomplished. I now know the size of the job ahead. There are fifty-four individuals or couples on my list. Even if that makes it a short list by some standards, that's still a lot of people to select cards for, then write in them, and then address, stamp and post the envelope. Some local people will get a personally-delivered card. But many cards will need to be stamped, and by the time I get around to that, probably a first-class stamp. For various reasons, a few persons won't actually get a card; but if not, then they must have an email instead. One person will get both a card and a handwritten letter.

There's an awful lot of work ahead. I think this needs some seriously alternative thinking.


It is very nice keeping in touch at Christmas. I've already received a dozen Christmas Cards. I do appreciate the effort spent on them, and in fact they form part of my household Christmas decorations, colourfully (and of course tastefully) adorning my mantelpiece, with the overflow on the Welsh dresser. But I'd happily make do with a sincere 'Merry Christmas, Lucy!' in an email or text. Now how easy that would be for both of us, even if it left the mantelpiece bare...

In the modern world, where travel is easy and personal electronic communication is universal, we can if we want be in touch all the time. And if we are, then it does seem rather superfluous to send a Christmas card to somebody you see quite often, or may actually meet up with at Christmastime. You'll hug and kiss, and say things face to face, and toast each other, and be of good cheer. Why does this need a card as well?

Surely it's best to send cards only to those we can't physically get to - people living abroad, say? And yet I'd have no objection whatever to getting a quick but sincere email from someone abroad, if they were equally content to get an email from me.


Last year I experimented with e-cards. Only those who used email could have them, and only a few persons were actually sent one. I'd paid a subscription to a website (Jackie Lawson) and, having chosen, say, a rather beautiful animated musical 'card', I despatched it with a brief personal message. I received a couple of these e-cards myself. Granted, the 'card' was viewable only in my email inbox, but nevertheless the right festive gesture had been made. And because it was there on my phone, I could take it with me everywhere. It would have been an especially suitable way of sending greetings, if I had been away at Christmas. Sending or receiving an e-card didn't affect our feelings toward each other one bit, and not using card-quality paper must have saved the planet to some degree, more than using even recycled paper would have. So it felt virtuous.

In any case, the Christmas Card as we know it is a modern invention, a commercially-inspired thing as so many Christmas things are, and somehow we have all become trapped in a ritual that binds us all to a massive chore at a time when there is so much else to attend to. Messages of merriment and good intent are fine, but I do question the real worth of pre-printed conventional greetings on mass-produced cards. Wouldn't a homemade card add something extra, something truer? I always feel thrilled to receive such a card. It's impractical, though, to labour over more than a handful.


So what shall I do this year? It's now too late to order a batch of specially-printed bespoke Christmas Cards on high-grade white card, containing this message inside, with holly and berries above it, all in silver or gold:

A VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM MELFORD HALL
May your Christmas be warm and cheerful, and the year to come full of happiness!
With love and best wishes from Lucy Melford

With, of course, a personal message and an appropriate number of kisses underneath, written with a gilded pen in my own fair hand.

Everyone would get the same card - subject to subtle variations in the personal message - so that nobody would be sent a better card than anyone else. All would be treated with exact equality. 

How I wish I'd got a box of cards like this in front of me now, all ready to go. I should have given this some thought in October. It would then be simply a matter of addressing the envelopes, stamping them, and toddling off to the post box! Something to consider seriously for next year perhaps.

But this year?


Well, I think I'm going to be creative. I'm going to try my hand at producing one or more Christmas Card designs of my own invention, and send them by email. The card will be an attachment which the recipient can either just view (as he or she would view a commercial e-card) or actually print out and pop on their mantelpiece. I'd design it to print on A4-sized card or paper, and to be folded so that the message ends up inside and the design outside, all the right way up. If you imagine a sheet of A4, to be folded twice, you put the front design upside-down in the north-west quarter as you look at the sheet, and the main greeting the right way up in the south-east quarter. And the Christmas Card thus created will be stiff enough to stand up properly - I've just done a mock-up with ordinary printing paper. It works.

I'll also attach the design as a JPEG that can be used as a seasonal screen saver, if the recipient so wishes.


I'm sure this idea will do the trick. I feel inspired to work on the design or designs first thing tomorrow.

