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


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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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.


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“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.


  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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Retrospective 2016

Mary and I have been out and about quite a lot this year. A couple of trips had to be cancelled for health reasons but these turned out to be minor bumps on life’s sometimes rocky road. This year has also seen a notable rise in routine check-ups and medical preventative maintenance for me (bowel cancer screening, prostate examination, abdominal aortic aneurism scan, flu jab, eye test, hearing test, dental checks) and, although nothing untoward came up, it’s making me feel like an old man. I got my bus pass in October, too!

In May we joined the Charnwood U3A organisation and a few months later we both signed up for a couple of the U3A interest/activity groups. Mary joined the Philosophy group and one of the two Science & Technology groups; I put my name down for the Photography and Making Music groups. So there is now some competition for our leisure time between our Trent 36 friends and U3A.

Mary continues to teach English for the WEA, mainly to elderly women of Asian extraction. And Phil is still spending far too much time writing for his music blog, which now has its very own Internet domain.

Other events of note include: five theatre trips (one comedian, four detective/suspense plays), a free online course entitled Logical and Critical Thinking and the addition of a shower and storage units to the bathroom. For further details, read on …


Let’s start with the nearest thing to a proper holiday we had this year, a long weekend in Edinburgh with two other couples from the Trent 36 group.

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We took advantage of a special offer to book first class tickets for the journey north. For some inexplicable reason no first class seats were available for the return journey. Having taken a local train from Loughborough to Grantham the station announcer there informed us that there had been some damage to the overhead power lines north of Newcastle. Some trains were delayed, some were cancelled and passengers for Edinburgh and beyond were advised to get the next train and change at York. That wasn’t too bad – we had booked seats on that service and the first class tickets entitled us to a free breakfast. If the journey took a little longer at least we would be suitably refreshed and prepared for whatever the privatised rail network could throw at us.

It had been an early start and we were soon ready for that breakfast meal. Stewards came and went with no sign of any food being served so we enquired politely. At first we were assured that breakfast would be served shortly. When rumbling tummies prompted us to ask again the response was somewhat disheartening. “Oh, no, there’s no food on this train”. “But, we thought …”, our spokesman stammered and it soon became clear that the stewards really had no idea what was supposed to be provided. What was quite clear, though, was that we wouldn’t be getting our complimentary breakfast.

At York we left the train as advised. We didn’t have any choice as it was terminating there. There was time to grab some brunch from one of the station cafés and get the latest information from the display boards and announcements. Our best bet seemed to be to get the next train to Edinburgh no matter how many stops it would make or what its final destination might be. When it came it was crowded. Our party bundled on and searched in vain for seats. There were none. We had reserved first class seats but, of course, they were on the train we had just left. With grim determination we parked ourselves in the doorway along with half a dozen other disgruntled passengers and their luggage. And there we stayed like cattle in a truck for the next two and a half uncomfortable hours.

It was early afternoon when we got to Edinburgh Waverley station. With a huge sense of relief we eased our weary bodies out of the carriage, flexed our stiff limbs and trundled our wheeled suitcases through the streets of Scotland’s capital city to our hotel. After checking in the six of us gathered in the lounge and set off to climb nearby Calton Hill. It was a glorious sunny afternoon and there were spectacular views across the Forth estuary to the north, Arthur’s Seat to the south and out over the city towards the castle in the west. (Follow the Edinburgh link above for some photos.)

We stayed three nights in Edinburgh. That first evening we chose a smart-looking hotel restaurant, The Blue Thistle, for our evening meal. The food was satisfying, the prices were reasonable and, perhaps because we had the restaurant to ourselves, our waiter was attentive without being intrusive. It was a pleasant way to round off our first day.

On day two each couple prepared separate itineraries. Mary and I headed out to the zoo. There’s plenty to see there but the main attraction is a famous pair of pandas. We were told we had about a 50% chance of seeing a panda as they spent much of the time hidden away in the private den at the back of their enclosure. We loitered there for 10 to 15 minutes but, sadly, no panda appeared for us. As if to make up for that disappointment we were treated to a most unusual (human) wedding procession – a Scottish groom in a kilt, a Chinese bride in a white wedding dress, bridesmaids in brightly coloured oriental costume – and the whole party made quite a picture as they assembled by the penguin pool for photographs. (I have a few photos but to respect the couple’s privacy I haven’t published them.)

That evening all six of us decided to see Cats, which was having its last night in Edinburgh, and dropped into an Italian restaurant for a quick pre-theatre meal. There was one committed fan of musicals in our party; the rest of us had more of a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. We’d have preferred to have gone to see Sarah Milliken but her show was fully booked. The theatre was about two thirds full and there were several unoccupied rows in front of our moderately priced seats giving us a good, but distant view of the stage. (See photo.) It was rather warm, though, in the theatre and the performance was less than captivating. The musicians and the actors put everything into it but the songs just didn’t stir my emotions. At the interval four of us decided not to bother with the second half leaving our one enthusiast to enjoy the rest of the show with Mary for company.

For the morning of our last full day (a Sunday) our organiser-in-chief had recommended a guided tour of Mary King’s Close. In Edinburgh a ‘close’ is a narrow street with many-storeyed buildings on either side. There are lots of them spreading out like ribs from the backbone of the Royal Mile. Mary King’s Close has been thoroughly researched and our guide, dressed as she was in period costume, did a splendid job of telling us the history of the close and its inhabitants. If you’re ever in Edinburgh I can heartily recommend it.

In the afternoon Mary and I walked into the suburbs to visit Edinburgh’s Botanic Garden. It drizzled on the way but the rain stopped when we got to the gardens and we had a very enjoyable stroll around the lawns and flower beds. Then, in the evening, we all met up for dinner at a small restaurant called The Educated Flea. Of the three restaurants we patronised over the weekend this was my favourite. It had a pleasant relaxed atmosphere, the food was very good and the service was friendly. (If you Google it, ignore the Indian Restaurant description. The menu is actually quite varied and none of it is Indian!)

The next day we had some free time in the morning before our train home so Mary and I wandered up and down the Royal Mile where I took some typical tourist photos. The return journey was mercifully uneventful and we arrived home physically tired but mentally reinvigorated.

Days Out

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As far as short trips are concerned, as that old Johnny Cash song has it, I’ve been everywhere, man! Well, not everywhere but too many places to write about them all here. Instead, here’s a list of the photo albums I’ve added to my flickr site this year together with a brief description of the place/event. If a picture is worth a thousand words this lot must be a whole novel. (N.B. Access to the Gung Ho! album is restricted to family members only.)

I’d particularly like to draw your attention to the fairy sculptures in the Trentham Gardens album. The picture of the muntjac deer in Market Bosworth Country Park is nice, too. I’m not sure who was more surprised, myself or the deer.

Trent 36

On St. Patrick’s Day (17th March) we hosted an evening of Limericks, Guinness Cake and Irish Coffee for Trent 36. Attendees were invited to write their own limericks or choose some from a book or a suitable online source and recite them for our entertainment. We had some excellent original verses and the evening went rather well. I’m thinking of offering a franchise agreement if you would like to use the idea for your own event. 😉

Other T36 events included: the Edinburgh trip, a scrumptious barbecue hosted by Richard and Sarah, a couple of short walks, a coffee evening or two, dinner chez nous with Guy and Sue while their kitchen was being refitted, a Christmas meal at Ashmore’s Restaurant in Radcliffe-on-Trent and the traditional mince pies and mulled wine evening.

