Thursday, 8 December 2016

Where is my pagan Christmas?

In my family we did away with Christmas presents for adults many years ago. It was ridiculous, buying presents for people who could afford anything they wanted for themselves throughout the year. And all that rigmarole of looking for something, and then wrapping it up, and finally the hackneyed ritual of presenting it on Christmas Day. Everyone knew the package given to them (sometimes it was 'packages') would contain nothing that they would treasure. It was all a waste of money, time and effort. And as Mum and Dad got ever older, and shopping became physically harder for them, the natural time came to stop the show and agree that henceforth adults would get just a nice Christmas card.

Children were of course quite another thing. But by the time our no-presents agreement came into force, there were no longer any young children. And even now there is only one child to consider (three year old Matilda).

Birthdays were also quite another matter. Birthdays are individual. It's important to mark them with not only a card, but something else. For my parents and myself that 'something else' meant being treated to a nice meal, or a nice day out somewhere. For my niece and nephew, a small but symbolic cheque.

And that's how things have stayed for many years now. I gave Tilly a toy last month, when I went up to visit, and I'll give her Mum a decent cheque for Christmas, to help buy clothes and shoes for her. And then, apart from writing and sending off fifty-odd Christmas cards, that's all I'm doing for Christmas.

I know that many will be appalled to read that. And will think me a mean-spirited Scrooge. Well, bah humbug. I am appalled at the way Christmas has over my lifetime degenerated into The Archetypical Formula Occasion, when buy, buy, buy is the rally cry, and High Street and Online sales figures dominate the news. When you hear of how children's expectations have been ramped up. For example, Christmas Eve presents, for goodness sake. I'm not tut-tutting from any religious point of view. But I do think that Christmas has become an irredemable commercial circus, a frenzy out of control, and the most stressful time of the year. I'm not saying that it's become impossible to enjoy a Happy Christmas. You can still make it so if you wish. But a serene, thoughtful, warm-hearted winter celebration is at odds with what the marketing people want you to do.

Every Christmas people break down, and lose their way; and relationships fail under all the pressure. All because Christmas has to be done 'properly'.

You know, I'm minded to select a stone circle, or high chalk ridge, and go there on or near the date of the Winter Solstice, whether frosty or not. At dawn, of course. Just to stand still and silently commune with the sky, the wind, the landscape, and the forgotten spirits of stone and soil. Ideally there would need to be fire, and ritual words murmured with arms outstretched towards the infinite; but these are embellishments. And then, having experienced something elemental, to have a cheerful breakfast somewhere. And then a long walk through whispering woods, or along a shoreline, lapped softly by the sea. I reckon Salisbury Plain and the New Forest will between them provide what I want.

And not John Lewis, nor Marks & Spencer.

Nice white teeth are great - but not so happy about makeup

I went to the dentist recently. It was only a check-up, but I'd deferred going for many months, and I thought I'd better get on with it. Financially speaking, it would be a bad month to discover that I needed something done, but I was pretty certain that nothing was amiss. And indeed, as expected, Nina had a good look then simply cleaned my teeth up as she usually did. (I tend to get tea-staining in between my teeth, especially the bottom ones at the front)

This time she found the staining quite stubborn, and she offered me a special clean-up using powder blasted onto the teeth. The fee would be £30. She promised me that my teeth would look much whiter. Why not, I thought? Let's have the Ultrabrite Smile that gets you noticed! I assented, and the result is a set of (for now) brilliant white gnashers, as in the picture above. I'm pleased.

Not that anyone has noticed! And in time the effect will wear off a bit, as my daily tea-drinking takes its toll. But I can think of many worse ways to spend £30 on supposedly enhancing one's attractiveness.

I haven't yet fallen into the ways of some older women who prop up their self-esteem (or delusions) by paying for very expensive beauty treatments. I'm prejudiced, I know, but I can't help thinking that any makeup (beyond a little sensible moisturising cream) prevents the skin functioning as well as it should. And the skin is after all one of the body's most important organs.

