Sunday, 18 October 2020

Greetings from the Ice Station!

The coronavirus pandemic has brought mental health to the fore. Everyone has had to endure some kind of social-distancing or lockdown effect, and a great many - all kinds of people, young and old - have had to cope with being solitary. 

If you are not used to being on your own, this must be awful to bear. I'm thinking not so much of the old and widowed. University students only lately living with Mum and Dad and brothers and sisters must find being cooped up alone in a little room in an unfamiliar city especially grim. Some must pine for the bosom of their family, or the comfort of friends. And yet the key to stopping infection spreading, and to protect yourself if vulnerable, is to be isolated. That means minimum social contact, no social life, and coping with the kind of mental challenges one might face if wintering at an Antarctic ice station. 

It's not at all surprising that some can't deal with it. Nor is it surprising that most of us can accept a voluntary renunciation of normal life for only so long. 

Where there is no effective official compulsion, and a personal choice exists as to whether to comply with the rules or not, then many will at some point decide that, for the sake of their sanity, they need to get back to a semblance of their normal life. Even if they can't have quite all of it. Some might even decide that it's time to party and be damned. 

I think that all across the country, but particularly in urban areas where a lot of socialising used to go on, people have lately become willing to bend the rules - or ignore them - simply to feel better. I don't know how they square that (ordinarily) reasonable wish with the duty to keep other people safe. But whether the motivation is self-preservation, or selfishness, or just a gut revolt against government rules they can't agree with, they feel compelled go ahead and get their fix of normality. And only personal experience of a resulting bad illness - or a coronavirus death in the family - will stop them.

Not everyone has thrown their hand in. Not by any means. And people like me can't afford to. I think it's odds-on that if I picked up an infection I would be in for a bad time. I don't think it would necessarily be a fatal one, but the risk of hospitalisation can't be waived away. And whether I suffer much or not, there's still the chance of contracting that ongoing malady called Long Covid. It's not worth the risk. Nor would I want to get infected and pass the virus on to somebody else. 

So, speaking for myself, I'm prepared to see this through and limit my social contact indefinitely. That means an ongoing life largely spent entirely on my own, whether I'm in my house, or the caravan, or driving around in my car. Yes, I can see local friends in my social bubble, for as long as the rules say I can. They are mostly of a similar age, with a similar need to be careful. And there will still be fleeting chats and quips with supermarket staff, and passing strangers, and serving staff if I lunch out. So far, such contact has been sufficient. 

Given that I have a reduced social life nowadays - no evening pub and village hall quizzes, for example - I was interested to work out just what proportion of my time is spent in the company of other human beings. 

Nearly all the occasions for contact are recorded in the electronic diary on my phone. I reached for my fountain pen and a notepad, and jotted down the duration in minutes for each occasion, ever since since returning from my last holiday on 30th September, today included. That's eighteen days. There are 27,000 minutes in those eighteen days. The total number of minutes for face-to-face contact came out at 1,480. So 1,480 mins/27,000 mins x 100 = 5.9% of my life was spent in the company of other people. 

But of course it would be fairer to exclude the time spent asleep, so that the computation deals with only my waking life under the current conditions. My Fitbit tells me that since 30th September I have averaged 6 hours and fifteen minutes (that's 375 mins) of sleep per day. So I need to exclude 375 mins x 18 days = 6,750 minutes. Which brings my waking minutes down to 20,250. And those 1,480 minutes of face-to-face contact represent just over 7% of that.

In other words, almost 93% of my waking, conscious existence is spent completely on my own. That seems an awful lot of my time!  

My limited social life has been added to, in a way, by passing exchanges with my neighbours. But a wave isn't the same as a properly shared moment closer-up. There were also two hour-long voice calls on my phone (both by prior arrangement, both with friends far away), and two more much briefer local calls. But again these do not count as face-to-face contact any more than a satellite call from that Antarctic ice station would be. I also sent and received a few dozen texts, and there were a number of emails, again with the same rider that while this is valuable contact, it's not face-to-face. 

Can I continue with just 7% of my waking life in the close vicinity of fellow human beings? And as much as 93% all alone, with only my teddy bear and china cat for significant company? I think I can. I know it's almost the same as solitary confinement, but at least I can get around in the car and see places, and walk free in beautiful spots. 

The thing that disturbs me is how I'm getting used to this reduced level of social contact. In particular, how I am not seeing what's left of my family. I dare not. For both their sake and mine. It's too risky. And yet, as the months pass without even an exchange of emails, I feel that the bonds are slipping away and we will grow apart. 

