Saturday, 13 January 2018

His and hers

I saw these cards in a local post office just yesterday.


A card for a baby boy alongside a card for a baby girl, both clearly by the same manufacturer, a complementary pair in the same series of greetings cards. The card for the baby boy, as you can see, shows a cool, streetwise, adventurous-looking shoe in blue, red and white that looks as if it could take a bit of punishment. Any toddler putting that on is ready for action. The baby girl's is pink and dreamy, embellished with little hearts and flowers, and secured with a strap - a bit traditional and old-fashioned, and definitely not cool at all. 

Which would you rather wear, regardless of your gender and actual level of energy and naughtiness? Me, the so-called 'boy's shoes' every time. In reality, this is not even strictly a pair of boy's shoes. Any toddler taken out of the home might find themselves in such a shoe - because it's practical, and will obviously last longer than the pink shoe, which, if worn out of doors, will be ruined inside ten minutes. No mum would really want to throw money away like that.

So if you like, the pink girl's shoe is a fantasy shoe, and the designer and manufacturer of these cards thinks a picture of a shoe like this will press the right buttons in the mind of potential buyers. Presumably 'potential buyer' means Grandmother and various Aunties. It wouldn't include me. I'd try hard not to damn the baby girl with a false preconception of herself. She might turn out to be a dainty little rosy-cheeked creature with a mind naturally full of pink hearts and flowers, and pink ponies too - and if that's the case, well, who should try to change it? Let her be. But she might naturally incline to other things, and I don't think that she should be typecast at the outset, neither in her mind, nor anyone else's, as a decorative little angel in candy colours, who has no need whatever of snazzy action-shoes with grown-up laces.

I'm certainly flying in the face of general opinion. These cards wouldn't be on sale unless they did sell. Tradition tends to rule where important family events are concerned, and tradition clearly still demands - sadly - that baby boys must be associated with practical footwear, but not baby girls. 

Traditions do evolve, very gradually. So I was therefore quite surprised that - in this age of equal-treatment of the sexes, when something more than lip-service to this concept has become important - the prevailing attitude towards newly-arrived babies has not moved ahead. If I'd seen these two cards ten years ago - or certainly twenty years ago - I'd have thought little about it. Now, in 2018, making out that baby boys and girls are very different seems uncomfortably inappropriate. They start equal, but a lot of people want to subvert that, boosting the little boy's self-regard and diminishing or limiting the baby girl's self-image and self-confidence. It starts with this outmoded convention that it's still 'pink for girls' and 'blue for boys', plus all the associations that go with that. The result so far has been to make it easy for boys to grow dominant and controlling as they grow up, and the girls subservient and compliant. Plenty of people have broken this mould for themselves, but not society in general. 

When it's self-evident that false distinctions lead to bad outcomes, you start to speculate on which deep-rooted vested interests keep such fictions alive - and how to destroy them. It can't be done by force, nor by laws alone. You have to get hold of people's minds. I wonder what the best way is.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Another personal achievement - two million Flickr viewings!

I went to bed late last night 45 viewings short of a significant viewing milestone on Flickr. But this morning, it had been passed. I took this screen shot as soon as I was out of bed.


There it is: 2,000,043 viewings. I'm proud of that.

This is of course the grand total since I began to put shots on Flickr in February 2009, nine years ago. But I didn't start getting a lot of viewings until mid-2012. Then things took off. I suppose you need to build up a 'critical mass' of photos placed online, and then - poof! - you suddenly get noticed. And occasionally I have really popular days. For instance, two weeks ago, there was a day with over 16,000 viewings. I seem to be most 'popular' after uploading my holiday snaps, but there is often a surge of interest with no obvious reason behind it. 

I wish I knew what the secret of a great photo is. I can see which are the most popular shots, but they seem a bit run-of-the-mill to me, and wouldn't be in my personal Top Ten. 

Flickr and Blogger are the two halves of my creative effort online. So far as popularity goes, the 21,000 pictures on Flickr have won hands-down in the viewing contest, generating two million viewings, whereas the 1,900 blog posts have generated only 880,000 viewings in the same timescale. 

That said, my most popular blog post has had over 80,000 viewings, whereas my most popular photo has garnered only 4,000. 

All these figures are dwarfed into insignificance when compared to what the most popular photographers and bloggers achieve on a daily basis. I don't mind. I'm thinking that excessive popularity is the enemy of genuine creative freedom. When you are chasing big viewing figures, there must surely be a compulsion to please the crowd above all else, so that you stay in the lead. That would mean churning out shots and posts using well-tried and unadventurous formulae. I'm not suggesting that my own pictures and posts are 'adventurous', but they are at least taken or written with nobody telling me what to do, nobody putting a curb on using certain ideas, nobody insisting that I depict or mention this product or that, and without endlessly reiterating those hackneyed themes that are bound to make the viewing figures leap upwards. It's nice to be noticed, but there is such a thing as selling out.

