Friday, 18 October 2019

Eye off the Ball!

Last Saturday, I watched a football match at a lower league than is lately my custom.  The difference was more noticeable than I'd expected.  As I mused later, on each team there were three or four players who 'knew what they were doing' or, as one player who had been substituted at half-time, was already changed and was watching the closing stages from the stand, observed, 'they think football'.  One evidence of this was the way that some would turn their heads away and let the high ball hit their head, rather than skilfully use their head to affect the direction of the ball's travel.

The same trait can be devastating in cricket, where it's imperative for the batsman to keep his eye on the ball from bowler's hand to bat, or risk it passing him by and splattering his wicket ... or worse, hitting him on the head!

It's true of life, too, as I discovered twice this week.  I recently realised that in a collection of about 900 books that adorn my flat, there are several that either will never get read, or have been read and are unlikely to be read again.  Consequently I've sold a few on line, and donated a far greater number to charities in the town, with the knock-on effect that the total has reduced by about 15% and one complete bookcase has been made redundant.  As I went through this exercise, I disposed of volumes that I had bought as a result of a passing whim, or a project long since abandoned either through lack of interest or the counter-attraction of something else.

During the course of this moderate de-cluttering exercise, I shed a lot of loose papers, too.  The discovery amidst them of one snippet that I wanted to keep sent me to what passes for a diary, since that seemed the most appropriate place to store my find.  As I searched for the exact spot, I browsed some of the writings of what is now very much a passed age.  There was very little of interest to the modern, happily-retired me.  It was virtually all work-related: picked this up, waited for that, went to one place, then another; expressions of frustration at having to wait hours for something to turn up ... no indication of how those hours were spent, or the passing of the seasons.

That said, there was the occasional note of relief, for it happened that the right spot for that discovered document was but days away from the momentous occasion - reported on this blog at some time, I'm sure - when I at last broke through a significant brick-wall in my family research and discovered my great-uncle at Colchester barracks in the 1871 census ... he who had been so elusive since his last record at home ten years earlier.

The impression given by that diary record of only eight years ago was, however, of someone almost completely inward-looking; even that sliver of relief was self-focused.  Who else, after all, would be interested in an ordinary nineteenth-century soldier whose greatest achievement (so far as I've been able to find out, anyway) was to drop a target on his trigger-finger and thus gain his discharge, enabling him to settle down to a quiet family life in a small Irish town?

For many a year, I fear, I had taken my eye off the 'ball' of normal life.  And, although I'm only too aware of many things that lack the ideal level of attention, I'm glad to say that - in my own opinion, at least - I've been able to achieve a much more balanced existence in my retirement.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Keeping the Score

Last week I trailed my diary for the coming days; I can now report back.  I mentioned my plans to join friends on Saturday for the annual autumn ringing outing.  Unlike the ill-fated visit to Warwickshire in the spring (where I tripped and fell after lunch, causing some weeks of discomfort), this was an unqualified success.  We had gloriously sunny weather and the pub where we had lunch was conveniently close to the church with good food and good service.  Even the challenge posed by the bells themselves didn't defeat us.  The first ring were a bit heavy for some of us but, as the day progressed, we found lighter bells that were more welcome.

At our weekly practice before the outing, my friend Bob had suggested that I might like to revise some of the compositions that he knew I had conducted in the past ... although recently, with our efforts being geared to teaching new ringers, I had not been called upon in this way.  He planned to invite me to do so at some point on our outing.

Now, on five bells (with the sixth and heaviest bell keeping time at the end of each change), 120 possible sequences, or changes, can be rung.  There are many different patterns in which this can be achieved; each different pattern is called a method.  In their simple form most methods only provide 30 or 40 of these sequences, and to obtain the full 120 changes, known as an extent or, in the older parlance, a 'six-score' requires a number of alterations in the pattern, which is where the conductor comes in.

