Ephemeral Earth Art

This captivating video says it all.

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Retrospective 2020

Executive Summary

It’s been a funny old year. Mary and I stayed well clear of the Coronavirus but it has obliterated most of the happenings that I would normally be blogging about. I am one of the lucky ones, though. As a pensioner, I don’t have to worry about losing my job or loss of income. As one of the least sociable persons on the planet, the lack of face-to-face contact has hardly bothered me at all. And my familiarity with Information Technology in its many forms left me well placed to wander around cyberspace and find new things to enjoy and occupy my time.

And, on the subject of I.T., my frustration with Facebook finally erupted in the Spring. After switching to the Diaspora* social media platform I deleted my Facebook account in July. That was the highlight of an otherwise somewhat dismal 2020 and the best decision I made all year. (For details see the Hubzilla section below.)


Disclaimer:
All images are stolen from the Web. They do not show me, my family, my friends or my house.


Social Life, At A Distance

Our U3A and Trent 36 groups either went into aestivation or moved online when the first lockdown took effect on 23rd March. By then we had managed to attend two of the three U3A monthly meetings, host a Trent 36 coffee evening, attend a T36 slide show on Albania, and take part in the T36 AGM.

After that, the U3A Making Music and Photography groups were put on hold while the Philosophy group and the Mac Users group continued to meet online. Trent 36 also started to have online quizzes, slide shows and catch-up meetings at roughly fortnightly intervals.

And that’s not all … Having reluctantly accepted what I thought was a non-Trustee position on the Charnwood U3A committee back in 2019 it turned out that all committee members are automatically Trustees, so I had to be registered as such with the Charities Commission. I couldn’t just snooze through our online committee meetings any more. And, when my suggestion of setting up an I.T. Help Desk was approved, I had another reason to pay attention.

Other online events included a talk by a member of the U3A Science and Technology group on “The Birth of Astronomy” and three webinars in the Talking Science series published by the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory:

  • Engineering Enzymes – beefing up a natural enzyme that eats plastic waste
  • Crystals and the Search for Life – microorganisms on Mars may live in liquid trapped in crystals
  • Development of a Vaccine Against COVID-19 – telling the story of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine

What would we do without Zoom?


Hubzilla – The Facebook Killer

For me, the most significant event of 2020 was the discovery of the Hubzilla community. As I mentioned in the introduction, I became so exasperated with Facebook in the Spring that I looked around for alternatives. There are several and the one that sounded promising was called Diaspora*. (The asterisk is part of its name but that looks like a footnote marker, which is confusing, so I will omit it from now on.)

Several features of Diaspora sounded attractive: the software is Open Source and free, it runs on a network of independent servers and it puts privacy at its heart. That means that anyone can set up a Diaspora server – it is not controlled by Microsoft or Apple or Google or Facebook, or by any other single organisation. But, best of all, it doesn’t carry advertisements.

So I signed up for a Diaspora account. Confusingly, the Help page was all about Hubzilla. It took a few weeks for me to realise that I had actually signed in to a Hubzilla server that happens to offer the Diaspora service. And Hubzilla offers a lot more than social media feeds. With Hubzilla you also get cloud file storage, a website, a Wiki, a calendar and a raft of optional plugins.

Facebook always was horrible. It’s ugly, complicated and its primary purpose is to make money for Mark Zuckerberg. It doesn’t have to be like this. Come and join me on Hubzilla and let’s get back to apps that actually help us to socialise. Choose a pod from those listed here (I suggest node9.org), create an account and connect to my channel (phil@node9.org). I’ll see you there.


Home Improvements

At the very beginning of the year we upgraded our en suite. It was given a similar transformation to the bathroom revamp of 2016: new toilet and wash basin integrated into built-in storage units, plus a new, easy-to-clean shower cubicle. The house has also undergone one or two items of routine maintenance: the scrubbery at the front was replaced with a miniature patio of small flagstones; two windows with broken latch mechanisms were fixed; an unusable outside power socket was made useable; a minor roof leak was repaired. The back garden, however, continues to march inexorably towards primordial jungle.


Clannad

Concerts

We managed to fit in two concerts before the March lockdown. On 10th March we saw Clannad at the Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham (see this post on my music blog for details) and the following day the Charnwood U3A’s Little Big Band provided the entertainment at its AGM with yours truly on guitar. The latter was recorded but the sound quality on the video is too poor to be worth publishing.

We had also booked for Brand X and Elbow but both those shows had to be postponed. Oh well, maybe we’ll see them in 2021.


That’s it for 2020. Here’s hoping 2021 will be lighter, brighter, safer and happier.

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Beethoven Meets Van Gogh

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Retrospective 2019

IMG_4895

Executive Summary

It’s been a fairly uneventful 2019 for us on the whole. One more year on the life clock has, presumably, taken its toll but we don’t feel any older than we did 12 months ago so we are not complaining. Our cat, Persephone, is now on regular medication for thyroid and kidney problems but she, too, seems quite perky considering her age.

Mary continues to serve as a governor of Wymeswold Primary School and as a member of the Wymeswold Open Gardens Committee. Phil is still involved with the group hoping to set up a deli and coffee shop in the village, although that project is looking less and less likely to come to fruition as the months go by. We both attended a variety of Charnwood U3A and Trent 36 events during the year and we even managed to fit in a week’s holiday in Cornwall.

Two ‘interesting’ incidents deserve a special mention this time around: my Dad was in collision with a cyclist in March and we discovered a leaky water pipe in the kitchen in April. Fortunately, neither caused permanent damage but Dad’s accident was worrying for a few days and the aftermath of the leak took many frustrating months to sort out.

Fractured and Dazed

black eye

This is not the gentleman in question but he looked a lot like this.

My mobile phone rang at about 8:40 pm on Friday, 1st March. It was from an unknown number so, as usual, I ignored it. 30 seconds later it rang again. Perhaps it wasn’t an automated voice telling me that my (non-existent) Amazon Prime subscription will be renewed from my bank account for £39.99, after all. This time I answered the call and a voice informed me that he was a police officer and my 89 year old father had been in collision with a cyclist in central London.

The thought that this was an innovative way to start a nuisance call crossed my mind. But it was a day when Dad spent the evening with the other members of his masonic lodge in London and it was highly unlikely that even the cleverest of spammers would know that. The policeman went on to assure me that Dad did not appear to be seriously injured but he had been unconscious for a while and was now in an ambulance. He then passed the phone to my father and we had a brief conversation.

Dad was clearly shaken up and had no recollection of what had happened to him. But he was perfectly lucid and we were able to share a joke about his misfortune. Somewhat relieved I ascertained that Dad would be taken to University College Hospital and began planning a trip to the capital. I just managed to catch a train from Loughborough and got to the hospital around 11:40 pm.

It didn’t take long to find the injured party and speak to the medical staff. Dad was a sorry sight. He had some severe bruising to his face and hands, a bump on his head and there was a little blood on his shirt and suit. But he was awake and alert and in surprisingly good spirits considering his situation. The doctor explained that he had a fractured finger and there had been a slight bleed on the brain. They would be keeping him in for observation but they were not planning any treatment beyond pain relief.

I had not had time to pack an overnight bag or to find somewhere to stay so it seemed best to head home, check on the patient in the morning and make further plans when we had more information. There were no more trains to anywhere near Wymeswold at that time of night but I was able to get as far as Dad’s place in Milton Keynes and Mary picked me up from there the following day.

By Sunday the word was that Dad was recovering reasonably well and would, probably, be released after the doctor had seen him again first thing on Monday morning. So I booked a room in the Kings Cross Travelodge and took the train to London once again. It took until about 4 pm on the Monday afternoon to get the official authorisation for his release whereupon we travelled back to Wymeswold together, stopping off at Milton Keynes for Dad to pick up some things for a few days with us.

I’m happy to say that Dad did eventually make a full recovery but, as I said in the introduction, his accident made for a few chaotic and worrying days.

Kitchen Leak

wet floor

The other notable incident this year was the tragicomic saga of the leak in the kitchen. (Yes, that’s ‘leak’, not ‘leek’, the vegetable that sometimes serves as an emblem of Wales.)

Sometime in early April we noticed a tiny puddle on the kitchen floor in front of the sink. Had we been a little over enthusiastic with the washing up? Or was there a bigger problem lurking somewhere? We couldn’t see any drips from any of the pipework that snaked through the under-sink cupboard and there was no water inside the cabinet so we assumed the puddle was nothing more than splashes.

A few days went by and the puddle reappeared. Again we ignored it. Then, one day we noticed that the kickboard was wet. In fact, it was soaked. Removing the kickboard revealed that the whole of the untiled concrete area under the sink was covered with water one tile deep. Something was definitely leaking but we still couldn’t see what.