It doesn't help that I lack much family feeling. I'm the Eldest Family Member in my section of the family tree. Great Aunt Lucy. But I don't behave like a family leader. Frankly, I don't want to; it's not my thing. I want to spend the rest of my life getting as much out of it as I feel inclined, and I don't want to be saddled with family responsibilities and concerns. Is that bad of me? A serious failing? I'm sure that many family-minded people would accuse me of evading my responsibilities. But, really, there aren't any that I can see. I am neither a parent nor a grandparent. Just someone older in the family, living on her own. Putting it another way, I have no claim on anyone else, and will not expect any family support in later life. Nor do I see how it could be provided. Conversely, I don't see how anyone is close enough to have a claim on me. I am self-sufficient; and I need to remain so. All this said, families should stick together, and I am setting a terrible example. But it would be against my nature to behave differently. Still, how disappointed Mum and Dad would have been. They'd be relieved that I had thrived, but perturbed that I hadn't stepped into their shoes.   

I like my life. It looks lonely and exposed, and it may be, but it doesn't feel like that. I don't mind confessing that living with the pandemic has come naturally to me. Apart from travel restrictions, it's been no great bother. I'm organised. I can hunker down. I can get around on my own. I don't need crowds. I rather like quiet streets. I can feel exultant on a completely empty beach. I can enjoy listening to the crows in the biting wind, alone at the bleak corner of a high South Downs wood. All I need is freedom and a camera in my hands, and a cosy home to return to.

I suppose I'd be an Ideal Candidate for that polar ice station!

Saturday, 17 October 2020

Sad thoughts from Elgar Country

With just two days to go before departing from home on my next holiday, I've rebooked so that I won't be pitching my caravan in Wales. I've substituted the Caravan Club's Malvern Hills site for the one at Pandy. I'll be in Elgar Country. And no doubt the introspective strains of his Cello Concerto, or his Enigma Variations, will be running constantly in the background of my mind.

It was very easy to make the change online. There was no mention of any financial penalty for rejigging the booking so close to departure. In fact, I'll end up paying a little more for my eight-night stay, the charges at the Malvern Hills site being higher than at Pandy. (Each Club site has its own special local attractions or conveniences, and not all have precisely the same facilities, so they are all priced individually) The cost difference is small, so I really don't mind. At least there is now no risk of turning up at Pandy to find that an all-Wales lockdown will come into force at midnight, trapping me there for an indefinite time with only essential local travel possible. Some holiday that would be! 

Now I will have the run of rural Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire, and can follow the Welsh/English border as far north as I like. It's a pity that the autumnal beauties of the Welsh mountains will probably be denied to me. I'll just have to put them on hold for another time.

This rebooking turns my holiday into an all-English affair, and not without serious regrets. The Welsh part of me (not my strongest part, but even so) is rather upset that I can't enter the land of my birth without risking a kind of imprisonment. 

I definitely feel lumped - unfairly and insultingly - with all the stupid, selfish and careless people in the rest of the UK who don't give a damn about spreading the virus. I realise that the Welsh Assembly has a duty to manage its affairs sensibly, and to take effective measures against the spread of the coronavirus within Wales. But I sense something more at work. It looks as if the Welsh Assembly is dominated by those who see an opportunity to assert Welsh Independence in all but name, and catch up with how things are trending in Scotland. So I believe there is a nationalistic spirit driving the current passing of hysterical new laws to keep out the English. 

Ah, the English, the bane of Wales and its destroyer, its blood-sucker! England, never forgiven for militarily defeating the Welsh princes centuries ago, and for suppressing the Welsh language and culture. The same England that in more modern times has exploited Wales as a cheap place for second homes, and pop-up industry in enterprise zones.  

Maybe the pandemic has made it Payback Time in some people's eyes. A chance to at least reserve Wales for the Welsh. In essence a Welsh Brexit - a desire to cut adrift from England, whatever the consequences. 

For somebody like myself, with personal ties to Wales, even though I've lived in England most of my life, it's all sad and alienating. I don't claim a lot of affinity with Wales, and my ultimate ancestry is Nordic rather than Celtic, but I regard the connections that I do have with more than just nostalgia. I was born there. I grew up in South Wales as a child. And even if some memories are less than affectionate, many are close to my heart and cherished. But just now I am seeing a Wales that doesn't want me. The official reason for being excluded is Covid-19. But underneath there is, surely, the suggestion that I don't belong there, that my Welshness is insignificant, and that I am as obnoxious and unwanted as the worst bad-attitude person beyond the Welsh Border. 