Charnwood U3A

Charnwood U3A has regular monthly meetings open to all members and some 80+ groups with particular interests. Mary and I went to the monthly meeting in May as guests before joining. We had just missed a new members meeting and there was no monthly meeting in June to allow for holidays so we didn’t immediately sign up for any of the groups.

The monthly meetings usually take the form of a talk followed by tea/coffee and biscuits. The topic of the first talk we went to was “cheese” and the speaker had brought three trestle tables full of smelly cheeses for the audience to see and sample. Now, I don’t like cheese and I had to sit several rows back to avoid the pungent cheesiness but from there I was able to savour the side salad of words and slides.

Other monthly meetings we attended included a talk by our local Police and Crime Commissioner (Lord Willy Bach) about his role as PCC, a fascinating account of one local woman’s journey across South America from the high Andes to the Amazon basin, a biography of the Arts and Crafts architect and builder Ernest Gimson and a rather rambling talk entitled “So You Think You’re British?”.

Mary and I were encouraged to join several of the U3A groups at the new members meeting in October. Having bought a new camera (a Canon EOS 100D) the previous month I was particularly keen to sign up for the Photography group. I also made a point of having a chat with the organiser of the Making Music group that is currently being set up. Mary got involved with the Philosophy group and one of the two Science and Technology groups. I think I put my name down for Science and Technology, too, although that was more of an afterthought.

As it turns out the Science and Technology groups both meet on Thursday mornings when Mary can’t go because she is working. The programme did, however, list a talk entitled Pipeline Under The Ocean (PLUTO). Having worked for a company that makes equipment for laying and repairing pipelines under the North Sea that sounded interesting and I went along.

PLUTO was a second world war project to design, manufacture and lay pipelines to carry fuel from England across the English Channel first to Cherbourg and, later, Ambleteuse near Calais in support of the allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. The technical information in the talk is readily available online but the speaker has done a considerable amount of personal research. He was able to show us photos of all sorts of buildings, rusted old pipework and marker posts that are still visible on the Isle of Wight and on the mainland across the Solent. It was that personal connection that made it interesting.

So far I have been to four Photography group meetings:

  • a macro workshop in which we took photos of small items such as old circuit boards, disassembled watches and coins;
  • a “treasure hunt” in Ashby de la Zouch with the theme of opposite pairs;
  • a talk by a director of the Charnwood Arts organisation in which he showed us some really impressive photos he took in the course of his work with Charnwood Arts and for private commissions
  • an outing to Nottingham Xmas Fair at dusk

Mary has participated in two Philosophy group meetings in one of the member’s homes. At the first meeting the topic for discussion was Nietzsche and his ideas. Now, I always thought philosophy was a discipline that applies rational thinking to some of the deeper, most perplexing problems of our age but I didn’t find much logic in the handouts that Mary brought home – not even in the factual summary of Nietzsche’s work. To say I was unimpressed would be an understatement. Perhaps I had been spoilt by the FutureLearn course I took back in the Spring. And that brings me to …

Logical and Critical Thinking

Some time around the end of last year or the beginning of this I saw an announcement for a free online course called Logical and Critical Thinking run by the University of Auckland in New Zealand. It started by saying that “we are constantly called upon to use our critical and logical thinking but most of us are not that good at it”. It then promised to help us to recognise and evaluate arguments that we come across in the news and the myriad of other communication channels that bombard us with a never ending stream of facts and opinions. I couldn’t resist it.

The course started on 29th February and ran for eight weeks. The first four weeks covered the definition of an argument, how to recognise one, how to put it into a standard form and how to assess its validity and strength. Over the next three weeks we applied what we had learnt to well-rehearsed arguments in the fields of science, morals and law. In the final week we looked at an argument ‘in the wild’, specifically the question of whether we should all become vegans.

The course was excellent. In fact, in my end of course comments I expressed the opinion that something like it should be a compulsory component of every secondary school curriculum. I am now much better equipped to deal with fervent evangelists when they knock on my door – and rather less inclined to humour them.

Sounds New To Me

This Is The Life - soundtouch 220

Bose SoundTouch 220

In February we went on an expedition in search of Hi-Fi sound for the TV and video recorder. We investigated soundbars but the ones that sounded good didn’t fit on the coffee table we are using as our TV cabinet. We considered a home cinema system but most of those deliver 5.1 surround sound through speakers in all four corners of the room and there’s nowhere for us to put the rear speakers. In the end we settled on a Bose SoundTouch 220, a simple home cinema system with a pair of small mid-range speakers and a bass module.

Not only does the SoundTouch sound nice, it also streams music from the computer in the study to the speakers in the living room over the wi-fi. So I can now listen to my music downloads in comfort without having to burn CDs. In fact, it has made the old Hi-Fi system obsolete. One of these days I must find a good home for it.

Once again I have the BBC’s 6 Music radio station to thank for bringing my attention to lots of good music this year. Stand out tracks include:

I also recommend the following artists/bands that I hadn’t heard a year ago:

All track and artist links are to entries on my Crotchety Man blog where you can find my reasons for loving them.

Although it doesn’t qualify as ‘new’ I’ll also mention here that one of the Trent 36 chaps and myself went to see Soft Machine in late November. I have now seen them three times, more than any other (relatively) well-known band. I saw them at the Greyhound, Croydon around 1972 and at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon around 1973. So that’s a 43 year gap between the second and third live show I attended.

Amazingly, two of the four members of the current line-up had joined the band by the time of that 1973 gig: John Marshall on drums and Roy Babbington on bass. Even John Etheridge on guitar has been with them since 1975. The fourth member, Theo Travis, has only been in the band for about 10 years but he proved perfectly capable of filling the horn and keyboard slot vacated by Karl Jenkins in the ’80s.

There’s a piece about the concert on the Crotchety Man blog here.

Bathroom Upgrade

Towards the end of May, having spent weeks trying to find a plumber, work started on installing a shower over the bath and replacing the toilet and pedestal wash basin with some built-in units. The idea was to provide the option of a shower for visitors, add some storage and have a shelf on which to put tooth brushes, contact lens cases and the other paraphernalia of a bathroom in everyday use.

There were a couple of hiccups along the way. At one point there was a tremendous crash and I went up to find the plumber sitting on the bathroom floor with a stunned expression on his face. He had fixed the new washbasin firmly (he thought) to the wall, but when he let go the heavy piece of china slipped free of its fixings and, before he could react, it had come crashing down and smashed. The whole episode was too tragic for words, even swear words. Fortunately, though, there was no other damage to the new units, the wall or the intrepid installer himself. “I’ll have to order another basin”, said the plumber. And we left it at that.

From the measurements it seemed as though the new vanity unit would completely cover the part of the floor where the old pedestal washbasin had stood. The hole left in the vinyl wouldn’t be visible so we hadn’t planned to repair or replace the flooring. Unfortunately, when it came to fit the unit, it became obvious that the ugly wound in the floor would show and that it would spoil the overall effect. As the plumber and his mate had agreed that this problem wouldn’t occur they could hardly object when we asked them to delay the installation of the units until we had had a chance to lay some new flooring.

