Saturday, 31 December 2016

No more of the packaged life

My current weight-loss endeavour involves sticking to fresh foodstuffs and avoiding most manufactured and packaged foodstuffs. Manufacturing and processing may make some food more attractive, more interesting, more palatable, more convenient to prepare, nicer to eat and longer-lasting, but it also interferes with the true flavour and food value of the foodstuff, and disguises its ultimate source too much. That's not good.

The manufacturing process also stamps a brand name onto the goods, which can be a deep psychological inducement to buy them. Think of brand names current in childhood - brands with comforting, friendly and dependable associations - and how food-producers continue to use those brand names even though the formulation of the product may have changed greatly over the years. It's difficult not to 'prefer' such products, when pushing the trolley around the supermarket, especially if time is limited and one wants the ordeal to be over asap. I'm sure that Oxo and Bisto and Birds Eye and Hovis and Maxwell House are still names that prompt an automatic response in many people.

Of course, there are many newer brand names, and supermarkets now carry an extraordinary number of different packaged products on their shelves. For instance, consider how many different brands of food dressings there are, or types of cracker. I'm not criticising this. It provides a lot of choice. It means that everyone can buy their own favourite thing. But it's striking just how much shelf space is in fact allotted to manufactured foodstuffs in distinctive packaging. I hadn't noticed this before, but I am noticing it now. I'd say that, in the average Waitrose or Tesco or whatever, at least three-quarters of the shelf space is devoted to items that are not 'fresh food'. That is, not fresh meat, fish, vegetables, fruit and other staples.

This isn't a surprise, of course; it's the natural outcome of a general, historical move away from small specialist local shops and market stalls selling small quantities daily to discerning and cash-conscious housewives, to mass-market operations aimed at entire families, in which a few dominant players use every trick in the book to capture our continued big-spend, credit-fuelled loyalty.

Such marketing eventually produced the out-of-town superstore model, where nearly everything could be bought under one roof at highly competitive prices. Only, of course, to be somewhat undermined in more recent times by newer competitors using a different model in which a much narrower range of goods is offered, but for significantly less. The out-of-town superstores are still the place to go for the convenience of the big, one-stop shop - with free parking and plenty of brand choice. But if your budget is limited, and price matters, and brands do not matter, then the likes of Lidl and Aldi are your local, cheaper, town-centre alternative.

What, though, if your food shopping habits have radically changed? As mine have lately?

When all you want is decent fresh food, and none of the manufactured and packaged stuff? What then is the advantage - or point - of going to a superstore? Or even a Lidl?

That's a question I'm debating at the moment. Why am I still going to Waitrose, when Tesco arguably has better vegetables? Why aren't I buying from a market stall, which might have better goods than either?

Well, it may come to that. One thing I am tending to do already is to buy my meat from a proper butcher. Within a ten mile radius I have a fair choice of butchers, some in village or town shops, some at 'farm shops'. I've never used them before, preferring the overall convenience of a supermarket. But now it's different. I have looked around, trying this one, then that, and my current favourite (although it involves a drive) is Alan Woodward at Henfield. This is where I presently get my lamb, bacon, steak, liver and kidneys from. I have learned their hours of business; and after four visits I see recognition in their eyes. I am no longer just a casual customer. I am becoming a person they know. They are cheerful and smiling. I feel welcomed and valued.

And it's a different world. The service is traditional. And clearly very skilful. They will for instance remove the fatty cores from kidneys with a deftness wonderful to see. Their knives must be so sharp - I do wonder that they still have all their fingers!

The courtesy is another thing. After each item is neatly bagged up, it seems to be the shop habit to say 'Thank you'. That threw me at first: I mean, surely it's for me to say that? They meant, of course, 'Is there anything else, Madam?' I still think it's an odd use of 'Thank you', but Madam has appreciated the courtesy, and gradually there has been more to add.

So I am discovering the joys of specialist shops. Henfield is a place that has quite a number. Just up the road is Jeremy's, which sells top-notch fruit and vegetables. Across the road is Budgen's, which on a smaller scale sells much of the stuff I would hope to find in Waitrose. I'm not going to abandon Waitrose, which I still regard as the best of the supermarkets, but they are not going to make quite so much money out of me as they used to.