Well, much more of this and I'll stay away, my wish to return destroyed. Like a love affair gone wrong after too much carping, complaining, suspicion and repulsion from one partner. 

I used to say that I might take up the offer of a Welsh passport if ever it were available. I'm not sure I would now. I would feel I had got it under false pretences, merely on account of my birthplace and family background, as a passport of convenience. And not from any personal conviction that Wales was my true home, and that I would give Wales my undiluted allegiance. 

This is all so different from my view of Scotland, a country with whom I have no personal connections apart from friendships dating back no more than ten years or so. I have only been a visitor, keen to come, and travelling around pretty extensively, but nevertheless remaining an outsider. And yet Scotland seems so welcoming. And I don't mind the direction it's taking. I'd be surprised if Scotland hasn't completed the transition to independence inside the next ten years. It's a mature place and will thrive. I can't see Scotland being at odds with England once there is an equilibrium again between the two states. 

But Wales...

Oh well. Let's see what happens in the next week or so. It looks as if the daily news is going to be very interesting - the Brexit Trade Deal, the Welsh Covid-19 Exclusion Laws, and much else no doubt.

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Will Wales reject me?

I'm off to Pandy in South Wales next week, and the increasingly strong-minded attitude of the Welsh Assembly is a matter of great concern to me. 

It's just been announced that travellers from England will not be allowed into Wales if they come from the High or Very High Risk Tiers in England - this is referring to the brand-new English system for imposing anti-virus measures in individual Local Authority areas. Thankfully, my part of Sussex is classed as a Medium Risk area, and I should have no trouble while at Pandy. But I can envisage the former toll barriers at both Severn Bridges being brought back into use as Check Points, with travellers being stopped and questioned about their home address and where they are bound. Just asking will take at least a minute or two; and if evidence of residence and destination is required, then the delay could turn into several minutes - with massive traffic queues building up. 

I'm well-organised: I can show my driving licence as evidence of my home address, and also the Caravan Club Site booking on my phone - both of them in a twinkling. But many won't have such things to hand. The result could be horrendous delays on the westward M4 and the westward M48. 

So I'm thinking I may journey to Pandy using 'the back way' - which is towing the caravan to Gloucester, taking the A40 to Ross-on-Wye, then cutting across to the A465 Hereford-Abergavenny road and following that to Pandy. Pandy is only just inside Wales. This is not normally the fastest way, but just now it might avoid a frustratingly long wait to get through any Severn Bridge bottlenecks.

Once safely inside Wales, I should be OK for all of my eight-night stay there. Even so, I will definitely (for the sake of my own continued good health) avoid the urban areas of South Wales, and keep to the mountains and the border areas. So no visiting The Gower via Swansea, nor my childhood home town Barry, nor Cardiff, nor any further explorations of The Valleys (I wanted to go to Aberfan). If really necessary, I can have a good holiday simply by keeping to Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, and southern Shropshire, all of them in England. 

It crosses my mind that this coronavirus pandemic has turned Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales into virtually independent nation states, much more than ever before. Each has had a slightly different approach to tackling the virus in their province or country, quite distinct from what has been done in England. It's a chance for their inhabitants to gauge what it might be like if each of these states were truly independent, and how the NI, Scottish or Welsh governments might cope if some other kind of crisis were to arise. I am not suggesting that any of them have so far done badly. But I don't like, for instance, the rather defensive/assertive noises coming from the Welsh Assembly. It looks a lot like muscle-flexing. The tone seems wrong. 

How, for instance, are travellers to be 'stopped' entering Wales? What if they can't satisfy staff at those Check Points? Will the Heddlu (Welsh Police) be called in to deal with people who refuse to turn back? What would the police do, given an Assembly mandate to eject English people from areas riddled through and through with virus? 

It all sounds rather dystopian. But Wales is not showing a friendly face just now. 

I'll be seriously miffed if some ill-natured petty official at Pandy (at a stern roadblock on the A465) says I can't travel further into Wales, even though Pandy is in a low-risk rural spot, and I come from a similarly low-risk rural spot in Sussex, and can prove it. A jobsworth at the tail end of a long tiring journey is all I need. 

And I'm not English but Welsh!

My old passport, just expired, which showed Cardiff (the Welsh capital) as my place of birth, has been sent away to the Passport Office. But my driving licence does at least confirm that I was born in Wales, which may help. 