In the end we had some attractive wood-effect vinyl flooring laid, the plumbing team returned and fitted the storage units and our bathroom upgrade was essentially completed around the end of June. All that we need now is for Mary to find something she likes as a splashback to go above the shelf/worktop and our swanky new bathroom will be truly finished.

Back to School

I Vow To Thee - building

In November of last year I received an invitation to lunch at my old school, St. Dunstan’s College. The invitation was sent to those who, in the normal course of events, would have left in the period 1930 – 1970. That meant that I just scraped in. If it wasn’t for the fact that I stayed on to do the Oxbridge entrance exam I would have left in 1970. As my dad also qualified for this event it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. So, on 18th June, Mary and I got the train down to Catford station, met my dad’s train when it arrived at Catford Bridge and the three of us strolled round the corner to the school.

The buildings haven’t changed all that much since I was last there some 45 years ago. Several headmasters have come and gone since then, of course, and the school has been independent of local authority finance for some time but the biggest change is that what was a boy’s school has become co-educational. Surprisingly, the school ethos doesn’t seem to have changed much at all and the atmosphere was spookily familiar.

We had an appetising lunch, browsed the photos and memorabilia and chatted to some of the other guests. We had been promised a tour of the school and a video interview with one of the prefects about our school days but there was no time for either of those things before the scheduled end time of 3 p.m. and we had to leave to catch our trains back home. It was an interesting experience, though.

Health (Again)

I had a funny turn in August passing out embarrassingly in the theatre. From my description of it the doctor seemed to think it was just a simple faint but when Mary gave her account he decided it needed further investigation. He arranged an ECG, which showed nothing abnormal, and sent me to see a neurologist. The neurologist appointment wasn’t until 5th December. After hearing our accounts the specialist arranged for a 24 hour ECG and an MRI scan, and told me to inform the DVLA of the situation. Unfortunately, that means I am not allowed to drive at the moment.

I’m due to be fitted with an ECG monitor on 11th January. The MRI scan is yet to be scheduled. We shall have to see what, if anything, those investigations turn up.

So, Finally

In summary, then, Mary and I have both had health issues this year but nothing that has (so far) threatened to impinge significantly on our full and busy lives. Not being able to drive is annoying but it has its compensations – I get chauffeured everywhere now!

All that remains is for me to wish all my family, friends and other readers a Merry Christmas and a Healthy, Happy New Year.

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Desert Island Books

The following is a piece I wrote for the ACCU’s CVu magazine in April 2010 as part of the Desert Island Books series. The ACCU is an organisation that promotes a professional approach to programming and the brief was to write about the books that have had the biggest impact on me as a jobbing programmer – the ones I’d take to a suitably equipped desert island. It was also suggested that mentioning a novel and a couple of CDs would throw some light on the person now at the computer keyboard. So, I chose five books (four related to programming and one novel) and two CDs and wove this little story around them.

Attention All Passengers …

The ship is sinking. Three days into a round-the-world cruise and this happens. It was going to be the trip of a lifetime, an adventure, something to look back on in my retirement. I can’t believe it.

There’s a rumour we hit an iceberg. This far south? A certain amount of panic is forgiveable, but that’s insane. Of course, we couldn’t get anything sensible out of the crew. “There’s a technical problem”, they said, yesterday. “There’s no need to worry. We’re going to stop off at the next port for some minor repairs.” Apparently it was a problem with the engine or the navigation systems or the heating/ventilation; everyone had a different story.

But the captain has just announced that the ship is taking on water and that we won’t reach port in time. All passengers are to transfer to the lifeboats. There’s an island on the horizon; we’ll set up camp there until we can be rescued. Unfortunately, both the communications and navigation systems are severely damaged. We have only a rough idea of where we are and we haven’t been able to radio for help. We may be marooned for some time.

Heroes and Aspirations

We can take some clothes and a single piece of hand luggage with us. I have quite a few books and CDs in the cabin – it was supposed to be a three month voyage – and I can’t bear to see them all go to the bottom of the sea. Which ones shall I choose?

As I started to pack my bag I remembered a conversation I had at dinner on our first night on board. There was a teacher at our table with a passing interest in psychology. She asked me, “If you were a book title, which would you be?” Strange question, I thought. The sort of question you might hear at a speed-dating session. I wondered, briefly, if she was evaluating me for a holiday romance, but no, that was just my ego talking. Then it struck me that if any book title summed up who I am it was probably “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid”.

To me Gödel’s mathematical theorems, Bach’s music and Escher’s drawings are works of astonishing originality and beauty. I’m a ‘vertical’, straight-line thinker and I simply can’t imagine where they got their ideas. I think that is why Gödel, Escher and Bach all have a place in my personal catalogue of great men alongside the likes of Newton, Einstein, Babbage and Darwin.

I grabbed “Gödel, Escher, Bach” and thrust it into the bag. It was a book I’d been meaning to get for years, but have never read. I’d bought it specially for the voyage and it must be saved at all costs!

A Few Objects More

I suppose a man is defined to a large extent by what he does for a living. I’ve been a programmer for all my adult life and no book collection of mine would be complete without one or two books on the noble art of computer programming. Knuth, however, is not in the cabin and I wouldn’t take him to a desert island if he was. I’m going to enjoy my stay on that rock out there if I can and I need something lighter than that.

The first book that taught me something about program design was Michael A Jackson’s “Principles of Program Design”. I remember the idea that the structure of the code should follow naturally from the structure of its inputs and outputs, which made sense in the days when batch processing was the norm. Later I read some books on structured design by Tom De Marco, Ed Yourdon and others. I learnt about data flow diagrams and, perhaps the most important lesson of all, that we should strive to minimise coupling and maximise cohesion. Although these taught me many things no one book from this period stands out in my memory.

Then came object-oriented design, a new paradigm that spawned a plethora of books. In spite of that embarrassment of riches there is one OO book that had a significant impact on my approach to software development: Bertrand Meyer’s “Object-Oriented Software Construction”. It starts by considering what ‘quality’ means when applied to software, lists some criteria by which we can judge the quality of our code and states some principles that must be adhered to in order to build good quality software. It then describes a programming language designed to support those principles. That language is Eiffel.

Eiffel is both an object-oriented language and a programming environment. The language has classes, parameterised types, exceptions and support for preconditions, postconditions and invariants. The environment provides a garbage collector, compiler/linker/dependency manager and several other tools to aid the Eiffel programmer. In short, it has pretty much everything today’s programmers have come to expect. It’s a bit too object-oriented for my taste and has a number of features that I don’t like, but I think it deserves to have a much larger following. I’ve never used Eiffel, Java or C# (no, really!), but given a choice from those three I’d try Eiffel first simply because of the clarity of the reasoning in Meyer’s book.

“Object-Oriented Construction” goes into the bag.

Pretty Patterns

The tannoy blares out again. “Will all passengers, please, assemble on the sun deck for evacuation.” I have just a few minutes to choose what else to pack.

Instinctively, I reach for “Design Patterns – Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software”. With an Escher print on the cover and a foreword by Grady Booch (one of the foremost proponents of object-oriented programming) it sits very comfortably alongside my earlier choices. But, more than that, it is the book that has had the greatest influence on my approach to programming.