Gosh, what if each of those two million Flickr viewings had popped just one penny into my bank account? I'd be £20,000 richer. Less income tax, of course. But still... 

Hey ho. I'd only have frittered it away. 

Back in proper shoes


Back in slippers, anyway! That's my feet - both of them - just a little while ago. I returned to the Health Centre this morning (Jo was wheels this time) and had the initial post-op dressing removed and the toe redressed in the way it must now be done daily, until the nail bed dries and a tough skin starts to form where the nail used to be.

The new style of dressing - basically a large plaster enclosing (for the first three days) a Melolin pad - is compact, and I will certainly be able to wear boots straight away, and ordinary shoes too if they are roomy enough. Which will enable me to get around out of doors, regardless of the weather. I hadn't realised how active I really was, and how irksome it is to sit for long periods with my feet up. At home, even if I don't go out, I'm constantly getting on my feet and moving around the house; and, of course, there's generally a reason for firing up Fiona every day. I've missed that. Now I won't have to.

This is a shot of the new bandage.


I also took a shot of the toe at the Haywards Heath Health Centre, before it was redressed. That's one for my archives only! It wasn't a ghastly sight by any means, but perhaps not a picture for posting. It shows a raw but healthy-looking nail bed. There had been some weeping, but no bleeding. And throughout, no pain whatever. 

Afterwards, I was perfectly comfortable walking to the nearby Côte Brasserie and having a late breakfast with Jo. And then going a little further, to check out the half-price sale at one of her favourite fashion shops, Elegance. This proved to me that with the new dressing in place I would be able to walk (carefully) at least three hundred yards without the slightest discomfort. But I still intend to take it easy for the rest of today, and avoid walking far for the next week or so. Fiona can do the walking instead. There's also a stick in the boot of my car, just in case. 

I had been dreading a painful recovery. The outcome looks as if it will be better than expected. 

How nice it will be, when the time comes, to wear proper summer shoes!  

Monday, 8 January 2018

Deep in the New Forest

I lived in Southampton with my parents from 1963 to 1978, and had a car of my own from 1975. In those first three years of personal car ownership I explored the nearby New Forest almost to death. But of course I also had many opportunities to walk around it in the preceding years, at first with my parents, but from the late 1960s on my own, for the train could take you there.

So it was that in the spring of 1970 I ventured into the Forest by train to put together some supporting work for the main component of my A-Level Art examination - the chosen subject being 'Tree Forms'. I went to Beaulieu Road station in the heart of the Forest, and just wandered around in the vicinity. I was at that time inspired in particular by research into the work of artist Paul Nash (1889-1946), so I wanted to sketch a range of trees in various stages of destruction. Especially trees struck by lightning - blasted oaks in particular. Nash had done studies of those for his own World War I landscape paintings, which featured weird scenes of trees shredded by shellfire, such as this.


But he had also painted gentler scenes with trees in them.


I found what I wanted, and I produced a set of sketches and finished drawings. This is the only part of the pre-exam work that I still have a photo of. I apologise for the poor quality: it was taken with a Kodak Instamatic 50 camera in Mum and Dad's back garden in Southampton.


After leaving school, I remained keen to find interesting tree forms, but to photograph, not paint. And my wanderings around the New Forest would generally produce some good shots, such as this 'moaning tree' seen in 1977.


Once I moved to London in 1978 my visits to the Forest were drastically curtailed. And so were the opportunities to seek out shots of trees there. But I managed to do it on the odd occasion in later years, if I were caravanning not too far away. Such as these pictures of the Knightwood Oak and other trees nearby, taken in 2012.


You can see that the Paul Nash influence was definitely still alive and well!

Last October I was actually pitched in the New Forest, just outside Brockenhurst, and one afternoon decided to take a walk through Frame Wood, to the north-west of Hatchet Pond, parking Fiona at Furzey Lodge. Here is a location map.


Many of the inclosures (meaning sections of forest fenced around to inhibit the movements of deer and ponies) are in fact plantations of commercial-grade conifers, and worked as such by the Forestry Commission. But Frame Wood is much older, untended, full of old tracks and fallen trees. You might hear the trains in the far distance, but otherwise it's a very quiet place. Not somewhere I'd care to go in the dusk, but OK in broad daylight. 


