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 wymeswold.com 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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Retrospective 2014

It’s been a year of change. Mary stopped working for City of York Council, I retired and we nearly moved to the Leicestershire wolds. It feels as though we spent more time sorting out our possessions and getting rid of decades of accumulated junk than anything else. And thereby hangs a tale…

First Quarter Clear Out

The year began with decluttering. Our third bedroom in York had only ever been used for storage – we called it the Junk Room – and we started with a blitz on its contents. I sold my Quad 33/405 hi-fi amplifier on eBay, my vinyl LPs fetched a good price at a local music shop and the electric guitars I never played went to a local online music trader. That left me with a big bass cabinet to get rid of.

big bass cabinet - large

I advertised it on Gumtree (a sort of local eBay) hoping to find a buyer who would collect it. After a week or so with no response I contacted a couple of music studios and student music societies in York. Those lines of enquiry also drew a blank. Then, as the Gumtree ads were about to expire, someone with a Polish-sounding name expressed an interest and asked if I was going to ship it. After a few emails we established that the buyer, Juliusz, knew a courier that could collect it from Nottingham and we took it with us next time we were visiting Mary’s folks.

We had agreed to hand over the cabinet between 4 and 5 pm. When no courier had arrived by 5:30 pm I called the first of two mobile numbers Juliusz had given me in case there was a problem. The call went through and I asked the man on the line if he was coming to collect a bass speaker cabinet from Nottingham. The reply was “No English. Moment…”. Then another voice came on and I tried again to explain that I was expecting a courier to collect a bass speaker cabinet. But a combination of heavy accent, broken English and poor quality connection defeated our best efforts at communication.

Changing tack, I called the other number Juliusz had given me. This time, over a lot of traffic noise, I managed to get across that I was waiting for a collection from Nottingham only to be told that they were driving round North London on another job and I needed to call their other number. With a sinking heart I once more looked up the first number I’d been given. As I was about to hit the ‘call’ button my phone rang. It startled me but, almost by reflex, I hit the ‘answer’ button and said, “Hello”.

A voice asked if I wanted something to be collected from Nottingham. There was still a foreign accent, rather poor reception and a fair bit of background noise but his English was good. Soon I had established that this guy hadn’t been asked to collect from Nottingham but he was willing to organise a pick-up and asked me to text him the address (as he was driving). So I terminated the voice call and sent him a text. Then I noticed that he wasn’t using either of the contact numbers that Juliusz had given me. “Who was that guy?”, I wondered.

Telling myself the courier must be genuine, we set off for the two hour drive back to York. Almost as soon as we got home my phone rang. It was the courier saying he couldn’t get an answer from the address I’d given him and could I, please, come outside so that he could collect the goods. Carefully, I explained that the speaker cabinet was in Nottingham and we were in York, but we had left the cabinet on the drive for collection. On hearing this he immediately confirmed that there was, indeed, a big bass speaker on the drive and that he would pick it up for us.

A few days later I received an anxious email from Juliusz asking if the cabinet had been collected OK. I told him the story and invited him to let me know if and when it arrived. The following day another email from Juliusz announced that he had received the cabinet safely in Poland – someone had packed it in a box for shipping. And that, dear reader, is where this little story ends – all’s well that ends well, as they say.

Preparing the House of Sale

There were a few little things to sort out before we could put the house on the market. Several tradesmen passed through: a bit of painting here, a small repair there. Mary got stuck into the Spring cleaning. We replaced the hall carpet with vinyl, changed the door handles and had the conservatory professionally cleaned. One day I came home from work to be told that the man who was cleaning the fascias had fallen off the roof onto the patio! He was quite shaken and badly bruised but, luckily, he was not seriously injured.

While this was going on we were keeping an eye on properties for sale somewhere between Nottingham and Leicester. We had a budget of £250,000 or so and wanted an energy-efficient house big enough for the two of us and, some day perhaps, an elderly relative. At the end of February, while browsing the Web, Mary spotted a new housing development on the edge of Sileby, a few miles north of Leicester. It was the Miller Homes’ Brookfields site where a few houses had been built, a few more were under construction and further phases were planned.

We were immediately attracted by the plots overlooking the Public Open Space. Unfortunately, the ones that had been released were either sold or unaffordable but there were a few unreleased plots just 50 yards along the road, including one that seemed to fit our requirements perfectly. The next time Mary was in Ruddington she went to look at the site and she wasn’t disappointed. Further enquiries established that the plot we had in mind was due to be released in July and was expected to be ready for occupation around the end of the year. Once it had been released we would be able to reserve it provided our present house was sold subject to contract.

