Saturday, 23 October 2021

Trying to Help, and Wondering Later

Nine years ago - while I was still dashing about the country to earn a living as a same-day courier - I had just embarked in my 'spare' time on a project that took almost a year to complete.  One of the most significant false trails I'd followed in my family history researches derived from the fact that there were several families in the small Suffolk town of Stanton all bearing the same name. By the mid-nineteenth century they had become very distinct from one another and distant from what had probably been a common origin centuries earlier.

I decided that it would clarify things in my own mind, and possibly help others following the same name, to attempt a sort of 'one name study' of all the Sturgeons in Stanton during the 19th century.  By the following summer, I'd compiled a massive spreadsheet, and offered it via the internet to any who thought it might be useful.  I had about a dozen expressions of interest, and there the matter lay, done and dusted ...

... Until this week, that is.  I had an e-mail from a lady in Australia who has become confused by finding a number of family trees on a well-known website that purport to represent some of her ancestors, but with significant differences from her own understanding of her forbears.  She has had correspondence with the owners of some of these trees, who are adamant that 'she has got it wrong'.  Since some of her researches were based on the results of my project, she has come back to me for re-assurance that her version of the story is the right one, and that it is these other tree-owners who are mistaken.

This puts me in something of a dilemma.  My distribution of the results of my project was accompanied by the usual disclaimer that "while I have checked this data and believe it to be accurate, I can take no responsibility for any residual errors and it is for the user to check the details therein against their own research and with original sources where possible, before adding anyone in it to their own tree."  Although probably about 90% of the details included were not part of my own tree, I would hate to have misled anyone with it.  So I'm now wondering what errors I might have made.

If you've tried digging back through reams of correspondence and tried to follow lines of thought and research that many years' hectic living have forced into the farthest reaches of your memory, you'll have some idea how I feel as a new weekend dawns.  On one hand I'm fortunate that I don't have to take work into consideration now, as I did back then.  On the other hand, my 'normal' week is taken up with the many things that have filled my retirement, and these are not easily laid aside in order to do the necessary checking and re-checking.

At a personal level, I would like the satisfaction of saying, 'I know I'm right because of this, this and this.' and, although it won't further my own research, that end-result will motivate me in this un-sought task.  However, my enthusiasm is blended with the resentment that is echoed by one of the early sentences of my correspondent's e-mail: "I just wish people would check their facts properly before they put them on line!" and also the fear that the same condemnation could apply to me!

Saturday, 16 October 2021

Switching Off and Switching On ... Tentacled Travelling!

Energy prices are set to go through the roof ... or so we're told.  It used to be said that the best way to ensure you're paying least for your gas and electricity was to switch suppliers.  I heard on the radio last week that this advice is now redundant; it's apparently best to stay put and stick it out.  Financial Health Warning: Please don't act on this 'reported' advice! 

I switched in about 2017 ... long enough ago not to remember which supplier I moved from.  Since then I had been a happy customer of Octopus.  When matters were finally settled for my move this summer, I called Octopus to arrange for them to provide me at my new home.  Sadly, when I explained that the house was fitted with a pay-as-you-go meter, they told me that their system couldn't cope with this.  I learned that the only thing I had to do was to change my account to payment by direct debit and then they would be able to pick up my supply.

The day after I signed the lease, I visited the house to deliver some advance possessions, measure the rooms for my furniture plan and check for curtain requirements ... and while there, I read the meters.  I had discovered that the fridge was running and I was anxious that the supply wouldn't be cut off if I didn't make a payment for electricity.  This would be using a system involving some kind of 'key' like a credit card that was completely foreign to me, and while I was still some distance away since the removal company wouldn't be able to fit me in for a couple of weeks.

During the next few days I made several efforts to contact British Gas to arrange the 'mode change'.  The only phone numbers I could find led to automated systems and the nearest I ever came to speaking to an actual person was an online chat facility.  Eventually, a whole week after reading the meters, I was finally satisfied that there was a functioning account, in my name, to supply electricity and gas under terms I thought I could understand.  Note my use of the word 'thought' there.

