Is this the springtime of my senility……….

….or am I just becoming increasingly confused? If it is the former, then I suppose I can do little about it, except pray for the physical and mental ability to recognise when I have become a burden upon those around me, and seek a discreet solution to what I have realised becomes more and more of a conundrum as we grow older. No, I don’t think I’m losing my marbles just yet, though I often feel that I have lost just about everything else, and it sometimes scares me, often makes me sad, and occasionally makes me very bitter and angry. What to do about it? Well, I thought I’d done enough already – and perhaps that has been my mistake (or one of them!) I “celebrated” my last birthday in West Berkshire, a place I had long felt to be the most alien place I’ve experienced in all my travels around these isles of the increasingly Disunited Kngdom. In my last entry in this blog, I said that we would be moving down here to North Devon, something we had not planned to do quite as early it has happened, but the deletion of my wife’s post in West Berks, during the first round of Local Authority job cuts, left us with little choice but to move when we did.

As with any house-move, this one was not without its share of problems -none of which I would bore anyone else with, but all of which, in their various ways, left me feeling strangely detached, somehow. Explaining these sorts of things are virtually impossible for most of us, and I won’t even attempt an explanation. Suffice to say that I shall be very glad once everything is sorted out and settled, and my new workshop is completed so that I can get on with my woodturning. In the meantime I feel like a man without a focus…… a pianist without a piano …. or a shepherd with no flock to care for. Strange, unsettling feeling – and I hope it disappears soon.

The upside of the move is many faceted. Bideford is the sort of place where a man can wander along the High Street, and chat with all and sundry…… walk into a shop and be greeted like a long-lost friend; where drivers drive, on the whole, with old-fashioned courtesy and consideration and don’t seem hell-bent on cutting one up at every intersection. (Well, there is one fascinating exception to that – concerning a junction at one end of the mediaeval Long Bridge in the town- where the normal rules for getting over a roundabout seem to have been reversed completely!). As an ornithologist, I have already found that the local birdlife is rich and diverse, with a fair smattering of scarce species to add a little extra excitement to scanning the shoreline or the fields for birds of interest. The North Devon psyche seems to be not dissimilar to that of West Berkshire, in that the frequently uttered phrase, “We don’t do it that way in West Berkshire!” applies in equal measure down here – but with one very important difference: North Devonians seem to do things their way because there is no real hurry, whereas in West Berks they seemed to do things their way because they gave the impression that they knew best …. In West Berks, people would look at you with suspicion if you tried to strike up a conversation with them as a stranger whereas down here the opposite would probably apply. Personally, I am delighted that I shall be spending the rest of my life amongst people who value the company of their fellows….and seem to see each encounter as an opportunity for enrichment in whatever small way, rather than a threat to personal space and security.

It would be insensitive of me to detail too much of the contrasts between what I always felt was the true capital of Little Britain (Newbury), and my new home here in North Devon, but I know that there are lots of opportunities to keep my mind and body active for as long as both will operate as I hope my brain will command them. It is good to have quite a large garden again – and to be able to plan ways of enriching our space – be it with planting, or features, or just ways of using that space. One of the features is a pair of very stately Lime trees on one of our boundaries. They rise majestically to a height of some 20 metres, and are quite obviously of some considerable age. They are the sort of tree that every adventurous boy (and quite a few adventurous girls, too) would dream of in days gone by. I often gaze upwards into the crown of those two trees and think how much I would have loved the challenge of climbing all the way up to the Carrion Crow nest at the top of one of them. Without a doubt, as a teenager, I would have done just that – just as I once sailed an open dinghy across the Irish Sea to Wexford. Now that I am, perhaps, in the springtime of my senility, I look at all the twigs and small branches that have fallen off the two Lime trees into our garden, and I come to the conclusion that if the twigs are rotten enough to break off the tree, then the rest of the tree might well be rather rotten also!

You see, even if diesel fuel now costs £1.50 a litre, and a large proportion of the latest vintage of “Youth” seem to have less sense of purpose, more rights, fewer real words, and even less by way of respect for the older people in society, they still really don’t know everything about everything. That may leave us older ones feeling somewhat devalued – even written off as useless, but we can still look up at life’s Lime trees and see the pitfalls in trying to climb them! I may have quoted this old Welsh saying before, but it bears repetition – ” Yr hen a wyr…..a’r ifanc a wyr y blydi lot!” – The old know….. but the youngsters know the bloody lot!

Standing in the garden, or on one of our two verandas (quel grandeur!), I realise that if I can still apply the life skills honed over the years since the days of my arrogant youth, and use them to prevent me from falling out of a rotten Lime tree and ending up burying myself in my own back garden in the process, then maybe – just maybe I’m not going senile after all. :-)

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Plus ça change….