All this is probably a revolt against the packaged life, an existence controlled by faceless and rather arrogant marketing people, who dictate tastes and trends and try to make everyone conform to an optimum selling strategy. Be it groceries, clothes, cars, gadgets, entertainment, news, holidays, or whatever might add up to a well-defined and easily-manipulated packaged lifestyle.

Well, I'm not playing. Specifically, I never liked the idea of ordering fresh food online - as it it were all completely standardised - letting other people select what would end up in the delivery box, and in general not getting personally involved in the very personal necessity to feed myself. And now that's definitely not the way I'd ever want to do it. I want to make my own selections, and not be made to feel that if I don't shop at supermarket X, their shareholders will go without their dividend, and the country's economy will falter.

I now care much more about the viability of small but excellent local shops. Thankfully they are still there. But it's clearly 'Use them or lose them.'

Thursday, 29 December 2016

The Curse of 2016

And so Debbie Reynolds has now gone too, the latest name in an unusually long list of music and film artists who have been harvested by the Grim Reaper in 2016. My goodness, I sometimes watched her TV show in the mid-1960s.

Her death is comprehensible, following so closely on the unexpected death of her daughter Carrie Fisher. It must be terrible to lose a child of your own, whatever their age. It's unnatural, out of sequence, not what should be. I haven't experienced that kind of loss myself, so can't claim true empathy. I know only what it is to lose my younger brother, and both my parents - rather more 'ordinary' tragedies, though still awful to think about. I've never had a child, and can never know how I would react if that child were snatched away for whatever reason. Such a loss is beyond imagining. It must break you.

2016 has been notable for the number of well-known names who have died. So much so, that one talks fancifully about 'The Curse of 2016' and wonders who will be next. There are plenty of potential candidates. So many people are growing old, and not always in the best health they could have managed. Surely it's true that those who were in younger days heedless about the long-term effects of smoking, drugs, drink, fatty food, and great wear and tear on their bodies, are now discovering that the seeds of a healthy, pain-free, intellectually viable, and mobile old age need to be sown early. It's clearly never a good strategy to burn oneself out too soon. Nor to neglect sensible efforts at maintaining physical fitness, which has been my own failing. (I am not properly fit. But I can still do something about that)

2016 has throughout felt like a year of profound change, a year of goodbyes to both the Old Regime (Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump in America) and many personalities who had 'defined' the decades one lived through. I do associate people like George Michael - more particularly his music - with an era in my life, the very early 1990s, when my marriage had come to an end and I had not yet met M---. Do I admire him? Do I miss him? Am I moved to tears at his loss? No to all of those. But his early death at age fifty-three did come as a shock, and I realised at once that, in a way important to me, the 1990s had now slipped a little more out of reach. Much as when Elvis Presley died in 1977, the 1950s receded a bit more into history, and became a bit more unknowable.

Past decades remain with us still while the people active in them stay alive. But once they go, once the living link disappears, the threads that hold us to those decades are cut. It's not just about the music. The deaths of the last survivors of the First World War have separated us from that experience as much as we are separated from the Battle of Waterloo.

What now happens to these giant figures? The Departed of 2016? Or any previous year, for that matter.

If you take it as likely that the death of their brains is the complete death of what they were as people, then they are now just memories, and nothing goes forward into a fresh existence. This is how I see it, although I do accept that without experiencing death myself I cannot possibly know for certain. Who can?

There is nothing to 'prove' or 'disprove' here. The facts are unknowable. The only thing you can say is that no ordinary person who once lived has ever come back from death fully restored, to publicly explain what it was like, and subject themselves to an intensive debriefing and careful medical examination. Not one. Not Julius Caesar, not King Alfred the Great, not Napoleon, not Vincent Van Gogh, nor any of the zillions of everyday folk who lived anonymous, low-key and unremarkable lives during all the millennia. Either they would like to, but some cosmic law operates so that they can't come back; or they don't now exist in any form, and for that reason can't return.

