Saturday, 25 May 2019

Don't Just Say it ...!

One of the delights of my weekend is to settle down on Sunday evening and listen to folk music.  There's a two-hour programme on BBC Wales that has been regular listening for me for quite some while and it's followed by another two hours of equally pleasant easy listening and light opera which, in the words of the presenter, make me 'warm and relaxed, and ready for sweet dreams later on'.

I listen to these via the internet but, before I can do so, I have to log in to the BBC website.  So much these days is dependent on 'logging in'.  If I want to read my e-mails, or see what my friends have posted on social media, I have to log in with a user name or my e-mail address and a password.  And then there is this infuriating little box marked 'Keep me signed in'.  I say 'infuriating' because, however often I check that box, you can guarantee that within a couple of days - sometimes within only a couple of hours - it's back again, asking me to confirm once more my continuing wish to use the site.

This technological phenomenon is only one example of something that seems to have become more and more common in recent years ... or is it that it has brought to my attention something that has always been present in life in one way or another?  I'm sure you'll realise that what I'm talking about is the concept of the unfulfilled undertaking.  For instance, how often do you say to your spouse, or to a teenage child, "would you do so-and-so for me please?"?  They respond in the affirmative but the 'so-and-so' doesn't get done until a reminder is issued ... and sometimes not even then, despite the willingness initially expressed.

We have recently enjoyed - many would say 'suffered' - our annual dose of politics in action, as we (some of us, at least) have voted in our district council elections, and this weekend in the elections to the European Parliament.  It is a matter of some notoriety that politicians will commit to all sorts of things to gain our vote but, once elected, seem rarely to fulfil those pledges.  There are many reasons - many quite valid reasons - why some pledges can't be fulfilled.  Some are simply impossible, others depend on a level of finance that's just not available, and some require the co-operation of other parties - which may not be forthcoming - for approval.  The end result for the man/woman in the street is the same, however: 'said, but not done'.

Of course, as you will imagine, a particular experience has brought these thoughts together.  Almost a year ago, I decided to change my internet provider.  I couldn't fault the courtesy of the salesperson and of the installer who visited my home.  As an incentive for the changeover, I was given a year's introductory discount from the monthly payments and it had been suggested that, if I were to talk to their customer services people before the anniversary of the contract, I could probably renew this discount for another year.

So that this valuable concession should not be overlooked, I had made a note in my diary and this week, after making several abortive attempts, I managed to navigate all the telephonic menus and speak to someone for this purpose, only to be told not only that any arrangement of that nature will not be possible until after the introductory discount has expired, but also that it can all be accomplished on line!  If only the woman I was speaking to last year had got her facts right ... half an hour of frustration and embarrassment could have been avoided!

Friday, 17 May 2019

Tentacles ... and a Mystery

It's time I wasn't surprised when I find that something innocuous that I'm doing today has tentacles stretching back years, decades or even further.  Last night I watched the last few of a set of DVDs that I collected over a period of some weeks back in 2004.  They were produced by the Daily Mail - a newspaper that I would normally avoid, and almost certainly haven't bought since then - to mark the 90th anniversary of the start of the First World War.  The DVDs reproduced a series of programmes broadcast by the BBC over twenty-six weeks to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary in 1964.

They were screened immediately after something I watched regularly and were introduced by an horrific original photograph of a soldier in a tin hat sitting in a trench across from some dead comrades.  As the titles rolled week after week for half a year, to the accompaniment of dramatic theme music specially composed by Wilfred Josephs and played by the BBC Northern Orchestra, as an eager teenager I would long to broaden my education by watching this presentation.  And week after week, my mother - if she wasn't already in the room, my mother would hear the music and immediately appear - denounced it firmly as "that old war programme" with the inevitable follow-up as the TV was switched off, "we've had enough of war!"

When it came to discipline in the home, mother's word was law.  Sometimes I could wheedle, or offer a logical persuasion for something I wanted to do but when that programme came on, however much I might hope to the contrary, there was something about her tone of voice that said there would be no discussion and I knew not to argue.  At last, decades later, I would be able to watch them.  But the busy life of a courier - how I managed to get to the newsagent's every day for a month or so to buy the paper, I just don't know - and later of a busy retiree, had meant that only recently had I picked up the habit of watching the occasional episode from where my initial enthusiasm had left off. 