About three months ago I hinted at impending change in the household. It wasn’t planned to happen for a while yet, but as so often happens in life, things rarely arrange themselves to suit our convenience. My wife (who has a particular congenital musculo-skeletal condition) suffered a work injury over two years ago, as a result of not having the correct workstation equipment. Her employers decided, following a recommendation from their Occupational Health Consultants, that, “…the cost of providing the correct equipment outweighed the benefits.” (sic). For obvious reasons, I won’t go into great detail about the case (both medical and legal), except to say that she worked for a large organisation in West Berkshire, was a key practitioner in her department of the organisation, and highly respected as a very experienced professional by the sector which she served. During a “re-organisation” exercise a couple of months ago, her post was “deleted” by the management of her department. Co-incidentally,by this time, she had taken out an action against them under the Disability Discrimination Act. Because of her age, she was lucky that she could retire early on becoming redundant, and didn’t have to rely on a redundancy payment alone – though it is hardly the way we had planned the next couple of years to work out before we eventually retired. Her injury finally resulted in shoulder surgery a few weeks ago, and it is now much improved, but she has not recovered yet from the way she was treated by her employers. For my part I have had to sit and watch the saga unfold, watch her physically suffer, and witness the gross mismanagement of what should have been a straightforward situation to resolve. Had she been working for a very small and struggling business, I could understand the reluctance of her employers to spend about £600 GBP on appropriate equipment had she requested it, but given that she worked for a public organisation with many hundreds of employees, and whom should have been setting an example of good practice and legal compliance for the rest of employers in this area. I am, to say the least, gobsmacked. In a former life, I had dealings, on behalf of their employees, with a number of similar organisations in different parts of the UK and also spent over 25 years in management. I can honestly say that in all that time, I never encountered such misplaced complacency as I have experienced with my wife’s former employers here – both with regard to her case, and to my own dealings with them in various capacities. The entire saga brings to mind the old tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and yet another old Welsh proverb – apologies for quoting them so often, but they make points so eloquently – “Nid oes Paradwys fel Paradwys Ffwl”, or “There is no Paradise like a Fool’s Paradise”

Another of those canny old Welsh sayings claims that, “There’s never any bad anywhere that doesn’t have good coming out of it…” . In this case, that is yet again true because, as a result of the timing of our retirement date having been partly decided by the “deletion” of my wife’s job (what a tellingly inhuman way of referring to someone’s livelihood and the service they provided!), we shall now be moving to North Devon in the near future. The downside of that will be the fact that we shall have to leave behind some very good and loyal friends – including those whom I have been privileged to count as my brothers – and we shall leave behind some very “pretty” countryside and a wonderful diversity of wildlife. On the other hand, we shall also be leaving behind the chronically diseased body of an organisation which, in the best traditions of Little Britain, has the most outrageously misplaced high opinion of its competence and suitability to serve those who pay for its existence. To paraphrase dear old Winston Churchill – Never in the field of human effort was so little done by so many for so much! I hope you get my drift, as they say ….

Postscript: It occurs to me that for various reasons, I ought to add a little footnote to this particular blog entry, as follows:
The opinions expressed in this entry are those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of any other person, including his wife, with whom he has had contact in recent months. They refer only to his informed observations as a family member who has had to sit, uncharacteristically quietly, on the sidelines and watch a situation unfold, knowing that had the details of the case been more widely publicised and been scrutinised by the Press, there would have been public indignation, and probably a number of other posts would have been “deleted” also. Unfortunately, my financial position does not allow me the luxury of speaking my mind as freely as I would like, because I could never afford the legal protection and advice that is available to those who have the money to avail themselves of such luxuries. Encore un fois – c’est la vie!

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Tempus is most definitely fugiting!

Here we are, almost at Easter, and it is ages since I wrote anything new in here – for which my apologies to those of you who have been back to see if there were any new contributions. The truth is that there has been a great deal of uncertainty in our household of late – all of which will be revealed after the last day of this month (and the reason for this delay will become apparent to anyone reading the piece I shall write after that date has passed!)

Spring has sprung once again – and the grass has riz (as the old ditty says) and the early mornings (actually, the very early mornings are full of bird song……….and once I wake up and hear it – and that’s it…… no more sleep as I lie in bed listening and trying to see how many different species turn out for choir practice on another dawn-grey morning. This last weekend we went on a house-hunting expedition to the West Country, and within about 100 metres of where I was sleeping, there was a deep wooded gully with a little stream meandering through the bottom of it. I did my usual ridiculously early wake-up on the first morning, triggered by the call of a male Tawny Owl – who seemed to become increasingly frustrated as his repeated calls remained unanswered. It seems that the female he was trying to attract wasn’t interested, or was doing the age-old thing of playing hard to get. Either way, he got no response at all, and by the time he gave up in disgust…or whatever male Tawny Owls feel in place of disgust… the grey dawn was breaking, very ably assisted by a marauding mob of those chavs of the cliff-tops (and the roof-tops….and anywhere else from which they can scream their coarse cacophony), namely a party of Herring Gulls, out looking for trouble- or a snack- or anything else that they might fancy. A couple of rather respectable Rooks took exception to their antics and tried to chase them away, and the ensuing short, sharp encounter sounded reminiscent of the old Mods and Rockers confrontations on seaside promenades the length and breadth of Britain way back in the Glorious (for sooooooooooooooo many reasons!) Sixties.