But my accent won't. I suspect that no matter what, anybody who looks and sounds English, and lives there, will be sneered at and treated like a leper. Or threatened. I haven't forgotten that awful note left on my car at New Quay in West Wales back in 2014. 

Fingers crossed then, but I'm prepared for a less than happy travel experience. 

Monday, 12 October 2020

The Garden Method prevails over the Bedroom Method!

Coline was so right. Doing it out in the garden, and not the bedroom, has worked a treat. 

It seems absolutely miraculous after my first three attempts, all of them a failure and all of them a keen disappointment. But now it's fourth time lucky, and I'm a very happy woman! 

Obviously I'm waiting eagerly for further news, with the longed-for arrival in the New Year. 

I'm speaking - of course - about my online passport renewal. It all came together today, which happens to be the very day my old passport expires. I'd just come back from the caravan dealer at Ashington, after enquiring about a new front window for my caravan (that'll be another saga), and the weather had turned cool and overcast, threatening rain. Standing in front of my garage door (which, I agree, needs repainting), and still in my coat, I decided to see what kind of picture I could take using my phone Tigerlily at arm's length. 

I remembered to take my glasses off, and wipe away my lipstick. It was really just to see whether the result justified setting the Leica up on a tripod in my back garden - I wasn't expecting a handheld selfie to be much cop. 

But not so. Tigerlily did all right. Although it was mainly down to the quality of the outdoor light.

Well, I said to myself, let's see what the phone can do, if I drape that cream-coloured fleece blanket over the rear hedge and stand in front. With glasses off, lipstick wiped away, hair swept back behind my ears, and the fringe hoicked away from my eyebrows.

Clearly I'd need to sit down, rather than stand up. So I trotted back to the house, fetched a chair from the conservatory, and sat on it for my next arm's-length selfie. By this time it was spitting with rain, but I didn't flinch. This was the best shot:

I didn't like it - it was so unflattering! But it was evenly-lit, and faithfully showed all my facial features. The shoulders were twisted a bit - a result of holding the phone in my right hand, and extending my right arm. But maybe that wouldn't show once they cropped the shot to just my face. It was worth submitting.

So once more I fired up the laptop (now tethered to Tigerlily and getting the Internet via 4G - who needs home broadband?) and tackled the Passport Office's online application form at I was very familiar by now with the first few sections!

Then it was the photo-submission bit. Here we go...

Oh! They loved it! It got a GOOD. Whacko! Super Biggles!

Without further ado, I went through the rest of the application. Really, there wasn't all that much to it. A few more questions and answers only, then payment. £75.50. I inserted my credit card details, and got acceptance. Done. 

Just one more step before they proceed - I must post them my old passport in a suitable envelope, by signed-for delivery, quoting my application reference. One of tomorrow's tasks then. 

Phew! This had become Mission Impossible. But I've conquered and won through. It's almost done. And I really am looking forward to an arrival in the New Year! Even if there is no immediate travel use for it, a passport is important to have. It's the best current form of personal ID in this country. I'll feel safer with it, to show to officialdom. Although - sadly - gone are the days when I had to show ID to claim an age concession at museums and galleries. I look my age nowadays!

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Curses, foiled again

The passport photo saga continues.

Friend Coline gave me a hot tip from the practical repertoire of a professional: I should pose outdoors on a dull day, when flat, shadowless lighting can be had. Well, I'll certainly keep that up my sleeve. It is however not something I'd want to do on the street side of my house, setting up a background and then posing against it for a few shots. My neighbours would find that hilarious! And I'm not sure what I could attach the background to anyway. Possible attachment points are either too high or too low; or else garden stuff is in the way. 

The rear of my house would be a better bet - I could peg a background up on my washing line, at least when there's no wind to waft it around. Some time ago, I could have hung it between giant rhododendron bushes, but I severely cut those back, as they were overwhelming the rear garden. There remains a corner at the bottom of the garden where a background could still be draped or hung against my tall rear hedge, and it's quite private too. I don't mean so private that a demure lady like me could prance there in the nude all day and not be seen, but it is certainly secluded enough for a leisurely photo session, mostly hidden behind the rockery. On the other hand, outdoor photography on a suitably dull day in October or November is likely to be a chilly affair, and I would want to wear a summer dress for the Perfect Shot that the Passport Office will approve of, and not a winter coat.