I began to make monthly payments by direct debit.  Slowly, it dawned on me that I had not one, but two separate accounts, one for each energy type.  The monthly payment was for electricity only and, despite a letter saying they would send a monthly statement, nothing arrived.  The account for gas would be paid by a separate, variable direct debit, against a monthly bill.  I received one such bill on 14th August, some 54 days after supply began, and payment was duly extracted from my bank a fortnight later.  Monthly bill? I don't think so.  Meanwhile I had still heard nothing at all about the electricity. 

If you're confused having read this far all at one go, imagine how I felt living through it day by uncertain and puzzling day!  In the early days of September, I received an e-mail from British Gas (no name, no location - just 'British Gas'), announcing that their prices would be increasing from a date in October.  I decided enough was enough.  It was time for me to fulfil my promise to return to Octopus.  I made the phone call, speaking directly to a human voice at the other end.  Certainly I could switch.  I followed up with an e-mail quoting my new address, the British Gas account numbers and that was it.  They would transfer my bank details from my now closed account, and the whole process would be done in about three weeks.  I marked my diary 'O-Day' with a smiley face and on that day I read the meters and sent them to Octopus.

The only things left to resolve were payments to and from British Gas.  I had an e-mailed bill for gas, which was paid by direct debit this week, a couple of weeks after the bill, as before.  I had a letter - again with no name, or sending address - regarding the electricity account, announcing 'We've now cancelled your direct debit'.  This was not strictly true: I had cancelled it as soon as I had a switch date from Octopus.  The letter suggested I could pay with a credit card either on line or by phone, or I could send a cheque to their payment centre.  This was the only address in the letter. 

I made unsuccessful attempts to obtain account details by phone and on line (both said there were no charges and a zero balance on my account, although the letter had said that my account was in credit by slightly more than the total of my three monthly payments).  I wrote a letter to them, pointing out that these two sources both disagreed with the figure on their letter, and asking them to deduct from the credit balance the charge for electricity in the last three months and "return the balance to my bank account within fourteen days."

I made no comment suggesting what action I might take if those fourteen days should pass with no result.  In truth I had no plan, but I felt that the 'legal-sounding' expression would add gravitas and might produce the right result.  Within three days I had an e-mail enclosing a proper statement and specifying the resulting balance that would be transferred to my account.  It arrived on Thursday of this week, before the fourteen days had elapsed.

After four years, I know I can trust Octopus to provide regular details of my account.  If I'm paying too much or too little, I can adjust my regular payment by sending them an e-mail.  I send them meter readings and within hours I get a statement based on the readings I've sent.  Nothing could be simpler.  Soon after the switch date, I received notice that my old direct debit would be reinstated, and earlier this week I was asked for meter readings.  These I supplied by return e-mail and the resulting statement shows that my single payment has been offset by the total of electricity and gas used since the switchover.

And am I better off from switching?  I have now had a chance to compare prices, too.  The charges per unit are lower than British Gas, even if only slightly - down by 0.08% for electricity and 0.61% for gas.  The standing charges, however, are much lower - gas down by 10.34% and electricity by a whopping 39.71%  The financial benefit may be small, but mentally, I'm much happier, knowing that I can monitor my costs regularly and reliably and that any query can be resolved by e-mail to and fro with a single definite operator.

I'm a happy bunny, dealing with eight super-efficient tentacles!

Saturday, 9 October 2021

It All Needs to Change!

I'm presently suffering from three conflicting feelings ... call them emotions if you like.  First, at my age I'm reasonably content with life and I'm probably old enough not to be around when the worst of climate change takes effect.  Second, while I feel concern for those who are in need, I don't have any practical way to identify needy individuals in my immediate vicinity, and third, I don't have great physical energy, finance or particular skills to do much anyway.

It's an iceberg of a problem, this business of concern.  At least that's what I fear: there's probably far more for people to worry about than the few things that hit the headlines.  Outside of my own comfortable nest, there are three things in particular that worry me as I reflect upon the wider aspects of life in the autumn of 2021.  First, and perhaps most seriously, is the climate crisis.  Given the nations' track record following previous conferences, I find myself sceptical firstly about any positive outcome of the upcoming COP26 event in Glasgow, and secondly how many of any commitments that might be made there will actually come to pass.