This doesn't explain why people frequently have the sensation of 'being close' to a deceased relative, when the mood or atmosphere or surroundings are right. Who hasn't felt that? Is it just suggestion and a keyed-up imagination? Without doubt, a feeling of closeness can certainly be induced - surely the basis for such things as spiritualism - but there's nothing remarkable about a collection of old letters and photographs in a tin evoking the vivid memory of someone long dead. But it is only a memory. And memories can be lost.

So I come back to George Michael and the rest. They loom large for now. But what will be their legacy when viewed from a time forty or fifty years ahead? That's like saying 'Who stands out from the 1960s?' Who indeed.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Christmas Day


I was out on Christmas Eve - a dinner-party of eighteen nearby in the village - and didn't get to bed until two in the morning. I woke as usual at seven, but must have snoozed off, for then suddenly it was ten o'clock, with much to do before walking to one of the local pubs with Jackie and Kevin next door. I had promised to be knocking on Jackie's door by 11.45am. I did well to manage it at noon precisely. Jackie was in high spirits:


But we downed just one gin-and-tonic before departing.

The pub was, as expected, seething. All the usual people. Plus one or two new faces. Character locals galore, plus character dogs. It was impossible to stand back and take photos! Two hours, and three gins-and-tonic later, we (myself, and the couples who were my neighbours) spilled out into the remarkably mild air, amazingly steady and coherent considering the amount of drink consumed. Jackie had put on some green antlers, brought out from somewhere, and I had decorated my bobble-hat:


For me, public festivities were over for the day. I went home with Jackie, parted company, checked that I had everything I needed for cooking later on, and promptly went to sleep. Apart from putting together and eating a steak dinner with all the fixings, I had a very lazy evening.

You know, looking at the shots above, something is missing. Frost, at least; but actually the day required a sprinkling of light snow. The penalty of living on the south coast - the weather is too warm for a White Christmas! But perhaps I should be careful what kind of weather I wish for.

It would be nice, however to put those new Michelin tyres to the test...

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Fiona returns from the workshop, and it all looks good

What a saga. The strange humming noise from the rear I first heard a year and a half ago, which gradually turned into a worrying drone, and which could for so long not be diagnosed, turned out to be two things in the end - both of them components of the 'rear differential'. A worn-out electro-hydraulic power-distributor (the Haldex), which had been making most of the noise, and a dodgy bearing in the final drive (the coggy bit between the shafts to the rear wheels) which was causing an underlying rumble masked by the louder howl from the Haldex.

The prop shaft, though it had shown signs of wear in its joints, wasn't to blame. They actually fitted a new prop shaft, and gave it a brief road test. It was a misdiagnosis. As it's been used, it can't now be sent back, but they haven't charged me for it.

They have of course charged me for the new Haldex, and the new final drive, plus the standard labour for inspection and fitting (although it probably all took rather longer), plus VAT.

£5,439 was the bill.

Against that I did have the free use of a very decent nearly-new Volvo V40 for a full eight days in the run-up to Christmas, when it was vital to stay mobile. I hate to think what that would have cost me to hire.

The problem has now shifted from workshop diagnosis and mechanical remedy to one of funding. I paid by credit card and the £5,439 will be repayable in mid-February. I need to pop extra funds into my bank account by then.

I can raid my savings account to some extent, but will certainly have to approach my bank for a further loan. I expect it will be straightforward to obtain another £2,000 over 34 months or so. I had expected to be loan-free by June 2018. Now it will be late 2019.

To help keep the loan requirement reasonable, I'm trimming back my personal expenditure for 2017 onwards. Cutting down by (say) £35 a week makes quite a difference over a year. And of course I've postponed buying a new phone! I looked too at reverting to monthly payment on my insurances and landline rental, instead of paying these outright once a year. But it made no sense to spread the cost. They make you pay too much for that facility. There would be hefty financing charges for paying the insurance premiums monthly, and I'd lose a nice 10% discount on the annual landline fee.