People who haven't got a computer, or never use email, will get a bought card sent in the ordinary way. (And so would anyone to whom I was romantically attached - but of course there isn't anyone, and I'm not looking for love, even at Christmas!)

Flickr milestone passed

I've done it - achieved one million viewings on the photo-hosting website Flickr. I was in Brighton last night, having a meal with friends at the China Garden restaurant, when, on a hunch, I got this up on my phone. This was the screenshot I recorded, to capture the transient moment:


The viewings total had been 300 short of a million a few hours before. Now another 1,500 people had taken a look.

Of course I'm pleased. Although it's taken nearly seven years to reach that magic million, the total was only 100,000 three years ago. Here's a shot taken on 16 November 2012, showing 100,004 viewings:


And even a year ago - thirteen months, to be more exact - the viewing total was only 500,000. Here's a shot taken on 10 October 2014, showing 512,019 viewings:


So I've garnered another 500,000 viewings over the last year or so.

Where does this get me? Well, nowhere in particular! It would have been nice if I'd had a penny for every viewing (a pound would have been even nicer!) but that didn't happen. I don't take it as evidence that I'm a Great Photographer. Most likely I've taken some 'different-from-the-usual' shots now and then, and people keep hitting on those. Or maybe it's simply that if you publish an awful lot of photos - and I've published 13,500 - you eventually become a big target for any searches made, and you get 'known'. Rather like having a lot of Premium Bonds makes a regular win much more likely.

Am I one of Flickr's 'most popular' stars? Surely not. But I may be well up the league table for the 'most prolific' of their account holders. So far as I know, Flickr doesn't make available any such tables, showing who has accumulated the most viewings, or has at least published the most shots. But supposing they did, it wouldn't be interesting unless I were somehow among the 'top 500' in the world in one or other category. It would, for instance, be a rather ho-hum accolade to be confirmed the 2,704,388th 'most popular', or the 693,702nd 'most prolific'!

I will say, however, that the viewings total does encourage me to go on publishing, and see how far I can push the total up to. One friend asked me whether I would now aim for 2,000,000 viewings. I said yes. But not as the main reason for taking photos. I do that for the sheer excitement of it, because gets me out to see places I might otherwise not bother with. You do need an incentive to go far out of your way - and the prospect of a few good shots definitely spurs you on to make that effort.

I think photography is a fabulous antidote to laziness and inertia.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Changing habits

It's funny how you stick with a procedure, once you've got used to it, even though it has become outmoded and superseded by a much easier way of doing things.

I've been storing mp3 music tracks on my various mobile devices since 2002. Originally it was for my early-morning journey to the station, and then to keep me awake on the train to London. Sometimes I'd play them going home as well. I didn't have much occasion to play music on retirement in 2005, but I began again when I moved into the Cottage in January 2009, when I was on my own and my musical taste wouldn't be an irritation to M---. Nowadays I play music in the bathroom every day, and when engaged in chores like ironing. I am not musical, and many would chortle at what I like, but I enjoy everything in my collection. I don't bloat it by including stuff that might impress, but isn't to my taste. Currently there are slightly less than 1,500 tracks on my phone.

How did they get there? Well, initially, I'd rip the music I wanted from CDs I already had, or was still buying, using my PC. Then I'd connect the PC to the current mobile device with a USB cable, and 'sync' the track to the device using Windows Media Player, a piece of software I have never liked. After I bought my Nokia E71 smartphone in 2008, I installed Nokia Music Player, which lacked WMP's bells and whistles but was much easier to use.

And that set up a well-tried procedure that lasted for seven years, because I continued to use Nokia Music Player for transferring tracks from my PC to my phone right up to yesterday.

Latterly I'd buy a batch of mp3s online from Amazon, but still install them on the phone with good old Nokia Music Player, even after Nokia lost its way and was taken over (and killed off) by Microsoft.  But earlier this week I found that Nokia Music Player wasn't working as well as it once had. And of course, there was no current version to upgrade to.

So how was I going to get future mp3 purchases onto my phone?