My second major concern is the sequence of extreme measures that the present government of this country are adopting.  Let me give you just three examples.  One is measures against voter fraud, very much a solution in search of a problem, if ever there was one.  The likely outcome is that many will become disenfranchised and that few of these would be Tory voters, making the government's position more secure.  Another is the clause in the Policing Bill that will deprive individuals of the right to protest.  The third is the way that refugees are being treated.  I acknowledge that the arrival of Afghan refugees was somewhat thrust upon us, but news bulletins reveal that many are being herded into temporary accommodation, e.g. in tourist hotels, and simply left there with no plans or discussions with local authorities - and little or no economic assistance - to facilitate their integration into the local community.  

On the other hand we see boatload after boatload of asylum seekers arriving - or attempting to arrive - on our shores in the most dangerous manner.  The focus of all the action surrounding this situation is aimed at making it more difficult for these voyages to take place.  This just plays into the hands of the smugglers, who will devise other routes, more difficult, but more lucrative, and keep trying.  If these people - many of whom possess skills that we need! - were to be welcomed with open arms, there would be no market for smugglers, and an enhancement to our economic strategies into the bargain.

And my third major concern is our present economic situation.  Someone - and it's so long ago that I can't remember who or on what occasion, but its history doesn't undermine its relevance - once described the government as 'lurching from crisis to crisis with all the dignity of a ruptured duck on an ice rink!'  The proud claim of those who supported and contrived to achieve Brexit was that it would enable us to take back control ... of our trade, and our borders and, by implication, of our population, too.  

So far, trade with our most profitable partners has declined; what survives is burdened with a seemingly impenetrable cloak of new paperwork, and one of the most loyal sections of our multi-faceted nation has suffered the most stringent difficulties by the introduction of a border that they were told would never come about.  

Our borders - which I understand were never controlled before Brexit to the extent that was provided for by EU legislation - are now so unwelcoming that hoards of loyal citizens born elsewhere but happy to live, work and pay taxes here (and never had any need to get a British passport until Brexit came about) have now either been expelled or have decided voluntarily to go back to continental Europe.  The effect on our economy has been disastrous, The contribution to our social and economic structures that was being made by their skills and diligence has suddenly evaporated.  While there is a logical argument that British people should be doing jobs here, the management of this changeover has been far too precipitant - or non-existent! - and the time needed for our own nationals to gain those skills has never been taken into account.  In some cases - perhaps many, for all I know - there are no native-born applicants clamouring to replace these unappreciated, and now missing, workers.

Another - and more topical - strand to the economic situation is the removal of the temporary enhancement to Universal Benefit payments.  A woman interviewed on the radio this week admitted that, when the additional payment was introduced, it was indeed an 'extra' and enabled her to catch up on some outstanding bills.  However, increases in the price of food and in the general cost of living since that time has taken up that 'slack', and she is now back where she started; the removal of the enhancement, though not a surprise, hits her hard.  James O'Brien on LBC asked this week how many of those opposing the retention of the enhancement actually had any idea of the effect of the loss of £20 ... even on a single occasion, let alone every week.  It's all very well to say that the intention is for people to work harder and earn what they need to live on.  Many are doing their utmost already.  Many others either can't physically work and rely solely on benefits, and many who are in work can't increase their hours - even if they had the stamina to do so - because their present out-of-work time is committed to caring for either children or older family members.

Underlying all of these distressing situations, and the desire for change and improvement, is the need to reform our electoral system.  This would relieve, and hopefully remove, the dissatisfaction that many thousands feel that those whose decisions control their lives either don't listen to them, or don't care about them, or both.  Very few Tory MPs are willing to support, or give any thought to, the introduction of proportional representation (in other words making seats in Westminster match the way the population actually vote), knowing that any such a change would work against them and deprive them of the power they presently wield.

I don't often devote this blog to a political rant, but I'm tormented by those emotions that introduced this post.  There's guilt at my present comfortable situation, and frustration about not being in a position to help others.  Many years ago, in response to feelings like this, someone whose situation was far better than mine is now, and whom I greatly respected, told me, "I could sell my house and give away all my money, but what good would that do, other than make me part of a still unresolved problem?"  At least I can write about all these things and hope that others will read and react in the most constructive way they can.

Saturday, 2 October 2021

You Wouldn't Catch Me Doing That!