By the time “Design Patterns” was published I had been programming for 20 years and, although I wasn’t consciously aware of it, I had built up a small catalogue of tricks and techniques that could be applied to a wide range of programs. As I read each chapter I kept coming across problems I’d wrestled with in the past and solutions that I recognised from my own accumulated experience. This book brought them all together, gave them names, clearly defined the problems and explained when and why a particular solution works. It was a revelation.

Man and Machine

There is no clock in the cabin, nothing to measure the passage of time, but I can feel the seconds ticking by as I scan the bookshelf. It’s getting hard to make decisions.

“No more technical books”, I tell myself. There won’t be any opportunity to write software where we’re going now. That narrows down the choice enough for me to pick “Alan Turing – The Enigma”, a biography by Andrew Hodges.

It’s quite a few years since I read Hodges’ account of the life and work of Alan Turing, so my recollection is rather hazy. It does include some technical information, including a concise description of Turing machines, but it is mainly a sympathetic exploration of Alan Turing himself. As Douglas Hofstadter said in an early review, “… it is hard to imagine a more thoughtful and warm biography than this one”. The title, of course, simultaneously refers to Turing’s work on the German Enigma machines, to the necessarily secretive nature of a gay man working for the government in the 1940s and to the uncertainty surrounding Turing’s suicide.

Pure Escapism

Glancing through the port hole I can see a calm blue sea, the sun glinting off the gentle waves. For a moment a profound sense of peace and tranquillity pervades my thoughts. But something about that view through the window isn’t right. There’s no horizon! With the cold logic of Sherlock Holmes I deduce that the ship is listing noticeably now.

For the first time the full implications of our predicament sink in. It could be hell on that island and I’m going to need something that will transport me, metaphorically speaking, to a better place. Jasper Fforde’s “The Eyre Affair” comes to mind immediately, I search for it’s bright red cover and shove it hastily into the bulging bag.

“The Eyre Affair” is set in an alternative universe in which literary debate is so fierce that it leads to gang wars and murder. In this world “Jane Eyre” ends (lamely) with Jane accompanying her cousin to India to help with his missionary work. The villain of “The Eyre Affair”, Acheron Hades, uses a Prose Portal to enter works of fiction, threatening to kidnap their characters as a form of blackmail. It falls to literary detective, Thursday Next, to pursue Hades into “Jane Eyre” and stop him. Eventually she succeeds, but in the process the ending is changed so that Thornfield Hall burns down, Rochester’s mad wife dies and Rochester himself is badly injured. Returning to her real world Thursday Next discovers that public reaction to the new ending is positive, but her employers are not best pleased with her efforts and the book ends with Thursday facing an uncertain future.

“The Eyre Affair” is a wild, wacky, witty and extremely funny book in the style of Terry Pratchett. Indeed, Pratchett himself commented, “Ingenious – I shall watch Jasper Fforde nervously”.

Watching the Birds

The engines have stopped. There’s just time to grab a couple of CDs and then I must go. Apart from a fascination with science in all its forms, my other passion is music. My CD collection covers a fairly broad spectrum; there are rock, pop, folk, jazz and classical albums that I really treasure. Leaving them behind will be heart-breaking but, strangely, it’s not too hard to select just two to preserve my sanity on the island.

A sea bird flies past the porthole as I pull “Through the Window Pane” by Guillemots from the rack. For those who don’t know Fyfe Dangerfield’s compositions they’re hard to describe because they don’t fit into any well-defined category. Many of the tracks would make excellent film soundtrack material, but that’s not what they are. On my web site I say: “This has everything: memorable melodies, irresistible rhythms, sweet harmonies, epic arrangements; sometimes all in the same song”. Every one of the 12 tracks seems to be a window into Fyfe’s varied emotions. There’s wistfulness, sadness, anger, despair, joy, love, playfulness and even a touch of humour. Very few artists have that wide a repertoire and very few bands can provide a vehicle for expressing it as well as Guillemots.

Five-Pointed Star

There’s a knock on the door. A middle-aged man in a smart nautical uniform politely tells me I must vacate the room and join the other passengers on deck. With trembling fingers I pick out “Light Flight: The Anthology” by Pentangle and stow it hastily in my sanity bag.

Quoting from my web site again, “Light Flight” contains “some of the most beautiful folk songs performed by the most accomplished folk/jazz group there’s ever been”. By adding this album to “Window Pane” I can cover a reasonably large subset of musical styles and, at the same time, have songs whose poignant and exquisite beauty never fails to move me.

Back in the 70s when I was a student I went to see Pentangle at the New Theatre, Oxford. It was a disappointing performance and they split up shortly afterwards. The following year (I think) a friend of a friend invited me to a private gig at St. Catherine’s college where John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee (both ex-Pentangle) were to play. It was an intimate setting, ideally suited to John’s fine acoustic guitar playing and Jacqui’s clear, mellow voice. It was a magical evening and my Pentangle CD reminds me of that night, too.

Regrets – Too Few to Mention

As I lower myself down into the lifeboat I can’t help thinking about the books and CDs I left behind, either on the ship or back at home.

There are many programming books that have been invaluable to me in my career. The single most important book for me as a C++ programmer is, of course, “The C++ Programming Language” by Bjarne Stroustrup. Scott Meyers’ “Effective C++” and “More Effective C++”, Herb Sutter’s “Exceptional C++”, Andrei Alexandrescu’s “Modern C++ Design” and Vandevoorde & Josuttis’ “C++ Templates” have all been of direct practical use in my professional work. “Generative Programming” by Czarnecki and Eisenecker has broadened my programming horizons. I might have chosen any of those for a desert island with all mod cons including an internet connection, but I’m not going to need them on that God-forsaken rock in the distance.

I would have liked to have brought some old favourites for bedtime reading. Something by John Wyndham, Arthur C Clarke, Ray Bradbury or Iain Banks, perhaps. “Alice in Wonderland” or “The World of Pooh” would add variety. Then there are the epic stories of Tolkein or Stephen Donaldson. Sandi Toksvig writes entertaining novels. And there are more Jasper Fforde books, not to mention lots of Terry Pratchet.

I shall sorely miss listening to Elbow performing “The Seldom Seen Kid”. I’ve played albums by Genesis, Yes, King Crimson and Soft Machine so often that they will never be forgotten, but I shall pine for them just the same. Of the jazzier CDs in my collection remembering those by Back Door, Weather Report and Brand X brings a tinge of regret. Then there are odd ones like Tom Griesgraber’s “A Whisper in the Thunder” (atmospheric Chapman Stick music), Gorillaz “Demon Days” and the free folk song downloads from Kray Van Kirk. I could go on, but I’m getting a lump in my throat.

No, I wouldn’t swap any of those for the five books and 2 CDs in the little bag I’m carrying. As I hand the bag to the lifeboat crew for safe keeping I hear myself saying, “Careful with that, mate; it’s precious.”


  • Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter.
  • Object-Oriented Software Construction, Bertrand Meyer.
  • Design Patterns – Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson and John Vlissides.
  • Alan Turing – The Enigma, Andrew Hodges.
  • The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde.


  • Through the Window Pane, Guillemots.
  • Light Flight: The Anthology, Pentangle.
Posted in music, software | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Retrospective 2015

The most significant event of the year was, undoubtedly, moving to the North Leicestershire village of Wymeswold on 24th February. The move itself went smoothly and by the time I got to the East Midlands it was a lovely early Spring day, sunny and surprisingly mild for the time of year. It felt like a warm welcome to our new home.