I'm not reducing my savings. I want to maintain them, and eventually to seriously increase them.

Nor am I sacrificing my holidays. I looked at it of course. But affording a decent programme of caravan tours was going to be a problem only during 2017. In effect, some of the fresh borrowing will now subsidise my caravan outings during 2017, Scotland included. But these holidays are a great source of pleasure. Their cost (not great, anyway - I'm talking about £200 to £250 per week) is amply rewarded - photographically, socially, and in many other stimulating ways. And I get to see lots of new places. It's all about broadening one's horizons - a very worthy purpose. I'm happy to give that a much higher priority than clothes and shoes, new bags and jewellery bits and pieces.

So, what about Fiona herself?

I'd adapted quite well to the petite and foxy Volvo V40. Fiona, when I came back to her, was a very different proposition. She seemed in every way a much bigger and taller car. She wasn't really all that larger, but at first she seemed enormous, both inside and out, a real barge, her cabin like a cream-leather cave. Once seated, the view from the driver's eat was commanding - not like the low-down, worm's-eye, view in the sportier V40. The difference was almost shocking.

But when I fired Fiona up, readjusted the seats, and all the instrumentation had lit up in the dark, I quickly felt at home again.

How I had missed the rear view camera, parking sensors, and the handy map on the SatNav screen! And she was definitely more luxurious, and better-equipped. Would you believe it, the V40 had no visible clock once started up, not unless you switched on the radio. And no rolling map onscreen. No compass, even. I'd been driving about without being sure where I was, nor whether I'd get to my destination on time! But now I would know.

We moved off, heading for home. And all was smooth and silent. The annoying drone had indeed gone. Silent Night. You could have heard an angel breathe. Well, myself anyway.

I was in fact expecting more tyre and engine noise than I got. Road rumble and diesel rattle. But the still-new Michelin tyres were quieter than the old set, more than I'd been able to appreciate before, and the diesel engine barely chattered, despite its 97,000 miles.

I'd got used to the V40's nimble ways - it was a lot less heavy. Fiona felt ponderous by comparison. But at the same time, much more solid on the road, more stable, more grippy: the all-wheel drive was getting power down onto the tarmac more efficiently. So despite her greater weight, driving her felt safer and steadier, better for high speeds. Not that I tested Fiona's performance on the way home. I went no faster than 60 mph, and will keep to that speed limit for the first 1,000 miles or so, to allow the new components to bed in without stress.

I kept on listening for 'that noise' or indeed any funny noises, but there were none. It wasn't quite the Silence of the Tomb, but things were hushed in a way I'd long forgotten. I could hardly believe it. Surely I wouldn't get home without hearing something - a warning light coming on, or a message appearing on the display, to tell me that this or that wasn't working properly. But none of this happened.

And nothing happened early this morning, when I went out for some last food shopping at Waitrose. Nor a bit later, when I went to the filling station for diesel. The humming/droning noise had become part of my ordinary driving experience, and now it was gone Fiona seemed odd and unfamiliar. Well, I shall take her out for some local runs, and get re-acquainted. It will be a pleasure.

There are plenty of older cars around. The higher-quality ones, or at least the ones with caring owners, still look smart and dashing; and all seem to be giving sterling service. Why shouldn't Fiona do the same in the years to come? She still looks the business. She's had her expensive hysterectomy, knee replacement and hip job. Why shouldn't she henceforth step forth confidently, and live a full and active life? If, that is, she is allowed to approach her duties in a serene fashion that won't overtax her. In other words, I need to drive her, and cosset her, like a classic car.

But I need to build up a Special Contingency Fund. She might indeed cover another 100,000 miles in triumph, but I would be wise to set aside a few thousand pounds - extra money - just in case she ever has a sudden and completely unexpected heart attack, and needs emergency surgery! That's why I am sacrificing some personal day-to-day spending power, so that savings can be maintained and eventually stepped up. I don't want to be caught out again without enough doubloons in my treasure chest. I want no more loans.

A final thought. I think some people must think me mad, even if too polite to say so, to spend so much on keeping a six-year old car on the road.