Hearing those haunting strains again brought back mum's voice from the past and I am far more able now to understand why, scarcely twenty years after the death of her beloved brother on the other side of the world during the successor to that 'war to end all wars' which wasn't, she was unwilling to be reminded yet again of that loss.

One of the episodes I watched last night presented a brief summary of the war in the Middle East, with the need to protect the route to India and to secure the oilfields that could make or break the functioning of a navy that was ever less dependent on coal for its fuel.  It told of the action of the Indian Expeditionary Force from Basra towards Baghdad in 1915.  By September 1915, the British and Indian force had reached Kut al-Amara, about 100 miles south of Baghdad and, after a defeat further north, retreated there to await further support.  This never came, however and, after a siege of 147 days, they surrendered to the Ottomans on 29th April 1916.  At the time, it was the worst defeat of a British army but, unlike other great surrenders at Yorktown (1781) and Singapore (1942), the consequences were not so strategically significant.  A stronger and better-resourced Mesopotamian campaign was initiated at the end of 1916; Kut al-Amara was retaken in February 1917 and Baghdad the following month.

My father's two eldest brothers served in the First World War, but when they were demobbed, neither of them returned to live in the family home, so I'm not sure what he knew of their experiences.  As I watched that episode of The Great War last night I recalled the only instance I can remember when he ever spoke of the service of either brother in the war.  What prompted the comment is now lost to me, but the fact that I remember them so clearly speaks of their very rarity.  Referring to the younger of the two brothers, who was some eight years his senior, dad told me, "Will was at Kut."

I said that my mother's was the voice of authority in the home; this was so much the way of my childhood that it hadn't occurred to me until this very weekend to wonder what dad made of that.  I recall his willingness to administer discipline when my behaviour required it but I don't think I ever heard a cross word from him to mum.  Rarely did he express any personal emotion ... at least not in my presence.  But now I'm wondering whether he would have shared his son's desire to follow that series on TV.  He made no comment, however, and the TV was always switched off.

I've puzzled from time to time over those words.  A few years ago I attended a talk on the war in Mesopotamia at the National Archives and chatted afterwards to the speaker but to no avail.  Given that my uncle was born in July 1898, it seems most unlikely that he could have been one of those captured after the siege in 1916.  If he had lied about his age, it is just possible that he could have been in the force that re-took the town the next year, but without knowing what regiment he served with, nor any other details, it's impossible to say.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

All in a Day's Work!

I sometimes wonder about the 'sayings' we use: idiomatic phrases that have no literal connection to the meanings we attach to them.  A good example is 'that's nailed it!', which has nothing to do with hammers and pointed metal fastenings but everything to do with coming to an agreement and securing it by a quayside bollard.  I thought yesterday about London buses.

What's that about London buses? I hear you ask.  Well, if you can wait for hours for one and then they all turn up at once, as is said to be the case, it would be a marvel if anyone could get around our capital city at all by public transport!  But yesterday was just that sort of a day for me.  I'm not sure about a long wait for any of them, but a number of exciting things all happened in one day.

When I started working as a volunteer at the local hospice's distribution centre, I made it clear that, after many years as a same-day courier, not knowing from one day - often one hour - to the next what I would be doing, I was looking for variety.  Hence, I normally spend a day a week at a computer screen, and half a day a week helping on a van visiting our shops to collect donations that have been handed in.  This was all arranged with the proviso that I will readily act as a relief driver if required.

So it was that, last Friday, one of the regular drivers announced that he would be taking a day off yesterday and asked me if I would mind taking his place for the day.  He had organised the work to be done and all I had to do was follow instructions.  That suited me well and, although by the end of it I felt as if I'd had a good workout in the gym, it all went smoothly according to plan.  All, that is, apart from one shop where we found our way blocked by the combination of a supermarket artic. making a prolonged delivery on one side of the road and blue-badge holders legally parked on double-yellow lines on the other.  One of my colleagues suggested that we negotiate our exchange of goods for sale and donations collected by walking them around the corner.  This we did and were on our way again before the artic. driver had finished.