For now then I'm persevering with the Bedroom Method. That's not the one involving leather underwear, a spiked collar and a lash. It's the one I tried yesterday, where I sit down in front of a cream fleece blanket - my 'background' - hung against a wardrobe door, and secured by heavy books such as the Works of Malory (of Le Morte d'Arthur fame) and other volumes. But this time, with the Method tweaked a bit: the chair out further from the wardrobe; and my glasses off. 

So with the sun showing signs of setting, and my bedroom in shade, I had another go today. This was the best shot:

I suppose it's me, but with the glasses off it's not my ordinary appearance. Those baggy eyes! And I don't usually have an expressionless face. No it's someone else, someone like Myra Hindley - you know, the Moors Murders. Alternatively, I could be a guilty fugitive from justice, or at least an escapee from the chain gang, in stolen clothes. Still, if this is what the Passport Office wants, so be it.

I began my online passport application for the second time, fingers crossed. I had high hopes.

Oh no! It was judged 'poor'! They hadn't liked the background, which, because it was a shaded room, had come out too dark. Nor had my hair passed muster - they needed to see more of my face. Well, I deliberately wasn't holding my head high. I wanted to hide my scrawny neck somewhat. Chin up then, for my next attempt. 

Third time lucky? And straight away? Ever game, I considered the other shots I'd taken today. Ah, one of them was 'chin up'. Like the rest, a bit under-exposed, but I adjusted the brightness and it now looked pretty good. So I tried again. This was the third shot submitted:

Not so much of a prison mugshot this time! Would it prove more acceptable? This was the verdict after uploading:

Only a 'fair'. They thought I had my mouth open. I hadn't - but perhaps the lipstick obscured what I was doing with my lips. So, for my fourth attempt, no lipstick as well as no glasses. And chin up. What else will I do wrong?

And what hurdles yet await me further into the online passport application? At least every attempt has been free so far. How aggravating it would be, if using a photo booth and spending money on ever more fresh sets of photos. 

Saturday, 10 October 2020

That vital passport photo - not so easy!

I'd been warned by the husband of one of my local friends that the Passport Service have got very pernickety about how the photo for an online application should look. I was however confident that I could produce an acceptable shot first time. But not so. My best effort got only a 'Fair', meaning that it might do, but wasn't without flaws that could lead to a rejection later in the process. 

Hmm! I think they wanted me to take my glasses off, which makes sense if they need to carry out a biometric scan of the Melford facial features, which are of course noble, and redolent of garnered wisdom and faded classic beauty, and must impress all foreigners. I'd better oblige, and have another go at getting the perfect picture tomorrow. 

After all, I don't want this first attempt bounced back. True, I haven't had an outright rejection, but they're giving me a pretty strong hint that I'm wasting my time taking the application onward with this picture - iconic though it may be.

Never mind. At least I've recreated the method, which is to hang a cream fleece blanket (my 'plain light-coloured background') from a wardrobe in my bedroom, using weighty books. Then, using the little Leica fixed to a tripod, to take a shot with the self-timer on a ten-second delay. I've been sitting down, quite close to the blanket, but they recommend that I stand up, and be rather further in front of the background than I was. I can't see why standing up will make a better photo, as my girth hides the chair, but I'll give it a go. 

I'd actually started in my study, using two different setups there. The first - used for my Railcard photo in 2016 - against the main bookcase. But the light from the front window off to my left put the right side of my face in shadow. For any other purpose, a decent enough shot; but for this there must be even lighting, and no obscuring shadows, however characterful.

So I switched to the bookcase that faced the main window. That produced a better result, but this time light from the small side window off to my right ensured that my hair was lit unevenly:

Not good enough. I now hung the fleece blanket between the bookcases, at a 45 degree angle, hoping that this would cancel out side-lighting effects. It did - but a shadow now appeared on my fleece background. That wouldn't pass muster!

So I next took my setup into my bedroom next door, which is a room with only the one big window, and light would come in from just one direction.

This was the best of the three photos I now took - the one half-rejected as only 'fair':

I do see that the reflection in the left-eye lens of my glasses is a flaw. And there's a pale patch on the front of my scrawny neck - my windpipe presumably - that has caught the light. Tsk. 
By now, after nearly an hour spent on getting the perfect photo, I couldn't keep a straight face any longer, and I was ready to fool around. So here is my collection of Alternative Passport Photos. Each one (of course) recording a facet of my true personality.

Getting a passport is one of life's trials. You've got to find ways of squeezing some fun out of the process!