A true expression of bravado, if ever there was one!  There are several possible meanings to it, possibly identified by the intonation of the speaker.  Spoken defiantly, it could indicate careful planning before the execution of something unlawful, ensuring so far as possible that the speaker wouldn't be observed or apprehended.  Spoken in a spirit of self-confidence, it could imply that he or she would not consider actions that could result in the situation being referred to, or would take precautions to avoid that result.  Or, a stage further, it could be said with self-deprecation, and suggest a reluctance to offer or apply for a position or office that would lead to such a situation.

These are words that have come to my mind in a number of ways just lately.  Some apply to me, some to others about me or involved with me.

There are rules governing all we do in life, some general, some specific; some enforceable in law, others depending on courtesy.  In the voluntary work I'm doing at present, I began earlier in the year doing what, in effect, amounted to copy-typing material in a foreign language.  Specific rules dictated what to type in certain circumstances, such as printing instructions that had to be inserted amongst the text; ensuring the correct positioning of punctuation, and so on.  All these were on top of typing the correct letters, with the correct accents, in the first place.  The key thing emphasised in my training was checking: reviewing and correcting in order that the end result was as accurate as possible.

I have now been moved to the next stage in the process.  Everything is typed twice, by different people, and I'm now presented with two separate sets of documents, to compare to each other as well as to the original, with the objective of producing one final version that is an accurate and usable digital version of the printed original provided.  I can see now the importance of the checking!  Some of the errors I'm having to correct would require little checking by the typist to spot and put right before submission, and I find myself saying, "You wouldn't catch me doing that!"

Soon after arriving in my new home, several days of rain revealed the need for some attention to the roof.  As I watched this being carried out, with one man standing at the foot of the ladder for safety while his colleague actually repaired the flashing and applied sealant where necessary, I found myself coping with a variety of emotions.  One was envy, another was fear.  Once on holiday, I lay flat on my stomach and looked straight down the face of the Pont du Gard; I may even have taken a picture ... I can't clearly remember.  As a bell ringer I have often emerged from the top of a church tower to admire the view, but always from the safety of the surrounding parapet.  Watching that roofer walking with apparent abandon up and down the sloping tiles, I recalled days in the school gym, clinging to the top of a climbing rope, and my palms go wet even now as I remember both occasions over fifty years apart.

You wouldn't catch me doing that!

The pattern I've developed over the few months I've been here is to visit the supermarket for my grocery shopping every other Monday, and every other visit - i.e. once a month - I go across the road before returning home and fill up with petrol.  I presently have something less than half a tank of fuel in my car.  I hope to fill up this coming Monday, but if I can't, and the situation is not resolved by the time the tank is empty, I shall have to resort to plan B ... which has yet to be determined.  There are many reasons for the present crisis, which I don't propose to rehearse here.  Suffice to say that one of the most critical is a shortage of HGV drivers.

When I was driving I was fortunate to be using a vehicle that was unregulated.  However, the threat of that changing sent me to research the regulations that might have been extended in my direction.  Baffling doesn't begin to describe them.  In addition to these - with the underlying threat that failure to comply could mean the revocation of the driver's HGV licence - are the conditions under which those heavy haulage drivers have to work.  

I read a most informative summary on social media recently, posted by a British driver who regularly travels to other countries.  The regulations state that breaks must be taken regularly and some are specifically to be taken away from the vehicle.  The need to complete jobs in the least time possible, and fit in as much work as possible, all adds to the pressure to find somewhere to take the necessary breaks, whether for half-an-hour or a number of hours.  In this country, it could mean finding a motorway service station (with a hefty parking charge), or a roadside lay-by (if there's room).  If the rest period is to include a night's sleep, this is hardly likely to be sound and refreshing beside a busy main road! (I know - I've tried it!)  Put together several days like this up and down the country, and the need for proper sleep, washing facilities etc. builds up, not just physically, but mentally, too.  Drivers with families to get home to are under even greater pressure.

In France, Germany and other countries, said this driver, there are few main roads without a convenient spread of purpose built refuges for this purpose, certainly with toilets and often with showers, proper beds, and provision for a hot meal.  Those countries recognise that these men - and women! - are key to the smooth running of the economy and look after them.  For too long Britain has taken lorry drivers for granted.  They have to make do with what facilities they can scavenge, which is why thousands have left the road and let their licences lapse.  

