It’s been a fairly uneventful 2019 for us on the whole. One more year on the life clock has, presumably, taken its toll but we don’t feel any older than we did 12 months ago so we are not complaining. Our cat, Persephone, is now on regular medication for thyroid and kidney problems but she, too, seems quite perky considering her age.
Mary continues to serve as a governor of Wymeswold Primary School and as a member of the Wymeswold Open Gardens Committee. Phil is still involved with the group hoping to set up a deli and coffee shop in the village, although that project is looking less and less likely to come to fruition as the months go by. We both attended a variety of Charnwood U3A and Trent 36 events during the year and we even managed to fit in a week’s holiday in Cornwall.
Two ‘interesting’ incidents deserve a special mention this time around: my Dad was in collision with a cyclist in March and we discovered a leaky water pipe in the kitchen in April. Fortunately, neither caused permanent damage but Dad’s accident was worrying for a few days and the aftermath of the leak took many frustrating months to sort out.
Fractured and Dazed
My mobile phone rang at about 8:40 pm on Friday, 1st March. It was from an unknown number so, as usual, I ignored it. 30 seconds later it rang again. Perhaps it wasn’t an automated voice telling me that my (non-existent) Amazon Prime subscription will be renewed from my bank account for £39.99, after all. This time I answered the call and a voice informed me that he was a police officer and my 89 year old father had been in collision with a cyclist in central London.
The thought that this was an innovative way to start a nuisance call crossed my mind. But it was a day when Dad spent the evening with the other members of his masonic lodge in London and it was highly unlikely that even the cleverest of spammers would know that. The policeman went on to assure me that Dad did not appear to be seriously injured but he had been unconscious for a while and was now in an ambulance. He then passed the phone to my father and we had a brief conversation.
Dad was clearly shaken up and had no recollection of what had happened to him. But he was perfectly lucid and we were able to share a joke about his misfortune. Somewhat relieved I ascertained that Dad would be taken to University College Hospital and began planning a trip to the capital. I just managed to catch a train from Loughborough and got to the hospital around 11:40 pm.
It didn’t take long to find the injured party and speak to the medical staff. Dad was a sorry sight. He had some severe bruising to his face and hands, a bump on his head and there was a little blood on his shirt and suit. But he was awake and alert and in surprisingly good spirits considering his situation. The doctor explained that he had a fractured finger and there had been a slight bleed on the brain. They would be keeping him in for observation but they were not planning any treatment beyond pain relief.
I had not had time to pack an overnight bag or to find somewhere to stay so it seemed best to head home, check on the patient in the morning and make further plans when we had more information. There were no more trains to anywhere near Wymeswold at that time of night but I was able to get as far as Dad’s place in Milton Keynes and Mary picked me up from there the following day.
By Sunday the word was that Dad was recovering reasonably well and would, probably, be released after the doctor had seen him again first thing on Monday morning. So I booked a room in the Kings Cross Travelodge and took the train to London once again. It took until about 4 pm on the Monday afternoon to get the official authorisation for his release whereupon we travelled back to Wymeswold together, stopping off at Milton Keynes for Dad to pick up some things for a few days with us.
I’m happy to say that Dad did eventually make a full recovery but, as I said in the introduction, his accident made for a few chaotic and worrying days.
The other notable incident this year was the tragicomic saga of the leak in the kitchen. (Yes, that’s ‘leak’, not ‘leek’, the vegetable that sometimes serves as an emblem of Wales.)
Sometime in early April we noticed a tiny puddle on the kitchen floor in front of the sink. Had we been a little over enthusiastic with the washing up? Or was there a bigger problem lurking somewhere? We couldn’t see any drips from any of the pipework that snaked through the under-sink cupboard and there was no water inside the cabinet so we assumed the puddle was nothing more than splashes.