Bob had spoken of an ancient method that we ring called Grandsire, of which there are ten different ways that the six-score can be achieved, some more complex than others.  It was one of these more complex compositions that I had revised and prepared.  I was, I admit, apprehensive about doing this, having been out of practice for so long.  In fact, I'm not sure that I have ever successfully called this particular composition in the past.  I confess that I was therefore pleased to have a band of strong ringers around me to achieve the feat this time.

Easby Abbey, North Yorkshire
I also mentioned last week my planned attendance at the funeral of a 95-year-old friend.  This, too, was blessed with fine weather, despite a forecast of rain spreading from the west.  As was expected, the formalities included reminiscences from family members, son, daughter and grandchildren and all was executed without a hitch.  I diverted slightly from my 200-mile return journey to visit a nearby abbey ruin for a few minutes reflection as I explored the site.

I think it was the next day when I was once more reminded of the passage of years, and the approaching completion of the psalmist's allotted 'threescore years and ten', when my new driving license fluttered onto my doormat.  With such thoughts in my head, did I really need a friend to comment within a day or so about 'becoming a grandmother again'?  I recalled that my granddaughter - of whom I've heard nothing for years - is now 22 years old and, for all I know, I could be a great-grandfather!

Perhaps the balance was restored yesterday, when another friend proudly displayed pictures of her daughter, whose boy-friend had last weekend descended to one knee and made a proposal of marriage.  I was reassured that the niceties of a former age have not totally evaporated when my friend explained that the young man had earlier spoken to her husband upon the subject.  I recalled that I had done the same thing some two-score and eight years ago ... and even then was thought of as 'old-fashioned'!

Friday, 4 October 2019

Annual Adjustments

"C'est aujourd'hui le 1er Octobre", the teacher wrote on the blackboard.  She then read it aloud - I can remember it now - and explained that this was the day when pupils at all French schools returned after the long summer break.  I've no idea whether this is still the case but it certainly makes a lot of sense that the whole nation operates in unison in this way ... as any parent with children at school in different counties will agree.

Whether or not, it's certain that the start of October marks a significant turning point in the year.  Evenings are becoming dark earlier; by the time I've had my evening meal and washed up, I need a light to see my keyboard.  Mornings have already become dark.  We have a weekly church breakfast at 6.30 on Mondays and for several weeks we have arrived in the dark; we now have to leave for work or home afterwards also in darkness!

And there are cold bursts, too.  The other morning I woke up aware that I'd not been properly asleep for some while.  I realised that I was cold and, with several hours before 'getting-up time', I was forced to dig out a blanket to throw across the bed to afford any possibility of further sleep.  It used to be a tradition that there was no heat in school until the start of October; this discipline is one that has followed many into adulthood, me included.  I remember giving way soon after the start of last September, but I did stick it out until Tuesday this year, and a resolve that it was still not really required - accompanied by a Wednesday switch-off - didn't last and it's now on again ... this time for the duration.

The arrival of the heating season in my home was accompanied by a slight re-arrangement of furniture to allow the heat better to permeate into the rooms.  This was particularly necessary in the bedroom, where 'stuff' had been allowed to accumulate close to the heater. This isn't very effective anyway, being both too small for the size of the room (in my chilled but unskilled opinion) and tucked away in an outside corner.  In order to sort things out in the most useful combination, I bought a new extension lead long enough to run around the edge of the room to feed, among other things, the clock-alarm beside my bed.

Unplugging this, of course meant that, when it was plugged in again, the clock would need to be re-set.  I decided to be lazy, with the clocks 'falling back' at the end of the month, and set it for GMT.  I thought it would be easy enough to add on an hour when I look at it for the time.  It was about 8.30 last evening when I suddenly heard voices coming from the bedroom and realised that all was not as it should be.  Not only had I set the clock element for 'AM', when it was already afternoon: I had also mis-calculated the hour difference and set the alarm for 7.30 to get me up at 6.30, when I should have set it for 5.30!  By this morning, all was working as it should, thank goodness.