At this point someone will say: you don't need to. Get yourself a music subscription, and have access to zillions of tracks - all the music you could ever want - without needing to install anything on your phone. It will just be streamed as required. Three objections to this:

1. I dislike being dependent on a subscription service.

2. I already have most of the music I'd ever want, so theoretical access to a lot more isn't really much of an advantage.

3. I don't enjoy a strong 4G signal where I live - and I usually don't in the places where I go caravanning. Streaming is therefore not to be relied upon. I need to have my music installed in a physical memory - music that I've purchased and 'own' - so that I can listen to it anywhere and anytime.

And then yesterday I suddenly adopted an entirely different procedure, which completely bypassed the PC. I installed the Amazon Music app on my phone, bought an mp3 track online using the app, and set the app up to download the track straight to the 64GB MicroSD card on my phone. This worked so well that there seems no point in ever again using the PC to buy mp3s with. Which avoids all that transfer kerfuffle.

You know, I could have been doing this for some time past...!

In fact there is no need to have any music on the PC now. I kept it there only as a backup for the music on the phone. But all new stuff is automatically stored in Amazon's own cloud, whether or not downloaded. And I can also do a separate 'physical' backup of all the music on the phone to a portable hard drive, at regular intervals.

So what's a PC really for, nowadays?

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Perhaps it was a good investment!

I'm a great believer in silver linings - no matter how dark the cloud. There's always something positive to say about a dire deed that has had to be done.

Everyone I've mentioned it to has gasped at the £5,000-odd I had to pay to get a new automatic gearbox installed in Fiona. My cousin Rosemary is going on a very nice cruise this winter for less. And I admit to having some glum thoughts, when I consider how repaying the £5,000 bank loan I had to take out will depress my spending-power over the next 30 months to mid-2018. It means not only some holidays postponed. I won't be able to throw money at the house and garden - everything will get just a touch shabbier. Not what I'd had in mind at all. I am not as house-proud as some, but I really had wanted to smarten the place up, and not just keep it clean and tidy.

But maybe that £5,000 odd lately spent on my car will prove to be something of an investment, giving me a tangible return in cash.

Am I talking nonsense? Well, take a good look at this photo, taken when I reached home yesterday evening after a longish cross-country journey from Kent:


I draw your attention to the right-hand dial, below the time, where it says my average fuel consumption with the new gearbox was 37.8 miles per gallon.

Now that's not a remarkable figure as cars go nowadays, but it's astonishing for my car. You must bear in mind that Fiona is big and heavy, she has a 2.4 litre engine, and automatic transmission with permanent all-wheel drive. She's not a light and economical town car. When towing, she averages 23 mpg. When not towing, I've been getting an average of 30 mpg from her when at home, less if I go into towns to any great extent. When on holiday, usually on less crowded roads than Sussex has, I generally do a little better. For instance, I averaged 31.4 mpg  for my seven nights in North Devon in March this year, and 31.6 mpg when I went there again for twelve nights in September. It was 32.7 mpg for my six nights in Lyme Regis in April. The very best achieved this year was 36.1 mpg, pottering around Fife in Scotland for three days in June, but that was completely untypical.

So I was shocked when I saw 37.8 mpg on my dashboard display last night. The very best ever. It must be a fluke.

But then I reflected. Would the new gearbox have been exactly the same as the old one? Fiona was 'born' in 2010. Did Volvo have a vast stockpile of 2010-vintage gearboxes stashed somewhere, gathering dust, just in case they were ever needed? Or was this a more recently-manufactured box, the right one for my 2010 engine, but in some respects different from the original gearbox fitted? Although it's been operating smoothly and quietly, I've noticed that this new box likes to hold a higher gear slightly longer than the old one used to, which would tend to improve fuel consumption. That could be part of it.

But another part must be a change in my driving behaviour. In order to protect the new gearbox from whatever damage I'd unwittingly inflicted on the old, I've decided to drive with less verve and dash, accelerate gently, and generally take things more sedately. And this too must be having had a good effect on Fiona's fuel consumption.

A more efficient new gearbox - or the gearbox imposing fuel-saving behaviour on me? Or both?

But a fuel-consumption improvement of 20% or so seems altogether too remarkable!