A few days went by and the puddle reappeared. Again we ignored it. Then, one day we noticed that the kickboard was wet. In fact, it was soaked. Removing the kickboard revealed that the whole of the untiled concrete area under the sink was covered with water one tile deep. Something was definitely leaking but we still couldn’t see what.
We have an insurance policy that covers such things so we called out the plumber. He quickly identified a bad joint in the pipe from the dishwasher and fixed it for us. But he pointed out that the kitchen units in that corner and the plaster on the wall behind the sink were all sodden. He diagnosed a slow leak that had been there for a long time, probably for months and possibly since the dishwasher had been installed.
The dishwasher had been purchased from John Lewis and installed by their engineers so we thought it would be worth contacting them to see if they would be prepared to contribute to the cost of the repair work. And not long after reporting the problem to them we were delighted to receive an email admitting liability for the damage. The same email gave us two options: we could use repairers approved by John Lewis or we could provide two quotes from companies of our choosing.
We chose the simpler option. There couldn’t be any arguments if we used an approved repairer and, as John Lewis would be paying, the cost was immaterial. But the next email said that, unfortunately, they didn’t have any approved repairers in our area. So we searched for suitable companies and found just one near us. The company is called Rainbow and they specialise in disaster recovery, including floods. They have a professional website and plenty of appropriate experience so we asked them to give us a quote.
We sent the Rainbow quote to John Lewis and explained that we couldn’t find a suitable company for a second quote. There was no response to this for some time. To try to push things along we told John Lewis that we would go ahead with the Rainbow quotation unless they had any objection. Still we had no response. Rainbow appointed sub-contractors who removed the damaged kitchen units and installed an industrial drier. A week later they declared the kitchen fully dried out and sent round a plasterer to replaster the damaged wall ready for new kitchen units to be installed.
May had come and gone. Then, on 12th June, we received an email from John Lewis saying that our case was being transferred to the Leicester office as “they are best placed to assist you”. In the meantime we had arranged for Rainbow’s contractors to start the process of reinstating the kitchen to its former glory on Monday 24th June. The kitchen had been a mess for weeks and we were really looking forward to putting everything back out of sight in our replacement cabinets.
This was when fate bowled us a googly. Shortly before 5 pm on Friday, 21st June someone from John Lewis phoned us to say that they were reviewing our case and politely asked us to stop the repairs while the review was carried out. Reluctantly we cancelled the reinstallation appointments and waited for John Lewis to send round their loss adjuster.
Up to this point we had paid scant attention to the figures in the quotations and early invoices for the work done. If John Lewis didn’t care to challenge them, why should we? But it soon became apparent that it was going to be difficult for Rainbow to justify their charges. Not only was it hard to square up the descriptions of the work done with what had actually happened but Rainbow’s invoices didn’t match the invoices that their own subcontractors had supplied to them. And, in our opinion, the actual numbers were inflated beyond reason.
It was obviously going to take some time to establish how much John Lewis and their insurers were prepared to pay. In the meantime, Rainbow started chasing us for payment of their (unapproved) invoices. It didn’t help that our contacts at Rainbow and the loss adjusters took holidays at different times in the months of July and August, causing more delays. However, we managed to get interim payments agreed and head off vague threats of handing the case over to Rainbow’s debt recovery department.
Eventually, all parties agreed on the figures and we were able to book a kitchen fitter to fill the gaping hole under the sink with replacement kitchen units. He came at the end of August, measured up and subsequently delivered a unit that wasn’t as wide as the original. There had been an error of communication between ourselves and the fitter. Fortunately for our bank balance the fitter was happy to supply two units to fit the space and not charge for his time, but this caused yet another delay.
Our kitchen repairs were finally finished at the end of September roughly five months after we spotted the problem. About a week later we had the final payment from John Lewis and we could put this episode behind us at last. The moral of the story? I’ll leave you to make up your own mind about that.
A Week in Cornwall
The first week of August was forecast to be wet and windy across most of the UK, especially in the far south west. It was our fault; we had booked a holiday cottage just outside Redruth, Cornwall from 3rd to 10th of that month.