The rest of the year was spent mainly getting the house straight, getting to know the neighbours, meeting the people of the village and exploring the local area. Other events of note included: attending an episode of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, starting a music blog, helping out at the General Election, one funeral, one wedding and one operation to fix Mary’s hammer toe.

In approximate chronological order, then …

I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue

I'm Sorry I Haven't A ClueSometime in the autumn of last year we saw that the Radio 4 comedy programme, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue was going to be staged at the Barbican theatre in York in the coming January. We would have booked tickets immediately but we thought we would be moving well before then. If you’ve read my Retrospective for 2014, though, you will know that there were a number of hiccups along the way and, in the third week of November it became clear that we would still be in York when ISIHAC was going to take place. Fortunately, there were still a few tickets left and we grabbed some seats up in the stratosphere section at the back of the hall.

We have been familiar with the format of the show for years: the chairman, asks the four members of the panel to do silly things, anything from singing one song to the tune of another to providing hilarious definitions of words (from the mythical Uxbridge English Dictionary) or playing the vacuous and utterly mesmerising Mornington Crescent. It is a spoof panel game in which the contestants pretend to compete for points that are never awarded; the whole show is really just a vehicle for the comedians on the panel to tell jokes. And it works amazingly well.

On this occasion Sandi Toksvig was in the chair and the panellists were Jeremy Hardy, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Barry Cryer and Graham Garden. The producer, Jon Naismith, was also the warm up act (telling old, but achingly funny jokes) and, as always, Colin Sell provided piano accompaniment when the silly games required some music. The whole show was a hoot; the most enjoyable night out we’ve had in years. As you can see from the picture, we have kept the complimentary kazoos as souvenirs.

A Crotchety Man


I don’t know what possessed me but in January I created a new blog. I use it to publish recommendations and comments about music I listen to. Like this life/general site it is hosted on WordPress but uses a different theme (‘Harmonic’) chosen partly for its name and partly for its picturesque front page. The new blog is called Crotchety Man for what I hope are obvious reasons.

After fiddling with the overall structure for some time I settled on a Home page with About and Browse sections, a Posts page that gets a new post at least once a week, and a Photos page that holds annotated pictures of the Bass, Bass and Cox band (the BBC?). The first post was published on 11th January. As of 15th December there have been 74 posts, the site has had 247 visitors and there have been 459 views. More interestingly, though, it has slowly accumulated 13 followers.

Moving Out

After more than a year of planning and preparation most of our belongings were loaded into a removals lorry on the 23rd of February ready for the journey south the following day.

Mary and I had lived in York for more than 17 years, 16 of them in our dormer bungalow on Lea Way. In many ways we loved that house. Its long, narrow plot meant that it looked quite ‘bijou’ from the outside but it went back a deceptively long way. The study and dining room had been added at the rear of the original 1940s bungalow and behind the dining room there was a conservatory. A slightly curious corridor connected the living room to the study and dining room. Its quirkiness appealed to us.

During the time we were there we made a number of improvements to the property: the roof was completely re-tiled; the garage had a new roof, doors and window; the Leylandii hedge was replaced with a low brick wall; the drainage was improved so that we no longer got a ‘water feature’ in the front garden whenever it rained heavily; the patio was relaid; the living room acquired a marble-effect fireplace and one of its doors was moved; a wooden floor was installed in the dining room; a whole new bathroom was fitted; the electrics were upgraded. It took a lot of our money but we felt it was money well spent.

Strangely, though, leaving Lea Way wasn’t a wrench. I don’t really know why. Perhaps it was because moving out had been dominating our thoughts for so long or because we were looking forward to our new home. Or it might have been because for the last two or three months we had been living among boxes in which were packed half our possessions, a kind of limbo between permanent residence and homelessness. Whatever the reason, when the time came to leave I took just one last look at the house, bid it farewell, climbed into the car and set off for the A1 southbound leaving Mary to dash round with a cloth and the hoover. There was a little sadness as memories of life in York played in my head like a video of recent history but no lump in the throat.

Moving In

The Move - Lorry

The journey was uneventful. There were no phone calls on the way, nothing to indicate a last minute hitch. By the time I got to Loughborough the sun had come out, it was a pleasantly mild early Spring day and I was confident that everything was under control. Finding a multi-storey car park across the pedestrian precinct from the estate agent I checked my mobile: three missed calls from the removal company starting over an hour ago. How could that be? I swear the phone didn’t ring.

Nervously, I returned the last call. It seems the lorry had arrived 90 minutes earlier and was waiting for me to open up so they could unload. I didn’t ask how they managed to get there so quickly. Proceeding hot foot to the estate agent I was relieved to find they were expecting me and had the keys ready; our purchase had been completed less than half an hour before. After a quick call to let the removals team know I was on my way I grabbed a sandwich and drove the few miles out to Wymeswold.

Soon a lorry load of possessions was being scattered throughout our new house. Most of the boxes were colour coded (we did our best to make it easy for the furniture shifters) but there was barely a minute when I wasn’t directing them to one room or another. In a surprisingly short time every room had received its share of furniture and unopened boxes. Some items obviously wouldn’t go where we had planned and I had to make some instant executive decisions. The garage took anything that didn’t have a natural place to go.

Mary joined us when most of the contents of the lorry had been unloaded. Some 45 minutes later we were able to thank the removal men, watch the lorry disappear down the street, sit down and get our breath back. We were in!

Getting Straight

As you will know from last year’s retrospective we had already disposed of a lot of stuff we never used and really didn’t need. It soon became clear that we would have to repeat the cull, even more ruthlessly this time, if we were going to fit everything into our semi-detached 4 bedroom plus study property. The new house has about the same floor area as the old one but spread over more rooms. The kitchen, in particular, has something like half the storage space of the old one. On the other hand we do now have a loft.

Over the next few months pots and pans, cutlery and crockery, books and ornaments, pens and papers, and all the other paraphernalia of modern life were shuffled from room to room like one of those block puzzles… Let’s move this to make room for that so that something else can go there.

Settling In

As soon as most things had found a home we called in a specialist lighting firm to improve the lighting in the living room and kitchen. Thanks to Mood Lighting we now have dimmable LED ceiling lights in those rooms and a fancy Wi-Fi system to control them. The living room lights are programmed to come on at dusk and, although we’ve never tried it, we can control them all remotely from a smartphone over the Internet. It was fun for a day or two. And even more fun on a couple of occasions when the lights decided to treat us to a light show of their own devising: central pendant on, outer spots dim, all off, inner spots on, brighten, fade…

Sometime in April a solar panel salesman knocked on the door. We had been thinking about installing solar panels here even before we moved so we let the caller make an appointment for later in the week. The idea was to get some basic information – whether our roof is suitable, roughly how much it would cost, what the payback period should be – and resolved to resist the hard sell that was bound to accompany a home visit.

The man who came with the leaflets, the technical details and the laptop presentation was here for just under three hours and gave us a quote that was significantly higher than we were expecting. Needless to say we declined his opening offer. And we didn’t budge when he offered us a special deal if we signed up on the spot. Now armed with a better understanding of solar panels we sought further quotes, which confirmed that the cold calling company wasn’t offering good value for money.