That's not the only medical problem: it's easy to see how plastering it on daily might create a psychological dependency, so that the wearer feels naked and exposed if seen without it.

Although expertly-applied makeup can look very alluring, it's still a covering-up of what is naturally there. I can't blame anyone wanting to hide blemishes. But the transforming impact of makeup amounts to wearing a disguise. It's a form of deception, and not necessarily harmless. Surely, the most honest thing is not to wear it at all.

I get annoyed when I hear about some service-industry employers - such as posh hotels - requiring their female staff to wear full makeup. Yes, it can make front-line women staff seem conventionally prettier, thus in theory attracting the attention of male clients. But that's exploiting female faces, turning their female staff into mere stage props. It goes with similarly-inspired rules about wearing heels, even when the woman stands behind a desk or counter and the customer can never see them. I thank my lucky stars that I'm retired, and don't have to work and be forced to look as some employer wants me to.

Which all begs the question, why - if I have these various good arguments and gripes against wearing makeup - do I use lipstick?

Well, for one thing, I don't do it at anyone's command - nor to sell anything. I do it for myself, because lipstick makes my lips look better-shaped and better-defined. And lipstick always enhances my smile. These are important points in a social context. But if anybody insisted that I wore lipstick, then I'd rebel, and just rely on a toothy smile.

Monday, 5 December 2016

A bag strap solution

It had to happen some time. Three days back the brass strap fittings on my favourite orange bag - the Italian one I bought in Florence in 2009 - failed, and the bag started to slide down towards the pavement. Fortunately I was getting out of Jo's car at the time, and I was able to catch it before it hit the ground. It was possible to snap the worn bits back into position, temporarily, but clearly the writing was on the wall for them.

The brass bits in question were originally part of the short shoulder-strap the bag was sold with, still in position as late as May 2013. The arrangement then looked like this:

It looked very good, but that short strap kept slipping off my shoulder, which was highly irritating! That's one reason why I hadn't used the bag much since digging it out of the cupboard earlier that year. Also, such straps were an invitation to street thieves, making the bag notoriously easy to snatch off one's shoulder. I didn't want my bag so vulnerable.

The answer was to replace the original strap with a cross-body strap. I did that - a bit of surgery I did at home, with a man's leather belt bought for the purpose - meanwhile preserving the old strap in case I ever changed my mind. But the brass fittings I first used for the cross-body strap weren't up to the job, and by December 2013 I'd cannibalised the original strap for its much stouter brass fittings. This was the result:

That was, finally, just right for me. Roll forward now to last Friday. The set-up hadn't changed in three years, but I'd used the bag almost daily for much of that time. It was no surprise really, when I had a good look at the brass bits at home later that day, to see significant metal-on-metal wear:

The C-rings pivoted inside the cups on the main fastening. And one C-ring had pivoted just too much. The other was approaching the same worn state. Pinching these C-rings, so that they sat firmly in the cups again, would have worked as a remedy, but for how long? And how to pinch them so that they didn't get damaged or too obviously bent? I didn't have the tool for such a job. Nor the hand strength. Valerie's husband Mick would have done it for me, and Valerie offered his services, but I though it best to fit something else entirely.

I remembered that I had bought some stout chrome-metal rings that might represent a decent solution. I found them, and substituted them on the strap:

Hmm! It looked OK, even though these were chrome rings, not brass. Indeed, this seemed a neater and more substantial type of strap fastening than the previous kind. I could live with it for now.

There was a consequence: the strap length, fastenings included, was now a little less. So the bag rode a little higher, whether worn cross-body or on one shoulder. About an inch higher. It felt decidedly different, but it wasn't uncomfortable and I thought that I would quickly get used to the new height. It wasn't in my armpit. It was still reasonably low-slung. It might even be at a more ideal height for keeping my hand on it, and thus enhancing security. And if the bag height really came to bother me, I could of course buy another man's leather belt, and make myself a longer strap. I knew how.