It had been a tiring journey down so we didn’t go far on the first morning, just 10 minutes drive, in fact, to Trevince Gardens. The rain held off and there was even some sunshine as we explored the gardens. When we returned to the café there was a bright yellow vintage Austin 7 in the car park, which brightened our spirits and put us in a holiday mood. At lunchtime the clouds evaporated, the temperature rose quickly and we ventured a few miles down the road to Falmouth. Even though it was Sunday, the town was uncomfortably crowded. It was the Falmouth Festival week and the whole of Cornwall seemed to be there. Striding up the steep shopping streets soon left us looking for a cool, shady spot to sit and take refreshments. This was unexpectedly good, old-fashioned English holiday weather.
Monday was forecast to be the sunniest and warmest day of the week so we made the most of it by driving down to St. Michael’s Mount, a place I had seen from the mainland but never visited before. The clouds were grey and there was a stiff breeze but the air was warm and the skies were bright. Quite by chance we got there just as the tide was uncovering the causeway and we could walk across to the island without getting our feet wet. The gods were being kind to us that day.
The rain poured down on Tuesday. We spent much of it visiting Sybil, Mary’s aunt (or some such relation), who lives not far from our holiday cottage. Towards evening, though, the skies cleared and we had a surprisingly good burger in a beach-side café as the sun sank low over Portreath bay.
We were expecting Wednesday to be bright and dry, a good time to see whether Trebah Garden lived up to its billing in the leaflet we found in the information pack at the cottage. In fact, it was an absolutely glorious day and the garden was spectacular. Trebah occupies a 26 acre sub-tropical valley on the edge of the Helford river estuary. It’s rated 4.9/5 in web reviews and fully deserves it. Mary and I wandered down the paths, ducked through the giant rhubarb tunnel, admired the hydrangea beds, paused for reflection by the fish ponds and, at the bottom, strolled out onto the garden’s private beach. There we savoured an ice cream while we mingled with the families playing on the sand and swimming in the sea. This is what holidays always used to be like when we were little.
The next few days were forecast to be stormy. As we headed for St. Ives, where there would be shops and art galleries to shelter in, we heard that the Boardmasters music festival scheduled for the coming weekend had been cancelled because of the weather. Most of the other holidaymakers seemed to have the same idea as us because we had to park on the far fringes of a grassy field high above the town and then squeeze through the crowds that thronged the narrow streets. It was quite an anticlimax after the previous day’s garden paradise. At least it wasn’t actually raining.
Following the same logic, on our last full day in Cornwall we headed for the town of Truro for shelter from the storm that was sure to come. We didn’t stay long. Truro was nothing like as quaint as we had imagined and, apart from the cathedral, it had nothing to offer us but chain stores and damp pavements. Checking the map on the phone we saw a National Trust property not far away and headed towards it.
Like Trebah Garden, Trelissick Gardens lies on a river estuary (just downstream of where the Truro and Fal rivers meet). But, where Trebah was full of flowers and exotic plants, Trelissick is mostly lawns and woodland paths. On arrival we were informed that the ferry had been suspended because of the strong winds. We couldn’t understand why we needed that information but, when we saw a signpost to the jetty, curiosity took us by the hand and we strolled down to the riverside.
Dark clouds hung overhead and a strong wind ruffled the surface of the water. It was like a scene from a fantasy film just before the decisive battle between the armies of good and evil. A strange fascination propelled us along the path that snaked down the hillside to the metal bridge and out to the pontoon which rose and fell with the waves. We could feel the storm coming.
The wind tugged at our coats as if telling us to leave this place before it was too late. So we retreated to the NT shop and then made our way back to our holiday home. The rain didn’t come. The storm simmered for the rest of the day and night but by morning it had passed over leaving a sullen grey blanket of cloud and a few raindrop tears. Our predicted week of awful weather had, in fact, been the typical English so-so mix – lots of cloud, a fair bit of wind and a day or two of glorious sunshine. I don’t think the cancellation of a music festival can be blamed on us.