But look at it this way. Think of Fiona as a well-bred horse from a good stable, a high-performing thoroughbred. Think of the vet's bills inevitably involved. Those would run into thousands. But I'm quite sure - given the British love of animals - that nobody would raise an eyebrow if I spent a small fortune on keeping a beloved horse in fine fettle.

A well cared-for horse and a well cared-for Volvo have a comparable lifespan. Both look good and are satisfying to own - if expensive to run. But Fiona is a lot more useful than any horse. QED.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Spectacular lit-up houses at Christmas

It's not something I'd ever do, but a lot of people love to festoon the front of their house with Christmas lights and other lit-up features, creating a display that looks quite spectacular in the dark.

Near to where my cousin Rosemary lives in Kent are three houses, two of them side by side, and one of them on the opposite side of the road, and every year they make their houses and front gardens look amazing. Rosemary tells me that one family spends five days building their display.

Anyway, here are the pictures I took yesterday evening. Click on the pictures to see an enlarged view. I'm not going to suggest which is the best, nor make any comment on style, inventiveness, or whether it is in perfect taste. Judge for yourself.


My pictures don't of course capture the movement of lights winking on and off, or travelling down strands.

I will say that the families concerned have produced something very well worth seeing. Plenty of people bung something colourful up without any sense of design, but this is much better than that. LEDs are now the thing, and presumably the electricity cost doesn't actually break the bank.

Years ago, this kind of display was very unusual and might get into the local news. Not so now, of course, even for displays that go rather further than this. I suppose that if an entire street were lit up, it might make some report. You know, a street full of neighbours aggressively trying to cap each other with their individual takes on Christmas Lights.

I don't think people decorate their houses in aid of charity any more, but it did happen in my village during the second half of the 1990s. One house in particular comes to mind, that specialised in Flying Snowmen, making use of the street trees outside, and covering house and front garden with a crowded, frantically-flickering, garishly-coloured display that people really did walk out of their way to view. There was a box by the garden gate, inviting you to pop some money in, towards some unspecified charity. And people did. (This was twenty years ago, when saying 'It's for charity!' was readily believed, and went unquestioned, and generally produced an instant (and unthinking) response. The people who put on that dazzling display did it for several years, then abruptly stopped. We all wondered what had happened. And then a very nice new house extension was built.

M--- and I were highly cynical about the source of the cash for that.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Unofficially, one stone lost

This morning marks a Great Event.

I weigh myself at home in the nude every week, usually on a Monday. Today, treading carefully - in the nude - onto my electronic home scales, and timidly looking down to read the result, I saw a magic '14 stones 0 pounds' - meaning that since the home weigh on 31st October I have lost exactly one stone!

Oh, great joy! Especially since the weight-loss stalled last week. Now I feel back on track. The regular two-pounds-a-week expectation is real again.

I updated the spreadsheet I've been keeping since July 2008 with a broad smile on my face. Click on the picture to see it more clearly.


As you can see, I've reached Row 399 on this venerable spreadsheet. I can tell from this valuable record that I last weighed 14 stones 0 pounds (88.9 kg) on 3rd March 2015, but that was after a few days of not being unable to eat anything much, while I recovered from a bout of mild food-poisoning. Before then, I was last 14 stone 0 pounds on 20th July 2011, when getting active again after my surgery. (That was a long time ago!) 

The lowest recorded weight on this spreadsheet is 11 stones 7 pounds (72.8 kg) on 23rd November 2008. This was after a determined (but rather unscientific) crash diet that began on 1st July 2008, in revulsion at my fat state at that time. Here's the spreadsheet again:


I was sick of being chubby. Ironically I was only just a bit heavier than now, weighing 14 stones 3 pounds (90.0 kg) at the commencement of my crash diet. 

