Thursday, 8 November 2018

Knives, forks and spoons

In a post on my last holiday in the West Country I mentioned that I'd been lucky enough to buy a sixteen-piece set of quality stainless steel cutlery for just £16 at Wroes department store in Bude. That's £1 per item. It was on display loose. You picked what you wanted, as much or as little as you wanted. All at £1 a pop. It was all stuff that a cutlery salesmen brought to the store as samples. I imagine they used some of it in their wonderful cafĂ© that has a sea view. But the rest got sold cheaply to the customers. I wanted a new set of matching knives, forks and spoons for the caravan, but didn't want to pay a lot, and this find was perfect.

I bought four of each type of cutlery. They were a big step up from the miscellaneous collection of knives, forks and spoons I'd been using in the caravan for years past. The old stuff did the job, but it was not in the least classy. My new set was. It was almost a touch of luxury. And I enjoyed using my new cutlery: it not only looked good, it felt good in my hands.

Once home again in early October I reverted to the twenty-four piece set of stainless steel cutlery I'd been using in the house since separation from W--- in 1991. It had been a wedding present from Mum and Dad in 1983, and so I had retained it. Remarkably, it was still intact after thirty-five years of continuous use, apart from the mysterious loss of of one tablespoon just before last Christmas - which I think must have got accidentally binned when I put on my Goose Dinner. That old set still looked good, but it didn't have the same feel as my new short set from Wroes, and I actually missed using my caravan cutlery.  As the end of October approached, and another trip was only days away, I felt glad that I'd be eating my caravan meals with the new set of knives, forks and spoons.

And you know what? Although I'm home again, I've decided to use the caravan cutlery all the time, because I like it so much. Here it is, or at least four pieces of it.

And here are four pieces from my 'old' set in the house.

And here are both, side by side: the 'new' on the left, the 'old' on the right.

The 'old' set is lighter, slimmer, longer in the handle, and a touch more elegant. The 'new' set has more heft, and the knife and fork in particular are broader. But for some subtle reason the weight, shorter handle, and the broadness all improve the feel and efficiency of the 'new' cutlery as a set of eating implements.

It must be to do with the shape and size of my hands (wide-palmed, short-fingered, smallish overall). How weightier cutlery can feel nicer in the hand has no obvious answer, but it does.

The knives of the 'new' set are serrated on one side, smooth on the other. So if you slightly angle them one way, you can bring the serrations into play and (combined with the extra heft) this makes cutting meat easy. I've tackled steak and lamb chops with no problems whatever, and it looks as if the set of steak knives and forks at home (an engagement present from an aunt and uncle dating from 1980) are now redundant.

I can't use my new set of cutlery in company. There's not enough of it. If putting on a meal, I'd bring out my old cutlery. And there's yet another set of thirty-six pieces on a wooden plinth, even more formal, which Mum and Dad bought back in the 1960s. All of it is posher than my new set.

No, my new set is strictly for personal use. Here it is, installed in my kitchen, still in the blue rubber IKEA boxes used in the caravan.

It's not a very stylish way of displaying them, but I might be able to find something better. Four of each type of cutlery is just enough to see me through one day. Usage is high, and none of it will ever gather dust. I hope the knives, forks and dessert spoons stay bright and shiny for a long time to come, but of course the small tablespoons are likely to get scuffed and scratched sooner, a consequence of the extra rubbing needed at washing-up times to get rid of tea and coffee stains. You can't avoid that.

Meanwhile the 'best' cutlery is having a rest. It will come out whenever I entertain.

Is it an odd notion, to have a set of 'personal' cutlery? Well, no. If you hark back to childhood, you might well recall having a miniature knife, fork and spoon just for your own use, designed for little hands and fingers. I didn't myself ever have a full set like this, but I did have a spoon for use with breakfast cereals. I've still got it. It must be about sixty years old. A silver-plated spoon with the cartoon character Yogi Bear at the end of the handle.

My younger brother Wayne had one too, although his was embellished with Huckleberry Hound. I rediscovered my Yogi Bear spoon quite recently, in a bundle of odd cutlery in Mum and Dad's welsh dresser. I hadn't seen it for decades. Fancy their keeping it. Perhaps they let my nephew Michael use it when he was a little boy back in the 1980s, and then hung onto it (somewhat untypical of their throw-it-out habits). Well, I now have it back.