See this album for photos.
I suppose the most exciting event in the Charnwood U3A calendar this year was their 21st birthday celebration on 12th June. It took the form of a programme of entertainment followed by afternoon tea. The Singing Group sang some songs, the Play Reading Group read extracts from The Wind in the Willows and the Music Group played some well-known pieces of music. Phil provided the rhythm guitar part for the music group; Mary took one or two photos. (I am lurking at the back hidden behind our conductor, arranger and band leader, Maggie Chaplin.) Thankfully, the show was not recorded.
Phil joined the U3A Photography group for the following photoshoot trips:
- Rufford Abbey
- Market Harborough (Animal, Vegetable, Mineral)
- Foxton Locks
- Nottingham Industrial Museum
There’s not much to say about the outings so I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. Links are to the relevant albums on Google Photos.
Mary also continued to philosophise with the U3A and Phil attended Mac User Group meetings. One of the Mac group members was involved in helping our U3A to adopt an online membership management system called Beacon and he asked me to give technical support, which led to my appointment as the third Beacon administrator for the Charnwood U3A. I won’t bore you with what that has entailed; suffice it to say that it has kept me fairly busy since August.
The Trent 36 group lost one member to cancer this year and we both attended her funeral in July. On a happier note, we organised another trip to the Ruddington Framework Knitters Museum, enjoyed a summer barbecue, watched a slide show on Colombia, joined the annual memorial walk on Eyam Moor, feasted with 22 other T36 members at the traditional Christmas meal and stuffed ourselves again at the mulled wine and mince pies evening.
The Wymeswold Open Gardens event took place, as usual, on the last weekend in June. The Saturday was a swelteringly hot day and Phil was glad to have been allocated a spot in the shade of the lychgate from where to sell programmes. Mary had the more demanding job of organising the teas, which were served in the school playground this year.
The picture above is of the life-size (taller than me) Scooby Doo that we borrowed from Mary’s daughter and installed in one of the gardens to add a bit of silliness to the occasion. For more photos see this album on Google Photos.
The Sunday following the Open Gardens there was a Farmers’ Market on the sports field on the edge of the village. The Deli group ran a Cookie Kiosk selling cookies, cakes, milkshakes and smoothies. Overall it was a good day but there were fewer people than we expected and we lost a small amount of money. You can read a little more about it here, on the deli group’s Mantle Place website.
Short Breaks and Day Trips
Humanists UK Convention
I’ve been a fully paid up member of Humanists UK (formerly the British Humanist Association) for nearly ten years now. This time around their annual convention was held in Leicester, practically on my doorstep, so I thought I’d go along and see what they get up to.
As most of you know I have an Oxford University degree. I have studied under some of the greatest minds this side of heaven and mingled with students who would, one day, take their place. I am rarely overawed by the brain power of even the most eminent of intellectuals. But, over the weekend of 21st – 23rd June this year, I found the intelligence and depth of insight of the convention delegates positively daunting. Not that that stopped me from enjoying the talks and panel sessions that were the meat of the event.
The convention started on the Friday evening with a series of immensely witty (and non-religious) stand-up comedians. Saturday was devoted to talks and presentations by writers, broadcasters, scientists and activists, culminating with Baroness Joan Bakewell in conversation with Andrew Copson, the CEO of Humanists UK. Every session was both informative and entertaining; Christina Patterson’s account of involuntary redundancy that lead her on a journey from debilitating depression to eventual recovery “without the crutch of religious faith” was particularly moving.
The Sunday programme included: several reports on the work of Humanists UK during the previous year; a fascinating talk in which David Sloan Wilson illustrated how evolution works at every level of society; and a comparison of Margaret Knight’s anti-faith school radio broadcasts in the 1950s with Humanists UK’s current campaign, given by our president, professor Alice Roberts. It was a particular privilege to hear Hamza bin Walayat tell us first hand about his flight from persecution in Pakistan for his humanist views, the rejection of his asylum application because he couldn’t identify Plato and Aristotle as humanists (they weren’t), and the eventual granting of his application in May after intervention and support from Humanists UK.