Another seasonal change that will come into effect next week concerns what I call 'work', my volunteering activities at the local hospice warehouse.  Instead of working on the vans on Friday mornings, visiting the high street shops, I've arranged to fill a vacant slot indoors on a Thursday afternoon, thus giving me clear Fridays to match the clear Mondays at the other end of the week as well as keeping me from getting cold and wet in the winter weather.

I described it as a seasonal change but it might become permanent, because it also relieves me from the mental strain of dealing with a variety of 'pre-loved' items that are no longer required and have been carefully packed and parted with in the hope of their finding appreciative new homes but when they arrive at the warehouse, those with far more experience that I can see that this will never happen and consign them to re-cycling straightway.  I say mental strain, I suppose because I've inherited in my growing up the wartime concept of 'make do and mend'.  While not actually mending things these days, the practice has evolved into one of being content with something secondhand if it will do the job.  Therefore the thought of replacing something that is still working by a flash new article smacks of vanity and waste.

If you're wondering how that squares with my driving around in a new car, see my earlier blog here, explaining why this was a necessity.  While you're doing that, I'll drive off with my friends tomorrow to the ringers' annual autumn outing.

Friday, 27 September 2019

When Two Worlds Collide

I well remember, some years ago now, meeting my then hairdresser in the supermarket, saying 'hello', and then puzzling for hours before recollecting where I'd seen her before.  This event was recalled yesterday when, as I walked down the street, I saw passing each other before me two people I know in totally different contexts.  Not surprisingly, neither showed any knowledge or recognition of the other and they probably didn't notice each other's existence.  One was a man I meet at the warehouse where I volunteer on Tuesdays, and the other a client at the drop-in centre that I'd just left.

Sometimes encounters like this can be foreseen and therefore prompt no reaction of surprise when they happen.  One of the ladies from my church recently completed her studies and was ordained in the summer.  As it happens, she is spending the first years of her new career as the curate in the neighbouring parish, where I've been one of the bell-ringers for many years (our own church has no bells).  Thus on one occasion in late spring, I was present at the gathering to celebrate her life with us for the last number of years, and wish her well as she moved on.  A month later, I was a peripheral member of another community, who had just taken part in a quarter peal to welcome its new curate!

At other times these 'two-world' experiences can be deeply personal.  Since my retirement, it has been my custom most weeks to attend the mid-week service at the church.  It only lasts about half-an-hour, and the congregation, while averaging perhaps nine or ten, is drawn from a couple of dozen or so souls who, like me, value a spiritual highlight during the week, whenever they are able to attend.  As I left the church on Wednesday morning, I was aware of being quiet and having a feeling of peace, of being 'settled within'.  Perhaps it was simply the contrast from the previous evening when I felt pressured by two or three e-mail conversations that had dominated what would usually be a restful time after a day's work.

Whatever its cause, this tranquillity was just what I needed later in the morning, for the post brought news of the death of an old friend.  She was no only old in years, having made it to the age of 95, but - as I later calculated - I have known her for about 35 years and knew of her for some years before that.  Lilian had been my children's primary school teacher and, as she often reminded me, often thought of them (and, I suspect, of many hundreds of other children who had passed through her hands down the years) and wondered how they were getting on.

She lived a few miles away, but after her retirement still liked to keep in touch with the village where she had taught and so joined a Bible study group attached to the church, which is how I came to know her.  A few years later, she and her husband moved - as many older couples do - to another part of the country to be closer to her daughter, son-in-law and growing grandchildren.  We exchanged Christmas cards each year, but of all those with whom I had such links, she was the only one who carried on a correspondence sporadically throughout the year.

When I started driving for a living, I sometimes found myself delivering in her area or beyond and would occasionally drop in for a drink and a chat on my way home.  I can't recall when it was that I learned that her daughter had been in the year below me at school, but on one of these 'drop-in' occasions, Lilian greeted me at the front door and announced, 'there's someone here who would like to meet you'.  I was ushered through to the kitchen, where her daughter was waiting and I think it warmed her heart to see the two of us chatting away about our schooldays of some forty years earlier as if it were only yesterday.

Goodbye Lilian, may you rest in peace.

