Thursday, 14 May 2015

Getting Ready

I have a wimpish streak when it comes to getting on an aeroplane.*  I don’t do this very often nowadays, which makes it loom even more threateningly.  In a way, although the procedures are supposed to be much slicker nowadays, what with t’internet and that, I hanker after the good old days when you went up to Meadway Travel, sat down for a couple of hours with an expert called Jenny who did all the legwork and answered all your questions (including the ones you hadn’t thought of); and three days later a fat envelope dropped through the letterbox, you gave the contents a skim, read the bit which told you where and when to turn up and then forgot about it until departure day.  They supplied all the bits of paper which now you have to identify, download and (if you’re lucky and your version of Adobe is the same as theirs – possible but unlikely) print off.  And how is it that my question has never been Frequently Asked?

Anyway, all that’s sorted, so I’m distracting myself with details.  I went to Staples (you know, the wonderful shop where you buy your, erm, staples) for some luggage tags.  (They had a choice of colours, I chose white.)  I went to another wonderful shop called Clas Ohlson, which sells everything you can’t buy anywhere else, and got continental plug adapters, a two-way headphone splitter, and an alarm clock.  I added antihistamine cream and paracetamol to my packing list.  And a penknife.  Never travel without a penknife (in the hold, of course, not the carry-on): as I have noted before, it contains a corkscrew.  You have to be equipped for emergencies when travelling.  Grand Tourists used to have several trunks-full of just-in-case stuff sent luggage-in-advance.

I’m going to Puglia, just in case you wondered.   


*Multiply everything by ten when two aeroplanes (consecutive, not concurrent!) are involved.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Old Books

What do you do with old books?  I don’t mean the fly-by-night paperbacks I haul in periodically from Waterstone’s, read once and then recycle via the bookbank up at the tip.  (Or not, sometimes they get kept, reread and, rarely, find their way into the permanent library.)  No, I’m talking about really old books.

About sixty of them have been furnishing my dining room for twenty years or more, in a bookcase next to the fireplace.  They range from assorted Prayer books and semi-religious tracts (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, anyone?), through an almost-complete set of Dickens reissues (Unwin editions, 1930s I’d guess), to worthy tomes like The Origin of Species, Macaulay’s Essays on English History, and The French Revolution by Thomas Carlyle.  Plus a fair smattering of Victorian verse anthologies, several Works of Shakespeare, and a possibly earlyish edition of Culpeper’s Complete Herbal.  They’re all fairly tatty, almost certainly financially worthless and, most importantly, with one or two exceptions have never been read by anyone still alive.

I’m getting rid of them because I don’t think books ought to furnish a room.  I’m going to go slightly metaphysical on you now.  Books have no intrinsic value.  Their only worth is in the thoughts they express.  In turn, this value is circumscribed by the quality of both the thoughts themselves and their expression in a particular book.  But above all, if I’m right here, that worth dissolves into nothingness unless the book gets read.  I’m not going to read any of these sixty or so books, and I can’t find a way of enabling or persuading anyone else to do so.  So in every sense, they’re worthless.  So they’re landfill.  Right?

And yet.  And yet, perhaps they do contain, at least some of them, an ineluctable value beyond the paper, the cardboard and the words within them, read or not.  I skim through the flyleafs (flyleaves?) and find inscriptions which seem to carry their own stories, ones that will never be told but just might still exist in a memory or an imagination.  Certainly in an imagination, in fact: I find myself creating their lives and relationships even as I transcribe them.

