Monday, June 30, 2008

A Pretty Good Guy 

Rest in peace, Winston. Even though we never met in realspace, I thought of you as a good friend - someone always ready with words of encouragement and companionship. I still can't quite believe you're gone; we're gonna miss you, buddy.

Friday, June 27, 2008


Excuse a terse diary entry; there’s scarcely time to draw breath, let alone try to be creative about blogging.

Tomorrow we go shopping. Turns out I’m going to be the photographer at this wedding, but I’m afraid my ageing ‘prosumer’ compact isn’t up to it, so the deal is we buy my son a DSLR (Canon 450D as he already has Canon lenses for his film SLR) as a combined going away-plus-Christmas-and-birthdays-for-the-next-2-years present, and I get to use it for the wedding. Maybe one day I’ll get one for myself.

Meanwhile, the women (wife, bride, mother of the bride) are going fabric shopping for the wedding dress, which my wife will be making. While she’s doing that I’ll be getting to grips with a strange camera and learning its idiosyncrasies, together with practicing portrait photography – lovely as the windmill and the marshes are, I wont be popular if I make them the main subject of this shoot!

Sunday we drive back up to Norfolk (6 hour round trip) to view a couple of prospective venues for the reception, since the first choice turned out too expensive.

Oh, and by the way, as if everything else wasn’t enough, it seems I’ve talked myself into a new job. Well, a new role, new boss, new project within the same organisation anyway. I’s yet to be dotted and t’s crossed (what is the correct punctuation there…?), but I think it’s going to happen. Perhaps not the dream job, but a step in the right direction which should make working life more bearable. All as a result of a chance conversation…

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The island Here is everywhere 

Joe Riley does it again, finding yet another thought provoking piece:


Some fishermen pulled a bottle from the deep. It held a piece of paper,
with these words: "Somebody save me! I'm here. The ocean cast me on this desert island.
I am standing on the shore waiting for help. Hurry! I'm here!"

"There's no date. I bet it's already too late anyway.
It could have been floating for years," the first fisherman said.

"And he doesn't say where. It's not even clear which ocean," the second fisherman said.

"It's not too late, or too far. The island Here is everywhere," the third fisherman said.

They all felt awkward. No one spoke. That's how it goes with universal truths.

~ Wislawa Szymborska ~

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


The wedding venue

The view

Monday, June 23, 2008

Changes (3) 

Sixteen years is a long time to stay in one job. It becomes so much more than just a job; no longer something apart from you, the boundaries become blurred, self and job are so enmeshed that pulling them apart must surely be traumatic. Loss of job, whether enforced or by choice, can be like loss of identity. All the more so when so much of family and social life have also been wrapped up in the package.

School rolls are falling significantly in our locality. As things stood, before too long so many classrooms would be standing empty that they’d add up to a whole school’s worth. This prospect was not lost on the accountants at County Hall; you could almost see the ££ signs flashing in their eyes at the idea of selling off so much prime real estate for housing developments. So it is that one of our local primary schools closes its doors for the last time at the end of this summer term, and the children who currently attend there will be transferring to other local schools, mostly to the school where my wife teaches.

Of course, fewer classes need fewer teachers. Even though ‘our’ school is actually growing in size my wife is fortunate enough to have been offered an early retirement package. In just over a month’s time – the day before our son’s wedding in fact - she will finish work at the school where she has taught these last sixteen years.

She loves being in the classroom, and children and parents alike appreciate her interactive, stimulating teaching style. She doesn’t teach by telling, she teaches by asking; she’s spoken of her role as being to help the children become independent learners. But that doesn’t always align well with government targets and prescribed practices; with all the paperwork and reporting required, actual classroom teaching seems to be becoming almost incidental to the job. Moreover it’s a physically demanding job, especially dealing with 4, 5 and 6 year olds. Both her doctor and her acupuncturist have said on many occasions that with her back problems she should not really be in full time work.

It’s going to be quite a dramatic change for her; so much of her life and her social relationships revolves around the school. She wont be leaving teaching altogether – the plan is to carry on doing supply teaching (i.e. standing in for teachers off sick or away) and various other education-related activities, some paid, some voluntary.

Quite a dramatic change for me too. Changes to our lifestyle, reduced ties to this locality so the possibility of moving house becomes a step nearer, but set against that is increased dependence on my salary.

It’s early days yet; I make no predictions what the outcome of all this change might be. But with two out of three offspring moving out and the balance of ties shifting, change may not yet be over.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Changes (2) 

This post really deserves more time, but that, as you’ll see, has suddenly become a commodity in even shorter supply than usual.

Life is full of surprises.

Son number two leaves for Zambia in 8 weeks time, on a 2 year teaching contract here.

That wasn't a surprise; he was never going to anything merely ordinary and, even though I may not be able to enact it for myself, I've always tried to instill in him the idea that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. So far, he's been remarkably successful at proving it.

With him goes his girlfriend; that too isn't a surprise. A classic case of being made for each other, if ever there was one.