We have an insurance policy that covers such things so we called out the plumber. He quickly identified a bad joint in the pipe from the dishwasher and fixed it for us. But he pointed out that the kitchen units in that corner and the plaster on the wall behind the sink were all sodden. He diagnosed a slow leak that had been there for a long time, probably for months and possibly since the dishwasher had been installed.

The dishwasher had been purchased from John Lewis and installed by their engineers so we thought it would be worth contacting them to see if they would be prepared to contribute to the cost of the repair work. And not long after reporting the problem to them we were delighted to receive an email admitting liability for the damage. The same email gave us two options: we could use repairers approved by John Lewis or we could provide two quotes from companies of our choosing.

We chose the simpler option. There couldn’t be any arguments if we used an approved repairer and, as John Lewis would be paying, the cost was immaterial. But the next email said that, unfortunately, they didn’t have any approved repairers in our area. So we searched for suitable companies and found just one near us. The company is called Rainbow and they specialise in disaster recovery, including floods. They have a professional website and plenty of appropriate experience so we asked them to give us a quote.

We sent the Rainbow quote to John Lewis and explained that we couldn’t find a suitable company for a second quote. There was no response to this for some time. To try to push things along we told John Lewis that we would go ahead with the Rainbow quotation unless they had any objection. Still we had no response. Rainbow appointed sub-contractors who removed the damaged kitchen units and installed an industrial drier. A week later they declared the kitchen fully dried out and sent round a plasterer to replaster the damaged wall ready for new kitchen units to be installed.

May had come and gone. Then, on 12th June, we received an email from John Lewis saying that our case was being transferred to the Leicester office as “they are best placed to assist you”. In the meantime we had arranged for Rainbow’s contractors to start the process of reinstating the kitchen to its former glory on Monday 24th June. The kitchen had been a mess for weeks and we were really looking forward to putting everything back out of sight in our replacement cabinets.

This was when fate bowled us a googly. Shortly before 5 pm on Friday, 21st June someone from John Lewis phoned us to say that they were reviewing our case and politely asked us to stop the repairs while the review was carried out. Reluctantly we cancelled the reinstallation appointments and waited for John Lewis to send round their loss adjuster.

Up to this point we had paid scant attention to the figures in the quotations and early invoices for the work done. If John Lewis didn’t care to challenge them, why should we? But it soon became apparent that it was going to be difficult for Rainbow to justify their charges. Not only was it hard to square up the descriptions of the work done with what had actually happened but Rainbow’s invoices didn’t match the invoices that their own subcontractors had supplied to them. And, in our opinion, the actual numbers were inflated beyond reason.

It was obviously going to take some time to establish how much John Lewis and their insurers were prepared to pay. In the meantime, Rainbow started chasing us for payment of their (unapproved) invoices. It didn’t help that our contacts at Rainbow and the loss adjusters took holidays at different times in the months of July and August, causing more delays. However, we managed to get interim payments agreed and head off vague threats of handing the case over to Rainbow’s debt recovery department.

Eventually, all parties agreed on the figures and we were able to book a kitchen fitter to fill the gaping hole under the sink with replacement kitchen units. He came at the end of August, measured up and subsequently delivered a unit that wasn’t as wide as the original. There had been an error of communication between ourselves and the fitter. Fortunately for our bank balance the fitter was happy to supply two units to fit the space and not charge for his time, but this caused yet another delay.

Our kitchen repairs were finally finished at the end of September roughly five months after we spotted the problem. About a week later we had the final payment from John Lewis and we could put this episode behind us at last. The moral of the story? I’ll leave you to make up your own mind about that.

A Week in Cornwall

beach trolleys

The first week of August was forecast to be wet and windy across most of the UK, especially in the far south west. It was our fault; we had booked a holiday cottage just outside Redruth, Cornwall from 3rd to 10th of that month.

It had been a tiring journey down so we didn’t go far on the first morning, just 10 minutes drive, in fact, to Trevince Gardens. The rain held off and there was even some sunshine as we explored the gardens. When we returned to the café there was a bright yellow vintage Austin 7 in the car park, which brightened our spirits and put us in a holiday mood. At lunchtime the clouds evaporated, the temperature rose quickly and we ventured a few miles down the road to Falmouth. Even though it was Sunday, the town was uncomfortably crowded. It was the Falmouth Festival week and the whole of Cornwall seemed to be there. Striding up the steep shopping streets soon left us looking for a cool, shady spot to sit and take refreshments. This was unexpectedly good, old-fashioned English holiday weather.

Monday was forecast to be the sunniest and warmest day of the week so we made the most of it by driving down to St. Michael’s Mount, a place I had seen from the mainland but never visited before. The clouds were grey and there was a stiff breeze but the air was warm and the skies were bright. Quite by chance we got there just as the tide was uncovering the causeway and we could walk across to the island without getting our feet wet. The gods were being kind to us that day.

The rain poured down on Tuesday. We spent much of it visiting Sybil, Mary’s aunt (or some such relation), who lives not far from our holiday cottage. Towards evening, though, the skies cleared and we had a surprisingly good burger in a beach-side café as the sun sank low over Portreath bay.

We were expecting Wednesday to be bright and dry, a good time to see whether Trebah Garden lived up to its billing in the leaflet we found in the information pack at the cottage. In fact, it was an absolutely glorious day and the garden was spectacular. Trebah occupies a 26 acre sub-tropical valley on the edge of the Helford river estuary. It’s rated 4.9/5 in web reviews and fully deserves it. Mary and I wandered down the paths, ducked through the giant rhubarb tunnel, admired the hydrangea beds, paused for reflection by the fish ponds and, at the bottom, strolled out onto the garden’s private beach. There we savoured an ice cream while we mingled with the families playing on the sand and swimming in the sea. This is what holidays always used to be like when we were little.

The next few days were forecast to be stormy. As we headed for St. Ives, where there would be shops and art galleries to shelter in, we heard that the Boardmasters music festival scheduled for the coming weekend had been cancelled because of the weather. Most of the other holidaymakers seemed to have the same idea as us because we had to park on the far fringes of a grassy field high above the town and then squeeze through the crowds that thronged the narrow streets. It was quite an anticlimax after the previous day’s garden paradise. At least it wasn’t actually raining.

Following the same logic, on our last full day in Cornwall we headed for the town of Truro for shelter from the storm that was sure to come. We didn’t stay long. Truro was nothing like as quaint as we had imagined and, apart from the cathedral, it had nothing to offer us but chain stores and damp pavements. Checking the map on the phone we saw a National Trust property not far away and headed towards it.

Like Trebah Garden, Trelissick Gardens lies on a river estuary (just downstream of where the Truro and Fal rivers meet). But, where Trebah was full of flowers and exotic plants, Trelissick is mostly lawns and woodland paths. On arrival we were informed that the ferry had been suspended because of the strong winds. We couldn’t understand why we needed that information but, when we saw a signpost to the jetty, curiosity took us by the hand and we strolled down to the riverside.

Dark clouds hung overhead and a strong wind ruffled the surface of the water. It was like a scene from a fantasy film just before the decisive battle between the armies of good and evil. A strange fascination propelled us along the path that snaked down the hillside to the metal bridge and out to the pontoon which rose and fell with the waves. We could feel the storm coming.

The wind tugged at our coats as if telling us to leave this place before it was too late. So we retreated to the NT shop and then made our way back to our holiday home. The rain didn’t come. The storm simmered for the rest of the day and night but by morning it had passed over leaving a sullen grey blanket of cloud and a few raindrop tears. Our predicted week of awful weather had, in fact, been the typical English so-so mix – lots of cloud, a fair bit of wind and a day or two of glorious sunshine. I don’t think the cancellation of a music festival can be blamed on us.

See this album for photos.

Social Life

Charnwood U3A

I suppose the most exciting event in the Charnwood U3A calendar this year was their 21st birthday celebration on 12th June. It took the form of a programme of entertainment followed by afternoon tea. The Singing Group sang some songs, the Play Reading Group read extracts from The Wind in the Willows and the Music Group played some well-known pieces of music. Phil provided the rhythm guitar part for the music group; Mary took one or two photos. (I am lurking at the back hidden behind our conductor, arranger and band leader, Maggie Chaplin.) Thankfully, the show was not recorded.

Phil joined the U3A Photography group for the following photoshoot trips:

There’s not much to say about the outings so I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. Links are to the relevant albums on Google Photos.

Mary also continued to philosophise with the U3A and Phil attended Mac User Group meetings. One of the Mac group members was involved in helping our U3A to adopt an online membership management system called Beacon and he asked me to give technical support, which led to my appointment as the third Beacon administrator for the Charnwood U3A. I won’t bore you with what that has entailed; suffice it to say that it has kept me fairly busy since August.