I was debating whether to get up and take the dog for a walk, when it started….. an archetypal Dawn Chorus of the most exquisite kind. First, a couple of Wood Pigeons cleared their opalescent throats, then a Magpie joined in -that Fisherwife of the hedgerows- to be followed by a gradual build up to a crescendo of melodic sound ensuing from the wooded gully nearby. As an ornithologist, one of the delights of being in less familiar places is to hear not only the song of different birds to the ones one usually hears at home -but also to hear the different accents detectable in birds like Chaffinches, Wrens and Great Tits. It is amazing how different they can sound -just like people speaking with different regional accents – and it is a constant joy to spot the differences. (“Sad bastard!” I hear you mutter again …… Within a matter of ten minutes, I had heard Chaffinches, a Robin, Song Thrush, Blackbird, Hedge Sparrow (Dunnock to some of you), Blue Tit and Great Tit – and then an infrequent one for me – a Marsh Tit. Cue the sopranos…..and there were Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs, a very melodious Blackcap, a Garden Warbler aspiring to similar heights of purity (and really, it was “no contest”), then joy of joy – my first Nightingale for several years. Mind you, I’ve always felt they were over-rated as songsters, and the little Goldfinches which made the final entry into that early-morning line-up beat the Nightingale hands down for sheer delicacy and joyfulness of their song.

A delightfully warm wife, and the music show from the gully meant that our poor Frog Dog (read the first entry in this blog for an explanation of that name!) never did have his early morning walk…….

By the end of the weekend, we felt that we had made the right choice of area in which to make our home. Stig (aka Frog Dog) had a wonderful time at the seaside (more of that anon), and we discovered a hitherto unknown (to me, anyway) North Devon snack, known as a “Brunchie” (consisting of a sausage, a rasher of bacon and a dollop of baked beans – all wrapped up in a puff-pastry parcel. Yummy :) )

Will we be back again? Too right we will! In spite of the constant 45 degree slopes up or down, it is a delightful place, with some delightful people, and real ozone in the air you breathe. Golden Pig Bitter was extremely palatable too!

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Welcome to 2011!

I can’t believe it is two months since I last posted anything in this blog, and that we are now at the start of another new year. I’m still not sure where November and December disappeared to, but I do know it was a very busy eight weeks for me in a variety of ways.  First there was an Art Fair at the beginning of December which involved me in having to work overtime at producing pieces to sell on my stall.  I really enjoy these events because it gives me chance to meet people who look at my work and, if they like it enough, are willing to part with some cash to buy it – either for themselves, or for friends and family as Christmas gifts.  As I have said here before, I love talking about wood, and especially enjoy explaining to people how I make various things which are displayed on my stall. However, it is always good to just chat with people about wood…..and trees…..and design….about the sensuality of wood and the mysteries of grain and figure which turned wood is able to show off to such beautiful natural effect.  I love to watch people approach my display…watch as they look over the various pieces…. linger here and there…. and then -that tell-tale sign of a wood lover- reach out a hand to touch a piece I have turned….watch them stroke it and enjoy the textures (I love to mix textures in my work).  To me, that simple act makes the hours that I spend at my lathe turning new shapes and thinking up new sensory experiences so worthwhile – just knowing that a new piece of work will provide someone with visual and tactile pleasure.

In the event, this last Art Fair was a resounding success for me – my best yet, in fact – and the long hours spent in my workshop in freezing conditions getting things ready for the fair, was all worthwhile.  I forgot to mention that the second half of November and the first week of December were increasingly cold …..with temperatures hovering around freezing point before dropping as low as minus ten degrees Celsius by mid-December…. and I have no heating in my workshop.  As it happens I managed to keep fairly warm (at least my feet did!) because I simply left all the curly shavings on the floor at the end of each day’s work instead of sweeping them all up as I usually do.  This meant that by the time the temperatures were in minus figures, I had about ten centimetres of curly insulation to keep my feet warm as I stood at my lathe!

As soon as the Fair was over, I then had to go up north to the island of Anglesey, where my ex-wife still lives in our former home, which has still not been sold. The purpose of my trip was to retrieve most of the remainder of my personal possessions which remained in the house, and since she had already disposed of some of my treasures, I was anxious to remove as much of what remained before they, too, disappeared!  My son, who still lives on the island, kindly offered to drive a van down to Berkshire with as much as we could pack into it.  Great plan……. but there was a problem looming in the shape of the increasing threat of heavy snowfall before Christmas.  For once, we were lucky, and the two days we  decided upon to make the 600-mile round trip turned out to be the final two days before the snow started.  Marvellous!  As a result, my beloved Georgian grandfather clock is now snuggly standing in the corner of our sitting room here, and I feel a lot happier as a result.  I had rashly promised to renovate the beautiful (but sadly very neglected) Oak parquet floor in the sitting room before Christmas, and only just managed to finish the job by Christmas Eve – after a week’s work sanding it down and then applying six coats of varnish to bring it back to its former glory.  It was back-breaking work and very, very dusty……but it has made so much of a difference that just looking at it when it was finished helped to ease my badly aching back!