So, well-shod in the Alt-Bergs, and with a stick, I set forth from Furzey Lodge (a collection of forest cottages), heading north-west, with the footbridge over the railway (top left in the map) as my furthest walking objective. I planned to pause at the footbridge, head south, and then return eastwards via Hawkhill Inclosure. But it didn't quite go to plan. 

I started out on a very decent track. I felt the Forest was a great place to be. The peace of it made me feel very content with life.


But the track soon degenerated unto a rutted quagmire, churned up by the heavy tractors used by the Forestry Commission. I had to get off it. I found myself striking north, rather than north-west. I wasn't too concerned about taking a detour, so long as I eventually found the track that ran more-or-less parallel with the railway line. Indeed, it didn't matter too much where I ended up. I just wanted a good walk. If I felt lost, I could get a GPS fix and navigate back to my starting point with that. 

Frame Wood was amazingly peaceful. It was a really old part of the forest, to be sure. Although there was some undergrowth, I was mostly walking on a carpet of leaves underneath a canopy of trees, with just the occasional clearing. But I was constantly having to step over fallen boughs, or alter course to avoid a massive fallen tree, and this undermined my sense of direction. I got some decent tree photos, though.


As you can see, I was more interested in the shape of the broken boughs, and how a monochrome picture might be made from such material, than what the wood really looked like in its natural coloration. Many of the fallen branches or tree-trunks had a serpentine look, as if they were rough carvings of lizards, crocodiles, or the heads of dragons. They looked like different animals as you walked around them...


In dim light, all this might be spooky, and put you in mind of alien creatures, but the light was good, and I wasn't nervous in the slightest. That said, I startled some deer, which made me jump. And I became aware that some ponies were moving closer. 

I'm wary of New Forest ponies. Normally - in the well-visited parts of the Forest, anyway - they seem cool and unconcerned about humans, although I well remember when a mean-looking brute began to walk menacingly towards me in a car park in the northern part of the Forest some years ago. I had to retreat rapidly to my car (this was pre-Fiona, so it must have been about ten years ago) and only just got back inside in time. I imagine the pony in question had in mind butting me hard, to show its displeasure. But ponies have a nasty bite too, if so minded, and they can kick. Since then, I've given them all a wide berth. Now a small herd was moving in my direction. Time to clear out. They surely wouldn't come after me, if I walked on confidently. 

I hit a proper track again, and followed it. I'd suddenly had quite enough of mysterious deep forest, no matter what its photographic potential. I wanted to find a way out of the wood, and then head back to where I'd left Fiona. But all the time I heard stealthy sounds behind me. Damn. They weren't going to leave me be. I had a stick, but that wouldn't really be of the slightest use if they ganged up on me.

After ten minutes of mounting concern, I saw a gate. I looked behind. The leading pony was only yards away now. It was with inexpressible relief that I opened the gate and shut it behind me. Phew. The pony looked thwarted. 

I was back in the commercial part of the Forest. A little way on, and the track broadened out. Then I came to a junction of tracks, signposted for mountain biking. I got a fix, and headed towards Hawkshill Inclosure and Moon Hill. All around were trees planted with harvesting in mind. It wasn't ugly, but it was certainly an industrial scene. It was a place to grow trees in straight lines, and eventually cut them down and haul them away. But at least I couldn't get lost, and I wouldn't encounter any ponies hell-bent on exacting a hideous revenge. They surely knew all about the illegal trade in horse-meat. Some of them had been victims in the past. One human trampled to death would be some kind of retribution. 

My mood had lifted again. I was reminded of a merry shot taken of Edwina, my 1970s friend, on a Forest track just like this one. Here she was, in 1977.


I attempted to reproduce the shot, in so far as you can when holding a phone at arm's length.


There were stacks of cut logs here and there, with warnings to keep off them. 


What did the blue letters and numbers mean? They were repeated again and again on different stacks.

Suddenly the light began to take on that dusk-is-approaching look. I increased my pace. I knew exactly where I was, but wanted to reach Fiona before it began to get dark. Looking sideways, the woods were beginning to look dim and shadowy. Within half an hour - or less - they might look like this: decidedly gloomy and unfriendly.


Close to Fiona, I make one last deliberate detour, to see if an interesting shot of a stream were possible. There was just enough light left to get some odd reflections.  


Yellow lights were already lit inside the cottages at Furzey Lodge. Suddenly it felt a very lonely business, getting my boots off in the eerie half-light. I wouldn't like to live in a forest. I would find the trees oppressive, and the night-time noises of nocturnal creatures most unsettling.

Post-op


There it is. One beautifully-dressed big toe, after the nail was removed earlier this morning, and the nail bed treated so that a new nail ought not to grow back. I was requested to phone Jackie (who had brought me to the Health Centre, and was waiting at Reception), and ask her to bring her car to the side of the building, so that I need take only a few steps outside to reach it. While the phone was in my hand, I snuck a shot.