Trent 36

The Trent 36 group lost one member to cancer this year and we both attended her funeral in July. On a happier note, we organised another trip to the Ruddington Framework Knitters Museum, enjoyed a summer barbecue, watched a slide show on Colombia, joined the annual memorial walk on Eyam Moor, feasted with 22 other T36 members at the traditional Christmas meal and stuffed ourselves again at the mulled wine and mince pies evening.

Village Events

scooby doo

The Wymeswold Open Gardens event took place, as usual, on the last weekend in June. The Saturday was a swelteringly hot day and Phil was glad to have been allocated a spot in the shade of the lychgate from where to sell programmes. Mary had the more demanding job of organising the teas, which were served in the school playground this year.

The picture above is of the life-size (taller than me) Scooby Doo that we borrowed from Mary’s daughter and installed in one of the gardens to add a bit of silliness to the occasion. For more photos see this album on Google Photos.

milkshake maker

The Sunday following the Open Gardens there was a Farmers’ Market on the sports field on the edge of the village. The Deli group ran a Cookie Kiosk selling cookies, cakes, milkshakes and smoothies. Overall it was a good day but there were fewer people than we expected and we lost a small amount of money. You can read a little more about it here, on the deli group’s Mantle Place website.

Short Breaks and Day Trips

Humanists UK Convention

Humanists UK

I’ve been a fully paid up member of Humanists UK (formerly the British Humanist Association) for nearly ten years now. This time around their annual convention was held in Leicester, practically on my doorstep, so I thought I’d go along and see what they get up to.

As most of you know I have an Oxford University degree. I have studied under some of the greatest minds this side of heaven and mingled with students who would, one day, take their place. I am rarely overawed by the brain power of even the most eminent of intellectuals. But, over the weekend of 21st – 23rd June this year, I found the intelligence and depth of insight of the convention delegates positively daunting. Not that that stopped me from enjoying the talks and panel sessions that were the meat of the event.

The convention started on the Friday evening with a series of immensely witty (and non-religious) stand-up comedians. Saturday was devoted to talks and presentations by writers, broadcasters, scientists and activists, culminating with Baroness Joan Bakewell in conversation with Andrew Copson, the CEO of Humanists UK. Every session was both informative and entertaining; Christina Patterson’s account of involuntary redundancy that lead her on a journey from debilitating depression to eventual recovery “without the crutch of religious faith” was particularly moving.

The Sunday programme included: several reports on the work of Humanists UK during the previous year; a fascinating talk in which David Sloan Wilson illustrated how evolution works at every level of society; and a comparison of Margaret Knight’s anti-faith school radio broadcasts in the 1950s with Humanists UK’s current campaign, given by our president, professor Alice Roberts. It was a particular privilege to hear Hamza bin Walayat tell us first hand about his flight from persecution in Pakistan for his humanist views, the rejection of his asylum application because he couldn’t identify Plato and Aristotle as humanists (they weren’t), and the eventual granting of his application in May after intervention and support from Humanists UK.

Birds of Prey Photoshoot

American Eagle

On 29th March my dad and I took our cameras for a photoshoot at the Birds of Prey Centre, Herrings Green Farm, Wilstead, just south of Bedford. Mary had booked the workshop as a birthday/Christmas present for us. As is usual for these things we were guided by a professional photographer and the centre provided handlers for the birds. The weather was perfect – warm and sunny – and we got some lovely shots. I have photos of at least 18 different species of birds on my computer. There’s a selection in this album on Google Photos.

Melbourne Arts Festival

The south Derbyshire village of Melbourne held its Arts Festival in September. It’s a large village and there was plenty going on; apart from the paintings and sculptures on display there was a vintage car rally, a number of food stalls and a variety of musical entertainment. Some of the gardens were well worth visiting, too.

Theatre and Concerts

This year we took in three concerts, one comedian and one play. We also purchased tickets for two concerts in 2020: Clannad‘s farewell concert at the Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham on 10th March and Elbow on 23rd April at De Montfort Hall, Leicester.

Alina Bzhezhinska Quartet

There aren’t many harpists in this world and those that play jazz are rarer than hen’s teeth. Alina Bzhezhinska is the only example of that critically endangered species that I know and when she brought her quartet to Nottingham on 7th February I grabbed myself a ticket faster than you can say Bzhezhinska. Well, actually, it took ages to navigate the Gedling Council website, for which I awarded them the coveted accolade of “worst online purchasing experience … ever”. The concert, however, was thoroughly enjoyable. If you like the sound of the harp and appreciate the jazz musical style I wholeheartedly recommend this band.

(You might like to try this link to their album, Inspiration, for example.)

Poppy Ackroyd

Ten days later we visited the Attenborough Arts Centre on the Leicester University campus for the first time to see Poppy Ackroyd. The intimate venue promised to suit Poppy’s laid-back keyboards, electronics and violin pieces perfectly.

There was a support act called Lion/S (IIRC), which turned out to be a young woman who improvised over recorded sounds on her electric violin. For one piece she distributed a large number of plastic handbells throughout the audience and invited us all to contribute to the experiment. It was all very arty but, for me, it didn’t really work.

Poppy Ackroyd was not introduced. She just appeared from a door at the back of the stage, which might have been the fire escape, and announced that she wouldn’t be doing the whole entrance and encore thing, just playing some pieces from her recent albums. It was a very downbeat and slightly disappointing opening gambit.

Poppy then sat at the piano, kicked her electronic gizmos into life and played for us accompanied by ambient videos projected onto the large screen behind her. It was a faithful performance of her recorded material but it never quite sparked into life, either for Poppy or her audience as far as I could tell. As a concert it was somewhat disappointing but Poppy Ackroyd’s recordings continue to please when I have a spare hour or two for relaxation.

Fairport Convention

Our “famous band” concert this year was Fairport Convention’s appearance at Lowdham Village Hall a few miles east of Nottingham in May. They have a long-standing connection with this small venue, which is always sold out and only just manages to cope with the large numbers of visitors. There didn’t seem to be any particular seating arrangements and we were surprised to be ushered to the right-hand end of the very front row. Did we look like the band’s biggest fans, we wondered, or was this just a happy coincidence?

The performance itself was predictably good rather than particularly inspired. One or two of the old favourites would have benefitted from the late Sandy Denny’s delicate vocals but we could hardly expect the band to resurrect her for our benefit. For me, it was enough to have ticked off one more entry on the list of bands you must see before you die.

Andy Hamilton

At the end of May we went to see that cheerful hobbit and stand-up comic, Andy Hamilton, who you will, no doubt, know from TV panel shows. He came to Loughborough Town Hall where he entertained a packed house with his amusing slant on some of life’s important and not-so-important events. I have no idea what he talked about as I write this but I do know it was an evening well spent.

An Enemy of the People

The only other theatre trip this year was to the Nottingham Playhouse to see An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen. The play starred Alex Kingston, who played River Song in Doctor Who and has appeared in a fairly long list of TV shows and films.

The play is set in a small Norwegian spa town whose fading fortunes have been revived by a recent influx of visitors coming to take its supposedly health-giving waters. Alex Kingston plays Dr. Stockman who discovers that the spa waters are, in fact, contaminated by potentially pathogenic bacteria. The doctor writes an article for the local newspaper warning that it is not safe to drink the spa waters but the authorities and those with a vested interest in the spa oppose her, playing down the danger to health and emphasising the damaging economic effects the story would cause.

As the play progresses the issue first divides the community and then leaves Dr. Stockman increasingly isolated. The audience is left wondering whether we are about to witness a glorious David versus Goliath battle in which one apparently insignificant whistleblower defeats the combined might of the establishment, or the crushing of dissent under the metaphorical jackboot of political power and business interests.

Overall I found the play less than convincing but the production did have a memorable climax in which Dr. Stockman addresses a large crowd at an outdoor public meeting. She is heckled mercilessly as the rain pours down from a sprinkler system suspended above the stage. By the end of that scene all the actors were completely soaked and I have no idea how they managed to collect all that water and avoid flooding the theatre.

And, Finally …

… a few loose ends, some left over from 2018.

This time last year the remnants of the Loose Ends band, Mark (drums) and myself (bass), had arranged to visit Mike, a keyboard player that the Loose Ends guitarist, Peter, had introduced to us. But before that could happen Mark decided he couldn’t really find the time to continue playing with us and we formally declared an end to our involvement in the Abbey Road Army project. Since then my bass guitar has remained forlornly in its case and our Youtube video of Whiskey in the Jar serves as the only memorial to that magical musical adventure of yesteryear.

In February the hard drive of our iMac computer failed. The machine was some six years old and we decided it was time for a newer model so we gave the old one a new hard disk, loaned it to Mary’s grandson and invested in a replacement.