So you see – there simply hasn’t been much time to indulge myself in writing anything here, but long hours in the workshop, and then on my knees sanding the sitting room floor provided ample opportunity for meditation and even the odd bit of daydreaming too, and perhaps I shall be able to share some of those thoughts with you in a few days time.  Oh, and I have already promised Stephany Sprole, who commented that my blog had become a bit boring of late, that I will try to make it more interesting in 2011 – so I must keep my promise.  Call back in a few days and see what you think.  Until then I would like to wish all my readers a very Happy New Year – and may it bring you at least some of all the things you wish for (well, we can’t have everything, can we!). :)

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Diamond and wood( and Samuel Morse pops up again)….

Well, that’s that – “Done and dusted” as they say. Monday’s much-awaited trip to Caversham Park to be interviewed by BBC Berkshire’s Anne Diamond came and went, and I have to say that it was a very enjoyable experience. What was supposed to be a ten-minute chat turned into a ten-minute chat then a piece of music, then part two of the chat which went on for almost another ten minutes (though the entire experience felt like it took about two minutes!).  Meeting Anne Diamond was, unlike meeting many familiar-from-TV people, no disappointment at all.  She was a pleasure to talk to, and exuded a genuine interest in wood.  The elfin girl I used to watch on TV years ago was still there, still bubbly and bright-eyed, so it was no wonder the time flew by.  I left the studio feeling that I could work with her on a longer item – knowing that she had that enthusiasm for wood, and knowing that between us we could make it sound very interesting – though I don’t suppose the opportunity will ever arise!  On my way out of the studio and through to the control room, the phones were ringing – and I was told that they had already had several calls from people who were saying how much they had enjoyed the piece.  That made me feel rather pleased!

Caversham Park had another significance for me, though.  It was the first time that I had visited the place and, being a Radio ham with a lifelong interest in Radio, I was aware of the history of this fine Victorian mansion as a BBC Listening Station during World War 2, and nowadays as the BBC’s worldwide monitoring station where media broadcasts from all over the world are monitored. It is also where my mentor in the early days of my Ham Radio activity, the late Ron Ashton, GW5YB, was chief engineer for the BBC in the late 1940′s.  He was a quiet, unassuming and very gentle man who embodied everything good about the brotherhood of amateur radio and his knowledge of radio engineering was phenomenal. I still use his morse key for my transmitting and I have so much to thank him for.  Strange that only a couple of weeks ago, I was writing in this blog about the legacy of Samuel Morse, and here we are, days later – and the history of radio pops up again – and morse code as well!

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Everything comes to he who waits….

My mobile rang on Friday morning and a perky female voice, which turned out to belong to Becky, from the staff of BBC Radio Berkshire, told me that she had been looking at my website as part of her research for a programme about Country Crafts in Berkshire, and was kind enough to say that she liked the stuff in my gallery pages there. Furthermore, she wondered if I would consider taking part in the programme, introduced by Anne Diamond, and chat with her about my woodturning.  Would I?  You bet I would!  Apart from the obvious chance to promote my work in the run-up to Christmas in what has been a year of very mixed fortunes, I never need any encouragement to talk about wood, and woodturning (especially my own!).  There is another aspect to all this, too.  When I lived on Anglesey, I made frequent visits to BBC Wales in Bangor to contribute on a variety of topics from Computers,  Education, Farming and Conservation to Natural History, for various magazine programmes on BBC Radio Wales or BBC Radio Cymru.  I really got a buzz from the spontanaeity of these broadcasts – being totally unrehearsed meant that one was never sure quite what the next question would be, and once answered, the words could not be changed – and this made for a nice adrenaline rush before and during the broadcast.  This was so unlike some of the TV chat shows, and the documentary films in which I participated, where the producer and/or director would sometimes stop the flow of the broadcast to ask one of us to re-phrase something, or for the camera to take a slightly different angle.  Radio is much more like real life and although the audience cannot see the participants, I always felt that they were sitting in the studio with us, and I always managed to “spot” at least one of my critics sitting there in the gloom of an imaginary back row, just waiting for me to make a mistake. Now you might find that a very perverse approach to broadcasting, but for me it worked well, and kept me alert and my concentration razor-sharp.

As a result, I’m looking forward to tomorrow, when I walk into the studio around 11.30am, with some of my recent smaller pieces of turning (I don’t fancy lugging anything heavy in with me!) and meeting Anne Diamond in the flesh for the first time.  I have no idea how long I shall be there and no idea of the approach she will take to the interview, but I do know that I shall thoroughly enjoy it.  There’s another thing about this particular episode  that means a lot to me.  Having spent so long on Anglesey and been well known by a wide variety of people for an equally wide variety of reasons – be it as a teacher, lecturer,  naturalist, farmer, author and broadcaster, (or possibly even as something less acceptable – who knows!), the resultant anonymity of moving to West Berkshire a couple of years or so ago has been a little hard on my rather fragile ego.  Maybe tomorrow will be the start of a new pathway for me down here…… maybe not, but it is an opportunity – and I have long since learned to grasp opportunities whenever they present themselves.

Oh, I forgot – there is something else.  I first saw Anne Diamond when she fronted one of the early morning TV programmes back in whenever when, and I have to confess that she struck me as being a rather “tasty” lady. Will the illusion be shattered tomorrow, I wonder?

Watch this space!

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In praise of dear old Samuel Morse…..