To complete our preparations a new lounge and stairs carpet was fitted at the end of April and the house went on the market on Wednesday, 7th May. Over the next eight weeks we had sixteen viewings. Several prospective buyers seemed very interested but they were waiting for an offer on their own house before they would be in a position to make an offer for ours.

Boundary Fence

At the end of our back garden there’s a fence. A few feet beyond the fence there’s a slight dip where some sort of ditch or gully used to be. Between the fence and the dip there’s a splendid old oak tree, a few small young trees and some scrub. Before the houses were built it must have been the boundary between two fields. When we bought this house we assumed that our land ended at the fence but, subsequently, the neighbours told us that the gully actually formed the boundary – the oak and the scrub were on our land.

It was nice to have that extra sliver of land and we were delighted that the oak tree was, apparently, ours but we felt the uncertain position of the boundary might be a complication when it came to selling the house. Thinking that we should clarify the situation we asked our solicitor how we might go about it and then contacted the neighbours at the back. They turned out to be a really nice young couple with two small boys.

We suggested that we define the boundary at the fence, effectively giving them the awkward strip of land. They were really pleased. The boys like to play in the wild area and the woman works as an agriculturist – she loves trees and was very happy to become responsible for the health of the oak tree. In fact, they were so pleased that they offered to pay the £250 or so we were expecting it to cost.

First Offers

Two days after the house went on the market a Mr. G. came for a viewing. He almost sprinted round the house – in about 3 minutes he had come and gone. He obviously wasn’t interested in living here. Then, two days later, a really nice couple came to see the house with their grown-up daughter. They were very enthusiastic about the property. I’m sure they would have made us a sensible offer if they could but they were waiting to sell their own house. Our sale was underway in earnest.

The following day we were surprised to hear that Mr. G. had made us an offer. But it was an unacceptably low offer. Well, we didn’t like him anyway! Over the next eight weeks we had lots of viewings. Most of the potential buyers seemed to quite like the house but none liked it enough to want to buy it.

I visited the Sileby development for the first time during this period and we both popped in again a few weeks later to check some details. On this last visit the sales lady had some news for us. Miller homes had decided to re-schedule the building work and the plot we wanted wouldn’t be started until next year. That didn’t fit with our plans at all. It was very disappointing.

We consoled ourselves by renewing our online searches for houses to buy. There was an attractive house in Wymeswold – about 6 years old, 4 bedrooms and a study, and in an ideal location. It was only a semi and the asking price was a bit more than we wanted to pay but they were having an open day when we were in the area so we dropped in. And we liked it.

Then, at the end of June Mr. & Mrs. V. came along. They didn’t seem to like our Lea Way house much. When we showed them the back garden Mrs. V. remarked that she would like to remove the oak tree. We didn’t say anything at the time but we hastened to put the new boundary agreement in place to protect our beloved tree.

To our surprise Mr. & Mrs. V.  came for a second viewing the following week and then made us a reasonable offer. Of all the people who had come to see the house Mr. & Mrs. V. were the ones we least wanted to buy it. However, checking the Web we saw that the Wymeswold property had been reduced in price so, reluctantly, we accepted their offer and made our own offer for the Wymeswold house.

Making and Breaking the Chain

House buying chains build from the bottom up – a buyer with no property to sell at the bottom, a seller with nothing to buy at the top. Not long after we made our offer in early July Mr. & Mrs. M, the owners of the Wymeswold house, found a house they wanted to buy. The seller wasn’t buying another house, so the chain was complete and, all being well, we could be moving in 8 to 12 weeks.

The following day I told my boss at work that we were expecting to be moving and that I would be handing in my notice when we had firm dates. Just a few hours later I heard that someone further down the chain had dropped out. Mr. & Mrs. V. were no longer in a position to proceed with the purchase of our house and Lea Way was immediately back on the market. And, of course, we were no longer in a position to buy the Wymeswold house. It was a very disappointing setback.

For another month or so there was a slow stream of viewings. Finally, a lovely couple, Mr. & Mrs. C., came round, liked the house and made us an offer. The new offer was a little higher than the last and the Wymeswold house was still available. We were back in business! Now all we had to do was to wait for the solicitors up and down the chain to do the various searches and hope that nothing untoward came up.