Amelia Mk I (our computers have always had names) was a high end model because I was using it for work and a software engineer’s tools are very demanding. For the new one we bought a standard model, which we believed would be plenty powerful enough and there was one in stock in the Leicester Apple shop. In practice, the new machine was frustratingly slow so we returned it to the shop and ordered one with more memory and a faster hard disk. This one we christened Amelia Mk II and she is a joy to use, although a bit on the expensive side as these things go. Much better than anything running that nasty Microsoft operating system, though.

MetaFly

On 19th April I became captivated by the MetaFly project on Kickstarter and pledged a contribution. Many other people around the world must have been equally fascinated because the target of €30,000 was soon raised and pledges continued to stream in. In the end they raised nearly €600,000, almost 20 times what they were asking for. The finished MetaFly was originally due to be shipped from the manufacturing plant in China in September but, after a few minor technical and administrative problems, shipments didn’t actually start until mid-December. Mine arrived on the 30th of that month.

Assembling the remote controlled mechanical insect was more fiddly than I had imagined but, with the help of the instruction book and assembly videos, I had it built and flying in about 90 minutes. The only problem now is where to fly it. I need a large space to practice in and our house is too small for that. But I don’t have the confidence to take it to an open space where my untutored efforts will be on show to the public. So, if you have something like an empty warehouse that I could use, I’d be most grateful. In return, I’ll give you exclusive rights to coverage of the first MetaFly aeronautics show in the UK, which I’ll be organising when I’ve become the undisputed MetaFlying ace of the whole of the Leicestershire wolds.

It’s just one of those toys for the boys, of course, but I love it. It’s easily the best Christmas present I’ve had this year.

New Year

And with that I’ll leave you with my very best wishes for the New Year. May it bring you the comfort and joy that good boys and girls deserve … even if you haven’t been good this year.

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Retrospective 2018

back strat

Executive Summary

Mary is still teaching conversational English to elderly Asian women for the WEA, doing volunteer work for Age UK and playing her part as a governor at the local primary school. Phil is enjoying his retirement to the full, writing his music blog, strumming his guitar and pointing his camera at anything that tickles his fancy. He has also got involved with a group looking to establish a deli and coffee shop here in Wymeswold.

This year has been a fairly healthy one for Mary and myself. Things were not so good for Mary’s brother, Richard, who was diagnosed with myeloma in March. A course of chemotherapy has put the cancer into remission but it has also caused some peripheral nerve damage and its debilitating effects have meant he has had to give up work. On a brighter note, my dad started to see a chiropractor in January, which brought a dramatic improvement in his mobility.

We are a two-car family again. In March, Mary saw an advertisement for an old Ford Ka with very low mileage and a bargain basement price. It had probably been sitting largely unused on someone’s driveway for the last 10 years. After giving it a quick look over we bought it and it has served us faithfully as our second car ever since.

Our social life continues to revolve around the Charnwood U3A and Trent 36 groups. The highlights of the year, though, were two concerts only loosely connected with those organisations. The first was a performance by King Crimson at the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham and the second was by a new band called Loose Ends in which Phil was the bass player. Read on for further details.

Social Life

Charnwood U3A

Photography Group

The photography group normally meets twice a month: one indoor meeting in Loughborough and one trip out. The days out are often in picturesque Derbyshire but we are renowned for being unlucky with the weather and that part of the world seems so far away when the forecast is borderline. Consequently, some trips were cancelled and I chose not to go on one or two of the others, so this record is rather incomplete.

Needless to say the best way to appreciate my trips with the U3A photography group is to look at the photos. The links in this sub-section are to the corresponding albums on Flickr. Note, however, that Flickr will be limiting my free account to 1000 photos from January 2019 so if you come back to this post in years to come you may not find them.

Pleasley Colliery, 16th Feb

Pleasley Colliery was closed in 1986; it is now a mining heritage centre and country park. The two headstocks and the engine-house buildings remain and form a striking skyline. Former miners will take visitors around the site, giving historical information and telling their own personal stories. When we went in the middle of February it was a cold, clear, crisp day.

On arrival we headed for the café for a hot drink and a bite to eat. The menu was basic but wholesome. More than one dog walker had ordered freshly fried sausages for their canine companions. And we needed something to stoke our inner fires because the windows in the portacabin café had no glass, just a green plastic net curtain to keep out the worst of the wind.

Blue Tit, 19th March

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Every year, in early Spring, a pair of blue tits takes possession of the nesting box high on our garage wall and a few weeks later we start to hear tapping on our kitchen and living room windows. One of the little birds keeps trying to fly through the window glass. It doesn’t seem to understand why the air is so hard just there but it’s determined not to be prevented from exploring the inside of the house.

This year, after every few beak shuddering impacts, this little critter would perch on the patio door handle and ponder for a second or two. Then it seemed to remember the old proverb, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again”, and launch another futile attack on the window.

The “photo opportunity” lightbulb lit up in my head. Setting up the camera on a tripod in the living room I waited for the bird to repeat its aerial dance routine. But it seemed to have become suddenly camera shy. There was that unmistakeable tap, tap, tap once more but it was coming from the kitchen.

The two of us then participated in a comic pas de deux. When I heard tapping in the living room I sat poised behind the camera and the bird attacked the kitchen window; when I moved away from the camera the bird returned to taunt me at the living room window. Clearly, a different strategy was required on the part of the photographer.

Attaching the remote release cable to the camera and perching uncomfortably on the arm of the sofa, half obscured by the curtain, I waited. After an achingly long time the blue tit eventually returned to the patio doors and performed its fluttering pecking sequence in front of the camera. I fired the shutter a dozen times but the bird was still teasing me. It paused on the handle only for a split second and my shutter release finger just wasn’t fast enough to catch it before it was pounding at the window again.

Eventually, as you can see, I managed to catch the shot but I can now see why they say that patience is a virtue, especially if you’re a photographer.

Crich Tramway Village, 20th April

The group had been to the Crich Tramway Village last year but 15 minutes after we arrived the whole site was closed for safety reasons – an empty tram had run out of control and crashed into an embankment. This time everything went smoothly and, although it was only April, we enjoyed a very warm and summery day.

Stamford, 15th June

It was another fine sunny day when the group visited the charming market town of Stamford. On arrival our leader gave us a theme to guide our compositions; we were to seek out and photograph circles. For the rest of the day, with one or two exceptions, the only circles in Stamford seemed to be the letter ‘O’s in shop signs and notices. So the album linked here contains a mixture of general shots of Stamford and miscellaneous circular items.

On returning to Wymeswold, as I was dropping off another member of the photography group, we could see a yellow helicopter in a field opposite. Parked by the side of the road there was a small truck, a damaged Fiat 500 and a police car. There was no debris on the road or any other sign of a serious accident, but as we watched it became clear that the helicopter was, as we suspected, an air ambulance. The last shot in this album shows it taking off.

Watermead Country Park, 19th October

The October meeting of the photography group could have been designed specifically for this fair-weather photographer. It was a glorious autumn day and Watermead Country Park is just a few miles from here. This time we were given five topics to shoot: blue, leaf, pet, splash, wood. Follow the link for my responses to this challenge.

Red Phone Boxes

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At the start of 2018 the photography group was given two optional projects for the next 12 months: weather and red phone boxes. I had those topics in mind for the first few months of the year but the ‘weather’ subject soon faded away. Interesting weather is usually not good weather for going out, you see.

Red phone boxes turned up more often than I had expected and in some unusual places, too. I took a dozen or so pictures of them throughout the year. But it’s not easy finding an original approach to images of objects that are all supposed to look the same. In the end the one I liked best was the first one I took on a freezing cold night in Wymeswold with the church in the background and the moon glowing through hazy clouds.

Other U3A Activities

The Charnwood U3A Philosophy Group has been tackling some of the deep questions of life, the universe and everything. Mary led two sessions on consciousness: “What is it?” and “Can Machines Ever Be Conscious?”. The answer is, as always, “it depends …”.

Back in the real world Phil contributes a hesitant rhythm guitar to the expanding repertoire of the Making Music Group and offers a little expertise to the iMac Users Group.

Trent 36

Fimber, Computer Museum, 7th April

On a chilly Saturday in early April half a dozen members of Trent 36 drove up to Fimber, an out of the way village in East Yorkshire, to see Jim Austin’s computer museum. The exhibits are housed in two large old and unheated pig sheds. The sheer quantity of kit there is astounding. Jim has collected everything from the very earliest microprocessors to what was until quite recently Steven Hawking’s supercomputer (pictured, running, above).