My goodness. Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound. That takes me back! But let's keep it for another post sometime.

Rueful sequel
I'd thought that buying cutlery at £1 a piece was a wonderful bargain, but today I discovered a better bargain on exactly the same make and style of cutlery. I was at Robert Dyas in Eastbourne, and saw this boxed set.

What! Twenty-four pieces of the same cutlery that I'd already bought - but for only £14.93! It was a 'one third off' offer, and the pre-discount price was therefore a penny shy of £23. I did a simple calculation. If I had bought twenty-four pieces of this cutlery at Wroes back in September, at £1 each, I'd have paid £24! The difference is trivial, but clearly it wasn't quite the amazing purchase I'd thought it was.

I confess I now feel ever so slightly diddled. What was all that stuff told to me at Wroes, about unwanted salesman's samples being sold off cheaply? Just eyewash?

Oh well. The sixteen knives, forks and spoons I got from Wroes still made a nice holiday souvenir. And they are are great improvement on what I was using previously in the caravan. They'll last for years too. I can't let myself get hung up on the exact price I paid, when it was still a bargain compared to fancier makes and styles.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

The new BBC Sounds app

The BBC have launched a new radio app called BBC Sounds. It sits alongside the existing BBC iPlayer Radio app, but whereas iPlayer Radio gives you a list of what's currently on, or has recently been on, so that you can listen to the programme live or in catch-up form, BBC Sounds primarily gives you podcasts. A podcast is a specially-produced downloadable piece of listening. It might well be based on an actual past radio programme; but might equally be something that has been put together as a podcast, and was never a live radio programme at all. For instance, a music playlist.

BBC Sounds is intended for mobile devices with screens - mobile phones especially - and is for an audience (reckoned to be mostly in the 25 to 35 age group) that doesn't habitually switch on a radio to listen to a live broadcast. It's not for those who religiously turn on Today on Radio 4 first thing after waking up in the morning. It's for those who want to hear a certain type of radio broadcast, be it a documentary, a discussion, music, drama or whatever (bird or whale sounds perhaps). It's searchable. So, for instance, I might want to find out about 5G. I pick up my phone, fire up the BBC Sounds app, type in '5G', and get this:

The first offering in that list of possible things to listen to seems OK, so I tap on it and listen. As you can see, the interface is unfussy and easy to use.

And it turned out to be very informative. I'm now convinced that 5G will be a Very Good Thing, and that it will be a clever move to delay buying another phone until I can get one that's 5G-enabled. As it happens, that fits in with my existing phone-upgrade plans, which contemplate delaying my next phone purchase until 2020, or even 2021.

That was a programme from earlier this year. It's also possible to listen to live radio on a similar interface. After hearing that 5G podcast, I switched to what Radio 4 had started broadcasting: The Archers.

I didn't stay with it, not being a follower of The Archers since the early 1960s.

BBC Sounds is not conventional radio. It's catering for people who haven't acquired a radio-listening habit. The Beeb wants to get them on side. To give them things that they might like to dip into, get them intrigued by what they hear, and get them curious to delve into the vast library of podcasts. And in that way make them better-informed, enlightened and possibly inspired with high-class and trustworthy material. It may also encourage some into listening to live radio, but the BBC will be satisfied to have created (and secured) a future mass podcast audience, and is not too concerned if this mode of listening actually becomes dominant.

I think they are doing the right thing here. Of course, ordinary live radio will continue; but it's a timely move to rope in the people whose daily routine doesn't allow them to listen to scheduled programmes, or who never go beyond the News and Weather, or who habitually search the Internet on their phones for interesting items to read or watch, rather than turn on a radio. The phrase 'steam radio' was being widely used back in the early 1960s, an admission that TV was making radio seem old-fashioned. (I know this because the Director of BBC Radio was a Speech Day guest at my grammar school in 1963 or 1964, and used the phrase himself) Well, radio has come a very long way since then. But it's time for a fresh approach, fit for the rising generations and not just my own. 

It's also a wise thing to target mobile phone users. That universal gadget will be even more essential in the future, the go-to device beyond all others for finding out about whatever is the topic of the moment. I go to mine several times a day for information. I am thirsty to be well-informed. A selection of podcasts to listen to, giving me fuller understanding, is exactly what I want. So I will certainly be a regular if not daily user of this new BBC app.