I was relentless with this diet. It was as if I wanted to slim my way towards an entirely new me, rejecting the past. And indeed this was the beginning of profound developments in my life. But my goodness, my zeal to shed the pounds frightened M---, and Mum and Dad, who all grew very worried. A sudden enthusiasm like this was so 'uncharacteristic' of me, and my insistence on continuing despite real discomfort - my muscles ached at one point - scared them. They thought it was evidence of a dangerous obsession. I called a halt after (voluntarily) seeing the doctor about the muscle pain, and realising that I'd approached this effort at weight-loss in the wrong way. Reverting to a more normal diet gradually added some flesh to my bones, but I remained desirably slim and lissom throughout 2009. By late 2010, it was time for another weight-loss session, at surgeon's orders. This time, by proper calorie-counting. That's why the red line on the graph in the top picture dips a bit one-third of the way along.

The graph follows my progress at quarterly intervals. I use the weight figure (in kilograms) on the day nearest to the last day of March. June, September and December. The latest figure is 95.6 kg on 21st September 2016. I'm hoping that the figure for 31st December 2016 will be around 87.0 kg, and if so the red line on the graph will dip sharply again! 

But of course this is not mere game-playing with little graphs. I want to record a permanent and life-enhancing change.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Christmas cards

I've had a serious mental block this year over writing my Christmas cards. I really got going only on the 10th December, when I bought 60 charity cards and 48 stamps. I was taken aback by how much that cost. £21.01 for the cards (well, I admit that wasn't too much per card) and £26.40 for the stamps (which was outrageous, considering they were all second-class stamps). Nearly £50, anyway. And the 48 stamps had cost more than the 60 cards! Something not right about that, surely?

At any rate, I was all set. It just needed the preparation of a list, and then a couple of days' effort. But in fact it took me another four days to write the first card - for Emma, who was visiting me for lunch, and might as well have a card to take home with her. So she started me off. But until then it had been a job I simply couldn't face doing. Even though I most certainly did want to send cards to some people, in a spirit that went far beyond mere duty or common convention. But that positive wish wasn't enough to overcome the block. It took Emma's visit to relax my paralysis.

That was on the 14th. It's now the 18th. I have written 49 cards and used 34 stamps. 15 of the cards could be handed over personally, or at least delivered to the doorstep by myself, and didn't need to be posted. Four people couldn't be sent a card, and would need emails instead: a job for the next two days. And I promised a letter after Christmas to a family member. Apart from the emails and that promised letter, it's job done.

This year, for the first time, I created a colour-coded spreadsheet for the task, listing names, locations, who was to get a card and who an email, and if a card the mode of delivery, and hence how many stamps were actually needed. As I proceeded, I filled in the dates of writing, posting, or giving personally. Here's the top section of my list as it stands tonight, to give an idea of its layout:


I had family, friends, and neighbours on my list, plus a few others such as my cleaner and hair stylist. Next year I will simply use the 2016 spreadsheet as the basis for 2017, which will save time and give me a flying start.

One thing I liked about using a spreadsheet was the way it was possible to show the full extent of the job on the screen, without much scrolling, which somehow made it less daunting. The multiple paper sheets I laboriously wrote out in past years tended to exaggerate the size of the task - I do have rather large handwriting.

One thing that struck me above all else was how friends, neighbours and personal service professionals so greatly outnumbered my family: by three to one. Was that unusual, or fairly normal?

And other things. Such as most people I knew being in a relationship - not necessarily married, but at least with someone (or yearning to be with someone), rather than being solitary. And many having children, grown up or otherwise. In neither respect was I like that. I wouldn't be unique, but I must seem quite odd to most other people.

The sending of Christmas cards is in theory perfectly reciprocal, but this year I have definitely sent more than I am likely to receive. So far 23 cards have arrived for me. I expect this total to rise to 30 or so, which is well short of the 49 cards (plus four emails) I have sent, or will send.

Undoubtedly the cost of postage is a big factor here. First class stamps cost 64p each, and second class stamps 55p each. These are not negligible prices. In recent years I have wondered whether ultimately the custom of sending Christmas cards will die out, having become way too expensive. Or be confined to special cards that are personally given to local friends and close family, with no postage involved. It's hard to say. Customs generally die hard. And Christmas would definitely seem lacking without some cards up on the old mantlepiece!