Birds of Prey Photoshoot
On 29th March my dad and I took our cameras for a photoshoot at the Birds of Prey Centre, Herrings Green Farm, Wilstead, just south of Bedford. Mary had booked the workshop as a birthday/Christmas present for us. As is usual for these things we were guided by a professional photographer and the centre provided handlers for the birds. The weather was perfect – warm and sunny – and we got some lovely shots. I have photos of at least 18 different species of birds on my computer. There’s a selection in this album on Google Photos.
Melbourne Arts Festival
The south Derbyshire village of Melbourne held its Arts Festival in September. It’s a large village and there was plenty going on; apart from the paintings and sculptures on display there was a vintage car rally, a number of food stalls and a variety of musical entertainment. Some of the gardens were well worth visiting, too.
Theatre and Concerts
This year we took in three concerts, one comedian and one play. We also purchased tickets for two concerts in 2020: Clannad‘s farewell concert at the Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham on 10th March and Elbow on 23rd April at De Montfort Hall, Leicester.
Alina Bzhezhinska Quartet
There aren’t many harpists in this world and those that play jazz are rarer than hen’s teeth. Alina Bzhezhinska is the only example of that critically endangered species that I know and when she brought her quartet to Nottingham on 7th February I grabbed myself a ticket faster than you can say Bzhezhinska. Well, actually, it took ages to navigate the Gedling Council website, for which I awarded them the coveted accolade of “worst online purchasing experience … ever”. The concert, however, was thoroughly enjoyable. If you like the sound of the harp and appreciate the jazz musical style I wholeheartedly recommend this band.
(You might like to try this link to their album, Inspiration, for example.)
Ten days later we visited the Attenborough Arts Centre on the Leicester University campus for the first time to see Poppy Ackroyd. The intimate venue promised to suit Poppy’s laid-back keyboards, electronics and violin pieces perfectly.
There was a support act called Lion/S (IIRC), which turned out to be a young woman who improvised over recorded sounds on her electric violin. For one piece she distributed a large number of plastic handbells throughout the audience and invited us all to contribute to the experiment. It was all very arty but, for me, it didn’t really work.
Poppy Ackroyd was not introduced. She just appeared from a door at the back of the stage, which might have been the fire escape, and announced that she wouldn’t be doing the whole entrance and encore thing, just playing some pieces from her recent albums. It was a very downbeat and slightly disappointing opening gambit.
Poppy then sat at the piano, kicked her electronic gizmos into life and played for us accompanied by ambient videos projected onto the large screen behind her. It was a faithful performance of her recorded material but it never quite sparked into life, either for Poppy or her audience as far as I could tell. As a concert it was somewhat disappointing but Poppy Ackroyd’s recordings continue to please when I have a spare hour or two for relaxation.
Our “famous band” concert this year was Fairport Convention’s appearance at Lowdham Village Hall a few miles east of Nottingham in May. They have a long-standing connection with this small venue, which is always sold out and only just manages to cope with the large numbers of visitors. There didn’t seem to be any particular seating arrangements and we were surprised to be ushered to the right-hand end of the very front row. Did we look like the band’s biggest fans, we wondered, or was this just a happy coincidence?
The performance itself was predictably good rather than particularly inspired. One or two of the old favourites would have benefitted from the late Sandy Denny’s delicate vocals but we could hardly expect the band to resurrect her for our benefit. For me, it was enough to have ticked off one more entry on the list of bands you must see before you die.
At the end of May we went to see that cheerful hobbit and stand-up comic, Andy Hamilton, who you will, no doubt, know from TV panel shows. He came to Loughborough Town Hall where he entertained a packed house with his amusing slant on some of life’s important and not-so-important events. I have no idea what he talked about as I write this but I do know it was an evening well spent.