A Short Delay

Time passed. Eventually, our solicitor completed her searches and we signed the papers so that we could exchange contracts as soon as everyone else was ready. Then we heard that Mr. & Mrs. M. had decided to buy a different house. Their estate agent assured us that this was unlikely to delay the process because their new seller wasn’t buying another property – the chain was still complete. We took the ‘no delay’ comment with a pinch of salt, but we were grateful that the chain remained intact.

And so, once again, we waited. By the middle of September it looked as though we would be ready to move in late October. I handed in my notice at work; I would leave Isotek at the end of October, taking the last two weeks as holiday. The house move was still progressing when we held my leaving do at Gusto’s Italian restaurant on the 17th October.

The next two weeks were spent packing things we weren’t going to need until after the move. By the end of October we were anxious to get a completion date so that we could book a removals company. Our solicitor told us that a completion date of 24th November had been suggested, although it wasn’t clear whether that had been agreed across the chain. Nevertheless, we went ahead and booked the removals, taking out the cancellation insurance just in case.

Another Delay

It was then that our solicitor took two weeks off because of a family bereavement. When she returned to work on the morning of the 18th November she phoned us to say that she would be exchanging contracts that same day. When the phone rang mid afternoon it wasn’t the solicitor, it was Mrs. C., our buyer, calling to tell us that the exchange of contracts wasn’t going to happen. Apparently, the seller at the bottom of the chain had a new buyer and we were all going to have to wait, again, for the searches, etc. to be done.

Mrs. C. sounded very upset but it could have been worse. The buyer at the bottom had dropped out but this news wasn’t passed up the chain for several days. In the meantime another buyer had been found, preserving the chain. But, of course, it meant another delay. There was now no realistic prospect of moving until the new year.

We cancelled the removals, thankful that we had paid for the cancellation insurance, and called a halt to the packing. Now we had time to do our Christmas shopping and we took full advantage of it.

Back to Square One

A month later, on the 15th December, our estate agents called to say that the new buyer at the bottom had also dropped out. It seems that the survey on the property they were buying had identified ‘movement’ and they were not prepared to proceed until the problem had been sorted out. This was devastating news. With no-one able to proceed all the properties in the chain had to go back on the market.

For six days we fretted. I published my retrospective finishing this section with the following gloomy comment:

As Christmas approaches that’s where things stand. Anyone want to buy a 3 bedroom detached house with a study in a quiet suburb of the desirable city of York? It would make a terrific Christmas present for someone… especially for us!

Then, on Sunday, 21st December, Mrs. C. phoned to thank us for our Christmas card and for delivering a card for them that had come here. She mentioned that their house sale was progressing. I was eager to hear more. Mrs. C. then told us that they had had three viewings that week and two offers, one of which they had accepted! Needless to say, we were ecstatic. We couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas present.

Our estate agents phoned the following day to confirm that all the properties in the chain were still available and that we can now expect to move sometime in February. We’re keeping our fingers firmly crossed.

And In Other News…

Music Acquisitions

Between February and April I added one album a month to my music collection and September saw another:

I’d heard Half Moon Run’s Full Circle earlier in the year and stumbled on a video for Call Me In The Afternoon in late February. Both songs stand head and shoulders over run-of-the-mill indie tracks and the video’s nice, too, so I dug out the credit card and bought the album. It’s become one of my favourites; highly recommended.

Elbow has been one of my favourite bands for some time and The Take Off and Landing of Everything is another excellent release. Elbow’s music defies categorisation; that’s one of the things I like about it. And yet they have still managed to become one of the biggest bands of the last few years. For anyone who hasn’t discovered Elbow yet I suggest you listen to Fly Boy Blue/Lunette from “Take Off…“; you’ll love it, I promise!

Foster the People’s Supermodel was a Spotify recommendation. They’re a good indie/rock band – nice melodies and a strong beat. According to Spotify they’ve been nominated for several awards, including the BRITs and the Grammys. Certainly worth a few minutes of your time if you like that sort of thing.

Alt-J is another band that can only be described as ‘alternative’; they have their own unique sound. This is All Yours was never going to be as attention grabbing as their first album, An Awesome Wave, but it mixes their extensive repertoire of instruments, voices, textures and tunes in interesting ways once again. A top notch addition to my collection.

Bird Watching

My birthday presents this year included a session with professional wildlife photographer Steve Race at the RSPB nature reserve at Bempton Cliffs on the east coast between Filey and Bridlington. It’s a haven for seabirds including puffins, razorbills, kittiwakes and gannets. I needed a longer lens really but I did get some nice pictures of gannets soaring on the wind at the top of the cliff.

There are more photos here.