Saturday, 21 September 2019

Puff, Puff and Splash!

For the last few years, I've managed to take a day out on the East Anglian coast, reviving old memories and generally relaxing.  Some years ago - maybe three, maybe more - it was Yarmouth, where I visited some roads associated with the family my parents and I had stayed with on our holidays in my childhood.  Two years ago it was Yarmouth again, and I explored the relics of the Midland & Great Northern Railway (M&GNR) which originally had its terminus at the Beach Station, now long since converted into a coach station.  A few hundred yards up the line from there was the site of Newtown Halt, where - in all ignorance of its origins - I used to park up with my then girlfriend.  Last year, I had aimed for Lowestoft, but took a wrong turning, found myself in Dunwich and revived other memories.

I realised yesterday that, since next Saturday is already booked for a striking competition in the morning and an FA Trophy tie in the afternoon and the following week brings the ringers' autumn outing, this will probably be my last chance for a 'day at the seaside'.  As I quickly made plans last evening, I questioned whether this was actually going to be focused on a sniff of the briny or a hunt for signs of a lost railway, for I had decided to venture further north, again to a place with an M&GNR connection.  During the Edwardian years at the beginning of the last century, this railway company - itself under the joint management of the Midland and Great Northern companies - entered into an agreement with the Great Eastern Railway (GER) to create two small and quite separate lines that would link up these two networks.  This arrangement was known as the Norfolk & Suffolk Joint Railway (N&SJR).

One line ran down the coast from Yarmouth to Lowestoft.  I remember being parked in Corton, one of the villages through which it passed, and watching in the distance as the final train made its journey on that line when it closed in 1970.  The other line ran from the M&GNR station in North Walsham (two stations were there, side by side, the other being the one built by the GER that still serves the town) round the coast to Cromer, where it ran around the town, through a tunnel (the only main line tunnel in Norfolk) beneath the GER line, to join up with the M&GNR line from Sheringham and run into Cromer Beach Station.

This line closed along with all the rest of the former M&GNR's system in 1959, with the exception of that loop around Cromer.  When the GER arrived there in 1877, it sited its station on the high ground on the southern edge of the town; the Beach Station, however, was quite near the centre and much handier for visitors.  Once all the railways companies were merged into British Railways, and with the general level of passenger traffic declining after World War II, there was no need for there to be two stations in a town the size of Cromer.  A link was made where the two lines crossed so that trains from Norwich (the former GER line) could also use the Beach Station and the former GER station, after being renamed only in 1948 as Cromer High, was closed in the early 1950s.

Today's expedition was to the small seaside town of Mundesley and brought with it a variety of memories.  First, as I drove into Norwich along Newmarket Road, I passed the end of a little opening called Eagle Walk where, in my late teens, I had found a small motor-cycle shop, now long since gone.  That was in the days when the price of a secondhand bike would roughly equate to its engine size;  I think it was there that I found a 200cc Francis Barnett that I couldn't afford, and later settled for a 175cc BSA Bantam.  Next was a journey through the middle of the city ... well, not quite so 'through the middle' as I had anticipated for, as I got to the top of St Stephen's Street, I was confronted by a 'buses only' sign and had to divert either to east or west around the 'inner ring road'.  I chose west and passed the site of a garage on Grapes Hill where I had once bought a little yellow Citroen.

As you might imagine, some sixty years now since their closure, there is little to be seen of either the M&GNR or N&SJR lines today.  All I spotted was a short stretch of track-bed through the trees as I left North Walsham and what could have been the site of the line south of Mundesley as I turned a corner to begin my return journey this afternoon.  So my attention was, perforce, concentrated on the seaside element.  Despite the warm sunshine there was a strong onshore wind, which made the cliff-top walk a little uncomfortable.  There was one person swimming in the sea, however, and another - more thoroughly clad - surfing.

The sea is the sea, however, and after satisfying myself with sight of it, I turned my attention to people-watching on the attractive and well-kept greens and supplemented my lunch with my first ice cream since buying one in my brief visit to Ennis while in Ireland earlier this year.  With hunger now satisfied, I set off for more 'holiday-like' experiences.