I'll have to keep an eye on this, to see whether it's really true. But suppose the combination of a new gearbox and a gentler touch is working wonders? Let me see...I expect my fuel bill for 2015 to be about £2,500. 20% of that is £500. If the price of fuel stays about the same as now, and I do no more mileage than I have in 2015, I can expect to be better off by £500 in 2016 and each year that follows. Hmm. I'm no good at maths, but that sounds like a 10% cash return on £5,000 to me. If I don't squander the fuel money saved, then I'll recover the entire £5,000 I've spent in ten years, which is exactly how long I'd like to hang onto Fiona before she finally gets a Viking Funeral.

I suspect that I'm bamboozling myself with figures here. But for the moment, until somebody points out the flaw in my maths, I feel warmly consoled.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Time to panic! A cookery credibility test draws near

I have no complaints whatever at the way my local social life has taken off since Spring 2015. In fact, I marvel at it. I have made a number of excellent friends. We seem to like much the same things, and in particular we are partial to eating and drinking - in moderation of course - but at least weekly nevertheless. My friends are mostly married ladies within ten years of my own age. I have needed to build up a relationship with not only them, but their husbands. And their pets!

All in all, this has enriched my life. I'm known to quite a crowd now. Besides the occasional Girls' Night Out - which used to be mostly a Curry Night, but nowadays can also mean a meal in a dining pub - there have been midweek or weekend soirées, and, almost without fail, an après-pilates event every Friday lunchtime. Here's a selection of pictures, in chronological order, from late May to last week, to show what I mean:


I like my new friends very much and almost everyone I've met is in one or other of the pictures. And I think the shots do convey the light-heartedness and goodwill rather well.

But there's another point to be made: none of those pictures are at my home. I have enjoyed months of pub lunches and dinners, barbecues, nibbles or sit-down meals in other people's houses - but I've not yet shown anyone what gets served up at Melford Hall! But that's about to change. I'm doing the après-pilates lunch at the end of this week. Gulp.

It's enough to send me into a panic. I know I applied to appear on Channel 4's Come Dine With Me some while back, but that must have been pure hubris. I have been humbled by the genuine culinary skill of my friends.

But all is not lost. I panic, but I do not despair! I have plenty of suitable recipes. For months I've been collecting some free recipe cards from Waitrose. I have also unearthed their 2009 Christmas menu book. Yes, even in 2009 (a rather dark and painful year) I was able to envisage a time when I'd be providing hospitality to friends as yet unimagined. I must have had an awful lot of faith in the future! Anyway, this morning I arranged all the cold-season recipes on the lounge carpet:


Plenty there to choose from. Plenty there that I can prepare the afternoon before - or on the very morning - and keep fresh in the fridge. There will be a hot dish of course, but it'll be something I can just pop into the oven for a short while, in between one glass of wine and the next.

No, I need not worry so much. I simply have to keep my nerve, and not get flustered.

I last entertained at home - formally - as long ago as February 2013. There were three of us. I produced this rustic peasant fare in my cauldron - off the top of my head, without any recipe to follow:

  

I doubt whether I can rise to this kind of thing again. Well, we'll see.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

The menace of social media

I don't look back on the 'old days' with over-much affection. It was a wrong time for me in any case, full of occasions when I felt forced to do things I felt unfitted to do, and be someone I felt I was not.

These were days before emailing and texting from one's own mobile phone were possible. For 'instant communication' there was only the landline phone. Some were happy with it. I was always afraid of it - its shrill ring; not knowing who might be calling; and the daunting formality of speaking unprepared into a large handheld device with an awkward coiled wire attached to it. And then not knowing what to say. Quite possibly not even recognising who was on the other end of the line. Too many people used to think their voices needed no introduction. They'd leave me guessing, playing for time, mouthing generalities until I could overcome my panic and remember who they were. It was often an embarrassing nightmare. I once messed up a budding friendship by curtailing a call curtly, not realising who it was until later. I was never comfortable holding the landline phone. The apparatus got in the way, emphasising the artificiality of the process.

I felt especially uncomfortable with well-intentioned calls at festive times. If someone else had got to the phone first, I'd scurry into the bathroom and stay there - so that when, inevitably, it was time to pass the phone to me, I wouldn't be handy. Cowardice? You betcha.