This day of excitement occurred against a background of sleep-reduced nights.  Another saying comes to mind, this one corrupted by someone's lateral thinking: "One good turn deserves all the blankets!"  In my single-bed situation, the problem is not someone else making a 'good turn' of that kind, but lots of twisting and turning shedding the duvet onto the floor!  Last week I spotted an item on Freecycle that prompted thought of a possible solution.  Why not have a double duvet, so there is enough hanging over both sides of the bed that I'm not so cold in the first place?  It was worth a try, I decided.  I collected the offered quilt cover last weekend and explored the acquisition of the quilt to go inside it.  Yesterday lunchtime I found an e-mail saying that the courier had now delivered the quilt to my doorstep, so I popped home to secure it before resuming my driving duties.  The first trial last night was only partially successful, but shows promise.

"In other news ..." yesterday's post brought two more items of interest.  Each had been awaited for a while without a specific date for delivery, but hey! ... why not turn up along with all the rest?  The first tangible preparation for my holiday has now arrived.  I knew when I saw the postmark "Baile Átha Cliath" what the envelope would contain.  It's my visitor's ticket to Dublin's suburban transport system, which is now sitting in my wallet, patiently awaiting the Euros that I haven't got round to ordering yet.

And the final arrival was my postal vote for the European Parliamentary Election.  Although it's as yet by no means certain whether or not the MEPs we elect on 23rd May will actually take their seats, it's important that we exercise our civil right to identify who we would like to represent us at that level if given the chance to do so.  So do remember to vote!

Saturday, 4 May 2019

That's Not a Paintbrush in my Hand!

I once worked with a lady whose husband was an excellent amateur decorator.  Not only did he keep their home immaculate, but he also did work for friends and family.  His maxim was that the key to a successful job was 90% preparation and 10% perspiration!

It could be argued that that's my approach to holidays ... at least it is these days.  In a way it's like living the holiday twice: once in the planning and then again in the execution.  That said, I do sometimes worry that I'm overdoing it and perhaps forget that there has to be a balance between preparing against the unexpected and planning the life completely out of the expedition and removing the possibility of any spontaneity.

Anyway - for good or ill - this has been my preoccupation for the last couple of weeks or more and I daresay will be so for a few more yet.  Having booked the ferry and the accommodation before Christmas, I'd parked the whole affair for some while.  Then I realised that, with less than a couple of months to go, I really ought to sort out what I'm going to do when I get there.  Out came the maps and the travel books.  I re-jigged my trusty holiday-planning spreadsheet - yes, Excel rules in this household! - and set to work.

Inevitably some of these printed resources are a little out of date and, checking things on line (isn't it wonderful that Mr. Google is so knowledgeable!), I discovered that one place I wanted to visit in Dublin has now been closed.  Fortunately there's another location on the other side of the Liffey that fills the same slot in my interest spectrum, so I attempted to book a visit.  Sadly they don't open on the day I wanted to go, so my week is now re-arranged.  14 Henrietta Street is not the sort of place where you can buy a ticket and just turn up.  Admission is by organised tour only; I expect there are fragile or expensive artefacts requiring visitor supervision.  The next screen asked which tour I want to be booked for and that sent me scurrying back to the bus timetables.  When would I get there, and how long would it take me to get across the city?

It was then that I realised that the time between arrival and leaving again wouldn't be nearly enough for me to see all I want to.  This added to the uncertainty of finding somewhere to park the car for the day, having driven from my farmhouse B&B to the town to catch the bus in the first place ... not to mention the matter of security.  A more flexible solution will be to drive to the outskirts of the city and use LUAS, the tram/light rail system.  Conveniently there's a park-and-ride facility beside the motorway junction.  Fortunately public transport is nicely integrated, so I can get a single visitor pass which will cover my use of LUAS, DART (the suburban train service, Dublin Area Rapid Transit) and the buses for the week, although I'm only planning to visit Dublin on a couple of days.

I realised that I shall gain an extra bank holiday this year as a result of my vacation: Ireland still celebrates Whit Monday, which falls in the week I'm there.  Uncertain of the difference, if any, that this will make, I'm planning a visit to the western port city of Galway and, with luck, shall be able to drive right to the edge of the ocean, some 60 Km further.  My 'Dublin day' was swapped with another trip to the west, to the city of Limerick, stretching along the shores of the island's greatest river, the Shannon.  These two visits are yet to be planned in detail, but shouldn't pose so great a challenge as the capital.

Luckily, I noticed in time that my car has number-plates that don't incorporate the EU stars flash and GB indicator.  In panic I wondered whether - not wanting to blemish the paint on the vehicle itself - there was any other alternative to getting new, conforming, plates.  Luckily I was referred to another shop, where I was able to get a magnetic 'GB' plate that I can easily peel off after it has given service.  I'm taking this as a good omen for the whole adventure.