Another Milestone for Mary

For Mary’s 60th birthday we went to the Blue Bicycle restaurant in York. It has an excellent reputation and we’d been meaning to go for most of the 16+ years we’d been living here. It does have a lovely atmosphere, the service was good and the food was very appetising. We felt the meals had too many ingredients, though – too many tastes competing with each other. It wasn’t cheap, either, but it was a very enjoyable evening.

In the summer Mary resigned as an adult education tutor with City of York Council. Her last class was in late July and her employment officially ended in August. It took several more weeks to hand over to her colleagues and tie up all the loose ends. During the years Mary had been working for CYC there had been a number of organisational changes – not for the better as far as she was concerned. So it was with a sense of relief that Mary was, finally, able to put all that behind her.

Azaleas and Sculptures

At the end of May we took our annual trip to the Himalayan Gardens near Ripon. Here are a few photos. There are more here.

OU Memorial Garden

Mary responded to an Open University appeal for legacies and they invited her to visit their memorial garden on the OU campus in Milton Keynes. It was a sizzling June day. The photos here show the Tree of Life ceramic plaque, brass plates commemorating OU students, general shots of the garden and details from a wooden sculpture nearby.

The inscription under the Tree of Life reads:

A society grows great when we plant trees in whose shade we shall never sit.

A Visit from the Old Man

My dad came up to stay with us for a couple of days in August and we took him to Newby Hall to see the gardens and the sculpture trail. The gardens were at their very best and there were some impressive sculptures, too. The pony in these photos, for example, is made of bronze but you’d have sworn it was driftwood unless you tapped it and heard the hollow ring of cast metal.

The Yorkshire Arboretum

There was no Wild About Wood festival at the Yorkshire Arboretum this year – it was replaced with several smaller, family-friendly events, which we avoided. We did visit the arboretum, though, from time to time throughout the year to relax and commune with Nature. I took far too many photos to include here but there are a couple of albums on my flickr site: August, October.

A Day in York

One bright, warm day in September we were in York doing some shopping. As we were having lunch in Harlequin’s coffee house I spotted a photo opportunity. The cafe is usually packed with locals enjoying the excellent light meals but, on this occasion, it was quiet and none of the customers was likely to notice a surreptitious shot with the iPhone. Bright sunlight was streaming in through the window but the phone’s camera did a pretty good job of capturing the scene.

After lunch we came across an advertising stunt. Outside the south entrance of the Minster a vintage car decked in white ribbons and flowers drew up. Actors playing the part of the happy couple got out of the car, chatted with the onlookers and handed out leaflets promoting a wedding fair. It was pure commercialism, of course, but it made for a pleasant interlude and one more memory to take with us when we move.

Burnby Hall Gardens

For my last visit this year with the SLR camera we went to Burnby Hall Gardens. It was a warm, bright autumn day and I got some really nice photos. Here are a few:

As usual, there are more photos on my flickr site here.


… it just remains for me to wish all my online friends a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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Retrospective 2013

It has been a busy and sombre year for me. From February to September I was studying hard for the Open University module, “TU100 – My Digital Life“, and in October we were on overtime at work. Things were particularly difficult in July when my mum became seriously ill and, sadly, she died peacefully in hospital. Mary and I had little time to do things together (no holiday this year), but we managed to fit in our usual trips to local places and once in a while a little further afield.

Here are a few words and lots of photos from the occasions we did manage to enjoy.


In an effort to clear the Christmas cobwebs from our heads we went on the New Year’s Day welly walk at the Yorkshire Arboretum. It was a bright, but cold day, as you can see from the fractured ice on the ground. The photos are some of the first I took with my new iPhone.


For Rachel’s 40th birthday Mary’s side of the family went out for a chinese meal. This is what we look like when we’re having fun …

The Open University module I’d signed up for at the end of 2012 started on 2nd February. “TU100 – My Digital Life” promised a journey through the history of information technology and on to the next 25 years, examining both the technology and its implications for society. I’d flicked through the printed course material, installed the course-specific software and checked that the intelligent sensor board (based on an Arduino processor) was working. Now I had to get my brain in gear and get down to some serious work. Scary!


While I got stuck into my studies Mary went to Florence with her sister and daughter. She got some really good pictures. Here are a few particularly nice ones.