Total transmission transplant

Another update, on my car Fiona. My Volvo XC60. Six and half years old, 97,000 miles done, and from the beginning worked hard as a caravanning tow-car.

She went into the workshop four days ago. They dropped out the rear differential and had a good look at it. As suspected, the Haldex, the electro-hydraulic component that feeds appropriate motive power to each of the rear wheels - indeed all four wheels - had had its day, and has been replaced. They looked too at the purely mechanical parts of course. Nothing amiss with the driveshafts to each wheel, but the joints on the main prop shaft were badly worn, and that now has to be replaced as well. Another expensive item, but it has to be done.

So, by the time I get Fiona back - some days ahead presumably, as the extra parts need to be delivered - she will have had all the major elements in her all-wheel-drive transmission replaced. That's the auto gearbox one year ago (£5,000), and now the prop shaft and Haldex (£4,300). Oh dear. Over £9,000 poorer!

Is it worth it?

I went into the 'sentimental' and 'family' reasons why I think it is worth it a few posts back. In 2016 those still override everything.

More hard-headedly, I'll get her back with a (substantially) rejuvenated transmission, better than she would have had if she'd enjoyed an easier life. This can only enhance whatever value she has, and contribute to greater longevity. And I do want to keep her. She remains exactly the impressive, well-equipped, comfortable and caravan-capable type of car I want to support my lifestyle. Any equal or better substitute would cost at least £45,000 nowadays. The way I look at it, I'll be having a restored £45,000 car for £9,000. With anything up to ten more years' life in her.

The Volvo dealer has given me a 16-registration (that is, March 2016 to August 2016) Volvo V40 to use while Fiona is being worked on. It's a likeable car, but not AWD (so the front wheels can scrabble for grip on some surfaces when driving off - not good for caravanning!), and although not a basic-spec car by any means (it was ready to be sold off for a princely £20,499), it lacks some of Fiona's handiest driver aids, such as parking sensors, her rear-view camera, and the useful onscreen SatNav mapping. I don't like the colour (light bronze), nor the low-down driving seat (Fiona is a tall car, and you step in and out without gymnastics). It's worthy enough, and pleasant to drive, but not at all the type of thing I would choose to buy. And I'd be loath to pay megabucks for it on a monthly PCP plan.

There's something else too, something I'd not fully understood. It's a psychological thing.

I own Fiona. I paid cash for her, and from the start I could do whatever I liked with her. I could modify her, trick her out with fancy accessories, anything. All I in fact did was to ask Volvo to install a towbar, so that I could pull a caravan around. But even that wouldn't have been possible if she hadn't been properly mine.

And I knew Fiona would inevitably become 'battle-scarred', whether my fault or not. I don't necessarily mean she'd get rammed or shunted by careless drivers in public car parks. The slow attrition of bouncing road grit, kamekaze summer flies, and rogue branches would pit and scour the paintwork, however adept I might be at shielding her from minor accidents. After more than six years, she still looks very much the upmarket car, but in reality - if you look closely - there are some minor blemishes to be seen here and there. I have had the worst of them properly repaired and resprayed. The rest are hardly noticeable, and can be ignored; but they are there, all the same.

The overall impression remains good. The blemishes are of no consequence. The illusion of a nicely looked-after car is intact. Fiona isn't going to face a hand-back moment when some chappie examines her minutely for scrapes and dents, and deducts a few hundred pounds for them - or imposes an excess-mileage penalty. I can use her, and enjoy her, as much as I want, and with complete peace of mind. I don't need to worry about some nemesis moment when my usage becomes a big issue. It never will. I see myself eventually trading Fiona in for some nominal amount, and if that's ten years ahead then I need not care what I may get. I'll have got full value out of her.

Not so with a car you don't own, that you must hand back after only a short time. You have to take such care, because it will cost you big money if the car comes to any harm at all. So when driving the V40 loaned to me I'm worried all the time, just in case a traffic situation develops and something bad happens. Country lanes have become a no-no, in case I have to scrape past a hedge. I can't relax and enjoy the drive. I've used the V40 for essential local trips only - shopping and appointments. It serves merely as a utilitarian transport device. It's kept me mobile, so I'm glad to have it - but I can't in any way bond with it; I can only look after it for the time being, until I can hand over responsibility for it.