What is its scope? That's best shown in screenprints taken off my laptop.

The phone screen shows the same, but it would take a lot more phone-sized examples to illustrate what you see. The podcast service is the same on both phone and laptop; but naturally most listening will be done with the phone. I can imagine plenty of people listening to the wealth of podcasts now made easily-available on the BBC Sounds app, as they sit on buses and trains, or power-walk, their phone tucked away in a bag or pocket, and discreet bluetooth earphones the only clue that they are immersed in a world of sound.

It's not just for youngish folk who like music playlists, fashion trends, tech talk, or cultural soundbites. It's for everyone who wants something different (and hitherto undiscovered) to listen to. Most certainly if you are tired of endless current news and announcements of the most tedious or depressing kind - such as the latest state of play with Brexit, or Donald Trump's latest plans for Making America Great Again. Although if you really do want to listen to a series of potted analyses on a particular political or economic topic, this app will let you search for them, and provide you with hours of insightful listening.

Junking my CD collection

Now that I'm back home again - no more travelling planned until next April - I'm turning my attention to things I can do around my home.

Those car-transmission loans from 2015 and 2016 rumble on, but the total of £8,750 borrowed has been steadily repaid, and the end is now in sight. In fact that particular financial millstone will be entirely lifted from my neck by the end of next July: just eight monthly repayments left to go. And then I can really start to save up - or, with due consideration, I can spend money on certain home repairs and upgrades. One of the first will be a new set of taps for my bathroom washbasin - the existing ones must be thirty years old, and frankly they are knackered. Kevin next door (he's a plumber) will help me there. I don't want anything fancy, just modern taps that look fine and work smoothly and properly. And, gradually, other things like that can be seen to. No comprehensive redecoration yet, but I will at least be able to afford to put some things in better order.

Meanwhile, there are other things to do that cost nothing at all, such as clearing out my attic. There are no family heirlooms lurking up there. Mum and Dad didn't go in for those. They liked to throw away old stuff and buy new things instead. Most of what's up there is mine, and almost all of it could be binned. I'd save the two guitars and a few very personal documents, but otherwise there's nothing that couldn't be junked.

I want to clear my attic for two reasons: one day I won't have the energy (or even the strength) to safely get up there and carry things down, even though there are proper aluminium stairs with a handrail; and at some point I'll want to have a new roof and modern insulation installed. 

Among the things that could be junked are my old vinyl singles and LPs. I wrote about them a while back, and there's a stay of execution on those for now. For one thing, I want to systematically photograph the record sleeves as a project; for another, they might find a new home.

But there are also music CDs aplenty. They are in my attic because I now have no proper means of playing them. OK, the ten-year-old DVD player in my lounge will play them, but not well. Besides, I don't want to hear an entire CD, just the tracks I like.

In the past I would go through my CD collection and rip tracks onto my desktop PC, and from there to other listening devices such as my phone. But the desktop PC has gone, and my current laptop has no CD drive. So I now intend to go through all the tracks on every music CD one last time, note the ones I'd like to add to my phone and laptop, buy those from Amazon (there won't be that many), and then bin the whole collection. No more 'physical' music media at all.

It's merely a sign of the times, to keep stuff like music entirely on portable electronic devices and (as backup) external storage drives. I could also back my music up to the Cloud and play it from there, but streaming music isn't always a feasible option for me, given the dodgy Mobile Internet signal in many rural places that I travel to.

After getting rid of the CDs, it will be the turn of my DVDs. I like to see new film releases, and often enjoy them very much, but there aren't many older films I want to see more than once. In these days of Internet streaming at home, there isn't a good case any longer for using special equipment to view a film on 'physical' media. Once I get myself a half-decent modern TV, I'm quite sure I will be subscribing to a film service - Netflix, Amazon, or whatever. At that point my collection of DVDs will become redundant. I won't need Mum and Dad's ancient DVD player either, which may not go on working for very much longer.

Then I will consider all the old photo transparencies and prints. I can't scan them all - I haven't the time nor energy - but I could progressively weed out the items not worth scanning and throw those away, and then - perhaps over a year or two - scan the remainder and add a further two or three thousand pictures to my already vast existing digital photo collection. Then junk the physical photos. At that point the Photo Archive - my pictures, and Mum and Dad's - could well top 120,000 fully-captioned shots - surely a worthwhile enough family legacy to pass on to younger members of my family, and to my friends if they want a copy. (And to publish in full on the Internet before I go feasting in Valhalla in my twin-bumped breastplate and horned helmet)

So I have plenty of no-cost things to get on with this winter!