In the end we decided to have a local company install some in-roof solar panels. The in-roof installation method is a bit more expensive than the traditional mounting frames but it looks more attractive and we felt the neighbours would be unlikely to feel we were spoiling the beauty of the village. In any case, this is a small estate of modern houses (around eight years old) and solar panels are hardly anachronistic here.

The panels were installed over two days in early June and have been generating power steadily ever since. I know because part of the package was a smartphone app that monitors the performance of the panels. What on Earth would we do without a smartphone these days?

Our old red sofa and armchair had seen better days, had suffered from being used as the cat’s scratching post and didn’t really fit the new living room so we promised ourselves a new suite. After many hours browsing the Web and walking round furniture shops we finally settled for two sofas from Multiyork: one large 2/3-seater and one small 2-seater, both in duck egg green. They were delivered two days after the solar panels were  commissioned.

To complete the furnishing of the living room we still needed some curtains. Choosing those was even harder than selecting the sofas. Then one day, quite by chance, we spotted some curtains we liked in a shop window in Melton Mowbray. We took some swatches home, picked the design with warm plum colours and placed an order. And then we waited.

The curtains were on twelve week delivery – nearly three months – and it seemed an eternity. During the summer having no curtains didn’t matter. The living room has patio doors out to the back garden, which is not overlooked, so we didn’t need curtains for privacy. And in the light summer evenings the curtains, if we had any, would not be drawn. As autumn came, though, we yearned for the new curtains to arrive. Finally, on 23rd September seven months after moving in, the curtains came and we felt the living room was furnished to our taste at last.

General Election

General Election - PosterOne of our friends is a keen Lib Dem supporter (no, not the cat in the photo) and he lives in our Loughborough constituency. One evening in April there was a piece on the regional TV news where they interviewed (briefly) the local Lib Dem candidate in the general election. Although we had only recently moved to the area we recognised him. It was our friend Steve Coltman.

Being Lib Dem voters ourselves we contacted Steve to offer our support and he supplied us with postcards to deliver to the 500 or so households in Wymeswold. After exploring every street, alley and cul-de-sac in the village we completed the task on 16th April. Our knowledge of the geography of Wymeswold improved considerably as a result and we really feel we belong here now.

Loughborough was a Conservative/Labour marginal. Steve had no chance of being elected; his objective was simply to deliver the Lib Dem message and give the voters a middle-way choice. Of course, it was a disastrous election for the Lib Dem party nationally and the Loughborough constituency followed the trend. Unfortunately, Steve lost his deposit but he was quite sanguine about it. That’s democracy for you.

A Funeral

Funeral - Pete Holland

Sometime around 1993 Mary and 35 other former members of the Nottingham IVC club formed a social group called Trent 36. The group is still active and we kept up our membership throughout our sojourn in York. One of the reasons for moving back to the East Midlands was to be able to attend more T36 events and spend more time with our old friends.

Over the years the group has lost one or two of its members, mainly to terminal cancer, but gained a few more by invitation. Although we are all getting older the group remains active organising meals, walks and sundry other social events.  At the end of June we were informed that another member of the group, Pete Holland, had passed away. He’s the one in the middle of the photo.

The club had been told Pete was ill and in hospital some two weeks earlier but that news hadn’t filtered through to most of us so when we heard of his death it came as a bit of a shock. A number of Trent 36 members attended the funeral on 7th July where we remembered Pete’s love of folk music, his travels to far off places, his left wing political views and his warm sense of humour.

A Wedding

Wedding - Steve and Sheila

As if to prove there’s life in the old Trent 36 dog yet there were two weddings within the group this year. One was a quiet, private ceremony (belated congratulations to Stewart and Harriet Buckthorp), the other was a traditional church service and evening reception complete with dinner, drinks and disco. Mary and I were delighted to be invited to the grander of the two.

The photo shows Steve (the aforementioned Lib Dem candidate in the General Election) and his very long-term partner Sheila, who were the bride and groom. Predictably, haste (or lack of it) was a theme in comments by both the minister who conducted the religious ceremony and those giving speeches in the evening.

The whole event was really well organised. From the wedding ceremony itself to the meal, the speeches and the disco everything seemed to go like clockwork. Steve and Sheila had clearly done a lot of planning and preparation. Next time someone speaks disparagingly about the Lib Dems you can quote me when I say that at least one Lib Dem couple are more than capable of juggling the complexities of their own wedding – church service, tea and cakes, photographs, travel and accommodation arrangements, seating plans, menu, etc. – while still enjoying it themselves. After that, managing the UK economy should be a doddle!

An Operation

An Operation - Hammer Toe

Mary has had a bent toe for years. Most of the time it was not a problem and treatment would mean having an extended period off work, so she chose to live with the discomfort. This year, though, seemed a good opportunity to sort it out, while she was between jobs.

The particular condition she had is known as a hammer toe. One of the bones in the affected toe was too long causing the toe to arch awkwardly and making some shoes uncomfortable. The cure requires surgery to remove the excess bone, which means two weeks lying with the foot raised, at least another two weeks with no weight on the foot and something like three months gently getting back into a normal routine.

Mary had the operation on 26th October. I dropped her off at the foot clinic in Nottingham at 9 am and we were told she would be there for at least three hours. There was no point in hanging around that long so I went home, had a cup of coffee and, shortly before 10 o’clock, settled down at the computer to go through my emails. Twenty minutes later, even before I’d opened the last of the emails, the phone rang. It was the clinic calling to say that Mary’s operation was finished and by the time I’d driven back to Nottingham she would be ready to go home.

The nurse trundled Mary out in a wheelchair, one foot bandaged, just as I arrived at the entrance. I was expecting the patient to bring a crutch with her but apparently that wasn’t going to be necessary. Gingerly, Mary was decanted into the passenger seat and I pointed the car back in the direction of Wymeswold.

Once back home we parked Mary on the sofa with a foam pillow and a couple of cushions under her injured foot, strong painkillers within reach for when the local anaesthetic wore off. She spent the next two weeks like that reading books, watching TV and entertaining herself on the iPad while I supplied cups of tea and microwave meals. At night I would carry the cushioning up to the guest bedroom where Mary would sleep and, in the morning, I’d make up the sofa again.

Being confined to the sofa became a bit frustrating for Mary but, amazingly, she never needed the painkillers. Two weeks after the operation we were back at the clinic for a routine assessment. Having inspected their handiwork the clinicians announced that the wound was healing well and Mary could now use her foot in any way that felt comfortable. A few days later she was walking around the house and less than four weeks after the operation she was getting around more or less as normal. The toe was still a bit swollen and got sore if she stood or walked for long but she was mobile again.

It seems the operation was an unqualified success.

Days Out

It doesn’t feel as though we have been out and about much this year. We didn’t go away for a holiday (again) because we had other things to do and our finances were still in flux. We switched to a local financial adviser who wanted us to move my pension pot to a different financial platform and, in any case, it won’t be clear what our running costs are in the new house until we’ve been here a full year.

Having said that, though, I see from our calendar and photo apps that we visited the following places: Rutland Water, Stoneywell Cottage (twice), Belton House, Waddesdon Manor, the Harwell campus (for its Open Day), Woolsthorpe Manor (Isaac Newton’s birthplace), Snibston Discovery Museum (before it closed at the end of July), Kedleston Hall, Reg Taylor‘s garden centre and swan sanctuary, Calke Abbey, Attenborough Nature Reserve (it rained), Watermead Country Park, Deene Park and the National Memorial Arboretum. (All links are to photo albums on my Flickr site.)