At Potter Heigham, I found a convenient car park - free for three hours - for customers of Lathams, 'the Broadland Superstore'.  I couldn't resist making a few purchases, while fulfilling my customer duties, and then amused myself watching the difficulties of a novice boatman trying to park by the staithe and equally a couple of children trying to get the ducks to feed from their hands ... with mixed success!  I think it was at Potter that I once hired a boat for the day and took my children for a ride up the river and back ... but I couldn't be sure whether it was there or Wroxham.  I wonder whether they would remember that now.

Soon it was time to head for home and, being so close, I decided to make use of the ferry at Reedham.  It's the only place between Norwich and Yarmouth where the Yare can be crossed by vehicular traffic and the ferry was run as a family business for more than a century.  Whether the present proprietor still maintains that tradition, I couldn't say.  At two vehicles a time in either direction, he's kept constantly busy.

All in all, a wonderful mixture of new and old experiences, and all of them pleasant.  I wonder where the whim will take me next year!

Friday, 13 September 2019

Late Summer Sunshine

"The hose is there; if there are two days without rain, please water the beans and raspberries." This was the welcome I had at my cousin's home, and the hose has been in operation twice in the week.  I think the only rain came one morning - and that didn't last long.

My 'holiday' of house-sitting and cat-feeding has been quite enjoyable.  Many would say unexciting, and I suppose that's true, too.  But I've enjoyed it.  Two days were spent 'commuting' to Sheffield, where - despite the reversed resignation of the sitting MP - a by-election campaign has continued, albeit at a low key.  Of the four journeys, there and back, none has been uneventful.

The first morning I followed SatNav until it seemed that it had missed the expected turning off the M1.  By then I was in the city's suburbs and my electronic 'friend' had no hesitation in leading me into the centre, where roadworks and traffic took their toll and the journey that should have taken me about an hour took nearly two.  I returned that afternoon via Chesterfield, but having got there, too the wrong turning off the A61 and found myself onto the motorway too early, with the resulting delay in my return.

On Wednesday, I decided that it wasn't the right weather to watch cricket, so went back to Sheffield, this time going the 'right way' but had to take a very tight left turn when almost at my destination and stalled; I was very grateful to the driver behind me, who pulled up sharply while still on the corner.  The journey home was delayed only by the Chesterfield rush-hour traffic.

Main Street, Egginton, Derbyshire
Between these trips, I made a family history 'pilgrimage', first to the record office in Matlock, where the staff couldn't have been more helpful, directing me to the computers instead of re-directing me to Stafford for a query relating to records not in their area.  My other quest, to locate my uncle on the electoral rolls of the years immediately after World War I, was only partially successful.
After visiting a local pub for lunch, I took a detour and went for a look around the village of Egginton, where my uncle and aunt lived until 1923 or 4, and where her family came from.

Trent Bridge, Nottingham
Thursday was a cricket day and, for only the second time ever, I visited a first-class match and watched the third and last day of Nottinghamshire v. Kent.  When I arrived, Notts, batting in the fourth innings of the match and chasing a target of 440, were 29 for 2;  When I decided that the time had come to make for home, they were on 195 for 9 and I find that I missed only 17 runs after that point.  Apart from the not unusual event of the umpires needing twice to find a replacement ball, the other excitement was one that those around me declared they had never seen before.  The batsman struck the ball in the usual way; it went only a short distance, so there would be no run; more importantly, he was left with just the handle of the bat in his hand, the blade having spun down the wicket to say 'hello' to his colleague at the bowler's end!

Today has in some ways reminded me of seaside holidays of my childhood.  Instead of playing on the beach, we children would find ourselves dragged up and down the high street, as the parents visited known shops to make purchases to take home ... often, we later realised, for Christmas presents!  So, my last full day of the week began with shopping, and then back at the computer completing some regular tasks ... like this blog!

Now, along with my furry friend, I have to declare it to be teatime!