So, voila! Chrome has trumped brass. And the orange bag carries on as usual. It's such a good and useful bag, just the right size, and the leather has acquired a certain patina from constant use, making it very individual. Not a bag for posh dinner-parties, nor the opera, but certainly a bag for all seasons. I'm glad to have fixed the strap fastening so easily, so that I wasn't forced to use another bag for a while.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Two certificates gained at Slimming World!

Back to the present - well, last Thursday evening anyway. The weekly Slimming World group meeting and weigh-in.

I wasn't expecting much progress. Maybe a pound lost in the preceding week. But it was in fact two pounds, making eight pounds lost so far - 'so far' being just four weeks. And of course I'd broken through the first Half-Stone weight loss barrier! You get a certificate for that. Liz presented it to me later on that evening, when we were all sat around. Here it is:

Everyone clapped and smiled. There are a lot of good-natured people on that group!

These certificates do mean something. You can't get them without genuine personal effort and restraint. They say: 'I've changed my habits. I'm now eating and drinking wisely, and that half a stone lost is the payback. I already feel different, look different. And each certificate I get is proof of my snowballing achievement.' They may be just bits of paper, but I'm proud of mine, and I'd put them on par with my shorthand speed certificates of the 1980s.

This wasn't the only certificate. Ben, the man who comes with his girlfriend Diana - they are losing weight together - also shed two pounds, and as this was the best group result that week, we both got a Slimmer of the Week certificate! Here's mine:

It's a bit of a lottery whether you ever get one of these. In some weeks people who really go for it might lose as much as three or (more rarely) four pounds, and if they do, they stand a good chance of being Slimmer of the Week. A mere two pounds isn't usually enough. But we were lucky: Christmas was fast approaching, with its unavoidable high-calorie office lunches, and in any event all those sundry pre-Christmas stresses at home and elsewhere that demand some comfort eating to keep in check. Many people had done very well indeed just to stand still, neither gaining nor losing weight. Poor Jo had actually slipped a little. This is why Ben and I could get an easy win.

The Slimmer of the Week award wasn't just a nice paper certificate: you got a goody bag of assorted fruit and vegetables as well. Ben and I split this very amicably.

It's all clever psychology of course. It's thrilling to get clapped and congratulated. And of course it's good to have something like this, something official that you can wave in the face of dismissive, pompous, pooh-poohing people who think you can't stick at anything. It also stimulates and sharpens your game, making you eager to get the next certificate - in my case the one that records a whole stone lost. That's now my current objective. And then the next stage after that.

I should think that people who haven't yet got even one certificate are likely to push themselves to rectify that. But it's not a competition, and modest achievements are just as laudable as greater ones, because it takes serious effort and commitment to get anywhere at all, and all movement in the right direction is commendable.

Of course, I have to keep it up now! But I won't be over-ambitious. 'Are you going for three pounds next week?' Liz asked me. 'No, another two pounds is enough,' I replied. I know how challenging a regular two pounds might be!

Saturday, 3 December 2016

My 2016 trip to Lundy - 3 - farewell, and the return to Ilfracombe

Judith and I had just left the Old Light on Lundy. It was really brightening up now. The wind had dropped and that meant the sea would be much calmer on the two-hour return journey. Thank goodness!

I was still not sure whether I'd offended Judith by keeping her waiting while I explored the Old Light. I decided to mention who I had met there, partly to explain why I had been so long. It was of course simply playing the old justification game. I used to be an easy victim if anybody wanted to make me feel unreasonable or selfishly self-indulgent. I was slipping back into that frame of mind. A mistake. At least I was aware of it. I confined myself to telling her about the man gazing out to sea in the ground floor observation room, who had startled me. 'Oh him!' she said. 'I looked in too, after you had, and he seemed a bit odd to me. You know, creepy.' This wasn't how I'd found him, and I've usually got a sensitive radar for creepy people. 'How strange,' I replied. 'He was very pleasant to me, after he made his presence known. But I agree that he seemed to be hiding - and that would disconcert anyone.' Surely that was suitably diplomatic.