Mind you, it's sobering to think how much money was invested over past years in all those CDs, DVDs and photographs. Oh well. It all has to be written off.

Oddly enough - or perhaps it isn't odd at all - the last thing I would part with, or want to junk, would be my books and maps. OK, there must be some books on my shelves - certain paperbacks say - that need to be weeded out and disposed of for recycling. But in the main I want to keep my books and maps, and even add to them. I immensely like the idea of a personal library at home. I don't want my books replaced with an invisible digital version. I like having a room in which I'm surrounded by colourful books and maps that I can see and touch, and hold, and examine. More than any other type of possession, books and maps - paper media - say something about my life and interests.

My study, lined with bookshelves, is the most interesting room in my house. And made even better now that one corner (where the desktop PC used to be) has been cleared, ready for extra shelving. (Ah, that's something else I can buy once those loan repayments end!)

Tuesday, 23 October 2018


In the grand scheme of things, this is trival. Still, it's not something seen every day, and I'm guessing it's rarely caught on camera!

Yes, my car Fiona has done 123,456 miles. Actually, a bit more now, because the shot was taken during the first stage of yesterday's journey from Sussex to the Welsh Borders, on the A272 west of Wisborough Green. And not while driving along. I was on a straight stretch of road with nothing following me, and pulling in for a few seconds to take the photo was an entirely safe thing to do, and inconvenienced nobody.

I knew of course that 123,456 miles was coming up, but my attention was wholly on the business of driving with a caravan in tow, and I was relying on my eyes somehow registering that this magic mileage total had been reached. They didn't let me down. It's funny how often I do notice major mileage totals as they come up, palindromes for example, and certainly every one of the 10,000 mile totals in the past - the most recent being 120,000 miles. I make a point of noting down where it happened. It's almost something of a sport. At the very least, an interesting record of where Fiona was at these moments, over the years.

My eyes notice many other things like this - unusual car registration numbers, for instance. I may be awful at arithmetic, but I can't deny that my brain is wired up to recognise significant number (and letter) patterns when I see them. Perhaps patterns in general.

Whether such an ability is of any practical use is, of course, a matter for speculation. Oddly enough, I have no enthusiasm for crossword puzzles, sudoku, or any kind of 'what comes next in this series of numbers' question that might be asked in a quiz. Mathematics, pure or applied, is a fascinating but extraordinarily difficult-to-grasp subject so far as I am concerned. Which is a pity, because I must be intelligent enough to master the essentials, and I certainly dislike appearing ignorant or stupid. But I have no facility with numbers, no understanding, only this curious ability to see patterns.

I've often wondered whether I'm a little bit autistic. But since I am fully aware of other people, and have no problems imagining any impact I might have on their lives, I think not. Just somewhat self-obsessed. As many people are, who choose to live on their own.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Without a brass farthing

A curious thing happened two evenings ago. I completely ran out of coins. More than that, actually. I completely ran out of banknotes too. I had no tangible money at all.

I was at a quiz, and after paying for the meal and a drink, just managed to find the right amount for some raffle tickets, totally emptying my purse.

Later on, I realised that in order to park in Burgess Hill next day I'd need a £1 coin. Normally I keep a small cache of coins for parking in Fiona, but I'd run that down to nothing. Normally I'd have a bag full of small change at home - small coins, anything below 20p - but I'd lately taken it all to the local library and popped it into the collection there, and nothing new had started to accumulate.

All because I don't use cash or banknotes much nowadays. Nearly all payments are made with Google Pay on my phone. It's not necessary any more to find a cash dispenser every week - once a month will do, unless for some unusual reason there's a spate of cash payments. But I can use Google Pay for most payments, and so my reserves of notes and coin tend to dwindle, with no urgency about topping them up. But never before have I completely run out.

I had to ask Clive (Jo's husband) if he'd lend me a £1 coin. He did, smiling; and I made sure that I paid it back next day. I was by then amply replenished in the notes and coin department - and just as well, for there is £5.60 to pay tomorrow, to get me through the toll on the Severn Bridge. (The toll is being scrapped, but unfortunately not until mid-December)

I won't let this happen again. I absolutely hate having to borrow money, even a small amount, even if I am a stickler for repaying at the earliest opportunity. I was embarrassed having to ask. Going to a cash dispenser on the way to Burgess Hill wouldn't have been the answer - banknotes were no good. I needed a coin of the right value.