You probably guessed who he was….and some of you of more mature years (for want of an acceptable term) may well have known from way back during school days.  Samuel Morse, bless his cotton socks, came up with a method of sending messages on a single wire telegraph during the early 1830s.  He wasn’t the only geek around at the time with ideas about this emerging form of communication, but he seems to have got most of the credit for inventing it.  What he then came up with was a system of sending short spurts of electrical current which were translated at the other end of the wire into a series of dots and dashes represented letters and numerals, so that messages could be sent many miles over single wires strung across America.  This took place in the days when there were very few pikeys out on the prairies and the hundreds of miles of copper wire strung between “telegraph” poles stood a reasonable chance of survival.

Anyway, enough of the history lesson.  The reason for the title of this entry is a bit obtuse – as you will have now come to expect on this blog – but is a sort of homily to someone who helped to keep me sane, rather than overwhelmed with ideas of slipping quietly away to Antarctica, or to find a quiet corner of some uninhabited island far from any madding crowd.  You see, to quote one of my much favoured (and respected) old Welsh sayings,”Mae hi’n amser impiad a chwympiad y dail”. (It is one of the times of the year when leaves open , or fall).  September is also one of those times of the year when the behaviour of what are now referred to as “emerging adults” -rather like some damned chrysalis sprouting a crinkle-wrapped dragonfly (totally helpless and definitely incapable, and in no realistic way resembling what it is almost about to become) seems to go beyond the bounds of compatibility with the rest of us.  In earlier times, such beings would be referred to as teenagers. I vaguely remember being one myself several lifetimes ago, and as I remember, it was a peculiar time, when none of my clothes fitted, my skin didn’t fit either, and my mind was mainly driven by lustful feelings towards a certain girl who lived close to my “home” and was inclined to go for slow walks past my house and down to the nearby beach.  I swear I could smell her perfume half a mile away, and I would watch her pass my window, with the setting sun glinting on her glorious dark brown tresses, and my innards would screw into tight knots as I longed to be let out of the house and walk with her to whatever Promised Land we would discover down on the beach.  At such times I must have been something of a challenge to my parents, let alone to myself.  They didn’t understand me even as slightly as they seemed to do before this stage of life hit me.  I certainly didn’t understand me, either!  Somehow, life adapted to those challenges…. and I even managed to go to school on most days without bunking off and going fishing.  I relate this, by the way, because I have had to remind myself LOTS of times during the past month, that I, too, was once an “emerging adult”.  I don’t know why, but perhaps the event of being promoted from Year X to Year Y injects teenagers with an overdose of Stroppy Hormone which then slowly works its way out of their system over the months between about September and the following March – just in time for a top-up at the beginning of the examinations season and the onset of spring with its more recognized flush of sex hormones! As they say in Welsh, “Pwy faga blant a tedi bers mor rhad!” (Who would want to raise children, when teddy bears are so cheap!)

You must surely be wondering by now how dear old Sam Morse fits into this particular rumination – and you could be forgiven for struggling a bit!  Just bear with me a little longer and all shall be revealed….. but not before I have a little rant about GOMS, aka Grumpy Old Man Syndrome.  One of the problems with struggling through a lifetime of hard graft and precious little spare time, is that one often consoles oneself along the way with the thought of an idyllic retirement in a little cottage somewhere, away from noisy traffic, noisy teenagers (sorry, emerging adults), noisy advertisements on TV, and noisy late-night revelers on their way home in the wee small hours – who wake you up and then, once awake, you are unable to get back to sleep…. When you finally do drift off into sweet somnambulence, the wretched prostate decides that it needs to wake you up for a pre-dawn pee……  It is therefore little wonder, really, that we men of a certain age do give the impression of having a slightly biased view of life.  We have grown out of the irrepressible optimism of the years when raising children and building careers.  The battle scars of the average GOM are many, varied, and often disfiguring but without the kudos of having been earned in conventional battle.  You may perhaps begin to understand, therefore, how  we GOMS seek solace from the ravages of everyday life in some pretty strange places, and doing what, to the rest of the world around us, might seem to be some rather strange things.  For example, this past month my next door neighbour came out into his back garden to find out why I was perched ten metres up one of the Great Green Weeds (Cupressus) in the garden, and wielding a chainsaw. The answer was simple: rather than sawing the damn thing down completely (which I wanted to do) it had been agreed that I would reduce the height by about half, so that it still acted as a screen, but let in huge amounts of extra light.  He was delighted with the result, and disappeared indoors with a spring in his step.  Now,  one of my many passions in life has always been Amateur (or Ham) Radio, and ever since I came to live in this place, I was unable to enjoy the hobby because I didn’t have anywhere to hang the aerial for my radio equipment. This caused me some sadness and not inconsiderable hiraeth ( “Longing”) for dear SM who prompted this posting.  That had been the case until last month, I suddenly realised , as I was taking the top off the dreaded Great Green Weed in the garden, that the exposed stump would make a wonderful support for one end of my radio aerial.  Blessed are the lateral thinkers – for theirs is the prize of unlikely solutions!  Within a few hours, I had rigged up a simple aerial from the house to the “tree”top, and connected a lead from it to my radio indoors.