We walked on, past a curious series of tanks:

What was this? Lundy's water purification and storage plant? Or were they growing something? The map gave no clues.

We had been going east, now we turned south, towards the Village again. It was just a farm track, but the only one to head north up the full length of the island.

It struck me that it was too rough and muddy a track to make using it at night much fun, whatever kind of torch one had. The people staying in the most isolated let property, a mile and a half north of the village, would soon discover that they were way too far from the Tavern to rely on it for an evening meal. And no cars were available for visitors, and no bikes were allowed. Some hermits might not care; I would. If staying on the island, I'd want some social life in the evenings, every evening, as part of the Experience. I was independent, but still gregarious.

The Village came into view. We passed some large one-storey sheds, clearly where some of the vehicle servicing went on. Given the longevity of Land Rovers, I wondered whether the one I saw in 1996 still chugged around the island, or had it been relegated to a corner of one of these sheds? It had been painted white then:

Perhaps it was the white-painted vehicle up on steel axle stands in my 2016 pictures:

We next approached the General Stores, the only place apart from the Tavern where one could spend money. We went inside, partly just to see what it was like; partly in my case to get some sort of souvenir.

It was no surprise to find that the place was well-stocked, with everything one might expect to see in a regular village shop. And perhaps a slightly more sophisticated range than most village shops. The people who could afford a week on Lundy were going to be people used to the finer things in life. So there were plenty of deli-type things to buy, for those romantic candlelit dinners back at the flat or the castle lean-to. There were also sweatshirts, polo shirts, waterproofs and knitted hats with 'Lundy Island' on them. The lady in the bright red hat helped me chose a wine-coloured hat for my souvenir. (She was the one who had given me an encouraging smile during the voyage to Lundy, when I was combating seasickness. A very friendly person, I thought)

Judith came into the shop with me, but went outside again while I made my choice. She said that a Land Rover was taking day visitors down the ship, and she wanted a ride. I said I'd prefer to walk down - there was still time - because there was so much I wanted pictures of on the way. So we parted, agreeing to meet up on the ship later.

I'd toyed with the notion of a last look at the Marisco Tavern, but decided to forgo that so that I could stroll down to the Landing Beach without feeling rushed. Back in 1996, M--- and I had slightly misjudged how long our North Point dash would take, and we'd had to walk very fast indeed down to the Landing Beach, arriving breathlessly at the motor boat only just in time to catch the Oldenburg's departure.

The sun was shining brightly now, and I got some excellent shots as I said farewell to the Village. What a difference from the dull weather on arrival!

Above, some old iron relics from Lundy's Napoleonic days as a Bristol Channel fortress.

I waved goodbye to the nice lady with the red hat, and wished her and her husband a lovely week on the island.

There was the Tavern, but no time to stop.

The puddles were still there on the track, but it was becoming quite warm.

A last look back at the Village before the track began to zig-zag downhill.

The young couple I'd seen at the Old Light caught up with me. All told, they'd had a great day out. They were all smiles. Like me, the boyfriend was a keen photographer, and was shooting every view that opened out.

The Land Rover went by. I wondered if Judith was on it, or had caught another one. That bungalow off to the left was one of the larger let properties. Another place with a view!

The 'road' next revealed a white-painted mansion in the distance. It was Millcombe House, formerly the island owners' home, but now divided into let flats that offered the most sophisticated self-catering accommodation on the island. Though not, of course, the most adventurous!

In 1996, on the way up to the Village, M--- and I took a shortcut around the back of Millcombe House, and so we saw it up close:

It enjoyed a sheltered position, with a fine view. It once had lush, irrigated gardens that island workers tended.