We also wandered round the Richard III visitor centre in Leicester which presents the history of the king’s reign, the story of the dig that found his bones and a fascinating account of the evidence that the remains are indeed those of the last king of England to die in battle.

Concerts and Recordings

Wymeswold is a lively village. There are events for walkers, gardeners and keep fit enthusiasts, there are children’s groups and book clubs… and a few musicians are based here, too. The musical fraternity put on concerts at the village’s Memorial Hall, playing themselves or booking bands from farther afield. Mary and I attended four concerts in the hall this year…

In March we went to see a group called Burden of Paradise, a four-piece band with Snake Davis on saxophones. The band’s website describes their music as “a stylish blend of precisely 47% blues, 35% folk and 18% jazz”. That neatly captures both their repertoire and their off-beat sense of humour. The singer, Helen Watson, had a bit of a cold that night and I don’t think we saw them at their best but it was a very enjoyable evening nevertheless.

A few of the musicians from the village performed at a Clay Street Acoustic concert in May. On the whole they were competent rather than exciting but it was better than sitting in front of the television for the evening.

There were two bookings at the village hall in October. The first featured Holy Moly and the Crackers, a folk band with a distinctly theatrical flavour. They call themselves a ‘gypsy folkNroll’ band, emphasising the up-tempo, rocking style of their music. They performed a sequence of songs that tell a modern English folk story (love, betrayal, drunkenness and debauchery). It was nearly a play, almost an opera. And it was a rollicking good party, too (with a few sad bits thrown in).

Later that month we were treated to some top notch musicianship from Kelly’s Heroes, a Celtic folk band based in Nottingham. They are a 3, 4 or 5-piece band playing Irish, Scottish and traditional folk music at clubs, pubs, festivals and private functions. No gimmicks, just good songs and faultless delivery.

When it comes to recorded music I discovered two bands this year that deserve a special mention: Henry Fool and A Triggering Myth.

My Crotchety Man blog post said of Henry Fool: “… a cosy blend of progressive rock, jazz and atmospheric sounds … strongly reminiscent of Canterbury-scene bands”. Coming from me that’s a rare compliment. (Further, equally glowing reviews can be found here.) Their website hasn’t been updated for some time but I’m hoping to hear more of them in the not too distant future.

A Triggering Myth also sits on the borders of jazz and progressive rock. I have compared them, favourably, with Brand X, Weather Report and Bill Bruford’s bands and, to quote Crotchety Man again, “it just doesn’t get any better than that”. If that sounds good to you I refer you to the full blog post and heartily recommend their Remedy of Abstraction album.

Although not by any means new, one of Blondie‘s lesser known albums, The Curse of Blondie (2003), counts as another of my discoveries of 2015. The album doesn’t seem to be available any more but I saw a copy in a local charity shop and bought it, out of curiosity as much as anything. I’m pleased to tell you that it’s very good. It’s typical Blondie (except for one failed attempt at free jazz) but every bit as good as what they were doing in their heydays.

I’ll mention two more items under this Concerts and Recordings heading:

  • Kray Van Kirk’s Kickstarter-funded music video, The Road to Elfland, came through the letter box in October. It contains new recordings of earlier Kray Van Kirk songs, together with three new tracks. The whole CD + DVD package is beautifully produced and is a worthy addition to my collection. (For further details see Shiloh.)
  • Earlier this month Universal Music’s Rock and Indie Newsletter featured a number of artists I wasn’t familiar with and I started to explore them. I was so beguiled by a slow ballad called Don’t You Wait by Cloves that I bought the EP. (See this Crotchety Man blog post.)

Other Events

Last Christmas I bought Mary a voucher for a bread making course. She used it for a one day ‘First Steps’ lesson in April at the Leicestershire village of Bagworth near Ashby de la Zouch. Mary enjoyed it and used her new knowledge to make some home-made pizza the following month when her family came over for the Wymeswold Duck Races. I’d better explain…

The river Mantle runs through Wymeswold and every year six plastic ducks take part in ‘races’ as they float down the river in the centre of the village. Onlookers are encouraged to place bets on the winner and all proceeds go to charity. On the same day there is a “Wymeswold Waddle” fun run for kids and a more serious race for seasoned athletes. The day has become a Spring festival with road-side stalls, music, light refreshments and sundry other attractions. It’s one of those quaint English traditions that we all love and cherish. And Mary’s pizza was delicious.

For Mary’s birthday in May we had lunch at the Hammer and Pincers restaurant some 200 yards down the road. As it was a special occasion I had booked online but I needn’t have bothered. It was lunchtime, mid-week and we almost had the place to ourselves. The food was excellent, the service impeccable and the atmosphere relaxed and welcoming. Highly recommended.

Earlier in the year we joined the Supper Club – a spin-off from the Trent 36 group – and, on Friday 12th June, we contributed to the club’s mid-summer meal. There were eight of us, each pair providing one of the four courses: starter, main, sweet and cheese. All the food was appetising and it was a thoroughly convivial evening. We must do it again sometime.

It had been suggested that one of the best ways of getting to know the people of the village was to take part in their summer Safari Suppers. All participants meet in the village hall for an appetiser and to find out who their hosts will be for the next two courses. Then everyone disperses around the village to have the main course, moves on to another house with a different group of guests for puddings and finally returns to the village hall for cheese and biscuits and coffee.

Initially we resisted the idea because this year the Safari Supper was scheduled for Saturday 13th June – the day after the Supper Club meal. Two slap-up meals in two days might be too much for my poor digestive system. But in the end, as the village event was short of hosts this year, we were persuaded to provide the sweet course. And I’m glad we did. Our main course hosts had prepared an excellent vegetarian meal and we met some very nice people making this one of the highlights of the year.

Talking of highlights… Wymeswold holds an annual Open Gardens weekend. This year it was held on the 27th and 28th June and the weather was glorious. Mary and I volunteered our services and were appointed as stewards at the eastern end of the village where Hall Field was used as a temporary car park. We spent the early afternoon of the Saturday directing cars, taking money and handing out programmes.

After being relieved at 3:30 pm we took the opportunity to visit some of the gardens on show and it was delightful. There were far too many gardens to see in what was left of the afternoon so we toured round again on the Sunday, too. Wymeswold is quite compact but the gardens in the centre of the village stretch a long way back from the road giving green-fingered owners a lot of scope for their creativity. I took lots of photos and made the best of them available to the webmaster who pronounced them ‘fantastic’ and added some of them to the website.

In September there was the Wymeswold Village Show. Residents were invited to enter fruit and vegetables, home-made jams and pickles, home-baked biscuits and cakes, photos of the village and simple handicraft creations such as a decorated wooden spoon. I submitted one of my more creative photos which failed to appeal to the judges. Mary made a cheesecake and won second prize. I think we must be getting the hang of village life.

From time to time I receive emails from my old university advertising events that might be of interest to its former students. Until this year I’ve avoided these for fear of being trapped by bright young men and women for whom climbing the ladder of success is everything or by ancient academics for whom the only interesting topic of conversation is some obscure body of literature from the middle ages. Of course, not all Oxford University alumni are like that but that institution does have more than its fair share of such characters.