The present temporary visa scheme, when it eventually get under way, will, I fear, be treated by foreign drivers with contempt.  Those who are already driving for other employers won't be interested, and those who aren't have either found other work or will look at the possibility of eight, maybe ten weeks' work in British conditions - with which they are probably familiar - with no guarantee of anything beyond Christmas ... and think that it's just not worth the hassle.

Someone asked me the other day if I had been tempted to help fight the present shortage.  When I was driving, I heard stories from parcels drivers (DPD, Hermes and the like) of being challenged to make well over 100 deliveries a day or lose pay; my reaction to them was that I couldn't stand that pressure.  My answer to this challenge was gladness that I never had an HGV licence, so wouldn't qualify, but given the conditions I've seen and heard about ... "You wouldn't catch me doing that!"

Saturday, 25 September 2021

Seaside Musings and Memories

It was some time on Tuesday afternoon that the thought came to me.  The prospect of no work coming my way to occupy me the next day, coupled with the forecast of more bright and warm weather reminded me of an annual 'tradition' - broken by Covid restrictions last year, but otherwise consistent since my retirement - of a 'day at the seaside' at some point during the late summer.

So, where would I go?  By a happy topical coincidence of geography and my recent Welsh lessons, one of the nearest resorts aligned itself with 'Dw i erioed wedi bod yno o'r blaen' (I've never been there before).  So it was that a quick glance at the road atlas enabled me to set course for Cleethorpes.

The journey east, via M18 and M180 heralded a day of happy and quite varied memories, beginning with the recollection that there was a Moto service station at the junction of those two motorways.  On the few occasions that I'd had deliveries in Hull, I preferred to use the A15 and Humber Bridge, to the faster combination of A1 and M60.  I would often return by way of these two motorways, so the scenery thus far was quite familiar.  Grimsby I had seen once, I think, but Cleethorpes ... never.

On my arrival, having located a parking place, the first major question was 'how long do I want to pay for?'  I decided four hours rather than two, but in the event it was only just over the two by the time I left.  Like many seaside resorts, the town has grown up in the last two centuries from small and deep-rooted beginnings.  Essentially a fishing village with a population of just a few hundred at the start of the nineteenth century, Wikipedia tells me that it is now home to nearly 40,000.

The seasonal attractions at many resorts are manned by people who have two lives: meeting and greeting the holidaymakers for a few months in summer and turning to some other lifestyle for the 'less public' greater part of the year.  As I wandered along the promenade from my parking place quite close to the railway station, one of the first sights I encountered was a truck on the beach in readiness to carry away a fairground ride that was in the process of being dismantled, its work done for another season.

On this mid-September day, there was, of course, a noticeable absence of children, resulting in an atmosphere that could easily be compared to the leisurely age of a century ago.  Almost all of the seats on the promenade were occupied and it was touching to find that some bore plates dedicating them to particular individuals who had obviously taken pleasure in sitting there regularly down the years, and had now passed on to a greater plane.  Some seats were occupied by family groups, often comprising three - or more - generations, and I was reminded of many a group picture from the 1930s in my own family collection.  There was a noticeably significant presence of motorised wheelchairs and tricycles, not all of which were being used by older visitors, for a number carried young parents out with the rest of their family to enjoy the late summer sunshine.

In embarking on this impromptu excursion, I had deliberately brought no food with me, confident that there would be somewhere to get something to eat, be it hot or cold, a substantial meal or a simple snack.  Not far from where I had left the car, was one of many fast-food outlets and, having made my purchase, I walked carefully to the other side of the promenade and ate my sausage and chips, looking out to sea.  As I did so, my mind went back some eleven years to my one and only visit to the Isle of Man.  On that occasion I had eaten fish and chips by the seaside surrounded by an eager squabble of  hungry gulls eager to share my lunch; this week my audience was more refined, but no less hungry, and these small speckled birds (sadly, I have no idea of their species) were content to stand back until I had finished.  Their reward was my emptying of the carton on the ground, before putting it carefully in one of the many large bins provided to keep the town tidy.