The track now took a sharp left, and headed downhill between wind-shaped trees. The only trees on Lundy. A strange sight! Before entering this little wood, I glanced to the right. There was the Oldenburg, a toy boat on an aquamarine pond.

It wasn't much of a wood really! But very pleasant after the bleakness of most of the island. Another hairpin bend. Left, the entrance to the grounds of Millcombe House. I wonder if the Landmark Trust will ever reinstate the gardens as they once were?

On now past the island's propane store, securely locked of course, and then a gradual descent to the Landing Beach and the pier.

The shot just above looks up the east coast of Lundy. In the middle distance - click on the shot to enlarge it - is the Sugar Loaf, a cone-shaped (or beehive-shaped) mass of rock that is marked on maps. The track went on, getting lower and lower until it reached shore level. It passed a beach that seals used, and there was a notice about pups being there:

There were rocks with strange shapes, and the odd cave, presumably used by smugglers in past times. 

And then suddenly, around a bend, was the pier and its cluster of buildings - and the ship waiting.

Gosh, the tide was high! The Old Jetty in the foreground, and the original Landing Beach, were both submerged. Time to get on board. There was a seal in the water off to the right. 

I stepped on board. Hmm. everyone was on deck, now that the sun was shining and there was a fabulous view to be had. I might have to stand. But then I'd be moving around the passenger decks anyway, to get the best shots of Lundy as we left the island behind. 

I saw no sign of Judith at first. But I did see the young couple from the Old Light. I got chatting again with them. They were from an inland city - Nottingham - and were staying at a holiday centre I remembered passing on my way into Ilfracombe that very morning. They rarely saw the sea, and a trip to an island like Lundy was a real novelty. The young man was friendly but no great conversationalist, and chiefly attended to his picture-taking, but she was as chatty as myself, and we got on well, swapping little bits of our life histories. 

After a while I said I'd like to find Judith, and went in search of her, though I promised to be back. 

Meanwhile we had cast off. We were on our way. Many people had cameras out, or more generally phones, to capture the departure. 

For some reason a party spirit seemed to prevail. Now why? This was in fact quite a sad occasion. Most of us would never see Lundy again. But 'going home' is nearly always an uplifting prospect, whatever the actual reality on arrival. 

I found Judith at the stern, taking pictures with her camera. She did in fact carry two. A proper one, a fiddly one, which she kept out of harm's way, and the one in her phone, which was quick and easy to use. She was using the phone. She's on the left edge of this shot:

She obligingly took one of me, with my camera:

Then she went to find a good seat. I lingered. I wanted to say goodbye to the island.

Lundy gradually changed from a real place we had walked on to just a misty silhouette in the setting sun. 

And then suddenly it wasn't in sight any more. There was only the calm sea and the white water at the bows. I went back to my young friends. We watched the coast of North Devon get closer. I identified Morte Point, Bull Point with its lighthouse, and Lee Bay, a place they had actually visited on their present holiday. They were quite impressed that I could tell which place was which from the sea. I laughed that off by explaining that I was map-mad. 

Then Ilfracombe approached. Judith was still where I'd left her last, enjoying the sun. I noticed again that she didn't engage nearby people in conversation. Surely it wasn't a lack of social skills. She could of course just be shy, or for some reason not confident. But that didn't quite square with what I'd learned about her. I'd considered her more than adequately confident with other people. It was a puzzle. I recalled her saying how easily I got talking to the several people we had met when walking around the island, as if that were somehow remarkable. And how she tended to walk on, not joining in. Perhaps in her world, the one back at Orpington where she lived, one didn't start gushing to total strangers at the drop of a hat. Only to people one knew fairly well. That standoffish London thing. But there wasn't anything stuck-up about her. No, it was a puzzle, something I couldn't understand. I wasn't going to make it my problem. 