I have been called a sad bastard many times in the past few years (with worryingly increasing frequency, it has to be said). However, at the risk of invoking that dubious accolade one more time, allow me to explain the almost child-like anticipation I felt as I sat at my radio, switched it on and tuned across the ham radio frequencies.  The world would be at my fingertips again – just like in the days on Anglesey, with my 30 metre high mast on the peatbog on my little farm, from where I had conversations across the airwaves with people in over 250 countries on all continents – and even, on one occasion, in a spaceship.   orbitting by. From conversations with the late King Hussein, and the chap in Government House in Port Stanley as the Falklands War broke out, to a meteorologist on Svalbaard (or was it Jan Meyen Island?) trapped in his weather station, whilst a polar bear licked its lips outside his window – and countless other casual chats across the world – many of which spawned genuine and lasting friendships, this had always been a hobby with a real sense of the unexpected.  The day last month, when I switched on the radio to try my new aerial, was no exception…………..

All I could hear was a horrendous white noise that sounded like all the audiences in all the opera houses and concert halls in all the world were all clapping at the same time – but magnified a thousandfold.  I could have cried tears of real disappointment because never before had I experienced such a high noise level on the short waves.  The reason was simple.  Unlike all my former listening over the years, which was done in either my isolated farmhouse, or in small villages, the radio interference caused by electrical appliances, etc was virtually non-existent.  Here, in affluent Newbury, West Berkshire, there are so many plasma-screen television sets, so many wireless home computer routers, so many energy-saving bulbs, thermostats, power supplies and countless other sources of electrical interference, that reception is almost wiped out.  Which is where we finally meet up again with dear old Samuel Morse – I told you that we would do…..eventually!  You see, even though I could not hear any human voices through the noise on my radio receiver, I could make out the dots and dashes of faint Morse Code signals through the noise.  But hold on, how do you explain the rant about emerging adults in this posting, I hear you ask.  Well, the answer is simple.  For me, chatting to other radio hams by means of Morse code has always been one of my ways of de-stressing myself – particularly if the Morse code conversations are (as they sometimes are) held in French (because then I have to translate to or from French and Morse code at the same time, and the concentration involved in doing that completely wipes out the possibility of thinking of anything else).  There’s also another advantage to Morse – I have an 80% hearing loss, so that as well as being a sad bastard, around here I am also referred to as a deaf bastard too! Since it is easier to pick out sounds of a constant frequency (like Morse code) as compared to the human voice with all its cadence and fluctuation volume and tone, I find listening to Morse code a lot less of a strain than listening to human speech (especially some!!!)

So, for the past three weeks, whenever I felt that I was being over-exposed to the ravages of emerging adults, depressing television programmes and a German Pointer dog which is hypermobile, hyperactive and occasionally hypereverything else, I have taken to sneaking away to my radio, tuning across the bands, and “chatting” in Morse to Marcel in Toulouse, Hans in Bremen, or whoever else happens to be around on a frequency of about 7.015Mhz.

Whoever would have thought that the combined electrical interference a modern town can produce would be the means by which a man could resort to listening to an endless stream of dots and dashes, and thereby forget all his troubles?

I raise my glass to you, Samuel Morse……… and by the way, folks – this is a particularly good Australian Shiraz :)

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Write a sentence containing the word “quintessentially”….

“Go west, young man!”

That old piece of advice – not often heard these days – came to my mind yesterday as I drove westward along the M4 and M5 motorways, from the heart of England to north Somerset for a change of scenery (so many damned oakwoods around here  – even a woodturner can get sick of the sight of them occasionally!).  “Why north Somerset?”, you may ask.  The answer is, quite simply, the smell of the sea, the sound of it – and the chance to see a landscape of small fields with hedgerows, and manky looking sheep, little farms with rusting corrugated iron-roofed sheds, and narrow country lanes with hedges reminiscent of my own haircut (slightly unkempt, but very thick, and definitely doing their own thing).  Here in West Berkshire and surrounding Wiltshire and  north Hampshire, the land is beautifully and expensively groomed, on the whole. Hedgerows are shorn carpet-smooth and geometrical, field gates swing and close with delightful precision, and the tractors seem to tower over my dear old Land Rover Discovery as they purr past in the opposite direction.  Don’t get me wrong – this is farming at its Rolls Royce best.  These are the people who shape and conserve the landscape they farm.  They do it because they are often born to it – stewarding land which has been in the family for generations – and they do it extremely well.  They obviously also make a great deal of money in the process.  As an ex-smallholder who struggled for twenty-odd years of my life to convert my little patch of a few boggy acres into a productive little sheep farm, with a tractor built before the start of the Second World War, a sheepdog who occasionally went on strike if I shouted at it, and more moles than can be found in all the corridors of power in Whitehall, I can appreciate the effort and money that goes into making the countryside look the way it does round here.  My problem is that it all seems so … chocolate box….so quintessentially English.  I suppose that I should expect nothing else from the heart of England – but somehow, it seems to lack soul. It somehow seems like one of these amazingly beautiful women you might see out and about in London – or Paris – or Rome….. perfectly groomed, very elegant, easy on the eye – but not in the least tiny way desirable.  Usually, when I look closely at the faces of such people, their eyes look completely empty, and, like a beautiful cowrie found on a beach forage, all the beauty is in the shell.