The trip from home to Health Centre, the op, and then back again, was all accomplished inside two hours. The procedure itself took very little time. My toe was completely numbed with the local anaesthetic, and I felt no pain whatever, neither when the nail was prised off, nor when the phenol was applied. I refrained from watching what the podiatrist was doing! I was in any case comfortably reclined, with a pillow under my head, and stayed that way until the toe was dressed.

Now I'm at home again, with my feet up, and I must stay that way as much as possible.

During the next hour, the anaesthetic will wear off. I hope there will be no great pain when it does, but I've just taken some paracetamol with a nice cup of tea, and maybe that will keep any discomfort within bounds.

The post-op notes I've been given say that the toe will look 'red and puffy' for the next ten days or so, and it may weep. But it will dry out after two to four weeks, and should heal up completely in six to eight weeks. That does seem rather a long time, but surely I will be out and around in a limited fashion, at least in dry weather, before the end of the month. Certainly sufficiently to get shopping in. And I hope enough to attend a lunch or two. The first few days will be the important ones.

It may irk me to be housebound, but I intend to be firm with myself about that, and firm with other people too. I have books to read, and phone, laptop, radio, TV and DVD player are all to hand. I shall doze if nature tells me to.

One of the things I can get on with is booking this year's caravan holidays online. It pays to do that early. The Caravan and Motorhome Club doesn't ask for any booking deposits, and online bookings can be amended or even cancelled if proper notice is given closer to the date. And I already know where I want to go in 2018, and when. 

Later the same day
Well: no pain, no discomfort, and really very little sensation at all. This is after only one session of paracetamol at 10.45am this morning - I didn't need to take any more. And I haven't been totally immobile. I have made tea more than once, quickly cooked up lunch in a wok, and have visited the loo a couple of times. But otherwise my feet have been up.

It's now very nearly time to cook an evening meal, and I've finally donned the sandals at home, not wanted to stub a toe, any toe, while in the kitchen. Here's a photo taken just now.


The cut front strap on the right foot can of course fit over and around the dressing, and I've tied the ribbon so that there is only very, very gentle pressure on the top side of the foot.

I came home wearing a blue plastic foot-covering on my right foot, the sort you put on to protect floors and carpets from wet or dirty shoes. I kept that on at home, in order to keep the underside of the dressing completely clean while I did my minimum shuffling around. Doing so may have been a minor error - after removing it, the dressing felt slightly damp, as if the foot had sweated somewhat inside the covering. I've now discarded it. Although damp, the dressing was still pristine to the eye, so I'm thinking that there have been no wound exudations, and no significant bleeding. If I'm right, the dressing will dry out during the evening.   

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Cunning preparations for my op

The op in question is the removal of the thick, ugly, malformed toenail from my right big toe. It takes place at 9.15am on Monday morning, in less than two days' time. It'll be at the Health Centre in Haywards Heath, and Jackie next door is being wheels, because of course I won't be able to drive afterwards. I've got enough food in to last ten days, subject to some topping-up - but then one or other of my girl friends will get in extra milk or whatever for me, if I ask. I don't think I'll need to. I'm expecting to be housebound for only a few days. I have to keep my feet up for a while, and let the toe heal. I will do the sensible thing and obey. I've got one or two laptop-based jobs to get on with, and can do that sitting down in my lounge. Or I can read a bit. Or just doze.

Here's a last photo of the nail I want to see the back off.


It's grown so thick that I can't wear ordinary shoes unless they are a sloppy fit, or especially roomy. Boots remain fine, but I can't go on wearing those into the spring and summer. And the nail has lately decided to grow skewed to the right. The NHS specialist said 'Off with it!' and here I now am, contemplating minor surgery.

The toe next to the offending nail doesn't look too wonderful, either, does it? But its shape and swollen nature are down to arthritis, the first of my digits to suffer in that way. Perhaps it's not so bad to get to sixty-five with only one toe hit by a touch of arthritis. The joint in question has been encapsulated by the swollen tissue, and I normally feel no discomfort at all. Nor does it stop me wearing regular shoes. As the condition of that toe is stable, I have deferred any remedial surgery until there is a change for the worse. But the big toe, with its dreadful nail, is quite another thing.

The nail will come off under local anaesthetic. I have every confidence that the procedure will go quickly and well, but I'm not looking forward to it. It isn't so much the likelihood of a little gore, and a ghastly-looking nail bed once the thing is off. It's more the prospect of burning pain, as the anaesthetic wears off. I'm anticipating a very sore toe later that day.