This year, though, there was less excuse; after all, Oxford isn’t all that far from us now. Looking through the programme for the Alumni Weekend of September 18th – 19th threw up sessions that sounded fun for both Mary and myself so we put ourselves down for a few lectures and tours. We both attended lectures on how the brain adapts to the electronic age and artificial intelligence. Mary also chose lectures on inequality in education and how to get published, while I took tours of the chemistry labs and the new biochemistry building and listened to a talk on quantum computers.

Believe it or not it was a most enjoyable weekend. The lectures were easy to understand, interesting and stimulating – like the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures, but for adults rather than children. The whole weekend was well organised and the people we met were pleasant and friendly. Oxford city, though, is even busier than ever. Dreaming spires? Well, yes, but you have to look for them now among the shops, the offices and the traffic. When I was a student there it was the other way around.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

We seem to have packed a lot more than I realised into 2015. I hope you have had an equally fulfilling year.

Merry Christmas and a Happy 2016 to you all.

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Band For A Day

Back in the early seventies when I was at university and trying, with limited success, to learn the bass guitar I was introduced to another student who was a drummer. I’ll call him John, not because I want to protect his anonymity, simply because I’ve long since forgotten his real name.

At that first short meeting we exchanged a few pleasantries and then went our separate ways. We bumped into each other again the following term and John told me he was organising a Jazz and Poetry evening at the local teacher training college. That sounded like a great idea to me and I must have said so.

John then asked if I’d like to be in the band. Now, that was a daft idea. I wasn’t much of a rock bassist and I’d never played any jazz in my life. “I’d like to help”, I said, “but I can’t play jazz”. “Oh, that’s no problem”, John replied, “you’ll be just fine”. He seemed to have pencilled me in already. I must admit I liked the idea of visiting the teacher training college and perhaps meeting some of the young, intelligent and no doubt attractive women studying there but, no, jazz was beyond my capabilities.

Looking for a way out I asked who else was in the band. “I don’t know, yet”, John said. “I’m just putting it together. I’ll be in touch when I’ve spoken to some other musicians.” Clearly, I wasn’t going to be let off the hook that easily. “When is it?”, I asked. John gave me a date that was some weeks ahead. At least there would be time to meet the other members of the band, learn one or two pieces and have a few rehearsals.

Nearly three weeks later our paths crossed again and I asked John if he had completed the lineup for the jazz band. He hadn’t. In fact, he hadn’t actually recruited anyone else at all. I pointed out that there wasn’t much time left to get some material together and he assured me he would get onto it right away.

Another week or more went past and I was beginning to panic.

It dawned on me that I didn’t have any way of contacting John. I knew his college but I’d never asked him his surname. In those days, before mobile phones and long before the Internet, the university operated a pigeon post system. In the entrance of every college there was a porter’s lodge where racks of pigeonholes were provided, one slot for each student. Letters and hastily scribbled notes could be left in your pigeonhole and you would collect them on your way into college. It worked very well but to use it you had to know the recipient’s surname. There was no pigeonhole for “John, the drummer”.

The day of the gig was rapidly approaching and there was still no sign of John or the slightest hint of a band forming. It was going to be a disaster – if it happened at all.

More time passed and then, at lunchtime, on the day of the gig, I was approached by a stranger as I was leaving Keble college. “Are you Phil?”, he asked. He was a friend of John’s and he was looking for the bass player for the Jazz and Poetry evening. The gig, it seemed, was still on. There was no band, no suggested material, not even any sheet music (which I wouldn’t have been able to read anyway), but the gig was on.

I can be very cool in a crisis. It’s easy to make decisions when you have no choice. But this was utterly terrifying. In trepidation we loaded my gear into the stranger’s car and took it west through the centre of Oxford, up to Harcourt Hill and into the grounds of Westminster College. A rehearsal room was available and I started to set up there. The stranger with the transport told me he was going to grab a guitarist out of the university’s Big Band, which would be rehearsing elsewhere, and left me alone in the room.

As I was plugging in another lost soul came in carrying a saxophone case. “Jazz band?”, he asked. “That’s right”, I replied glumly. He unpacked his sax and we looked at each other blankly. For a moment I was staring into the eyes of a condemned man. Then he pulled himself together and asked if I knew any suitable pieces – something simple, something we could learn in half an hour. Not knowing any jazz I was unable to help.

Mr. Saxophone suggested something and played the tune for me; I asked what key it was in; he told me the chord sequence; I invented an utterly uninspiring bass part and tried to commit it all to memory. That was one piece for the show. We’d need more. And so we repeated the process.

After a while a guitarist turned up. He wasn’t exactly pleased to have been hoiked out of the Big Band rehearsal but he, too, gritted his teeth and joined us in putting together a set. Mr. Transport informed us that there would be a pianist along later and disappeared again. The three of us muddled through some more material. By early evening we had four or five tunes we could get through without too many mistakes. “Don’t worry about wrong notes”, someone said, “if you play it with enough conviction no-one will notice – it is jazz, after all”. That was a mildly comforting thought. The pianist, however, never did turn up.

We took a break for a bite to eat and moved our gear onto the floor of the performance room (there was no stage as such).  A tall, bearded man was there. He pushed an upright piano to the edge of the stage area, sat down and played a few bars of jazz/cabaret music. Apparently, this was our pianist. It was too late for any more practicing so we just waited nervously backstage for the entertainment to begin.

After about an hour of poetry recitals (which, unfortunately, we couldn’t hear) it was our turn. The first tune went OK. We started and finished together, in the same key and with no glaring mistakes. The audience seemed satisfied if not over excited. The next piece wasn’t too bad, either. By the third tune I was struggling to remember the notes and you’d have thought the bass had been turned down at the mixing desk – if we had such a thing.

At this point Mr. Piano leant across to Mr. Guitar. They were the far side of the stage and I didn’t hear the conversation but they seemed to have agreed on something. Then the pianist launched into a piece we hadn’t prepared. The guitarist joined in confidently. Mr. Bass listened hard for a few bars, fumbled for a root note and followed along as best he could. A sax break came in hesitantly at first and then with more gusto. This was improvisation at the scary edge of chaos and humiliation.

And here my memory fails me. I think we played another pianist-led piece or two – material that must have been familiar to the man at the ivory keys and sufficiently mainstream for other jazz musicians to blow along with but well outside my own comfort zone. It was one of the most nerve wracking experiences I have ever had. Perhaps my memories were erased by the trauma.

After the jazz filling in the poetry sandwich the band members gathered and took stock. I thought we, probably, just about got away with it. The others, though, were much more positive. They thought it went really well. There were even suggestions we should keep the band going, but that just wasn’t practical. One of the band was leaving Oxford in the summer to start a new job, another had finals coming up and had lots of revision to do. And Mr. Bass just didn’t have the confidence. Or the talent.

It was a great learning experience for me, though. It brought home to me that music is a common language for musicians of all genres, styles and cultures. There are thousands of spoken languages, each one unintelligible to speakers of another. In music, though, devotees of folk, rock, pop, jazz and classical understand each others styles and, at a pinch, can even participate in each other’s performances. There may be many dialects but there is just one shared language of music.

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New Music Blog

Yesterday I created a new music blog, Crotchety Man. From now on anything I have to say on the theme of music will go to the new blog rather than here.

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