Lesson: electronic payments are modern and convenient, but they won't do in many circumstances. Cash is still essential, and you can be really stuck if you haven't any in your purse.

I did at least have ample resources in the background, even if temporarily without notes and coin. It must be more than scary to be truly penniless, and have to beg for money from cold-hearted passing strangers.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Pushing my luck, but keeping options open

The new glasses saga continues. Have you noticed how each new purchase - laptop, phone, whatever - gets agonised over on this blog? As if I'm obsessed by the trivial things of life, and blind to more important things. And yet I'd say it was a way of crowd-sourcing a variety of much-needed comments that I can take on board before coming to a final decision. Whether I agree or not, I do want to know what people think. And although the final decision always rests with me, and may hang on factors I can't mention here, it's good to know how readers are reacting.

I can be very stubborn, but I am also willing to listen. The quick concensus on my second choice of two days back - those metal-framed specs with rather square frames - was either 'Well, they're OK, but you'll never love wearing them' to 'No! They're horrible!' I didn't consider them horrible, but I knew I was unhappy with them, and probably making a mistake even worse than with the first pair of glasses, the large and assertive red-purple specs that made me look bossy and managing. Friends Jo and Sue, with whom I was lunching yesterday, chortled at the idea that those first specs didn't reflect my personality. 'You are assertive!' cried Sue. 'No I'm not,' I said, 'I see myself as having a soft personality. I admit I always know what I really want, and I don't usually dither, but I never force my views on anyone else, nor try to interfere with their ideas, and I don't want to wear glasses that give the impression that I'm an unstoppable force who takes no prisoners.' Hoots of laughter.

Anyway, I set out where I stood on ordering the square-framed specs, and, after getting their views on what best to do now, decided that I must go straight back to Specsavers that very afternoon and stop the show - cancel the order - and then discuss my options.

The other girls were relieved. And so was I, subject to being able to carry off what I immediately saw might be pushing my luck a bit too far. Specsavers had been easy about one change of mind. But two?

And Sue, who had chortled about my not having a forceful personality, now confessed that she herself wouldn't have the nerve to return yet again, get them to junk a second order, and consider a third. (Now it was my turn to express surprise: I'd have said that Sue was more than adequately assertive where something important was at stake, as are all my friends)

The long and short of it was that my recent eye test had shown I needed new lenses, and that at the moment I was using glasses that weren't up to the job. I had to get new ones. They simply needed to suit both my face and my personality. To comply with that, I needed frames that were soft and subtle, and not hard and bold. I'd actually paid £216. Specsavers had my money, and unless they refunded it were duty bound to accommodate me.

Well, I needn't have worried. All was smiles, and willingness to satisfy me. I saw first the girl who had assisted me a week ago, and then a chap whose name tag said 'sales manager'. He was clearly determined to deliver excellent customer service. I showed him photos of myself wearing my 'old' specs, then the red-purple 'bossy' specs, and now the latest 'square' choice. I explained what I really wanted. I showed him a screenshot from the Specsavers website of the silver specs with a hint of pink that would do nicely, but hadn't been in stock on my last visit.

First, he checked the status of the 'square' order. Remarkably, the lab had already produced the varifocal lenses for these specs. But they could be reshaped around the edges to fit similar-sized frames, and would certainly be fine for the 'silver with a hint of pink' pair I had my eyes on. So he put that order on hold, pending my final choice.

I'd explained that I was going on holiday, but had already fixed up an appointment first thing on 6th November. The plan now was to keep that appointment, and during it look at the 'silver with a hint of pink' pair, plus anything new that had come in with the next frame delivery - they were having such a delivery while I was away. Meanwhile I was perfectly happy to manage with the specs I was using.

This took the pressure off. I could now go away with the whole business left open-ended, and not come back to a compromise choice that I didn't really like.

Before I left the shop, I had a jolly good look at all kinds of frame on display, cost no object, to see what else might suit me. I came to the firm conclusion that I should entirely avoid thick dark angular frames, and stick to light-coloured frames with an oval shape. It was half an hour well spent.