The collection includes “over 1500 computers and many thousands of other artifacts such as books, calculators, spares, test equipment as well as a fine collection of Radios and Valves”. If you’re at all interested in the history of computers large and small I can thoroughly recommend a visit. But pick a warm day or wrap up for the outdoors.

Holme Pierrepont, 27th June

The National Water Sports Centre is at Holme Pierrepont on the outskirts of Nottingham. There’s a long man-made lake used for international rowing competitions, a white water kayaking course, a gym and other sports facilities, all surrounded by a country park. Trent 36 organised a not too strenuous evening walk around the lake and through the park in June. It was perfect weather and I managed to catch some of the drama of the white water run in the setting sun.

Whatton Gardens, 22nd August

It was another lovely summer’s day when Mary and I led a T36 trip to Whatton Gardens followed by refreshments at a nearby farm shop with an excellent deli/café. The gardens cover 15 acres and feature a herbaceous border, an orchard, a rose garden, an arboretum, rockeries with winding paths, a pet cemetery and a Chinese garden. You can see all this in the photos.

Other Trent 36 Events

It’s always summer weather when Richard and Sarah have their barbecue and this July was no exception. The grass was suffering from some brown patches but it was in surprisingly good condition considering the prolonged heatwave and that wasn’t going to stop us from enjoying their steak and sausages, their wine and soft drinks and, of course, their warm hospitality.

To round off the long hot summer there was a trip to the Sealwood Cottage vineyard near Swadlincote, Derbyshire, where we saw more than 4000 vines and tasted five different wines.

Short Breaks and Day Trips

Most of our short breaks and day trips this year were repeat visits to places I’ve written about before so, with a couple of exceptions, I won’t go into any details. Here, though, is a list of where we’ve been during 2018. Links are, once again, to photo albums on Flickr.

Mary had a long weekend in Florence with her friend, Sue, in the Spring and she returned to Devon for her annual health farm pampering in October.

While visiting Dad in June we explored his nearest National Trust property, Ascott, where the lawn by the pond was so full of tiny frogs that it was hard to avoid stepping on them. And, visiting Dad again on a sizzling hot July day, we ambled gently round the grounds of Woburn Abbey.

The Swadlincote Art Trail was an excuse to see our friend, Linda, who had recently moved to a village near there. This was its first year, I believe, and the visitor numbers were rather low, but it was a pleasant day out and I’m sure it will be more popular next year.

A new couple moved in to our street this year and they organised a barbecue on the communal patch of grass at the entrance to our little estate. The whole street contributed to the event and we were able to chat to some of our neighbours that we rarely bump into. So we thank Innocent and Claire for getting us all together.

Last year we had arranged to take Dad to photograph the big cats at Woburn Safari Park but he had to pull out because he had damaged his back. So, when his back problem improved, we booked again and the two of us toured the park in a Land Rover snapping lions, tigers, giraffes (including a baby only one week old), monkeys, bears, wolves, rhinos, wildebeest and other African ruminants.

Theatre and Concerts

The series of light-hearted summer plays at the Nottingham Playhouse returned to their usual format after the theatre’s refurbishment last year.

The first was called Sleighed to Death which was a rip-roaring comedy about a bumbling police sergeant who, while collecting for a local charity dressed as Father Christmas, stumbles upon a murder. He misses all the clues that the audience finds glaringly obvious and is rescued time and again by the much younger woman constable who would rather be at home with her family on Christmas Eve.

Over the next three weeks they gave us A Touch of Danger, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Nightmare Room. The first was a Francis Durbridge whodunnit in which you could never be sure if anyone was who they claimed to be. The Pimpernel was a straightforward stage version of the well-known novel, entertaining but not particularly memorable. And the last play was a psychological thriller with a cast of two set in a stark white room. This one didn’t quite work for me but it did keep us all on the edge of our seats.

Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita, 25th May

Having heard an enchanting track called Future Strings by Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita and seeing that this duo would be giving a concert in Derby, I invited a few friends to go and see them. It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable events of the year. Catrin’s harp and Seckou’s kora fused Celtic melodies and African rhythms to create scintillating music. For further details see my review of the concert on my music blog.

King Crimson, 7th November

KC Nottingham

On 5th July 1969 I was blown away by King Crimson’s set at the free, open air concert in Hyde Park, London. Nearly 50 years have gone by since then but their performance just a few weeks ago at the Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham was every bit as impressive.

The band has had numerous changes of personnel since that first public performance in Hyde Park – Robert Fripp is the only remaining member of the original line-up – but the eight-piece group sounded as fresh and exciting as it did back in 1969. And powerful, too. Although you might expect that from a band with three drummers.

As I said in the introduction, this was one of the two outstanding events of the year and one whose memory I shall treasure for many years to come.

Focus, 24 November

Another outfit with a long and illustrious history is the Dutch band, Focus. They had chart hits in the seventies with Sylvia and Hocus Pocus and they are still playing those tunes for their fans. Don’t think, though, that Focus is stuck in the past. They have a new album out now, with new material; it is available now as a CD and in January on vinyl. There’s a short review here.

Deli and Coffee Shop

Shortly before Christmas last year a small group of friends was bemoaning the lack of a convivial place to meet in Wymeswold. The two pubs are nice but not everyone wants to go to a pub and, anyway, they are not open in the mornings. This prompted someone to say, “If only Wymeswold had its own deli and coffee shop …” and that chance remark sparked the formation of a group of Wymeswold residents who hope to make that vision a reality.

The idea was first advertised in the Spring and soon over 160 people had joined the Facebook Group set up to discuss the project. It was a very promising start. An open meeting was held in June and around a dozen Wymeswold residents signed up to form a Working Group tasked with assessing the feasibility of establishing a community run deli and coffee shop in the village.

Since then the Working Group has run a market research survey, looked at potential sites and discussed a number of options for funding. As part of my contribution I set up a website that we use to keep the local community informed and engaged with the project. I also sat in on a couple of Parish Council meetings, which turned out to be interesting for reasons not connected with the deli …

Forbidden Forest

At the first Parish Council meeting I attended, we were given details of a music event that would be taking place on the edge of the village over the coming weekend. The villages of Hoton, Prestwold, Burton-on-the-Wolds and Wymeswold occupy a roughly triangular patch of land. A large chunk of it is owned by the Prestwold Estate, including the Wymeswold Industrial Park on a slight rise above the village to the south west, where the event would be held. The manager of the Prestwold Estate and someone from the events organising company were there to reassure us that the music festival would be well managed and would not cause any problems for the surrounding villages.

When the weekend arrived a loud thump, thump thump assaulted our ears from across the valley. The Forbidden Forest rave was pounding out rap and dance music as if to oust General Noriega from his Embassy refuge. Down in the village the noise wasn’t so bad; the sound must have been carried over the rooftops on the prevailing south westerly winds. But where we live, on the hill in the north eastern corner of the village, it was far more intrusive than the even nearer Glastonbudget festival has ever been.

After the rave the grapevine was full of disturbing stories. Festival goers waiting for hours in sizzling temperatures with no water and no toilets. Traffic jams miles long, drugs and rowdy behaviour. And, of course, the noise.

At the next Parish Council meeting the two Prestwold Estate representatives bravely sat through an icy barrage of complaints from the councillors. Several petitions were started in the surrounding villages calling for the event not to be repeated and the Prestwold Estate’s events licence was called in for review. The review imposed further restrictions on the events that can be held on that site, restrictions that should prevent a similar event occurring next year. That doesn’t seem to have deterred the organisers, though. As I write, the next Forbidden Forest “underground music festival” is scheduled for 5th May 2019 and tickets are currently available at £29.95 + £3.10 booking fee.

Abbey Road Army

Readers of this blog will, no doubt, remember that I bought an electro-acoustic guitar in the Spring of last year and play it for the U3A Making Music Group. The guitar came from a shop called Abbey Road Music which, in June of this year, announced a project they called the Abbey Road Army. The organisers were looking for mature musicians who had stashed their instruments away for years and now wanted to play in a band again. To encourage people to sign up they offered to book a series of rehearsal studio sessions, arrange a gig and provide a £50 voucher to spend in the shop.

Some 25 would-be players, including yours truly, joined the scheme and we were arbitrarily assigned to five bands. The shop owners also run a music school and I thought I’d benefit from some lessons in rock rhythm guitar. So, in July and August, I had four guitar lessons. Actually, that’s a bit of an exaggeration; most of the time was spent with my tutor creating scores of songs that I thought might work well for the Army project. I didn’t really learn much.

I had put myself down as a rhythm guitarist, with bass guitar as a possible secondary instrument if required. At the launch meeting I found myself in a band with a lead guitarist three rhythm guitarists, and a drummer. We had no vocalist and no bass player. One of the rhythm guitarists never showed up, so a late entrant was drafted into our band on the launch night, giving us a vocalist and yet another rhythm guitarist.