We took the opportunity to see an Eco Home just a few streets away from us in York. It’s an ordinary 1930s semi that the Joseph Rowntree Trust upgraded to SuperHome status by insulating the floor, walls and roof, fitting triple glazing and installing a ventilation and heat recovery system. It cost £80,000 pounds to do all that. To be fair it was partly an academic exercise to see what was possible and some of the cost went in sensors to monitor the house and rework when the original ideas turned out to be less effective than hoped. I guess the moral of the story is, yes, pretty much any house can be made energy efficient, but that doesn’t mean it’s cheap.


This month deliberately left blank. 😉


Dunnington is a large village just a few miles from York and this year we went to see it’s scarecrow festival. Here are some photos of the scarecrows. And a stone cat on a gate post.

A couple of days after Mary’s birthday we celebrated the Golden Age of Crime at the mediaeval Bedern Hall. The amateur dramatics group, Ars Ludendi, presented their production of six short stories from crime writers of the ’30s and ’40s: G. K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, Gladys Mitchell, Baroness Orczy, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers. An excellent three-course supper was served in the interval and at the end of the evening we felt we had been thoroughly entertained.

We picked another lovely day to visit the Himalayan Gardens at Grewelthorpe, near Ripon. This year there was a new pavilion under construction and a lodge in the trees. Words can’t do it justice. Here are a few photos. There are lots more over on my flickr site.


Nothing but OU entries in my diary for June and no photos in the electronic albums. Must have been another blank month.


There was a particularly high standard at the Huntington scarecrow festival this year and far too many to see them all.

Early in July Dad called to say that Mum had been taken into hospital again. Tests showed she had an infection that the doctors thought would be treatable. She was up and down for about two weeks but in the end she couldn’t fight off the bug and she died on 23rd.

One roasting hot day Mary and I drove up to Middlesbrough to visit our friends Hugo and Joan. They put on a barbecue for us and we sat in the garden eating, drinking and chatting all afternoon. I can think of no better way to enjoy a sunny day.

The weekend after Mum died we took a stress-relieving stroll around the Yorkshire Arboretum but it seemed a peculiarly sombre place. These pictures show a poppy,  Mary sitting on a tree stump and the steps down to the Rootery.


On the first weekend in August Mary, Rachel and Alex went down to Watford to see the Harry Potter set. They all seemed to have enjoyed it, but I think Mary was the most impressed.

Mum’s funeral was held on 7th August at the Milton Keynes Crownhill Crematorium. It was, of course, a sad occasion, but the weather was sunny and warm, the crematorium building and grounds were very pleasant and the funeral directors provided a first class service. I think we all felt it was a fitting send-off.

Mary, Rachel and Alex went to Cornwall for a few days in the middle of August. They got to Lands End just as a John O’Groats to Lands End charity bike ride was celebrating the successful conclusion of their trip. Here are some pictures showing Land’s End, the Eden Project and Charlestown.

The maize was high at the York Maze this year. They had all the usual attractions, too: crazy golf, a wildflower meadow, optical illusions, pig racing, alligators in the ponds (no, not real ones) and lots more for the kids.

Over the Bank Holiday weekend the daughter of my cousin, Greg, competed in the Gibraltar Triathlon. Not only that, she won the senior female category as you can see in this article from the Gibraltar Chronicle (look for ‘Coady, Louise’).


I submitted the last assignment for my Open University course a few days before the deadline of 12 September. Over the previous eight months I’d broadened my knowledge of information technology and brushed up my study skills. I learnt about ubiquitous computing (everywhere, everyware, everywear), produced a video clip, considered whether social media is a good thing and dipped my toe into virtual worlds. (There’s a character in Second Life somewhere that’s me.) I’d played with sensors for light, temperature and movement, written a few simple programs, collaborated with other students via bulletin boards and email, attended online tutorials and searched both academic databases and the Web as a whole. Finally, after five Tutor-Marked Assignments, seven Computer-Marked Assignments and the End of Module Assignment itself the work was done and I could reclaim that 16 hours a week of my free time. It was great, but it was hard work, too.

We met up with Mary’s friend Jane and her husband at this year’s Wild About Wood event. There were some lumberjacks from Wales as wells as the usual crafts, folk music, birds of prey, horse logging and coracle paddling. And I met the woodland fairy, too.

Making the most of a fine sunny day we drove over to Harewood House and took a stroll round the Gardens. It felt like summer (and the butterflies seemed to agree), but the blackberries were ripening and the pumpkins were big and plump. What’s up with the weather these days?

Then, at the end of September, we spent a couple of days in London visiting the Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum, Madame Tussauds and Kew Gardens.