In 4 weeks, 4 days and about 16 hours they'll be married. That's the surprise. Not the prospect of marriage at some yet-to-be-specified time in the future – that too was known. The original plan was that they'd get married when they got back, but that's a long time away, especially with ageing grandparents back here in the UK. So at very nearly the last minute, they decided it would be a Good Idea to tie the knot before they depart for for exotic climes.

And Good Idea it is too. One of many consequences of course is that for the few weeks we are going to be rather busy, and most probably increasingly distracted as The Day approaches.

Not quite as busy, I hope, as yesterday turned out to be though. We…

…went to see the end-of-course presentations at Homerton College, Cambridge where he’s been doing his Post Graduate Certificate in Education;
…drove to Norfolk to the venue they’re chosen for the wedding and confirmed arrangements. (The location is stunning; I’ll put some photos up when I get a moment).
… Went on to the venue for the reception (where a late lunch proved an excellent way of sampling their culinary expertise with the local farm produce) and discussed arrangements there;
…drove back to Cambridge to meet the father of the bride-to-be for the first time and shared a very pleasant open-air pub dinner watching the antics of the punters on the River Cam;
…got back home about 14 hours after leaving it, with seemingly not a moment to draw breath in the intervening hours.

And there’s still change number three I haven’t told you about yet…

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Ch-ch-ch-changes (1) 

Rather a lot of change, all coming at once. All good, yet each one a major landmark in life; with them all coming on top of each other it could be overwhelming were we not so busy with the effects of it all.

Son number one moved out last weekend. Packed all his worldly goods into the back of a hired van, and off he went. He’s renting a flat with his girlfriend in Sevenoaks; with no doubt now that UK house prices are tumbling, I’m sure he’s made the right choice to rent rather than buy – the last few months have seen more value wiped off the price of somewhere he might buy than he’ll be paying in rent for a year.

It felt as though it should have been more of an occasion, that there should have been something special to mark the moment. “Twenty three years this has been my room…”; looking over the relics left behind, his voice tailed off as he left any further thoughts unsaid. Endings and new beginnings; you can’t have the latter without the former. It’s almost like grieving a loss. He was four when we moved into this house; I well remember moving day – tucking him and his two year old brother into their beds that first night, the room made as welcoming as possible amidst all the turmoil.

His shadow still remains for a while – army kit in the cupboard until he transfers to another TA unit; motorcycle in the garage – there wasn’t time in all the to-ing and fro-ing at the weekend to get that down there as well; the less tangible reminders such as the dents in the carpet where his bed stood.

An echo remains, but over time that will fade. In its place though we’ll build a new connection. The family as closely bound as ever, just spanning a greater space – that surely must be a form of growth.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Interesting skies... 

...never fail...

...to enchant me.

Mystery Flower 

Hands up all those who know what plant is adorned by this rather unusual flower?

Thursday, June 12, 2008


It’s hard to believe that as recently as the early 1990s, long term incarceration in institutions variously known as mental hospitals, psychiatric hospitals or asylums would have been the lot of anyone unfortunate enough to be judged to have insufficient mental capacity to care for themselves. Perhaps it was a mark of how successful this “out of sight, out of mind” policy was at hiding these institutions and their inmates from the public gaze that one such existed quite recently less than ten miles from where I live, and I was completely unaware of it, even though I frequently used to drive within a few hundred yards of its boundary. Well, no-one was likely to put up a sign saying “Loony bin this way” were they? (Apologies, but that would have been the very-non-PC vernacular, at least in the days of my youth…)

Perhaps life within those walls wasn’t as hard as I imagine it might have been - judging by the photos here the windows were large and one imagines the interiors were quite bright - but even though this wasn’t a secure unit, it’s hard to shake the associations with prisons that arise from the aerial views of those bleak ward blocks, surrounded no doubt by a high perimeter fence.

In the 1990s though, the policy changed to one of “Care in the Community”. The cynical side of me says that this was as much because of the savings that could be made as it was for any potential benefit to the patients arising through integration. Not only did local authorities no longer have to foot an enormous maintenance bill for the upkeep of these sprawling, probably decaying Victorian edifices – they also netted a tidy sum in the sale of prime building land.

Nearly all of the land associated with that 1000 bed hospital-of-which-I-was-unaware is now covered in houses – largish executive-style detached homes, but so closely packed (and hence delivering maximum profit to both developer and council – the givers of planning permission) that you must be able to see straight out of your bedroom window into your neighbours’. Nearly all the land, but not quite. Due both to its size and to the general policy of isolation from the community, this hospital, as so many of its kind, was almost a self contained village with amongst other things its own bakery, farm, railway station and chapel.

Other than the crumbling remnants of the station platform, the chapel is all that now remains. It’s ironic perhaps that a building once a place of worship should have been preserved through the get-rich-quick gambling dreams of the Great British Public. Rather than being bulldozed to make way for yet more brick boxes, it has now been converted to a theatre and performing arts centre, courtesy of a grant from the National Lottery.