It soon became obvious that some of us would have to play our second-string instruments. I managed to borrow a bass guitar and one of the other guitarists opted for keyboards. The vocalist had to pull out due to work commitments a couple of days before rehearsals started so the lead guitarist, reluctantly, had to sing as well. But we had a band: Peter (lead guitar, vocals), Jeremy (keyboards), Phil (bass) and Mark (drums).

We spent the time before the first rehearsal on 9th October discussing which songs to perform. We’d have 25 minutes for 5 or 6 songs and it didn’t take us too long to come up with a list we all liked. The shop had booked 10 studio sessions over five weeks on Tuesday and Thursday evenings; we booked another two for the week before the gig. Over those six weeks we progressed from horrible mistakes in every song to very nearly gig-worthy performances. We wouldn’t take the place by storm but, if we could hold our nerve, we wouldn’t disgrace ourselves, either.

The gig itself was on 18th November at the Boat Club next door to the Nottingham Forest football ground. The Abbey Road Army bands were following in the footsteps of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and The Sex Pistols, who had all played there in the past. We chose to call ourselves Loose Ends, had some T-shirts printed and tried to prepare mentally for our big moment.

Although all five of the Army bands had been rehearsing at Pirate Studios in Nottingham it was impossible to know how our crew compared with the others. Nervousness within our band had prompted us to suggest that we should go on first; we didn’t want the responsibility of being the headline act and we didn’t fancy sitting through the other acts with mounting apprehension. But when the running order was announced our plea had been ignored. We were on last.

The first band was pretty good, the next three had some obvious rough edges. Then it was our turn. “Just pretend this is another ordinary rehearsal and we’ll be OK”, we told ourselves as we stepped up onto the stage. We kicked off with Fleetwood Mac‘s version of Black Magic Woman. There were no mistakes and the audience enjoyed it. The rest of the set went smoothly, too, and we finished with Whiskey in the Jar which Mary recorded on her phone.

To our astonishment the audience clapped and cheered and called enthusiastically for an encore. We’d had our 25 minutes of fame but there was still time for one more song so we played one we had in reserve, thanked the crowd for their appreciation and said goodnight. As we came off the stage one or two people asked us for photographs and we were happy to bask in the glory for a few more minutes.

The following day all the band’s email conversations asked the same stunned question: “What just happened?”. None of us had an answer; it must have been some sort of heavenly magic. It took us several days to come down from that high. And then it was time to think about the future for Loose Ends.

There had been no time to think about what might happen after the gig; we had been too busy learning, practising and rehearsing the songs. After a while a consensus formed within the band – we would continue to play together. But that presented a few problems. I could hardly extend the loan of the bass guitar indefinitely. The keyboard player was happy to stay with us in principle but he wanted to concentrate on his guitar for the next few months. And none of us would be able to devote as much time to the band as we had done for the Army project.

Having decided to keep Loose Ends going I went out and bought a brand new Ibanez bass guitar. I’d have got it from the Abbey Road Music shop but they were unable to supply the one I wanted. Then, during discussions about how often we should get together, Peter (lead guitar, vocals and de facto artistic director) announced that, for personal reasons, he would have to pull out.

The rest of us agreed that it would be a different band without Peter; Loose Ends was dead. With Jeremy taking a sabbatical from the band that left just Mark and myself to mourn its passing and consider whether to look for other musicians to form a completely new band. Mark was keen to keep playing and it would be a shame if my bass was left festering in its case so we contacted one of Peter’s friends, a keyboards/guitar/vocals one-man-band called Mike. The three of us are going to get together in the new year and we’ll see where that takes us.

That’s All, Folks!

That’s about it for 2018. All that remains is for me to wish you all a very merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous new year.

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Retrospective 2017

Executive Summary

Mary continues to work part time for the WEA, teaching English one morning a week, mainly to elderly women of Asian extraction. She has also joined the board of governors for the village primary school. Both occupations have required attendance at training courses and meetings at various times throughout the year.

Phil is still on the extended holiday he calls retirement. He spends his time writing his Crotchety Man music blog, hesitantly strumming his guitar, taking a few photos and generally slumming around. (Further details below.)

Our shared social life continues to revolve around the Trent 36 club (mostly meals and walks) and Charnwood U3A (philosophy, photography and making music groups). Diary clashes occur only occasionally but life remains hectic nevertheless.

Our older Ka was coming to the end of its life and the newer one was such a pain to drive that Mary refused to use it. So in the summer we traded in the younger Ka for a nearly new Fiesta and when the older Ka became due for an MOT we scrapped it. We still miss having a second car but we can’t honestly say we need it.

Health Matters

At the end of last year two lines of investigation were open on my fainting episode of the previous August. A cardiologist was arranging tests on my heart and I was waiting for an appointment for an MRI scan of my head. Accordingly, on 11th January I was wired to a heart monitor the size of a Sony Walkman for 24 hours and on 18th January my head was encased in a plastic cage, inserted into a tunnel full of electromagnets and bombarded with strong magnetic fields.

The MRI results came through first and showed no abnormalities. The heart monitor data showed “first degree heart block”, which means that a heart beat is delayed or missing occasionally; this in itself is benign and doesn’t account for the faint. So, in March, the cardiologist then arranged for an echocardiogram. This was performed in April and that, too, showed normal heart function. A follow-up appointment with the cardiologist was arranged but no further tests were scheduled at that stage.

On 13th September, over a year since my funny turn, I saw the cardiologist again. He recommended a “tilt test” and, if that failed to throw light on the problem, an implanted heart monitor.

In the tilt test you are attached to blood pressure monitors and lie strapped onto a tilting table. A doctor then massages the carotid arteries on each side of the neck for a few seconds, which lowers your blood pressure, and the table is tipped up so that the patient is standing almost upright. Sometime between 10 and 30 minutes later the patient may feel the symptoms of the condition under investigation. In my case I was a bit nervous but didn’t feel faint over the 30 minute period.

At this point, if the symptoms haven’t manifested, a drug called GTN is sprayed under the tongue. This is another way of lowering the blood pressure and after a few minutes it did cause me to feel quite faint. As soon as I reported feeling woozy the nurses tipped the table back to the horizontal position and I quickly recovered. This was exactly the response the test is intended to elicit.

The nurses were immediately able to provide reassurance and advice. The condition is not serious. The only action to be taken is to avoid the things that might trigger a faint: make sure you don’t get dehydrated, avoid hot and crowded environments, don’t get up too quickly and, interestingly, avoid large meals. The loss of consciousness is nothing to worry about; the biggest danger is in falling over.

In late November I received a copy of a letter from the consultant to my GP confirming that I am simply rather more susceptible to fainting than most (the technical term is vasodepressor syncope) and that no further tests or treatments are necessary. It took over a year to get there but I can now get on with life confident in the knowledge that there’s nothing much wrong with me.

Although it hardly seems worth mentioning after all that, Mary continues to ward off aches and pains with her regular sessions of pilates and chiropractics. And she has just signed on again at a gym as part of her campaign to maintain a healthy lifestyle. I applaud her efforts from the comfort of the sofa.

Social Life

Charnwood U3A

Of the 11 talks at the Charnwood U3A monthly meetings this year Mary and I attended eight. The highlight for me was the one titled The Funny Side of Funerals by Anne Halsey, an ex-funeral director, who managed to be both informative and entertaining. We were told about one woman who wanted a large heavy slab to be placed on her husband’s grave because, she said, when he was alive he kept changing his mind and she didn’t want that to happen again!

The Philosophy group that Mary goes to covered the ideas of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and discussed the ethical issues surrounding assisted dying, fertility, freedom of speech and Father Christmas. According to Mary the discussions were rambling and relatively superficial but the social side of things makes up for the lack of rigorous thinking.

The Photography group usually has one indoor and one outdoor meeting each month. This year the indoor meetings included a talk on aerial photography using drones (with demonstration flights in the meeting room) and a water drop photography workshop using home-made rigs.

Several of the outdoor meetings were notable for last minute changes of plan. The March and April trips were cancelled due to inclement weather. In June too many people were away to make the outing worthwhile but the cancellation email never reached me. A contingent went to Crich Tramway Museum in July but before we had finished our morning coffee in the café a member of staff informed us that the site was being closed for safety reasons. A runaway tram had careered down the track and crashed into an embankment. So we diverted to Hardwick Hall instead. Further details of outings that did take place are in the Short Breaks and Day Trips section below.

For various reasons the Making Music group, first proposed in October of last year, took a while to get started. Our first meeting was on 9th March, round at the organiser’s house for introductions and refreshments. Our leader, Maggie, had been a music teacher in schools and the leader of her own jazz band. She had to give up playing the piano because of arthritis but her unquenchable enthusiasm is an inspiration to us all.