Understandably, then, I felt more at home yesterday, as I reached the highpoint on the motorway and looked down on the shoreline of Avonmouth and the Severn estuary curving away into the heat haze. Almost immediately, I could feel the ozone in my nostrils.  It was a beautiful warm day with barely a cloud in the sky, and as I turned the car off the motorway and drove the short distance to the little seaside town of Clevedon, I was like a small child on a trip to the seaside – becoming more excited as we approached the beach. “You sad bastard!” I can almost hear you say  – but trust me, it was a delicious feeling, and I relished it.  Once on the little promenade, it was good to hear the Somerset brogue …and the general chatter of people enjoying themselves.  True, there seemed to be a preponderance of older people walking about – often grandparents with very young grandchildren in tow (or should that be the other way round?) – but even the sea air seemed happy and relaxed – all a far cry from the cut-and-thrust of downtown Newbury on a Saturday morning, where a pleasant “Good morning!” is as likely to be met with a hostile, dead-eyed stare, as with a reply.

Curiosity now well stimulated, the journey  continued on, further west – and to the seaside resort of Weston super Mare, a few miles further down the coast.  I hadn’t been to the town for many years, and wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  I needn’t have worried – the place was absolutely buzzing in a way that I haven’t experienced in a small seaside resort in Britain for many years.  Perhaps the current economic climate, and the emergence of the “staycation” as a result of it, have got something to do with it – but Weston was a little gem!  Yes, there was a bit of a problem finding a parking space – but that was because of major re-modelling of the sea-front area rather than a lack of spaces.  The local council had improvised parking areas – all well-managed (apart from the ticket machines charging £4 for parking, and only taking coins!) and the long promenade was thronged with people of all ages and all shades, all enjoying the sunshine and the fresh sea air……. just like when I went on childhood visits to Blackpool from the grime and noise of my native Preston.  Altogether a very traditional British atmosphere!

To get back to the comparison between Berkshire agriculture, and that of rural Somerset, it is an interesting comparison, and for many reasons.  However, both are stewards of our countryside in their separate ways,and we should all be grateful for that – and for the excellent food they produce. I have to align myself more with the smaller-scale farmers of the West country, because that was my level of farming in days gone by.  The truth is that farmers who struggle to maintain their land, their boundaries, and their stock are still good farmers on the whole, and their husbandry is as careful and caring as any you will find.  They may not have the money to spare to barber their hedgerows as neatly as the big Berkshire corn barons, or to tarmac their farm approach tracks…but they make our countryside what it is, and has been for hundreds of years – and I am very grateful for that.

Yesterday’s little trip has certainly left “Go west, young man!” ringing in my head – if not in my ears – and seeing and smelling the sea again reminded me very forcefully of just how much I miss it.  Must look at the price of houses down there ……………………………..

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When frozen peas are better than fresh-picked ones….

Yesterday was interesting.  Well, sort of.  For the second time in my wood-turning career, I had One Of Those Moments.  You know the sort of thing – where something happens in a split second, and for the rest of your life it comes back, if not exactly to haunt you, most certainly to remind you….

The first of these in my life was waking up in hospital at the age of two and a bit, and realising that I was tied in to my cot.  I didn’t like it one tiny bit, and let the whole of Preston Royal Infirmary know it. I still have a loathing of being physically restrained as a result.  There then followed the usual “moments” that any somewhat “whizzy”, slightly unorthodox, boy would experience as a result of generally exploring the “what if….” side of life. Some were amazingly exhilarating, some a bit scary, and some downright painful – par for the course, you might say.  Two incidents stand out -one was when my ear came off during a sort of routine boyhood scrap, and the other was when I played host to a high velocity bullet which visited my left foot.  The ear episode came about as a result of the fact that I had been receiving plastic surgery to build an almost non-existent right outer ear (I was what was called a “Rubella baby” – since my mother contracted the disease whilst pregnant with me, and the result was that I was born with a vestigeal right ear that was completely devoid of any hearing capability, leaving me fairly substantially deaf).  After the Second World War, the sphere of plastic surgery developed rapidly, mainly as a result of the pioneering work done on ex-servicemen whom had been very badly burned in wartime action.  As a youngster, I was offered the opportunity to benefit from some of the new techniques, and I was promised a new ear…..a really good ear, if I had the surgery.  Nobody thought of telling me two vital facts at the time: that it would take a long time (years) and, at the end of the treatment, I would still not be able to hear any better.  However, after several years’-worth of summer holidays, I had an almost completely remodelled/rebuilt ear – made from recycled skin from my arms, thighs, and the cheeks of my arse.  At that point I realised that the whole exercise wasn’t worth the sacrifice of several summers of exploration, fishing, climbing trees and swimming, and cancelled the project.  The decision was made all the easier because I had developed a loathing for cod boiled in milk, served with steamed cabbage and mashed potatoes, followed by a daily dose of a disgusting substance known as “junket”, which we were told was a pudding.  Yeah, right.  Anyway, shortly after coming home from hospital, I got involved in a fight (as you do at that age), and my ear was ripped off .  The guy I was fighting with was totally freaked by this, and I felt huge anger at seeing all those wasted summer holidays whizz by in my mind.  Fortunately, prompt action by the local hospital resulted in the stitched-back ear taking fresh root, and it has happily inhabited the side of my head ever since.