But let complete honesty and frankness prevail. I do not like to converse with a disembodied voice. And now, at this stage in my life, I am going to be blatantly clear and insistent about it. I don't want to chat over the phone: if you must ring me to speak, keep the call for when you need vital information. Such as (if visiting me) 'I've reached the Half Moon pub. Where is your house from where I am?' We will talk aplenty when you reach my front door.

I vastly prefer texts and emails. They don't interrupt and intrude. I'm geared up to a rapid response. I keep nobody waiting for long. Texts and emails give me time to think, and frame my answer with care and consideration, and I won't feel under pressure. I certainly won't babble. Nor will I be vague, boring or unintentionally indiscreet.

Most of all I like to speak face-to-face. Now that's proper communication. Both of us physically present. We can see each other's expressions, catch a look, and feel each other's reactions. We will automatically maintain respect and good manners. We will know when we strike a rich vein of mutual gold. And if the conversation takes a sad or congratulatory turn, then the right gestures can be made as appropriate, in person. You can't hug or kiss or weep together by electronic means. I don't rate emoticons and emojis one little bit. There's no substitute for actually being there. You need to touch.

So I am perplexed at the popularity of 'social media' in its various forms. I still don't get it. What does it provide that a face-to-face meeting does not - except, perhaps, distance. For some people it may be easier to deal with the world if they don't actually have to meet anybody. It must certainly to easier to lie and deceive and offer false flattery from a keyboard at home.

So many people like to 'share' some trivial comment, or quote, or supposedly funny video or joke, with all their 'friends'. What a turn-off. During my two brief forays into Facebook I was saddened to see what otherwise sensible friends wrote about themselves and what they got up to. The jokiness of it, the use of what you might call the 'Facebook way of expression', simply trivialised them. It shook me. I did not want to see this side of them. It made each of them seem quite different from the person I ordinarily knew. I recoiled from it.

The Facebook format also clearly invited comeback, and some of that was even more silly. And all of it was quickly buried under a mass of fresh inconsequentiality. It was no good writing anything serious or important. It was soon lost in the general gibber - or at best dismissed, all too easily, with a 'like'. What worth or sincerity does a 'like' have?

And I saw also the potential for harm. There was the possibility of unguarded knee-jerk comments that were badly-expressed and needed a rethink, the sort that ruffled feathers, and created family misunderstandings, ill-feeling, and even feuds. There was the possibility of frank vitriol, of the sort lately directed at moderate Labour politicians who have come out and spoken up for military action in Syria.

I dare say a politician is obliged to run several social media accounts, and can't opt out. It may even be a requirement of the job to have a Facebook and Twitter account, so that constituents - or just the general voting public - have a platform for expressing delight or anger at the MP's personal approach to political questions. But murderous venom is quite another thing. I would be very frightened to receive a message threatening death over something I'd posted on the blog. I would tell the police about it. I certainly think it's no over-reaction if an MP asks the police to look into the same thing. MPs are still vulnerable human beings of flesh and blood.

Silliness, personal attacks...I don't see much to commend social media, do I? There's also something else. It's the encouragement to indulge in a form of stalking. It's apparently still easy to open a Facebook account in a fake name and then go looking for people one might be interested in, such as former friends or partners, or anyone whose name and approximate location is known. And then, without announcing one's presence, keep them under stealthy surveillance. And of course the more they have embraced Facebook as a daily mirror of what they get up to, the more the hidden watcher will find out about them. And if that watcher has the capacity to get obsessive, the surveillance may become compulsive and dangerous.

The Government has now proposed new civil powers to intervene and curb the ability and desire of the offender to pursue their victim. But if they are careful and crafty, detecting them will remain difficult.

It's a chilling thought, that posting some cheerful or daft post on Facebook, and especially photos showing faces and recognisable locations, might lead to being followed about by someone with a problem. And the thing about social media like Facebook is that even though you might be careful what you say and what pictures you show, your 'friends' may not. And if either you, or they, give away your ordinary routine, then there is a clear need to beware.

I am not so sure I don't give away far too much about my location and habits on this blog. I never do give the name of my village, nor do I ever show pictures of my house as you see it from the roadside. But I'm quite certain that I could be found. Then what? At least nobody can use social media to wage psychological warfare on me, because I am not signed up to any of it. But what if they ever turn up in person, and knock on my front door one dark night?