Friday, 26 April 2019

Finishing Off!

Someone famous said, "I love it when a plan comes together."  I don't profess to know who it was, but he (she?) was certainly right.  A number of small things have 'come together' this week the way I planned, which gives me that hinted feeling of satisfaction.  More importantly, they're things that I can cross off my 'to do' list.

I often make lists these days, to make sure nothing gets missed.  In fact someone I was talking to recently claimed to make 'lists of lists' but I'm not sure exactly how that works ... unless, by subdividing a list, when everything on a sub-list is crossed off, that's a whole list finished, and possibly gives a higher sense of satisfaction?

Tuesday evening brought echoes for me of my former working life, as I drove down the A1 past a succession of signs saying alternately, "A14 closed 30-31" (which didn't bother me) and "A1 closed from J14" (which did!).  This meant that what had, up to that point, been a smooth and satisfying journey home was about to become a frustrating game of 'find the road that's open' and, although I had left my cousin's in good time, I would now be considerably later getting home than I'd planned.

Since my retirement, now I'm no longer using the road system as frequently as I did, I find I've forgotten some of the routes and numbers that were so familiar as to be 'second nature' and I suffered some moments of panic as I struggled to remember what diversion would get me home soonest in this new circumstance.  Eventually I remembered that, long before the A14 would reach the 'fatal' junction 30, it would get me to the A1198, a road formerly known as Ermine Street or 'the Old North Road'.  This would take me, without further ado, to Royston and a very familiar final leg home.

Incidentally, the junction of the A14 and the A1198 at Huntingdon, which I then used, has an interesting history.  Before the roads in this area were changed and re-numbered about 30 years ago, the Old North Road was known as A14; at that time the main east-west route was A45 and it was this that was modified and improved and eventually became the A14 trunk road that we know today.  Thus that junction carries the new east-west road called A14 over what had been a north-south road with the same number (now given the new identity A1198)!  I've often wondered - inconclusively - whether there are other similar examples around the country.

As I drove down this ancient highway, I passed a roundabout flanked by a modern filling station and an even more modern McDonald's.  It's on the site of an equally ancient crossroads known as Caxton Gibbet; on the verge just south of the roundabout can be seen an old wooden structure believed to be the remains of the gibbet itself.  This was a macabre place where the bodies of criminals were displayed (if not actually executed there) as an example to the passing populace.  I'm not sure whether the feature presently preserved by the roadside is actually authentic or whether its authenticity is subject to historic maintenance, as in the apocryphal tale of 'great-great-grandfather's shovel', which, apart from two new blades and four new handles down the years, is the very one that he used to bury his grandfather nearly three centuries ago.

So it was, then, that I arrived home at bedtime - too late to do those chores I'd intended to fit in before retiring.  I peeled my intentions back to the very essential, and quickly scribbled a LIST of all the little things that I'd postponed.  A couple more items came to mind when I got up and were hastily added to the list; it then gave me a great sense of completion to cross off the last of these just after lunch on Wednesday afternoon.

I'm now working my way down a similar list hastily compiled after breakfast this morning before I left for my present voluntary job which on Fridays requires me to be about half a mile from home, ready to leave with two others on a van at 8.30 am.

Saturday, 20 April 2019

The Back End

Whether you call it Zaterdag, Samedi, Samstag, Saturni or Sadwrn (those who know me well will identify the languages with which I've dabbled over the years), Saturday is for many - and I include myself here - the 'stub-end' of the week.  It's the day when 'stuff' that has overflowed from other days is lined up to get knocked off, polished off, cleared out of the way, or whatever other metaphor you choose to use.

I don't know whether this technique is still current in primary schools today, but 60-plus years ago we had diary boards.  A broad strip of the wall all the way round the classroom was coated with blackboard material.  Each of us was allocated our section of this and on Monday mornings we were provided with chalk and encouraged to write our 'news', the story of what we'd done over the weekend.  I suspect there was a fine balance between the educational benefit to the children and the amusement factor for the teachers.  Six-year-olds aren't know for diplomatic reticence when it comes to family and domestic affairs!