But it will heal, if I treat it properly once home, and make up my mind to rest as much as feasible.

There is a visit to the Health Centre two days after the op, for the first redressing; and yet another, for the second redressing, a week later. I have got in a supply of sterile dressings I can use myself, as an ongoing thing. I understand that eventually some tough skin (skin, not nail) will form over where the nail used to be. And, if it matters, I will be able to pop a perfect, artificial nail over that, should I be invited to a posh summer party and must wear pretty sandals. I haven't felt able to wear pretty sandals for a very long time. Admittedly, I was never a great one for open-toed footwear in the past. But with that horrible nail gone, I am now looking forward to exposing my toes to the world this summer. Who knows, I might even paint them!

The op requires more preparation than just filling my fridge and freezer. I need special footwear, for one thing. My toe will be heavily bandaged at first. Late last September, I found these two pairs of sandals at the Clarks shop in Honiton, pretty well at half price in their end-of-summer sale:


The bottom pair are for when I am all healed up. But the top pair (in grey fabric) were bought with the period immediately after the op particularly in mind. Here they are again, shot more recently:


My plan was to cut the front strap on the right-foot sandal, and having made holes, push through a length of black ribbon or cord, so that once I'd slid my toes through the rear strap, I could then pull the two halves of the front strap gently together, and tie the ribbon. I'd do the same with the left-foot sandal, for the sake of symmetry.

Here are those sandals with the front straps cut, and various coils of black ribbon and cord to consider using. I decided on the thinner of the ribbons.


I saw that where the straps had been cut, the fabric was likely to fray; so this afternoon I've quickly sewn by hand along the cut edges, to stop that happening. It's not the neatest sewing job in the world, but it will do. With holes made, and the thin black ribbon threaded through, this is the result:


I think this will work fine. I'll wear these to the Health Centre. It's surely clear from the picture how it will be, when I get the right-foot sandal back on after the post-op bandaging.

It's a shame in a way to have mauled perfectly good sandals, but once I'm healed I still have the option of sewing the front straps back together, much as they originally were. Or I could just leave those black ribbons permanently in place. Beribboned, the sandals look just right for the beach, and many people will think they have always looked like that, from new.

There is another preparation I've needed to get on with. When sleeping I  can't have my bandaged toe touching any bedclothes. My winter-weight duvet, for instance. It needs to be hoicked up out of the way.

I considered some sort of frame or cage at first, to go over my feet with plenty of room to spare, and thus keep the duvet off them. Maybe a pet shop, or a garden shop, might have something suitable. Then it occurred to me that nothing fancy was required. Two large clean boxes with a space left between them would give me all the foot-room I needed. Any cheap plastic storage boxes of sufficient size would do. Wilkinson provided a low-cost solution.


Voila!

I'm pleased how inventive I can be! The boxes will of course still be useful afterwards, so no money has been wasted.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Paris Lees in Vogue

I was very pleased to see that Vogue included the journalist Paris Lees in a photo that made it onto the BBC News website - see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-42572561. I studied the photo before reading the text, and to be honest, I didn't spot her straight away.


She is the third woman from the left, the one looking straight at the camera, giving the photographer a direct stare.


One might even call it a challenging stare: a look that says 'I'm here, I most certainly belong here, and I cannot be ignored.' Nor should she be. But I also see the face of a woman who has been through a lot of bad stuff to get this far as a media figure.

She does look every inch a fashion icon, though that is not of course her mission in life. I do know that many look up to her as a brilliant role model, as a person to emulate. I know at least one such person.

I can't myself be like her, but I admire her outspokenness, and her sheer guts and stamina in overcoming an unpromising and disheartening early personal history. I envy her looks, naturally. And I am wistful for her energy and freshness of mind.

I suspect she would look down on me as a tired, older-generation nobody who lives only to amuse herself. I might be wrong. We have never met, nor can I have I come to her notice, nor am I ever likely to. And when all is said and done, she is an established and respected professional advocate for her cause, whereas I support no cause, have no public status or credibility, and can be dismissed accordingly.

But I am still glad for the recognition she has won, and I salute her.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Put back in the attic: memories of failure and marital breakup

It's an annual event. Every winter I go up into my attic and fetch down some boxes of photo prints or slides to scan. There's an awful lot up there. I took some 5,000 pictures from 1965 to 1989 using colour transparency film (mounted after processing as 'slides'), and 23,400 pictures from 1989 to 2000 using colour or black and white print film. I discarded anything that wasn't technically perfect (or near-perfect), but still ended up with a collection of 2,500 transparencies and some 15,000 prints, kept in boxes.