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Breathless and expensive

All the many things you have to think about, as Christmas approaches! And then, just as soon as it's over - the day after Boxing Day - there's the New Year's so-called celebrations coming up fast. Your head swims with all the organisation needed to miss nothing. No wonder this time of year is the most stressful, and often the death of happy marriages. It was for mine.

And, mark you, I am supremely fortunate! I can suit myself what I do about Christmas. I have no duties or obligations. I never buy present for adults, only for little children (and there is only one of those to consider). I do not have to stay with anyone - so there's no packing to do - nor do I ever want anyone to stay with me. And if I wish to drop out entirely, and push off somewhere, and completely avoid every single social event, then I can.

I am of course far too sociable to cut and run; but even so, it's been a bit breathless over the past two weeks, and it looks set to continue. I hope I can cope!

Breathless and expensive. I may well pop the metaphorical (or even real) champagne cork, toasting 2015 as the Year I Made Even More Excellent Friends. But it will also be The Most Expensive Year Ever For Keeping My Car On The Road. And yet the pain of dealing with accumulated wear and tear on my car is easily eclipsed by the pleasure, convenience and travel-potential that Fiona provides. I remain more than content. I can think of many great moments in 2015 - and most of them were enabled, directly or indirectly, by owning Fiona.

Well, how is my lovely car after her heart surgery?

I am - cautiously - very pleased with that gearbox transplant. I have to be cautious, because this isn't the kind of thing you can assess in a mere five minutes of driving. But I can say that all transmission noise is now much muted, gearshifting is smooth and slick, and my car is quieter and more serene to drive around in. That's a good enough outcome for now. But it will take a month or so before I start to relax.

And I don't think I will ever now take the new gearbox for granted. With this first major component-replacement, Fiona has left her young-and-carefree stage behind. She has arrived at early middle-age, one-third of the way through her expected lifetime - in human terms, around thirty-five - and like a human of that age, she is still capable of strenuous physical efforts, but not necessarily without consequences. I must expect her to react if driven too hard. Even so, I won't be nursing her - but I will be driving her with care and gentleness all the time, and not asking her to do anything too prodigious. I want her to last. And I want to avoid unnecessary bills! How will I accomplish this restraint? I simply stay within all speed limits. So if I sometimes flouted any in the past, I won't be doing so henceforth. That will ensure I stay 'legal', and give Fiona a break.

Looking at my diary, I'm struck how nearly every day before Christmas 2015 has something fixed up, or at least pencilled in. Vastly different to how it was at, say, Christmas 2009, when I was completely on my own over Christmas. That was the year I burnt my Christmas Dinner almost to a cinder. Let's disinter the photos...


Wasn't it sad? All the roast vegetables were charcoal. Only the separately-boiled brussels sprouts were palatable. I can't remember what went wrong. It looked slightly better on the plate, but still very meagre:


In 2010 I was down in snowbound Cornwall - in the caravan - but I cooked up a far nicer Christmas dinner for myself - a hearty steak, albeit served up late in the evening after struggling vainly in icy conditions with a TV satellite dish. The right spirit was maintained by my ceramic Christmas Tree:


After 2010 I dined at friends', or at my sister-in-law's - the only exception being 2012 when I ate at home again, but this time successfully. It was a veritable feast:


This year I'm invited to a village Festive Soirée on Christmas Eve, and to my sister-in-law's on Boxing Day. So, contrary to expectations, I'll be cooking at home again on Christmas Day itself. But I'll greatly enjoy that. It'll make a change. And I'd be surprised if I don't also end up in the village pub, or someone's house, for wine and canapés. Some local staggering to do, then.

So even though I won't be buying anyone of drinking age a present, I will still need to lay in a fresh stock of red and white wine, as I never go empty-handed to a private house. That'll be expensive too; but it's Christmas and I don't mind one bit.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Social studies in Swansea

My goodness, it's very nearly a month ago that I was in Swansea! It was a fine day for 1 November, so late in the year.