The Pompeii exhibition was impressive, giving a vivid picture of what it was like in Pompeii and Herculaneum before, during and after the eruption of Vesuvius. No photos were allowed in the exhibition, but I did get a couple of nice shots in the atrium of the British Museum taken with the iPhone. The phone didn’t do as good a job in Madame Tussauds but you’ll recognise a few famous faces here …

I’m sure I don’t need to describe Kew Gardens to you. I’ll just show a few photos of the tree-top walkway, the Sackler bridge, the aquaria under the tropical house, an enormous tea table set with cups, saucers, plates and decorative pots, and (of course) the trees and flowers.


Having made the most of our free time in September it was back to the grindstone for me, working overtime throughout October for a demonstration of a new piece of welding equipment to our customers. Fortunately, we just managed to get everything working in time and the demonstration went rather well.

At the end of the month my TU100 results came out and I was delighted to see I’d got a distinction. All those hours studying had been well worthwhile. 🙂


We visited my dad on his birthday and we all went to Bletchley Park. None of us had been before and we were not sure quite what to expect.

It was a cold, bright November day and we arrived just in time to catch a guided tour around the mansion, it’s outbuildings and the huts famous for the British war-time code breaking activities. Among other things we learned that you would be recruited to work at Bletchley Park if you could do the Telegraph crossword in 12 minutes, irrespective of your status or qualifications. (We comprehensively failed that test.)

After the guided tour we had some lunch in the café in Hut 4 and then started to wander round some of the other huts. There was an amazing collection of Winston Churchill memorabilia in one building (now relocated) and lots of information about incidents in the war connected with Bletchley Park. There was far too much to see in one day. We did, however, see the reconstructed Bombe that was used to crack the Enigma code – an operation that is believed to have shortened the war by at least two years.

The iPhone photos show the lake (morning and evening) and the mansion.


York’s Festival of Angels was held again in the middle of December. The ice sculptures were melting quite quickly in the mild weather. They’re really difficult to photograph, partly because they are almost transparent and reflective, and partly because of the crowds. Still, here are a few pictures showing the ice bar (pour Bailey’s in at the top, catch it ice-cold in a glass at the bottom), ice sculptures, a big pan of curry to take away, carol singers, a latin music brass band and our bus driver on the Park & Ride going home.

I have to believe in Santa Claus now!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all.

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We’re all connected now

I had a text today. It said simply:

Just letting you know I have a new mobile number +44 xxxx xxxxx.

Kevin Jones

Well, it was nice of him to tell me that, but I don’t know anyone called Kevin Jones. After a moment’s consideration I texted back:

Thanks, but who are you?! 🙂

And a few minutes later came the reply:

Your long lost brother in-law back from the war!!!

So I still don’t know who Kevin is, but I do like his sense of humour!

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Retrospective 2012


Looking forward to my 60th birthday at the end of the month I spent some time browsing Internet sites for music I might like and came across a blogger called Xandi. He (I’m guessing it’s a ‘he’) publishes links to music videos of a wide range of genres from all round the world and I enjoyed exploring this uncharted world of music. One artist with an unpronounceable name cropped up a couple times and one track in particular grabbed my attention. In fact, I bought a CD on the strength of what I’d seen and heard. I didn’t regret my purchase and felt as though I’d discovered a star of the future.

For our first taste of something new this year I dragged Mary onto the York wheel. I won’t deny it was a little scary, but we enjoyed it nevertheless.


Reluctantly, I had to stop following the Xandi blog because I couldn’t keep up with his postings. However, I Googled for the artist I’d discovered a few weeks before and was astonished to discover that the track that prompted me to buy the album was number one in the UK singles chart that very week! So it seems I wasn’t the first to discover Gotye and his track, “Somebody That I Used To Know”, after all.

In late October last year we ordered a new bathroom: shower/bath, toilet, vanity unity and tiled floor & walls. The company couldn’t install it until the very end of January/beginning of February, when it was absolutely freezing outside. At times the central heating had to be off and the front door was more often open than closed as they took the old stuff away and brought new things in. I gave up trying to work at home on the Thursday; it was just too cold. They did a good job, though. The bathroom seems much bigger, lighter and more appealing now.


As part of my birthday present Mary booked me on a photography workshop with the opportunity to shoot from the roof of the Mansion House in the centre of York. Squeezing past each other on the narrow ledge we got some lovely pictures of the minster as the light faded and then walked through the streets for some night shots. I’ve selected just a couple for this year’s retrospective. A few days later there was an unusual configuration of moon and planets. Having learnt how to take photos in low light conditions I was able to capture an image of the moon and two planets. (I’ve forgotten which planets, though! Venus and Jupiter, I think.)