It was here that we played the most recent show in which I’ve taken part, Wild Wild Women, which ran last week. Although the theatre is tiny, with a mere 125 seats, the conversion has been cleverly planned – a huge amount has been squeezed in without the place feeling small or cramped, at least as far as the public spaces are concerned. (Backstage is rather more restricted). No way could this have been achieved without external funding – it could never be a viable business if it was saddled with the debt of development and I’m sure it must struggle to stay afloat financially even without that burden.

The full height of the original chapel interior is still evident in the entrance hall, where the glass-sided lift gives full wheelchair access to all three levels. To the right, where the altar would have been, is a coffee shop/bar, and above that a mezzanine floor provides a meeting area which seems to hang in the space, approached by a bridge from the first floor landing, occupying space yet without destroying the feeling of spaciousness.

The theatre itself is in what would have been the nave, with a ceiling at two thirds height. Above this is a dance studio/rehearsal space and administration offices. Two of the original side arches remain, maintaining a link with the building’s past.

The band was tucked out of the way in the high level gallery along one side of the theatre (visible running left to centre of the above photo, and from where the preceding shot was taken). Although only a four-piece – piano, bass, drums and clarinet doubling alto sax – it was still unbelievably cramped, all strung out in a line and competing for space with all manner of theatrical/technical paraphernalia that had been dumped stored up there. The drummer had to do without toms, just snare, kick drum and cymbals – all credit to him, you would barely know the difference. All the more so since, strung out in a line, eye contact with the Musical Director on keyboard was near impossible for him.

This is the fifth show for which I’ve played bass this year – no doubt the time spent practicing and rehearsing has been in part responsible for my continual tiredness and for the downturn in blogging over recent months. Perhaps now that I have no more shows lined up I’ll be able to stop burning the candle at both ends and get back on even keel.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Three generations of environmentalists 

In my pre-teen years, unlike many kids of my age, I wasn’t a devoted TV addict, but there was a handful of programmes I’d dash home for. One was (and still is) Doctor Who; another was BBC2’s “The World About Us” – a long-running series of documentaries presenting a multi-faceted view of the natural world. Being scheduled at 7.25pm on a Sunday evening was a source of much frustration for me as I had to cajole my parents to hurry home from church (being a very devout family we attended both morning and evening services every Sunday). At least when they changed the schedule to move the slot to 8.15pm I didn’t have to feign illness so often…

The films of Jacques Yves Cousteau featured frequently and were a favourite of mine. It wasn’t that I had an especial interest in oceanography any more than any other aspect of the natural world, but his passion was infectious, and his style of narration drew you in to his world so that you experienced it through all of his senses. Cousteau’s exploits pressed a lot of my buttons – I admired him as scientist, explorer/adventurer, naturalist, ecologist (in the days when the term was still new), inventor (he was co-inventor of the aqualung) and photographer. I was astonished too that he actually seemed to be making a living doing something that was so much fun. He had a kind of freedom which I’ve always envied, and never quite understood.

His son, Philippe, featured in many of those films, taking more and more of a leading role as his own skills and experience - and passion - grew to match his father's. It was after that series of programmes were made that Philippe was killed in a crash of their Catalina flying boat, leaving behind his wife, Jan, a three year old daughter and a yet-to-be-born son.

Jacques Yves Cousteau was a great environmentalist and a great storyteller, using the one to promote the other; now his grandson, Philippe Cousteau Jr, is following in that tradition – also, as it happens, in conjunction with the BBC. For the next fortnight, you can follow at his blog his exploits diving and filming in the Arctic for a forthcoming TV production; the official BBC account of filming, complete with video clips is here.

From today's post:
Even now, as we witness the catastrophic consequences of our actions, we are consumed with a desire to drill more, ship more, plant our national flags and greedily exploit whatever is uncovered by the retreating ice. Even as we watch the Arctic shrinking in front of our very eyes, its shifting ecosystem threatening the existence of all life on this planet, we are blinded by a frenzy of consumption, a myopic desire to advance our own self-interest. Already, environmentalists around the world are battling countries that want to take advantage of the retreating ice to drill for more oil, the very stuff that has caused the ice to melt in the first place! This is going to be a difficult trip but an important one. This world is changing and the poles are at the frontlines of that change. The great regulators of our climate, both the Arctic and Antarctic, face an uncertain future and seeing it with my own eyes will be both thrilling and terrifying.

Jan Cousteau, wife of Philippe, mother of Philippe Jr, co-founder of Earth Echo:
“Our children learned very early that they had a responsibility to this planet and knew that they must carry their father’s message forever with their own. He was and continues to be their guiding star, their inspiration, as he has always been mine. As the years passed we understood the sense of urgency for the tremendous task that lay ahead: more problems with more solutions to be sought. This was Philippe’s gift to us, the continuation of the legacy.”

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Green on green