An Enemy of the People
The only other theatre trip this year was to the Nottingham Playhouse to see An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen. The play starred Alex Kingston, who played River Song in Doctor Who and has appeared in a fairly long list of TV shows and films.
The play is set in a small Norwegian spa town whose fading fortunes have been revived by a recent influx of visitors coming to take its supposedly health-giving waters. Alex Kingston plays Dr. Stockman who discovers that the spa waters are, in fact, contaminated by potentially pathogenic bacteria. The doctor writes an article for the local newspaper warning that it is not safe to drink the spa waters but the authorities and those with a vested interest in the spa oppose her, playing down the danger to health and emphasising the damaging economic effects the story would cause.
As the play progresses the issue first divides the community and then leaves Dr. Stockman increasingly isolated. The audience is left wondering whether we are about to witness a glorious David versus Goliath battle in which one apparently insignificant whistleblower defeats the combined might of the establishment, or the crushing of dissent under the metaphorical jackboot of political power and business interests.
Overall I found the play less than convincing but the production did have a memorable climax in which Dr. Stockman addresses a large crowd at an outdoor public meeting. She is heckled mercilessly as the rain pours down from a sprinkler system suspended above the stage. By the end of that scene all the actors were completely soaked and I have no idea how they managed to collect all that water and avoid flooding the theatre.
And, Finally …
… a few loose ends, some left over from 2018.
This time last year the remnants of the Loose Ends band, Mark (drums) and myself (bass), had arranged to visit Mike, a keyboard player that the Loose Ends guitarist, Peter, had introduced to us. But before that could happen Mark decided he couldn’t really find the time to continue playing with us and we formally declared an end to our involvement in the Abbey Road Army project. Since then my bass guitar has remained forlornly in its case and our Youtube video of Whiskey in the Jar serves as the only memorial to that magical musical adventure of yesteryear.
In February the hard drive of our iMac computer failed. The machine was some six years old and we decided it was time for a newer model so we gave the old one a new hard disk, loaned it to Mary’s grandson and invested in a replacement.
Amelia Mk I (our computers have always had names) was a high end model because I was using it for work and a software engineer’s tools are very demanding. For the new one we bought a standard model, which we believed would be plenty powerful enough and there was one in stock in the Leicester Apple shop. In practice, the new machine was frustratingly slow so we returned it to the shop and ordered one with more memory and a faster hard disk. This one we christened Amelia Mk II and she is a joy to use, although a bit on the expensive side as these things go. Much better than anything running that nasty Microsoft operating system, though.
On 19th April I became captivated by the MetaFly project on Kickstarter and pledged a contribution. Many other people around the world must have been equally fascinated because the target of €30,000 was soon raised and pledges continued to stream in. In the end they raised nearly €600,000, almost 20 times what they were asking for. The finished MetaFly was originally due to be shipped from the manufacturing plant in China in September but, after a few minor technical and administrative problems, shipments didn’t actually start until mid-December. Mine arrived on the 30th of that month.
Assembling the remote controlled mechanical insect was more fiddly than I had imagined but, with the help of the instruction book and assembly videos, I had it built and flying in about 90 minutes. The only problem now is where to fly it. I need a large space to practice in and our house is too small for that. But I don’t have the confidence to take it to an open space where my untutored efforts will be on show to the public. So, if you have something like an empty warehouse that I could use, I’d be most grateful. In return, I’ll give you exclusive rights to coverage of the first MetaFly aeronautics show in the UK, which I’ll be organising when I’ve become the undisputed MetaFlying ace of the whole of the Leicestershire wolds.
It’s just one of those toys for the boys, of course, but I love it. It’s easily the best Christmas present I’ve had this year.
And with that I’ll leave you with my very best wishes for the New Year. May it bring you the comfort and joy that good boys and girls deserve … even if you haven’t been good this year.