Other memorable “split-second” incidents over the years included suddenly realising I was hiding in a waste bin/container in Algiers when a gunfight broke out as I was crossing a square in the town.  I don’t remember getting into the bin, but I do remember the numerous shots being fired from opposite sides of the square, and the sound of ricochetting bullets as they whizzed about above my head, like angry hornets.  Suddenly it all went quiet, traffic started moving, Algerians started yelling gently to each other, as they do,  and life got back to normal.  It still haunts me occasionally though.

Back to the woodturning.  Shortly after I got involved in this activity – completely self-”taught” (i.e. something needs to be done, so you think about how to do it, what tools  should be used, etc etc – and it either works or it doesn’t), I was investigating the way I should use a certain tool, known as a scraper.  Without going into detail, I suddenly wondered, as so often in the past, “what if I do this with it…..”.  The result was a very loud bang as the tool caught against the wood spinning at about 2000 rpm on the lathe, and brought the flat of the blade down hard, trapping my left index finger between the tool and the toolrest.  There was a lot of blood, actually a hell of a lot of blood, but at this point, no pain. I washed the wound under the cold water tap, saw the bone of the knuckle, and managed to stem the bleeding with a dressing. (I am lucky in that my blood always seems to coagulate very quickly).  The wound eventually healed (apparently I almost lost the finger, according to the doctor), but left a lot of scar tissue and stiffness – which resulted in my career as a jazz guitarist being effectively over (me not being of the ilk of the legendary Django Reinhardt, who still played with incredible skill after losing fingers in a caravan fire).

Finally, to get to the point of this entry (!), what happened in my workshop yesterday was almost a case of deja vu.  I had a large salad bowl on the lathe, which was about 37cms in diameter, spinning sweetly at a speed of around 1,250 rpm (at the centre – the speed at the rim would be much faster, given the radius, but let’s not get embroiled in mechanics…). Suddenly, there was an almighty bang, the gauge flashed past my nose, half of the bowl crashed against the opposite wall behind the lathe, and the other half tried to embed itself in my forearm.  Flashback time…….I looked for blood – none seen, felt for pain – none felt, and then realised that my left forearm looked like one of dear old Popeye’s forearms -massive, and getting thicker by the minute.  In the best tradition of First Aid practice, I opened the nearby deep freeze, and grabbed a large pack of frozen peas to place over the site of the impact.  Instant relief!

A little later, as I sat down to enjoy a very welcome cup of tea, and clutched the pack of peas to my forearm, I suddenly thought that, although fresh peas picked from your own garden ( and most of them having already been eaten before you get them back to the kitchen) may taste far better than frozen ones, they would have been of no use at all in this instance.    Food for thought, perhaps?

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Space ships that pass in the night….

Every now and again, something happens to you that simply puts the insignificance of life into perspective.  I am not a philosopher,  neither am I a religious person in the formal sense, because I don’t subscribe to any sectarian or religious point of view (beyond accepting that the natural order of things in the world which we inhabit is attributable, shall we say, to the influence of the Great Architect of the Universe ). I never wished for the moon, either metaphorically, or as a physical goal, though the night sky has always fascinated me and made me feel guilty that I have had neither the time, nor indeed that particular intelligence needed, to get to grips with astronomy. The past few days have been blessed with good weather and, for the most part, clear, cloudless skies  during the couple of hours following sunset. This co-incided with regular passes over southern England by the International Space Station, moving fairly rapidly across the sky from west to east, and visible for perhaps three or four minutes on each pass.  It appeared as a very large bright light  in the west, and as it came overhead it was easily the largest object in the darkening sky – much bigger indeed than even the planet Venus which was visible towards the westerly horizon.  I watched in awe ( a feeling repeated each time I saw it) as it seemed to hurl itself across the dark blue velvet on a relentless journey round and round the Earth. Put up there by humans, like some mega-Ikea project, and almost as large as a football pitch, it dazzled as it hurtled above my head.

It suddenly occurred to me at one point that there were actually people on board that celestial craft – perhaps peering through the windows of their living quarters, and wondering what was happening down there on Earth.  It was at that point that I realised my true insignificance  and the fact that whatever we think we do well as individuals, it pales into insignificance alongside the realisation of a massive co-operative human endeavour like the International Space Station up there in the sky like some huge, gangling collection of solar panels. The whole experience reminded me of an old Welsh saying: “Well gen i edrych arno fo, i weld os ydi o yn edrych arna”i, nag iddo fo edrych arna”i, i weld os ydw i yn edrych arno fo…”“Better for me to look at him, to see if he is looking at me, rather than for him to look at me, to see if I am looking at him!”

Individually, it seems we really are insignificant in the grand scheme of things……

(First posted 8 July, 2010, before blog was corrupted and had to be re-built)

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