Later, I walked further along the promenade, lingering from time to time by the rail at the beach's edge to watch mankind at leisure.  As I did so, I assigned to one individual who caught my eye, the epithet 'a brave young mum'.  She had come, it appeared, alone apart from her daughter, a bubble-curled blonde of two years or less.  When I first spotted them, mum was taking pains to explain that she was about to leave for a brief errand.  Her gestures clearly conveyed the message 'I'm going up there, and I won't be long.  You'll be quite all right here, won't you?'.

I watched as she then walked quickly, though with a few backward glances, past me, up the slope to the promenade and back behind me to her car.  Having established the point of her journey, my gaze turned back to the toddler, still happily playing with her spade in the sand.  I wondered in my vigil how loudly I would be able - or, indeed, willing - to shout 'leave that child alone' or something similar, should I see an interloper make a threatening move.  Of course, all was well and within seconds, her mission complete, the mother was retracing her steps.  I breathed a sigh of relief and allowed my imagination to question what else the woman could do, and what circumstances might have placed her in that situation.

Cleethorpes central promenade
Further along, I sat awhile on one of the seats, forcing myself to sit and relax.  I find it hard to 'unwind' and sit doing nothing; there's always a niggling feeling that my minutes could be filled more productively.  As I did so, framing this blog in my mind, two young women approached, one pregnant, the other drawing a pram.  Sitting alone at one end of the seat, I was amused at the latter's question, 'Excuse me, do you think we can we squeeze in?'  How could I object?  They were content to sit and chatter beside me and, when I felt that it would no longer convey a message that they had forced me out, I wandered off and satisfied another whim, buying an ice cream ... from a place that happens to feature prominently in the picture from Wikipedia, in the window of which was a sign that read "Last day - closing tomorrow".

Thus provided for, I enjoyed memories of other resorts: Clacton-on-Sea as I walked uphill through gardens behind the promenade & Colwyn Bay as I then came upon the red-brick shopping street beyond.  My homeward journey brought its own memories: battling with SatNav as it tried to send me to Louth rather than Market Rasen: my brief sojourn in that latter place a few years ago, when I bought in a charity shop there the pair of pictures that still sit beside my desk.  Then, strangely, as I passed through Bawtry, I was reminded of another town I've passed through only once, but by which I was sufficiently impressed that I resolved one day to go again - although I haven't as yet - Yarm.  Is it mere coincidence the distance from Bawtry to Doncaster is not much different from that between Yarm and another recognised railway town, Darlington?

(Picture credit: Wikipedia - used under license: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported) 

Saturday, 18 September 2021

Not What it Seems!

During the brief respite from Covid-19 precautions last year, the funeral was held of a lady who, with her husband, had moved to the town from Cardiff a few years previously; the funeral was thus a meeting of cultures as well as a celebration of her life.  

The organist for the occasion was a young woman whom I was privileged to consider a friend of mine - and still do.  I got there early for the service in order to secure a parking space and, in the quiet before the mourners arrived, we were chatting and looking through the order of service.  When I spotted that the final piece of music was to be a recording of Cerys Matthews singing Calon Lân, I spoke of my liking for the song, and showed her the words to it that I have stored on my phone.

When she said she didn't know it, I quietly sang the first verse and chorus to her as we sat by the organ.  Now, if I say she was looking at the words on my phone 'through English eyes', that would misrepresent this remarkable woman.  Born in Romania, her knowledge of English is faultless and she speaks it with scarcely any trace of an accent.  In addition, I know her to be fluent in a number of other languages ... but Welsh is not one of them!  Her comment was both revealing and profound.  "What I'm hearing is not what I'm seeing!"

For many decades, I have had a fascination for this 'foreign' tongue on our doorstep and, since my retirement, in addition to formally learning the language, I've 'adopted', if that's not too strong a word, the culture as well.  At weekends, I listen to programmes on BBC Radio Wales (having not yet progressed far enough in my studies to venture into BBC Cymru!), and it's like stepping into another world.  As my opening comments reveal, there's a different culture beyond Offa's Dyke!

At the end of that funeral, it seemed inevitable that some in the congregation would join in and, as they sang along with the chorus, I confess that I did so too, as I sat in my corner.  I have since tried to discover why it’s such an emotive song.  It is sung in churches and chapels, at eisteddfodau, rugby and football matches, and in stadiums and pubs across the country wherever Welshmen – and women – gather.  So deeply is it embedded within the Welsh culture that it could easily be believed that it’s far older than is actually the case.  