She was now talking to me about a gallery she'd discovered on the top of Lantern Hill, which overlooked the harbour at Ilfracombe, the one on the left edge of the bottom photo above. She described the kind of pictures and other things they had on display there, and wanted to show me - it would still be open, though it was now early evening. But it didn't sound like my sort of art. And I was an hour from the caravan, and getting hungry, and once ashore my plans didn't include a gallery or whatever else she might suggest. If I were being completely honest, I wanted to be alone and would decline any definite invitation. I hoped she wasn't counting on making an evening of it. Surely not. And yet... 

The harbour entrance came near. You could see Verity.  She looked like a female sword-wielding Colossus. I think the local council were right to have done a deal with Damien Hirst. Love her or loathe her, she definitely added distinction. The crew got busy.

And then we were alongside the upper pier (it was now very high tide) and the gangway was about to be run out. I waved goodbye to the young couple. They waved back. She was the red-headed girl in the picture below.   

Where was Judith? The captain had announced that they were collecting for the island Church Renovation Fund, and they had a bucket ready for any donations passengers wished to make. Judith had clearly come forward to help, and was now at the bottom of the gangway, holding the bucket on the Landmark Trust's behalf, and smiling winningly at every passenger. She'd done this before! Out of nowhere she had produced a glove puppet, a cheerful mole, and was making him wave to everyone. Here she was, cheerful herself:

I thought this was a cracking good effort, and as I came off the gangway I dropped a few pounds into the bucket to encourage everyone else. 

Only big-hearted people bother to put themselves forward like this. And this particular big heart was holidaying on her own, and deserved a companion. But I ducked out. I smiled at her, thanked her for joining me in a tour of the island, and said, 'Goodbye, Judith! Take care!' and walked away. 

A clean break. Deftly done. 

I felt I was being true to my independent nature, but at the same time behaving rather shabbily, short-changing her. That feeling persisted all the way back to Fiona, and beyond. Not even the fey evening light over Ilfracombe harbour could banish the bad sensation of having let Judith down. 

No, I don't have a big heart. I had no heart at all. I was mean-spirited. I thought only of myself, and what I wanted to do. I sometimes wondered whether I cared about anything at all. Had my lifetime experiences really shrivelled me up so much? 

Well, there were immediate needs to satisfy. I wanted a gin and tonic. And something hot and tasty. I remembered there was a decent pub at Knowle, just off the Barnstaple road, a mile short of Braunton - the Ebrington Arms. I went there. And ran slap into six hearty golfing men at the bar, fresh off the local course. Hey ho! No quiet time for me! 

They offered me a measure of good-natured banter, and some grown-up leg-pulling, all with twinkling eyes - the kind of thing slightly bibulous middle-aged men offer when a reasonably attractive, unattached woman comes in. Even women as tatty as myself. I turned on 'the charming older woman who definitely appreciates a bit of male attention, but is politely determined to pay for her own drink'. It went down well. I remembered this sort of thing from my working days. It was a good game to play, a fun game, and although long retired my part in the general exchange came easily. 

I spoke with two of the men particularly. One said he looked forward to seeing me there again, told me his name was Gerald, and next time he'd buy my drink. The other, a Scotsman now living in North Devon, had a more serious nature. I preferred him. I liked him even more when his student-age daughter came in, and I could see (while I ate my moussaka) how comfortable they were with each other. I spoke with them both. I was sorry when they went home. 

I had encountered an awful lot of people that day. All of them ships that pass in the night, never to pass close by again. I found that sad. 

Next day I tried on my souvenir Lundy hat:

It's not really my colour, is it? (I've since bought a dark grey knitted bobble hat)

As for Lundy itself, it quickly became again just a long low dark shape on the far horizon, something you had to peer for, as in this sunset shot at Westward Ho! taken a few days later. Lundy is at the right-hand edge of the picture:

I wonder if I'll ever set foot there again.