Poetical Works by Moore: “Caroline Matthias on her 13th birthday from her affectionate cousin J M Laws.  Jan 1861
The May-Flower by Harriet Beecher Stowe:  “R. A. Scammell.  A birthday gift from A.G.  Feb 10th 1882
The Poetical Works of William Collins  “Edward Geo. Browne  Presented to him on the 26th May 1834 by his friend and tutor J. Blern(?) Anstis(?) with the sincerest wishes for his welfare.  St Helier Jersey

And in one of the Shakespeares: “E L Rea ‘02”  That’s my grandfather.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Caravan revisited, at last

As I hadn’t been able to go and shut down the caravan in the autumn, I'd entrusted the task to Joseph.  So I phoned him last week and left a message to make sure the various bits of plumbing would be on site for me to reinstall when I visited for the grand re-opening ceremony.  I’d planned an overnighter last Monday to do this, but this didn’t happen, mainly because of westerly gales, so there was a smidgeon of anxiety when we set out on Easter Saturday.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried.  Good old Joseph had not only delivered the plumbing, he’d installed it too, almost certainly better than I’d have managed.  This man is a hero, as long as you keep on the right side of him.  I think I’ve written before about this – the caravan site is run as a benign, hands-off despotism, in which the rules often have to be uncovered by intuition rather than read from a lawbook.  Common sense usually prevails – for example, don’t fly kites, there are overhead power lines – but doesn’t necessarily suffice – always park across the slope, wheels turned uphill, because a car ran away and crashed into a van, about twenty years ago.

Bee had read a little item in the Telegraph (purely by chance, not her usual paper of choice) about standing stones in Mynydd Preseli, which was a good enough excuse to set off on Sunday to explore this wild piece of inland Pembrokeshire.  A quick map-skim revealed that the area is riddled with ancient monuments, including the birthplace of the Stonehenge bluestones, and sure enough we soon found Gors Fawr:

Not a hugely informative notice*, you’ll agree – if anyone knows the answer to the question, please do share it – and the stones themselves aren’t that impressive, but the setting more than makes up for that:

Our next find, however, after a fabulous fish’n’chip lunch in the garden of the Golden Lion pub at Newport, was the truly spectacular Pentre Ifan**:

It’s what remains of a prehistoric burial chamber, the covering earth having obviously long eroded away; but I couldn’t help imagining the delight of that ancient architect in achieving that exquisite tripodal balancing act.

Add in a re-(for me)-visit to one of my spiritual homes, Strumble Head:

All in all, a thoroughly rewarding day out.

Should've taken my shorts, though.

*You can find some more information, albeit mostly speculative, here.

**And here.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Dw i heb dy weld ti ers talwn!

Off to open up the caravan tomorrow, which will doubtless inspire me to resume blogging – SAD always sets in in March, and I need kickstarting, which a visit to West Wales usually achieves, especially when the weather is as good as promised.  I quite liked the Plaid Cymru lady in the debate, didn’t you?  And of course Nicola is a star.  What a shame they don’t want to be British.  If they were, I’d vote for one or other of them.

Meanwhile, a few Cameronisms which almost make you warm to him:
  • In the brilliant documentary about Parliament the other week, he informed us that the place was “half church, half museum, and half public school.”
  • At PMQ last week, he said “A straight answer deserves a straight question.”
  • And in yesterday’s debate, he informed us that “There are three sides to this coin.”

Iechyd da!

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Strictly, for the Birds?

Apparently what we lack is an Official, Elected, Government-approved National Bird.  I agree: what could be more important?
Wikipedia suggests that we already have one,, the Robin, but he/she’s never won a popular vote or official recognition. Several of our candidates are already taken – Denmark has nicked the Mute Swan (don’t tell Her Maj), and Sweden the Blackbird.  But, looking more closely, that shouldn’t be a problem – Golden Eagles are everywhere!  Even in Scotland.
Which leads me to two related thoughts.  One, can’t we cast the net a bit wider?  Does the bird have to live here, or even exist?  After all, our national animals seem to be the Lion (not particularly indigenous) and the Unicorn (not yet detected). 
And secondly, shouldn't a National Bird in some way be reflective of national character?  (Out of respect for my American friends, I say nothing about the Bald Eagle’s feeding habits.)  Just looking at the state of the Kingdom as we near our defining General Election, I’m surprised that the Magpie and the Ring-necked Parakeet aren’t on the list.
So, here’s my considered candidate for Britain’s National Bird:

Friday, 13 March 2015

The Map Is Not The Territory

Or to put it in more dynamic terms, ‘The Route Is Not The Destination’.