The words were written in 1891, allegedly on a cigarette packet, by a poet known for excessive drinking, who would sit in the King’s Head pub in his home town of Treboeth and exchange verses for ale ('poems for pints').  Daniel James, this lyricist, was born on 23 January 1848, one of five children; he became known as the 'bad boy' of Mynyddbach Chapel in Swansea.  He worked at Morriston Dyffryn steelworks, and later at a tinplate works.  When that closed, he moved to the Cynon Valley.  Here he was employed at a succession of three coal mines until, through ill health, he left the mines at the age of 68 and returned to live with his daughter in Morriston and died on 16 March 1920.  In later life he used the bardic name 'Gwyrosydd' (Man of the Moors), which appears on his tombstone in the Mynyddbach Chapel graveyard.

The tune was written on James’s invitation by a younger man, John Hughes.  He was born in 1872 at Pen y Bryn, Pembrokeshire and had already written 'Cwm Rhondda' for William Williams' great hymn 'Guide me O thou great Redeemer'.  The Irish-American writer Sean Curnyn claims that the combination of James’s syllables and Hughes's notes results in something very profound and able to affect the emotions with absolutely no idea of what the words mean.

It has been suggested that Calon Lân is neither a hymn nor a spiritual song; why then should it have such a strong emotional appeal?  What is it about the words of one of the most diversely sung songs in the world - although rarely, if ever, sung in English - that strikes directly to the hearts of Welshmen everywhere?  It's not the land itself; that has its own song, 'Land of My Fathers'.  And it's not the brave feats of Welsh heroes of the past like Owain Glyndŵr.  Here’s a link to a recording by Katherine Jenkins, useful because it shows an English translation as the Welsh words are being sung.  What, then, do those words have to say to us today?

Man's essential need is for spiritual maturity.  God has provided everything we need for a worthy and rewarding life, should we choose to accept it.  Sadly, many other philosophies are on offer from what some would call 'false teachers'.  These are to be avoided if we want that 'pure' life.  Pure is the word most translators have chosen for the Welsh (g)lân.  It’s a word for which it’s difficult to find an exact English equivalent; other words offered by Google’s translator include 'clean, complete, utter, holy, spotless, dear and fair'.

The message purveyed by those false teachers comes in modern ways to modern people, but is essentially the same as ever.  It is a message of permissiveness, the offer of present pleasure, material possessions and the complete denial of the existence of sin.  In his first two lines, Daniel James writes, 'Nid wy’n gofyn bywyd moethus, | Awr y byd na’i berlau mân' ('I don’t ask for a luxurious life, the world’s gold or its fine pearls') and in the second verse he acknowledges that, 'Pe dymunwn olud bydol, | Chwim adenydd iddo sydd' ('If I wished for worldly treasures, on swift wings they fly away.')

The third verse is a complete and constant prayer for the spiritual maturity that we all wish for, 'Hwyr a bore fy nymuniad | Gwyd i’r nef ar adain cân | Ar i Dduw, er mwyn fy Ngheidwad, | Roddi i mi galon lân.' ('Evening and morning, my wish, rising to heaven on the wing of song, is for God, for the sake of my Saviour, to give me a pure heart.') for, as the chorus repeats, 'Dim ond calon lân all ganu, | Canu'r dydd a chanu'r nos.' ('None but a pure heart can sing, sing in the day, sing in the night.')

What songs bring you that 'back-of-the-neck' tingle of emotion?

            Curnyn, Sean: The Cinch Review, 23.5.2013
                        Sotejeff-Wilson, Kate: Found in Translation, 6.7.2016
  , 11.4.2019

Saturday, 11 September 2021

A Sting in the Tale!

My title is mis-spelled deliberately, for it applies to what follows at many levels.  I leave you to work out the details.

With last week's excitement subsiding after a family history 'triple', and my charity work-giver on holiday, normal genie research took pride of place once more this week. There were just five more individuals left in the Burlingham sector of my tree to be checked out.  The five comprised a couple with an unmarried only son, and the father's unmarried sister with her young daughter.  I really felt close to the end of this project that has dragged on - as my readers well know - for so long.