My ideal would be the scan the cream of all those pictures, and add them to the Melford digital photo archive. But although I have been having a go at that every winter since 2000, I doubt whether as many as 3,500 have been scanned, processed, and filed away in the archive. Scanning and processing (captioning and so forth) is a slow task. So it's definitely a thing for dull and rainy winter days. And although it's often interesting and satisfying to digitise these pictures, it stretches the notion of 'a labour of love' a very long way, and I soon tire of it.

Each winter, though, I have another attempt. Generally I do it by theme: pictures of a certain person, or a place, or a particular subject. This year I decided to be more comprehensive: I would examine all my pictures of individuals and groups during the 1980s, and scan the best ones. The 1980s were very much under-represented in my digital photo archive. It was high time I addressed that.

So down came five boxes of transparencies. Even if I selected only the best pictures, this represented weeks of work, on and off. But once done, that hole in my digital photo record would finally be filled.

Why hadn't I scanned much from the 1980s before?

Well, you need to understand that it was the decade that I lived in London. It was punctuated by several events, some good, some bad:

1980: Selected for Final Course Training in the Inland Revenue. This was a demanding, degree-standard course involving notoriously difficult exams. If I were successful, my career would really take off. Dad had taken this course before me, in the 1960s, and had won a well-deserved promotion from it. If I were equally successful, I would no longer be an ordinary Inspector of Taxes, but an officer who could command a Tax District, or even occupy a policy seat at the Revenue's Head Office. So much rode on being picked for Final Course Training. It was an honour.

1983: After two failures at the exams, I was denied a further attempt. It meant a return to ordinary duties. Mum and Dad must have felt humiliated. I'd done my best, but it hadn't been good enough. I felt a failure. To compensate, I promptly got married. I'd been pressed to agree, and I was thirty. At the time, getting married seemed, in a way, to offer an alternative career path.

1985: Based on my office results, I was selected for promotion to a new grade, in which I would manage the investigation work of the other Inspectors, answerable only to the District Inspector. It was an achievement. But I knew I'd never now get higher. (And I never did) 

1987: The first four years of my marriage were over, and we had settled down to our humdrum existence in south-west London. The spark had gone. There was no sharing. There would be no more holidays. The pointless arguments had begun.

1989: A fresh start. We moved out of London to Sussex, just outside Horsham. There was the excitement of buying new furnishings, of sampling life in the sticks. But after only a year, the harmony broke down and the tensions came back.

By the winter of 1990/91 my marriage was finished as a going concern. We split. We were both working in London, but W--- left to live there, while I stayed on in Sussex. Divorce eventually followed.

You can see from this brief résumé that I did not have a uniformly good time in the 1980s. High hopes turned sour. Everyday existence was dull and unrewarding. My best times were at the office, but they were overshadowed by the knowledge of having failed those important exams. I was in some respects over-qualified for what I now did. I was regarded as something of an oddity, and my background and office history were never forgotten. I found London stifling.

I remember going off to Liverpool in 1984, on a two-day trust course. I spent the sunny evenings riding the Liverpool Metro, sailing on the Mersey Ferry, and walking the streets of the City centre. Liverpool was mine. It was such a friendly place. I felt free. I was reluctant to return to London, to my marriage, and the daily torture of home-to-office and office-to-home.

I thought of all this, as I contemplated the five slide boxes brought down from the attic.

There would be pictures in them I hadn't seen for a very long time. It hadn't all been dispiriting. There had been some good times, some sophistication, certainly plenty of laughter. But also some despair, and a constant feeling of being trapped. And memories of something between anger and boredom. It was my first marriage, W---'s second. Why had it failed? We never had a proper inquest. We just agreed that it had fallen apart, and that we needed to live separately.

Did I want to rekindle any of this, by scanning the photos? I decided that I didn't. I'd pondered on my marriage too much already. It was kinder to myself to leave the pictures in the boxes. Some reason to dig them out again would no doubt arise in the future, but for now I didn't want to relive the past. And it was, after all, thirty years ago; nearly everyone in those shots was out of my life. What, really, was the point? To get at the truth, to look for evidence, to correct my memory?

Yes...but to be honest, I wasn't in the mood to play the dispassionate historian. I'd taken years to get over failing those exams, disappointing my parents, and not managing to make a marriage work. Reviving all that wouldn't help me now. It might drag me down.

So the boxes went back up into the attic.

It's a New Year, I thought. You're a much more accomplished person now than you were in the 1980s.  Don't spoil it. The future lies ahead. Look forwards, not backwards.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Just squeaked in

Sometimes you just have to make a quick decision.