On a sunny Spring morning we got up to find a fox asleep on the back lawn. Grabbing the camera I took a couple of shots with the standard lens through the study window. The fox barely stirred. Switching to the telephoto lens and using the tripod I waited and was rewarded with several nice pictures.


At the start of May I decided to collect the articles I’d written for the ACCU’s Overload magazine and re-publish them under the ‘Software’ category on my blog. Reformatting them took some time, but I completed the job in July.

Our main holiday this year was a cruise along the fjords of Norway calling at Stavanger, Flåm, Olden and Bergen. The old part of Stavanger has quaint little streets of fisherman’s houses, all in white painted wood. The railway line from Flåm climbs through the mountains providing spectacular views of snow-capped peaks, rivers and waterfalls. A short coach ride inland from Olden is a beautiful valley leading to the Briksdal glacier. Bergen has the Briggen – former fisherman’s houses converted into shops selling a variety of crafts – and a funicular railway offering stunning views over the town and harbour.

Early June

Summer wouldn’t be summer without visiting the Himalayan Gardens at Grewelthorpe near Ripon. This year, in spite of the wet Spring, the flowers were as colourful as ever and there were some lovely new sculptures, too. If you’re in North Yorkshire in May or early June it’s not to be missed.

Late June

Mary’s sister and daughter had a day out in the pleasant market town of Knaresborough, which is not far from us, so we met them there for lunch. It was a cool and cloudy day, but with enough sunny intervals for a few pictures. Here we see a wall painted to show a king looking out of a window and the classic view of the viaduct over the river from the castle grounds.


This year it’s 800 years since York received its city charter and it celebrated with a variety of events. On a very warm, sunny day in July there was a concert in the Minster gardens in which the Shepherd Brass Band played The York Anthem, a piece especially composed for the 800th anniversary. As we stood listening to the music a few people began to walk onto the grass where the band was performing. As they approached the rows of musicians and formed up behind the players more people drifted across to join them. Then they began to sing. The Anthem was a choral piece and the choir had been masquerading as ordinary members of the audience. It was an uplifting experience.

Early August

We visited the Ryedale Folk Museum at Hutton-le-Hole on the N. Yorks. Moors for the first time. It has a dozen or so buildings dating from the Iron Age to the early 20th century, all furnished appropriately for their respective periods. We missed the blacksmith working in his forge, but met him as we were leaving and he told us all about his work. Another good day out.

Having lunch in the Treasurer’s House (behind the Minster) after the York 800 concert we saw a picture of St. Michael’s Mount that we thought would look good above our new fireplace. It was a bit dirty behind the perspex so we had it re-mounted with glass and a couple of weeks later hung it up in the lounge. Out latest round of home improvements were then complete.

Late August

We invited a friend from the East Midlands to come and see the York Mystery Plays with us. This year they were held in the Museum Gardens where the walls of St. Mary’s Abbey overlooked the stage. The language is mediaeval Yorkshire (‘mickle’ and ‘muckle’) and the costumes this year had a 1940s theme. I particularly liked the fallen angels – attractive young women dressed in smart black suits always there in the background threatening to stain the mortals with their evil intent. No photographs were allowed during the performance itself, but I did get a couple of shots at the curtain call.

As part of Mary’s birthday present I’d given her a voucher for a Segway Rally, which we booked for 20 August in the grounds of Ripley Castle. It had been raining for several days, but there were just a few spots during the morning as we were taken through the safety rules, told how to ride a Segway and ventured out onto the wet grass to get a feel for our mechanical steeds. Then the six of us were off across the grass, along the path and into the woods, dodging low branches and trying to avoid skidding in the muddy patches. There were a couple of minor spills but we all enjoyed ourselves immensely.

After the rally the weather brightened up and we went to Newby Hall for some lunch and a walk round the gardens.

The following week there was a flotilla on the Ouse as part of the York 800 program. It was originally scheduled for June, but was postponed because of floods! (Some of the boats wouldn’t get under the bridges and there was potentially dangerous debris in the water.) Mary and I went down to the embankment and watched the paralympic flame float by as we had lunch by the river’s edge. Then we moved to a better vantage point and I took photos of the boats as they passed. There were hundreds of them (over 200 according to our local paper). There were canoes, rowing boats, barges, pleasure boats and lots of private cruisers from the marina. We were there most of the afternoon just watching them all go by.

We returned from the flotilla via Rowntree park where I managed to get this picture of a dove as it took off and flew away.