Friday, 6 September 2019

Twenty Years On

Twenty years ago this week marked the end of a short reformative phase of my life.  Inevitably, this has been a time for looking back down the years and reflection.  In those days, I was still working in an office and receiving the highest salary of my career.  The job had its snags but the work was, in the main, satisfying.  The millennium year gave me the opportunity to travel more than ever before and I spent five weeks working in the USA.  My boss wasn't the easiest bloke to get on with, but he could be generous. 

Those five weeks spanned the 100th birthday of HM Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, and I had already made plans to ring bells in her honour.  "No problem.  Come home and ring, then go back again," he said, as if it were just the other end of the country.  I left the office in California on Thursday afternoon, was ringing on Friday evening, went on a coach trip I'd also been booked on, but would have cheerfully have given up if necessary, on the Saturday and was back in the office by Monday afternoon!

Two years later, the business had changed completely and I found my situation no longer comfortable.  It all came to a head one Tuesday morning when I decided, 'I can't work like this!'  I walked out of the office and got a train home.  From the safety of my lounge, I phoned the boss and told him "I quit!"  Apart from telling me he thought I was making a big mistake, he took it very well.  I didn't know until much later what else was going on at that time (and the detail isn't appropriate here).  Suffice to say that, within months the whole business had collapsed and I had had a narrow escape.

Meanwhile, I had started a new life behind the wheel of a van.  I'd always enjoyed driving and now I was seeing places I'd never dreamed of, and getting paid for the privilege.  By the time I retired some 13½ years later, I'd covered almost a million miles, very few of which I hadn't enjoyed.  Naturally, my income had fallen substantially and, for a couple of years, I tried to cultivate secondary income streams, first as a writer and later (and completely without success!) teaching an adult education course.  Soon, the demands of being a same-day courier had rendered any other aspect of life - business or social - virtually impossible.

On the domestic front, I moved through a succession of flats, and had begun to build up a social life from scratch in what, twenty years ago, was to me still a virtually unknown town.  Being a bell-ringer eased this challenge and when, a few years on, I faced a crisis in my church life it was through a ringing friend that I found a new place to worship and to grow spiritually ... the church that I still attend, some thirteen years later.

Retirement brought with it another upheaval.  I remember from my past a friend for whom that transition had proved impossible and within six months he was dead.  I resolved that this wouldn't happen to me and I was in the fortunate position of being able to enter a plan of phased retirement, working three weeks out of four for a while, and then two, gradually building up other interests at the same time.  I think this was successful and now, four years on, people occasionally ask, "... and are you fully retired now?"

Politicians often excuse their demise by 'wanting to spend more time with their family'.  That's not my situation, at least not in that way.  I was able to spend more time on family history but, though absorbing - and many would say addictive - it can't command all one's time.  Throughout my life, I've always had a 'project' of some sort on the go.  Sometimes these would take a week, sometimes - like the twin family tree for my cousin's golden wedding a couple of years ago - many months would be devoted almost exclusively to their completion.  Such things absorb time, but don't provide a proper structure to life: certain organisations or interests that occupy a regular weekly 'slot'.

Two years ago (with some trepidation, I admit, for this was outside of my 'comfort zone') I expressed interest in an inter-church project to develop a weekly drop-in facility for the homeless and vulnerable in our town.  Gradually my involvement there grew from monthly to fortnightly and then every week as I found myself more and more able to take a greater part in the work.  However, this was only one morning a week and time was beginning to feel heavy.  Again, a friend came to the rescue.  This time it was another volunteer at the drop-in.  As we chatted one morning, she explained that she had recently become involved with our local hospice.

Like many such places, the hospice runs a number of high street shops as a source of finance and my friend suggested that I might enquire whether they would like some help in that direction.  I was soon sucked into their operation and now help in one way or another a day and a half each week, and more often if convenient and necessary.

For the moment this active retiree has a comfortable framework, and sufficient other interests to occupy the time between eating and sleeping.  How long each aspect will continue to contribute to this comfort is not for me to determine but I have many resources to turn to when change occurs!