A few days ago, I noticed that Vodafone was offering a cracking Unlimited Broadband deal to new customers, which seemed even better if you were already on a Vodafone mobile phone contract, as I was. I was currently getting my home Broadband from BT (their Infinity 1 package, recently improved - as a 'loyal customer reward' - to 30GB of Internet data per month. But of course a cheap deal on Unlimited Broadband would be better.

I had been free to change my Broadband provider without penalty for some months. Should I switch to the Vodafone deal? But having switched in the past, and finding the experience less than joyful, I was in no hurry to plunge further into Vodafone's hot, sticky embrace.

Still, the notion of reviewing my Broadband arrangements had been popped into my mind. So it was natural to click on an online TechRadar article about the best Broadband deals to be had at the moment. Yes, there was that attractive Vodafone deal again. But it seemed that BT were pushing out a couple of deals for new customers too, involving a generous cashback.

What might they be doing for existing customers? I logged onto the BT website and had a look.

Well, my upgrade options were sparse. But for what appeared to be the same price as now, I could enjoy not merely 30GB of Internet per month, but an unlimited amount. On a new eighteen-month deal.

30GB per month was actually quite a lot of data to use up. You wouldn't manage it, unless watching a lot of streamed or downloaded films, or TV programmes - which wasn't my normal habit. I couldn't justify paying BT more for a larger monthly data allowance, let alone an unlimited allowance. But to have Unlimited Broadband for the same cost? Now that was worth considering!

And there was a possibility that I'd use up more than 30GB in January. I was having a minor operation on the 8th - more on that in a post to come shortly - and then for several days afterwards I'd be more-or-less immobilised at home, and likely to be watching catch-up TV rather a lot, being a daytime and evening fixture in my lounge. It would be jolly useful to watch as much as I wished, without worrying about going over a data limit. A whole drama series, for instance.

That thought - and the fact that BT's offer expired in two days' time - made me act.

It was simple to set up the new deal online. My Unlimited BT Broadband should be available by midnight tomorrow. It's the same type of Broadband as now, not the super-fast sort that costs quite a bit more. So it ought to involve using the same Hub 5 router, with nothing new to set up.

This morning the My BT app on my phone was showing this:


The costs? The same £26 per month that I was going to pay anyway, continuing for the next eighteen months. Then it'll cost £5 a month more, subject to my opting for a different deal.

That £26 doesn't include the landline rental, which I pay separately to BT in one amount, in advance, in order to get a 10% discount. This year the one-off payment will be £227.88, which if spread over the year works out at £18.99 per month. So the real monthly cost of this new deal is £18.99 plus £26.00 = £44.99 per month. But that's no more than I would otherwise have paid.

BT gain by having me contracted to them for another 18 months. I don't mind that. They give me no problems, and seem to have upped their game markedly from the dire service of ten years back.

Clearly the offer of unlimited data usage at no extra cost is a sign of the times! Now that super-fast Broadband is the new kid on the block, and widely available, a provider can't charge very much for ordinary Broadband, which has become the low-cost (and low-status) product. BT are obliged by market forces to provide unlimited quantities of it at a discount. Suits me.

Further thoughts
Mind you, £45 per month over the next eighteen months - even for Unlimited Broadband - doesn't sound like the best bargain in the world. I'm actually looking at paying a total of £537 to BT in 2018 - £228 for the landline rental, and £309 for Broadband.

Looking back twenty years at my 1998 bill-paying spreadsheet, in pre-Internet days when you only had a telephone bill, I paid BT a mere £174. That would be the equivalent of £260 in 2018 money. In 2002, the first full year of having Internet (it was just the old dial-up connection: Broadband lay in the future) I paid BT £236 and Freeserve £164, a total of £400. That would be the equivalent of £570 in 2018 money, somewhat more than now; and of course the Internet service (and the content) is light years better in every way than it was in 2002, so the current £537 represents fair value for money.

But it's still quite a lot. And there's the Vodafone mobile phone bill on top (presently £60 per month, though it will go down to £20-odd in mid-2019). I therefore pay £105 monthly at the moment to own a mobile phone and enjoy ordinary-speed home Internet, albeit as much as I wish to use. Mind you, I do constantly need to consult my phone, and do things with my laptop, throughout the day and evening, home or away; so this isn't wasted money by any means.

I couldn't run my life without the Internet on my mobile phone, or on my laptop at home. There are many folk who would scorn such a declaration, and not all them older than me. But it is on the whole a generational thing, and I am surely a member of the first-ever generation to embrace the Electronic Life, which (shopping lists aside) is mostly a Paperless Life. For instance, I take thousands of photos every year, and publish a lot of them on Flickr, or show them in my Blog, but I normally don't print out a single picture, ever. At home, it's an all-electronic activity.