At the beginning of September, Fangfoss, one of the local villages, had their annual fair. There’s a famous rocking horse shop there. Last year they had an over-sized rocking horse on display that they called Big Bertie. This year they had an even bigger one, called (of course) Bigger Bertie. There was also a classic car show, craft stalls, food & drink and an exhibition of flower arranging in the village church.

The following morning we got up to find that Persephone had brought us a ‘present’. It wasn’t the first time she had caught a bat, but this one wasn’t flying around the house. Persephone wanted it to play with her, but sadly it couldn’t do that any more.

The arboretum at Castle Howard held their Wild About Wood event over the weekend of 15-16th September and they managed to pick a dry, sunny Saturday in this very damp year. It’s one of our favourite outings and I made the most of it by paddling a coracle on the lake. There was a bit of a breeze that kept pushing the boat to the edge of the roped-off area and it took a while to feel I had things under control. At least I didn’t capsize like one unfortunate woman! Of course, Wild About Wood was another opportunity to take some photos. Here’s me messing about in a coracle and a picture from the birds of prey display.

The following Saturday I cashed in my voucher for another session with John Potter, the professional photographer running the March workshop. I met John at the whalebones overlooking Whitby harbour from where he took me around Whitby town and Saltwick Bay, returning to Whitby harbour for the sunset. I got some nice photos, but I’m not sure if I learned very much.


Making the most of another of the few fine days this year we went to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in October. Our first stop was the cafe for a cup of tea and a ‘nibble’. It was so hot in the sun on the terrace outside that we retreated inside again just as soon as we were fed and watered. After wandering around the park, taking more photos along the way, we returned to the cafe in the afternoon and I was astonished to see a young woman (probably a student) sitting in the sun on the terrace and wearing a woolly hat! How she didn’t roast I’ll never know.

I took lots of photos that day. It was hard to see the camera’s LCD screen in the strong sunlight, but when I got home and transferred the photos to the computer I could see they were all badly over-exposed. I’d set the camera to +1.5 stops for my last shot in the fading light in Whitby and forgotten to reset it! Still, it produced some unusual effects, as you can see here.


The Internet can be a dangerous thing. You never know what you might find out there. Idly browsing one day I came across an Open University course called “My Digital Life”, which provides an “introduction to the next twenty years of computers and the internet”. It sounded fascinating and, after some hesitation, I signed up for the February 2013 course.

We had already decided to bring our technology up to date by then and we started by buying a wireless router to replace our old ADSL modem. I powered up the router and all was well. Then I tried to switch on our trusty Dell PC and nothing happened. After a few basic checks I phoned Dell and they told me it needed a new motherboard. Furthermore, Dell could not supply one because it was too old. As a temporary measure I set up Mary’s work laptop to receive emails and installed the hard disk from the Dell in a caddy for use as an external drive. The laptop runs Windows Vista and it’s excruciatingly slow, so…

The following day we went to Stormfront, the Apple computer shop in York, half hoping we could walk out with a new Apple computer. As it happened they didn’t have a suitable machine in stock, but a new range of iMacs was due to be available in November or December. We decided we’d wait for the new model and the variant we chose was expected to be in the shops by the end of the month.

On the last day of November the Internet said that Apple had announced the new iMac and I went hot-foot into town to order one. Apparently, mine was the first order the Stormfront company had taken for the new iMac. A couple of weeks later they phoned to say it had arrived. I wasted no time in collecting it, unpacking it and switching it on.

As I’m sure you know, Apple products differ from the more common Windows-based PCs in many ways and the printed instructions were very brief, but it wasn’t difficult to get the iMac up and running. It took a little while to get used to the unusual keyboard layout and the different look-and-feel of the operating system, but apart from that it all seemed straightforward and intuitive. The 21.5 inch wide-format screen is very easy on the eye, the applications look pretty, everything runs quickly and so far it has recognised every device I’ve attached. Am I pleased with it? Oh yes, I am!


The first of December was a Saturday. Mary and I were in town for some Christmas shopping and our thoughts turned to the other items in our planned technology upgrade. I felt it was time to get a smartphone and Mary wanted a tablet computer. We both wanted the various devices to work well together so iPhone and iPad seemed the obvious choice. But we’d just spent a substantial amount of money on the OU course and the desktop computer. “Oh well, it’s Christmas”, we thought, as we visited Stormfront again and came out with an iPad mini. Mary has hardly stopped playing with it since!

After spending our money it was time to see the ice sculptures that form part of the annual Festival of Angels. There were more than ever this year.

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