I rather like Swansea, or at least those parts of it that lie near the sea front. It must once have been a very industrial place - and therefore drab and dirty. But now it's a bright and breezy university city, with probably the best shopping centre outside Cardiff; a beautiful beach that stretches westwards past parkland, all the way to The Mumbles; and dockland that has been transformed since the 1980s into a very attractive Marina. Here's a selection of shots, to show what I'm referring to - beginning with myself, in front of a city-centre water cascade, with the old castle in the background:


Well, that was a pretty rapid tour of the city centre, Marina and sea front! But I hope you can see that this Welsh coastal city has much to offer as a place to visit, and indeed to live in. The Marina development began some thirty years ago, and by the late 1990s was mostly built up to the extent now seen. It's now in a constant refurbishment phase, to keep all the buildings nicely painted, and to limit the damage done by the salt air and the strong gales. Some of the stone materials used back in the 1980s have not lasted well, if they were placed in exposed positions. This plaque, for instance - created from a piece of sandstone I'm thinking. Back in 1999 its detail was still crisp:


But now look at it in 2015. It's almost unrecognisable. The surface, assaulted by wind and weather, and possibly blown sand, has disintegrated:


Here's another of those plaques, with my hand on it. I wonder what clever design has been eroded away?


On the other hand, if this kind of thing was in a sheltered spot, it survives intact:


The Marina - really large enough to be a little seafront suburb of Swansea - is full of whimsical plaques, sculptures and installations on a maritime theme. The ones made of metal have lasted the best. Such as this pastiche of nautical bits and pieces on a tall column:


It looks interesting, and is surprisingly little degraded from when I lasted photographed it in 1999, when it was like this:


Here's another typical installation - a sea captain leaning forward at a most unusual angle, carrying a ship's bell on an impossibly stiff length of rope!


The Dylan Thomas Theatre is one of the cultural buildings that cluster around the marina. In front of it is a rather unattractive statue of this great Welsh poet. Here I pose with the travesty, squinting into the autumn sunshine:


I personally think it makes him look like a vacant-minded teenager, and not the sensitive and insightful bard he really was. Compare that statue with this painting in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff:


I felt I couldn't miss a walk up Wind Street.


This is the street all of Young Swansea makes for on a Saturday Night. It's full of pubs and nightclubs and places to eat.

This was also, I think, the street where, in October 2009, CCTV caught two local lads attacking what they thought were two crossdressing men - but the 'easy victims' were in fact professional cage fighters on their way to a party in fancy dress, and they had no problem at all knocking the attackers to the ground - casually done too - then picking up their handbags, and strolling on as it nothing had happened. See the Daily Telegraph report at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/6268426/Cross-dressing-cage-fighters-turn-tables-on-yobs.html. One hopes the two local lads learned a lesson - never pick on anyone who seems to be a man in a dress, because he may well have strength, technique and confidence, and be alert for trouble. But I've noted the prevailing attitude of young Welsh men elsewhere in these chronicles, and I doubt if they spotted the moral.

Emerging from Wind street, I found myself following a young couple quite closely. Both were dressed in their own versions of 'Sunday Best'.


He looked athletic. He walked on his toes, as if prowling, prepared to spring like a panther at any moment. Note the short, sharp haircut. Note his sports top, skinny jeans and new trainers. Note also the smartphone in his hand. He was ready for a call. In fact my intuition told me that he'd be very glad to have a call requesting his urgent presence at some pub where the previous night's Rugby World Cup match was going to be replayed and analysed over many, many drinks. The fact that he was trailing behind his girlfriend signalled reluctance to be wasting a Sunday afternoon following a baby buggy about. Unless I was much deceived, he wanted to be doing Something Else. Presumably they were on their way to visit her Mum - not his scene at all.

She was very stylishly turned out, in that dress with its bold Mondrian-inspired design. Note the close (nay, exact) colour-match of the tights to the dress. Note the brand new heeled shoes. Note the designer handbag. You can just make out the designer sunglasses perched up on her hair.

And she was merely pushing a pram through a city centre, man in tow.

Her body language said she was the boss - the buggy, and the trophy baby in it, bestowing unanswerable authority. But I think her young man had his own views on that!

One of the best bits of advice in street photography is if they look dangerous, shoot 'em in the back. As you know, I always heed good advice.

(Of course I do, every time)