However, those who study censuses should, of anyone, be most aware of the dangers of the premature summation of small fowls as yet unborn!  The Burlingham couple were Francis and Lucy; I had no maiden surname for Lucy, but this was easily overcome from marriage registers, and was confirmed by checking the birth of the son, Frank, on the GRO website.  The 1911 census revealed that Frank had married four years earlier; there were no children, however, and it seems they never became parents at all.  The last of these four died in 1950.

On then, to Hannah, the sister who had fallen victim to an early pregnancy.  Her baby was born on Boxing Day, 1860 and died during August the following year.  While Hannah was still only 17, she had no doubt gained a degree of maturity through her experience.  She caught the eye of George Ashford, a young man who had grown up in the village.  Following the death of his mother the previous summer, George was living alone at the 1861 census in the house they had formerly shared, making a living for himself as a sawyer.

Hannah and George were married at the village church in the December quarter of 1862.  Looking back with 21st century eyes, it's impossible to fathom whether or not the following decades are likely to have fulfilled Hannah's expectations, perhaps putting life to dreams she had formed as a fifteen-year-old when her daughter had been conceived.  It may even have been the case that this young woodworker had been the baby's father.  Whatever the background, the facts of the next years are simply put.  The couple welcomed a daughter in the third quarter of 1863 and over the next seventeen years further children followed at almost regular intervals of nine quarters or so until, in December 1880, came the arrival of Hannah's tenth child.  Her body no doubt exhausted, Hannah Ashford, neé Burlingham, died in the summer of 1881 just weeks after her 37th birthday.

I've begun tracing the lives of those nine surviving children, and the signs of an early end to my labours are not great.  Emma, the eldest, gave birth to a son in the early months of 1883.  Her brother James was married in the autumn of that year, and I can't help wondering whether his plans might have had some bearing on the fact that she and her son's father followed suit just weeks later.  By the time of the 1901 census these two couples had produced a total of 22 children, albeit that one of each family had died within weeks of being born.

Their second-youngest brother Albert was living in Harrow in 1901.  Ten years later he was in Hampstead and had been married for 8 years, during which he and his wife had suffered the loss of two of their four children, while only one of those remaining was with them at the census: more work for me to do there!

Another brother, William, joined the Royal Marine Light Infantry (one of the branches of the armed forces that later became the Royal Marines), had married a woman named Susanna, and was living in Hampshire in 1901.  The marriage register indicated that her maiden name was Hillier.  I have often moaned about the family I'm researching sometimes being recorded as Bullingham and sometimes Burlingham, often changing from one generation to the next.  Here was another name to provide hours of wasted research time!

In the 1901 census, Susanna's place of birth foxed the transcribers; looking at the original I could see it was Sturminster Newton.  She was 27 years old, so I looked for a birth in 1873 or '74.  It is clearly a regional name, but the only ones I came up with were in Pewsey and Devizes districts, neither of which included Sturminster - which had its own district!  One of these had the full name, Susanna (albeit with an ending 'h'), and was within the range to give age 27 in 1901.  The other was Susan, and a year older.  I followed up Susannah, who was born in Burbage, and her family in 1881 and 1891, all the time wondering why, after getting married, she should say she was born some 50 miles away.

Puzzled rather than satisfied, I turned for inspiration to the 1911 census.  Here I found yet another birthplace for the girl: Belchalwell (which again foxed the transcribers!).  When I looked for this and found that it is only a couple of miles from Sturminster Newton, I was convinced I had been on the wrong track.  Why change the place of birth a second time, to an obscure village that was close to the first fiction, ... unless it were true?  In my search for Belchalwell, I found an unexpected entry on the Google results page, headed 'Belchalwell Parish Records'.  This led me to the page of the Online Parish Clerk, which was full of fascinating information, not least of which was a transcription of the 1871 census for the village.  One click and ... Bingo!  The fourth household listed proved to be Susanna's family (without her, of course), whose name was given as Hilyer, a search for which finally gave me her birth details.

That was one of the families nailed but, with more of that generation, and at least a couple of dozen of the next, it looks as if there's to be no end yet to my quest and, with the prospect of more voluntary work next week now confirmed, the coming weeks are likely to be very busy!