This week a notice was displayed in as many places as seemed appropriate - including the gents' toilet! - at the warehouse where I presently volunteer twice a week, advertising a vacancy for a part-time van driver.  I was told rather pointedly, "You can apply for this if you like." so I read it closely.  The position advertised was for the equivalent of two days a week, with hours flexible but based mainly at the weekend.

I fairly swiftly rejected the idea because, as you might expect, I won't work on Sundays apart from for the most exceptional reasons.  I can think of only one occasion during my employed career when I did so.  It was at the annual stocktaking in a factory where I had been working for two or three years.  The senior accountant had estimated that it could all be completed by Saturday lunchtime if normal working stopped at 4.0 on Friday.  In point of fact with everyone working Friday evening and all day Saturday it still wasn't done by 6.0 pm, and we had to go in on Sunday as well.  I think I was home by mid-afternoon, but the effect on motivation during the following week was quite remarkable.  The fact that I'd lost a weekend upset the whole pattern of my life.

While working as a courier, the only work I would do on Sunday was the occasional pick-up ready for an early start on Monday morning, and I believe on one occasion I left home on Sunday evening to make an 8.0 am delivery in Scotland the next day.  Saturdays are a different thing; for many years, I used to work regularly on Saturday mornings, sometimes until 1.0 or 2.0 in the afternoon, occasionally all day.  For part of those years I was getting paid overtime for it, but always there was the question, how much can be squashed into a weekend?

In these days of retirement it might seem that there is all week to fit 'stuff' into, but lots of interests are at regular times, and some things are always on Saturdays because they involve others who are still of working age.  As I considered this particular job, I quickly counted up nineteen Saturdays in the year when I wouldn't be able to commit to working all day without sacrificing something or other that has become part of my life.  And that's without my increasing attendance at football matches!  It seems that I've been to 21 matches already this season, with at least one more planned, a local cup final next week, compared to 15 in the whole of last season.

I'm wondering how long those notices will remain on display, and how long before an anonymous graffito appears on one or other of them!  I suspect that there are many like me who value their weekends over and above what money can be made out of them.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

A Long and Meandering Stream

Looking through what passes for a diary these days, I see that this has been a week with lots of routine but nothing that really says 'Write about me today!'  It's all a bit boring, like the title of today's Bible notes, 'Are we nearly there yet?'  These began with the innocent question, 'Can you recall the longest journey you've ever made?'

My thoughts floated back down the years (the older I get, the more that exercise seems to become a cruise along a slow-flowing river rather than guiding a canoe down a swiftly-running stream, with more and more places to stop and explore along the way) and didn't stop when I realised that this was probably a flight to San Francisco in 2000.  Instead, recollection followed recollection until memory eventually came to rest in the early 'seventies, when I was living with my young family in the middle of a country town, almost opposite the pub and just around the corner from the church.

That was the time when I was studying economics as part of my accountancy training, and struggling to make sense of the written course material as it described the way that one government and then another had tried to control the British economy.  It was then, too, that my thoughts first turned to politics as I realised that each government in turn had first undid what had gone before, in order then to implement its own ideas of what needed to be done now.  Obviously the purpose of an Opposition is to oppose, but it seemed to me that too much of its energy was devoted to tearing the government apart, and not enough to explaining what ought to have been done instead. 

The fact that the half-dozen Liberal MPs seemed willing to agree with one 'side' on one point, and then with the other on another point was what first persuaded me to join the Liberal Party and, although that enthusiasm proved only to be a 'flash in the pan', I've been a supporter of the politics of compromise and accord ever since.  In the 'noughties', when I listened to RTE on long wave as I drove around the country, I became aware of multi-member constituencies and started to think about proportional representation as a real possibility. 

To bring this truly up to date, I'll share a comment I read this week about the speed with which 27 European leaders could reach a compromise agreement about the extension of Article 50, compared to the length of time our Parliament has taken - and has still not been able to come to agreement - over the approval of the Brexit legislation.  It was described as the grey productivity of European thinking versus the black-and-white failure of our own.  People on all sides of the political spectrum are now voicing what I was beginning to see forty-odd years ago, that the days of a confrontational parliament based on a winner-takes-all mentality are numbered.

It is indeed a long journey, along a very long road.  But I believe we will eventually learn nationally what children learn very quickly in the school playground: it's more satisfying to agree that one can play with the toy for a while and then for the other to do so, than for either to break it, or throw it over the hedge, so neither can play with it at all!