Well, I now have Unlimited Broadband at my disposal. I will gradually exploit the possibilities. But staring at a screen will always be secondary to getting out and doing real things.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Why I would still vote for Brexit

A comment I composed for my 'Brexit is Brexit' post became so long that I'm going to present it as a separate post, kicking the New Year off with it. 

Background: Bear carefully in mind that when young I knew a pre-EU UK, and it was then no more than the 'Common Market'. Also that I had a middle-class, grammar-school upbringing, have always been an active voter, am comfortably but not luxuriously retired, and that I take an interest in current affairs - business, political, cultural and technological. I also get around the country a lot. I represent nobody's special interest except my own. I belong only to the National Trust, the Caravan and Motorhome Club, and Slimming World. I voted Out in the Brexit Referendum in 2016, and would do so again. 

I think it's clear that the Brexit Referendum, however dressed up, was held to fulfill a promise given to Conservative Party Euro-sceptics. But those weren't the only people who were dissatisfied with the way the EU seemed to be gradually invading every aspect of British Life. And the hard financial rules imposed on countries like Spain, Italy and Ireland, which led to improvements in their own budgeting but also to serious austerity and unrest, hadn't gone unnoticed. EU membership led to grants and funding, and extra rights for minorities, on the one hand; but detailed regulation, cultural homogenisation, and an insistence on central control from EU HQ, on the other. And, when it came to it, a weak response to any international crisis. The EU did not prevent the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, and had no plan ready for the chaotic migrations of refugees and fortune-seekers from the south and east in more recent times. It looked as if the EU was flimsy, and not really fit for purpose.

I felt that way. I detested the xenophobic attitudes of UKIP grumblers in the clubs and bars of Thanet, but certainly saw the EU as a super-state in waiting, ostensibly benevolent, but definitely usurping all important powers from Westminster, and gradually reducing this country to what looked like a mere region of Europe, if not indeed a 'vassal state'.

The point of no-return had not yet been reached, so when the chance came to have a say on it, I was very pleased to vote for Out. Not as a protest, but as a genuine preference, fully recognising that there would be a lot of hassle in becoming an independent entity offshore. I also visualised the effort needed to form fresh links with the world at large, and to vie with the USA and other countries. There was indeed the old spectre of becoming 'the 51st state of of America', if you are old enough to remember the fear of a take-over from across the Atlantic. Though in the 21st century there were new economic superpowers on the scene, China for instance, whose assistance would come at a price. But all this could be managed.

The Referendum campaign was a joke. Nobody seemed to think that the Outs could win. Flippant misinformation flew around, perhaps because it wouldn't matter to the way people would vote. It was clearly believed on all sides that the British people would cling to the safety and assurance of EU membership, and that whatever the claims of the Brexiteers, the result would be a decisive Yes, Let's Stay In. And with the People having spoken, the Euro-sceptics would be forever silenced.

It wasn't so. More people than not voted Out. The will of the majority was expressed. They couldn't all have been idiots who had swallowed the slogans and spurious headline figures of Boris Johnson et al, or believed everything in the tabloid newspapers.

I think most people took a long hard look at what EU membership was doing to Britain and their own future, and jumped ship. I did exactly that - preferring higher taxation, if I could grow old in a country that felt like my own.

As for the generous EU grants and subsidies - a major argument for staying in, and apparently a big reason why younger voters embraced the EU - I wondered how long those would continue. The EU was admitting more and more countries with underdeveloped economies, who obviously thought that they should have all the cash going. I considered it likely that our cut of the EU largesse would diminish over the next decade, making EU membership viable only on political grounds.

Of course the entire consequences of an Out vote weren't explained, nor even seriously pondered. I do remember downloading the Scottish Nationalist Party's fat brochure on what it would do if the Scots voted Yes to Scottish independence. Like it or hate it, they had a pretty detailed and comprehensive plan. Something similar should have been available online for the Brexit Referendum. But anybody of intelligence and a grip on current affairs was equipped to decide for themselves, brochure or no brochure. I did so.

Some would have it that the good ship Britannia is currently being commanded by a ghost crew who have lost their bearings. And that we are drifting towards the rocks. Who knows what the reality is. Who knows what the reality ever is, such is the way of government everywhere - secret negotiation, and dealing between insiders, being the norm. The public will be told in due course. That is how things are actually done. We will have as little control over the outcome as we do over the Chancellor's annual Budget.

Could Labour do better? I don't think so. I have no confidence in them, and they will not get my vote.

Would I vote for Out again, if there ever were another Referendum on this topic? Yes, I would, without hesitation. I want the dirty deals that keep this country going done here, and not abroad. And I want to end my days in a land I understand, and can still recognise.