The other day, I was thinking about tarting up the appearance of my blog, in a probably vain bid to attract my readership back into double figures.  So I went to the appropriate place in the dashboard thingie, did what I thought I might want to do, and got ‘Error bX-evmf18’.

Guessing I might need some help in interpreting this, I mailed the Help Forum.  Sure enough, a prompt reply from a friendly expert suggested, amongst other things, that I try doing it in Chrome rather than IE.  I always obey techies as a first resort, and yes, it worked!  (As it happens, I ended up not making any changes, but that’s not the point.)

As a follow-up, whilst saying thank you, I wondered why this should be – why should the same program work differently depending on the browser I use to access it?  I got the somewhat unhelpful reply “Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Opera...all of these browsers render information differently, which is why you're seeing different behavior in different browsers”, which is really just a kind of rephrasing of my question, isn’t it?  So the experts don’t know either.

This anecdote is trivial, no serious harm done.  But it’s by no means a unique instance of this sort of stuff, and I can’t help but worry a bit.   We hear about the forthcoming ‘Internet of Things’, whereby, within the blink of an evolutionary eyelid (see Moore’s Law), our washing machines will be telling us to change our socks, our driverless cars will be deciding whether to run over the stray dog or the pram, and our wheelie bins will scold us for dropping a plastic bottle in the wrong one ...  And I think: are they serious??

For an industry that, after decades, can’t even agree on a set of standards for how to take us to our chosen destination without rebuilding the destination (‘Open Systems’; what were they again?), to expect us to buy into this infinitely more complex, dangerous, untried, hackable guff is either recklessly na├»ve or threateningly sinister.

Anyway, that’s what I think.  And now you’ll have to excuse me, my socks have just told my freezer that my toenails need cutting, and offered me a pickle fork to do the job, and are now trying to walk my feet jauntily into the dishwasher.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Mothers Day

Next Sunday is Mother’s Day, right?  Well no, not according to my mother it isn’t.  It’s Mothering Sunday. 

For a progressive woman, she was remarkably traditional in some respects, this being just one of them.  She hated the term ‘Mother’s Day’, and I’ve obviously inherited some of her attitudes, because so do I; though for possibly different reasons.

My mother always said that, though change for the good was to be fought for, change for change’s sake was a bad thing.  Traditions have value, and shouldn’t be cast aside simply because they’re old.  I subscribe to that.  (Although I don’t entirely accept her secondary motive, which was that ‘Mother’s Day’ should be resisted because it was ‘American’.  She was irrationally against nearly all things American, at least in her later years.  The thinking, or emotion, behind that shift I’ll never know: after the War she had nothing but praise for America’s role in defeating Nazism, and Lend-Lease and the subsequent Marshall plan, without which, she rightly thought, Europe would have collapsed back into the same kind of chaotic vacuum as it did in the twenties and thirties.)

Anyway, to come back to the point: she was wrong about ‘Mothering Sunday’.  It was originally nothing to do with motherhood, but was invented to lure people back to their ‘mother church’, and only fairly recently became subsumed into a celebration of the role of a mother.  But that’s a quibble: what’s in a name?  What it stands for is what matters.

I do, when I notice or remember it, think of my mother on that day, but not exclusively then.   I think of her quite often, randomly and unexpectedly.  Everyone has a mother, and it’s a bit glib to compress one’s recognition of her into this one day a year, isn’t it?  I can imagine a mode of thought which says “Right, that’s her done for another year.”

That’s reprehensible, and that’s why I dropped the apostrophe in the title of this post.  Even better, shift it to the right: “Mothers’ Day”.  Let’s celebrate all mothers as well as our own – the deprived, starving, abused, unwitting, unwilling.  We all owe them our existence.