Before we moved to Wymeswold I sold all my musical instruments except for an electric piano that I’ve never been able to play, so it wasn’t at all clear how I would be able to contribute to the group. At our first rehearsal we had one flautist, four recorder players, a clarinetist, a trombone player, a pianist, a guy with an African drum and myself. (I have probably forgotten one or two aspiring musicians.) Rummaging around in Maggie’s collection of odd instruments brought for us to try I settled on an old acoustic guitar and, delving  deep into the memory banks for chord shapes, strummed along as best I could.

Almost all of us had learned an instrument in the past but not played for years. At that first rehearsal we stuttered and stumbled through a few simple tunes and the best you could say about the performance was that it was bound to improve. Maggie, however, was really pleased with how it went and we went away full of enthusiasm and determined to be better next time.

Over the next six months the group gradually built up a repertoire of a dozen or so tunes ranging from classical (Ode to Joy, St. Anthony Chorale) through to songs from musicals (Summertime, Somewhere Over the Rainbow) and more recently a few Christmas carols. I bought an electro-acoustic guitar in the Spring and started to practice it. Every now and then my efforts even sound moderately competent. But we’re not taking concert bookings yet.

Trent 36

Apart from the usual walks and coffee evenings the Trent 36 programme this year included: one of Michael’s famous slide shows (Looks Like Japan), a music quiz, a Hallowe’en Ghost quiz, a Christmas meal (at Ashmore’s Restaurant for the third year running) and the traditional mince pies & mulled wine evening hosted once again by Richard and Sarah.

For the music quiz your correspondent demonstrated his mastery of modern technology and curious taste by streaming snippets of songs to our home cinema system (see last year’s Retrospective) and asking obscure (i.e. impossible) questions about them. Sample question: [after playing some eery organ and theremin music] This is called “Kucelli woke up in the _____”. Fill in the blank. I gave half a point for ‘cathedral’. The correct answer is ‘graveyard’.

Mary put together the Hallowe’en Ghost quiz. A large proportion of the questions were about ghosts in well-known films. The question master was surprised how difficult this turned out to be for the participants. Her comment was “They obviously don’t watch the same films as me.”

Mary and I also organised a heritage walk around the Nottinghamshire town of Southwell taking in the Minster, the original Bramley Apple tree, the Workhouse and some leafy paths.

Notable Events

13 Apr, Tony’s Funeral

After a protracted illness Mary’s ex-husband, Tony, died in March and his funeral was held on 13th April. Tony had a career in the computer industry, writing software for various clients. His hobby was building and flying model aircraft. The funeral was organised by his daughter, Rachel, who wanted something a little out of the ordinary as a tribute to her dad and an occasion to remember. As you can see from the photos, the coffin was carried on a motorcycle sidecar, the mourners were transported in a red double decker bus and one of Tony’s beloved aircraft accompanied the coffin. It was, indeed, a memorable day.

18 Oct, Trevor’s Funeral

When we lived in York Mary had made friends with Jane, one of her work colleagues. Jane’s husband, Trevor, died in late September and his funeral was scheduled for Wednesday, 18th October, when Mary, her sister and two friends would be in Devon on their annual health spa trip. As Mary was the driver for the Devon trip she reluctantly told Jane that she would not be able to come to Trevor’s funeral.

A couple of days before leaving for the spa Mary decided she could go to Devon and still be at the funeral to pay her respects. On the Tuesday night Mary drove back to Wymeswold and Wednesday morning I drove her up to York. To Jane’s great surprise we turned up at the funeral and stayed a little while afterwards for afternoon tea at Middlethorpe Hall. Then I drove us back to Wymeswold and Mary continued on to Devon. It was a long and tiring day but Mary was able to enjoy her week away without feeling she had let down a good friend when she most needed sympathy and support.

Sometimes, it seems, you can be in two places at once.

Short Breaks & Day Trips

In the following sub-sections the link in the title is to the corresponding photo album on my flickr site. In most cases the photos say more about the occasion than I have put into words here.

30 Jan – 1 Feb, Liverpool

The Stage

For my birthday Mary had booked us on a Magical Mystery Tour in Liverpool, taking in the places where the Beatles grew up and started to play. I had never been to Liverpool before so we visited a few of the usual tourist places: the modern R.C. cathedral, the Liver Building, the docks and the art museum.

The highlight of the trip, though, was (of course) the Magical Mystery Tour itself. As the minibus travelled through the streets we were shown the houses where John, Paul and Ringo lived as children, the hall where the Beatles first played together, Penny Lane (where a pretty nurse was selling poppies from a tray) and Strawberry Field (nothing to get hung about). The tour ended at the Cavern Club where we had a drink, bought a Cavern Club harmonica and soaked up the atmosphere.

17 Feb, Bradgate Park Reconstructed

Eye Level 4

The first photography group outing this year was to Bradgate Park where the brief was to take a number of individual pictures of the park and combine them into a collage that shows the many different aspects of the rugged scenery. As I had taken the tripod and a telephoto lens I was determined to get a good shot of the deer. As you can see, that objective was realised rather well. Follow the link above to see my other photos and the final composite picture of the park in all its glory.

16 May, Big Cats at Woburn Safari Park

Better not get in my way

Continuing with the theme of photography, Mary booked my Dad and I on a photography session at Woburn Safari Park. Unfortunately, Dad had damaged his back a few weeks before and wasn’t mobile enough to make the journey so Mary took his place instead. The booking included Land Rover rides into parts of the park not normally open to the public enabling us to get up close to some of the animals. We saw rhinos, deer, bears, wolves, lions, tigers and giraffes. Once again, the pictures tell the story.

21 & 22 May, Cheddar Gorge

The View from the Top

For Mary’s birthday we spent a weekend in and around Cheddar Gorge. We stayed at a pub/restaurant/B&B that was already known for its good food but had only recently been opened for overnight stays. The rooms were very comfortable and the food was excellent. The only drawback was that you had to go out into the car park to get any phone reception. Although, on second thoughts, that might be considered an advantage!

From our base in that out of the way hamlet we explored Cheddar village, the gorge and the hills around it, Wells cathedral, Burnham on Sea and Tyntesfield House.

4 – 7 Jun, Cardiff

Castle Keep

In the summer seven Trent 36 members ventured across the Welsh border to Cardiff. It was supposed to have been a long weekend but we made the mistake of choosing the Saturday of the UEFA cup final when every hotel within miles of the city was fully booked. Some slight rescheduling meant that we could go on the Sunday and return on the Wednesday although we had to settle for one of the less attractive hotels.

Our first visit was to the castle. The walls and the keep are well preserved and the living quarters are extensive and ornate. It provided some splendid photo opportunities although the cordoned off marquee and entertainment area set aside for the previous week’s football fans detracted somewhat from the views.

On the Tuesday some of us slipped through a time vortex at the Doctor Who exhibition a few months before it closed. Mary and I would not have missed that for the world – not for Gallifrey, not for Earth, nor any other world. Strangely we only seem to have acquired a Doctor Who coaster by way of souvenirs – and some photos, of course.

24 & 25 Jun, Wymeswold Open Gardens

Waterlily in Bloom

Mary and I sold programmes and directed traffic arriving at the Hall Field car park once again for this year’s Wymeswold Open Gardens event. There seemed to be fewer gardens open this year but I believe the takings were slightly up on last year. Needless to say the photos describe the occasion much better than my words.

18 Aug, Higger Tor

Tumbled Rocks

The August outing of the photography group took us to Higger Tor in Derbyshire. For some reason I needed to take rather more bits and pieces than usual and that morning I hastily threw them all into the car. Well, as it turned out, not quite all. The item I left behind was the camera! Still, all was not lost as I had my mobile phone with me.

It was quite blustery up on that rocky bluff and it was hard to hold the phone still while taking photos. The results, though, were surprisingly good. In fact, when we came to review our shots at the next indoor meeting, the photography group leader said he couldn’t tell that they were taken with a phone.

20 Aug, Bradgate Folk

Dancers

A couple of days after the Higger Tor trip a small folk festival was held in Bradgate Park featuring local acts. The park, with its rugged natural beauty and the atmospheric ruins of the house where Lady Jane Grey grew up, provides an ideal setting for an event like this. It was billed as a picnic in the park: bring your camping chairs, some food and drink, and be entertained by bands and solo artists playing folk, country and Americana.

There were a few stalls selling arts & crafts items, a tent full of broken musical instruments for the kids to play with, a wood-fired pizza van and plenty of clean portaloos. The only thing missing was somewhere to buy a hot drink when the sun was setting and a chilly breeze began to blow in the early evening.

Mary and I borrowed a couple of chairs, placed them in a space between the deer droppings and lazed around all that summer afternoon accompanied by some surprisingly good performances. We were drawn by the headline acts of Sally Barker (finalist on The Voice a few years ago) and Govannen (an excellent local folk band) but a duo known as The Way Out particularly impressed me with their progressive folk(ish) material.

1 – 8 Sep, Devon Cottage

Selworthy, Tea Shop

We took my 87 year old dad to Devon for a week at the beginning of September. The three of us stayed in a luxurious holiday cottage just outside Tiverton and toured around Devon visiting Dunster, the picturesque village of Selworthy, Lynton and Lynmouth with their funicular railway, Knightshayes House and gardens, Killerton House and Buckfast Abbey. We also took a boat ride down the Dart from Totnes to Dartmouth, returning via the Dartmouth Steam Railway and a local bus.

Other Photos

To finish this Short Breaks and Day Trips section here is a list of the rest of my photo albums on flickr for this year.

The Coventry, Hardwick and Baddesley Clinton albums chronicle photography group outings. The Lyveden album is the photography group trip that was cancelled but I went anyway. The birthday party was for one of Mary’s in-laws who is a Humber estuary pilot. The Great Central Railway and Patchings albums were from spur-of-the-moment visits.

Theatre and Concerts

Our theatre season started in February with the Reduced Shakespeare Company performing William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged). In this astounding script we could see the seeds of many, perhaps most, of Shakespeare’s later and better known plays. For the audience it was a game of spotting as many quotes as possible between the theatrical jokes that bounced between the three players. And great fun it was, too.

In the summer Nottingham Playhouse put on their season of murder/mystery plays: Dial M for Murder, Dangerous Corner and Marie Lloyd and the Musical Hall Murder. There are usually four plays in the series but for part of this year the theatre was going to be closed for refurbishments. The workaround was to drop one production and move the last play to the Museum of Justice. The first play was a conventional whodunnit, the second was as much an exploration of human society as a crime story and the last was a slapstick judge and jury drama, perfectly suited to the courtroom at the Museum of Justice. All three were thoroughly enjoyable.

Mary and I went to see Rick Wakeman on his Piano Portraits promotional tour in June. It was a one man show but the ex-Yes keyboardist had no trouble keeping the De Montfort Hall audience entertained with his piano playing and some very amusing anecdotes.

In November Phil and Steve (from Trent 36) spent an evening at The FlowerPot, a pub and music venue in the centre of Derby. This time last year Soft Machine played at The FlowerPot (and they were there again one year on) but this time the vote went to another band with a more than 40 year history, Wishbone Ash. I wouldn’t say the Ash were quite as exciting as they were in 1972 when their most popular album, Argus, was released but they were a tight, professional band and Andy Powell’s guitar playing is still outstanding.

A Cold Winter’s Tale

On the Monday two weeks before Christmas I went shopping. Returning home uninspired and largely empty-handed I developed an annoying tickling cough. By Thursday I was feeling very poorly and had to cancel the last three social events in the calendar: a music group rehearsal, a photography trip and the Trent 36 mince pies and mulled wine evening.

That Thursday morning was also the time when the central heating boiler died. While Mary took Persephone for her check-up at the vet’s I called the gas company. We have a maintenance agreement with British Gas that covers the whole of the heating system and promises to send an engineer within a “reasonable” time, which we interpreted as either the same day or the next. I got through fairly quickly and the customer service agent offered me the next available slot in their schedule: Wednesday, 20th December, six days ahead.

My seasonal bug was getting me down, the boiler failure had been even more depressing and at that moment I was in no mood to argue with anyone so I meekly accepted the date they offered. When Mary brought Persephone back from the vet’s she did the complaining and managed to bring the appointment forward by one day. We still did not regard that as ‘reasonable’.

It was cold that week and the temperature in the house soon dropped to that of a fridge. Fortunately, we have an electric fire in the living room and an electric immersion heater for hot water so we didn’t freeze. Ironically, if we had no heating or hot water at all an engineer would probably have been here within 24 hours and the chill would have been over much more quickly.

Our repair was scheduled for between 8 am and 1 pm on Tuesday, 19th December. At about 11:30 that morning British Gas phoned to say they had had a large number of emergency calls and the engineer wasn’t coming, after all. They re-booked for two days later. Mary had started to cough and my cold/flu raged on unabated.

On the morning of Thursday, 21st December I was beginning to feel a bit better and the gas engineer came, as arranged, at about 9 am. After the usual checks he replaced the boiler’s main circuit board and declared the system to be working again. We thanked him profusely and started to pick up the threads of our disrupted lives.

By this time, of course, we were way behind on our preparations for Christmas. There were still presents to buy, cards to write and decorations to put up. But, at least, the house would be cosy over the holiday period. The following day we joined the crowds in Nottingham for some last minute Christmas shopping and on Saturday we popped into Loughborough to stock up on food.

Returning at lunchtime we were puzzled to see some milky fluid on the worktop under the boiler. At first we couldn’t work out what it was or where it was coming from. Nothing seemed to be dripping from the boiler but, on closer inspection, the underside of the boiler casing was wet. Worse, some of the fluid had run down the wall where the central heating programmer was and the display was flashing crazily.

Turning off the boiler and its programmer we, once again, called British Gas, this time declaring it an emergency. To our surprise they called out an engineer for a visit the same day, sometime before 6 pm. It was rather less of a surprise when the man with the spanner failed to turn up. Another call to the company was made and they informed us that the booking was for between 6 and 10 pm and the engineer was still scheduled to come. So, again, we waited.

At 10:30 pm I called the breakdown line again. I was still hanging on some 34 minutes later when Mary took over the handset. Eventually the recorded messages and music stopped and a customer service representative came on the line. It soon transpired that this emergency visit was only to make the equipment safe, not to fix the fault. The engineer was still coming but, as there was no safety issue, he wouldn’t actually do anything. So the call was cancelled and we booked a repair visit for 8 am to 6 pm the following day, Christmas Eve (a Sunday).

The pantomime continued when this morning (Christmas Eve) British Gas called to say they have had a large number of emergency calls, they have to prioritise the elderly and the vulnerable, and they would not be coming to repair our boiler today. I told them in no uncertain terms that they are not providing the service we thought we were paying for. “Oh, yes we are”, said British Gas. “Oh, no, you’re not”, I shouted back.

The gas man cometh now on Boxing Day between 12 noon and 2 pm.

And Warm Winter Wishes

I apologise for the lateness of this year’s Retrospective. My excuses are set forth in the previous section. But I will not let my little adversities get in the way of wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Update, 26th December

Our boiler, it seems, was suffering from a severe blockage in the condensate outlet pipe (and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone). The engineer came at the appointed time, partially disassembled the boiler, cleared the sludge from the condensate trap and sump, re-assembled the thing and checked that it was all in working order. He was courteous and as cheerful as you could expect from a tradesman working on Boxing Day. Our warm (again) thanks go to him and the family he will be returning to when he finishes his shift in a few hours time.

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Starman

I started a Haskell course last week. One of this week’s exercises was to write a guessing game called Starman. All the necessary code fragments were provided in the course notes and a complete solution was provided on github. However, in the spirit of learning by doing I re-jigged the program structure a bit. I’m publishing my version here so that the educators and students on the course can see it and comment if they wish.

Starman-2

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Credo

“I believe that anyone who claims to know what’s going on will lie about the little things, too. ”

― Neil Gaiman

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A Humanist Wedding?

Humanist Wedding

Laura Lacole and Eunan O’Kane

If you are a member of a recognised religion you can have a marriage that is tailored to your beliefs and is recognised in law. If you are an atheist or humanist you are denied that in the UK. Eunan O’Kane and Laura Lacole regard that as a violation of their rights under EU law. In particular, they say that they are being discriminated against on the grounds of their beliefs. The couple took their case to the high court in Belfast yesterday. For further details see this article in the Guardian.

Stoney Fish wishes them well. I am not a legal expert but I suspect Eunan and Laura will have to have a separate civil ceremony to make their wedding legal even if they win their case. But the shockwaves just might trigger a change in the law that, at long last, gives the non-religious equal status with the religious.

Notes:

  1. Humanist marriages have been legal in Scotland since 2005 and there are now more humanist weddings there than Church of Scotland marriage ceremonies.
  2. According to a British Social Attitudes survey carried out in 2014, there are now more people in the UK who have no religion than there are Christians. “The striking thing is the clear sense of the growth of ‘no religion’ as a proportion of the population,” said Stephen Bullivant, senior lecturer in theology and ethics at St Mary’s Catholic University in Twickenham, who analysed data collected through British Social Attitudes surveys over three decades.
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Why Believe in God?

Here’s Stephen Fry’s answer.

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