That's not the kind of relationship I want with a car.

So I will feel huge relief when Fiona is back. The cloud of constant anxiety will lift and blow away. Indeed, it may be tempting the gods to say it, but what big item is left to go wrong? Only the engine itself, and there are no signs that the 2.4 litre 5-cylinder diesel under the bonnet is feeling its age. I will still face regular replacements of this and that - tyres, brakes, drivebelt, exhaust, and the rest - but that's the nature of older car ownership.

I don't know how my holiday plans for 2017 will now be affected. I need to cover the expense of that prop shaft. It looks as if I will have to curtail my spring West County Tour pretty drastically. So nothing can be booked yet.

Weight-loss update

Last week my weight-loss progress stalled.

It's pre-Christmas, and four days of that week involved catch-up get-togethers, with nice-but-naughty food and drink to go with them. Naturally, I paid heed to what I should and shouldn't be consuming, but I did slip. It's plain to me now that the Slimming World weight-loss regime will tolerate three slightly-naughty days, but not four. And if I want to make some progress, two days of mild synning is all I can have. Sad, but true. And so difficult at this time of year!

Thus I'm presently hovering around 14 stone 2 pounds - still hefty - with a BMI of 29.7.

But this is a significant improvement on the 15 stones 0 pounds I weighed in the nude at home on 31st October. Or the 'official' 14 stones 12 pounds at my first Slimming World weigh-in on 3rd November, in light clothing and shoeless. But the magic 'one stone gone' moment is still to come. And my weight-loss target of 2 stones 7 pounds - 35 pounds - is some way off yet. I must avoid further slippage.

I weigh myself at home again tomorrow morning, and in four days' time at the Slimming World group meeting. Synning in the most recent days has been within the limits allowed, so I have high hopes of losing two more pounds. Unfortunately I have a lunch date midweek - although it will be at a Thai fusion restaurant, and there will be 'good' options available. I must go for them. If I work really hard at this, I might yet lose that first stone before Christmas!

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Very Brainy Policemen and My Criminal Career

So, all new police recruits will have to possess a degree! And the Police Federation, which represents the ordinary policeman or woman, agrees, as this will unify standards across all the forty-odd police forces in the country.

And you can see the sense in insisting on brainy coppers. Things have moved on from Sergeant Dixon of Dock Green, who, I seem to remember (this was black-and-white TV of the early 1960s), did his bobby-on-the-beat stuff armed only with an avuncular air, a human heart, and an 'Evening, all' as his standard exit line. I'm certainly not saying he wasn't intelligent. And his communication skills were, for the time, pretty good. He was clearly a down-to-earth bloke who knew all about petty crime and how to divert youngsters from it, and how to speak kindly to the unfortunates of this world, and respectfully to his superiors. But he was Old School in an old-fashioned era. His approach wouldn't cut any ice with an invisible modern terrorist, or a sophisticated financial crook adept at conning people online.

The world of 2016 needs high-IQ specialists, many of them, to match the type of crime that is now most troublesome. Criminals go for big stuff nowadays: knocking off a bit of lead piping doesn't pay enough to make it worthwhile.

A lot of older people will say that British streets would be safer if there were bobbies on the beat, walking the streets at night, everywhere, keeping an eye on lead piping, and reassuringly saying 'Evening, all' to honest citizens about their honest business.

It's a fantasy, of course. When I was young the 'bobby on the beat' was a stern, awe-inspiring figure to avoid, because he made you feel guilty even if you were as innocent as driven snow. Anyone who has read much of these chronicles must surely have got the idea that I am, and always have been, a person who respects the law, and would feel shame at breaking it. I was no different as a child. And when a passing policeman once caught me up on a wall, and told me to get down - this must have been around 1962, when I was ten - I paid him earnest attention, and said I'd comply at once. And I would have, had I dared to jump down. But I was pretty high up, and scared of heights even then, and I thought it best to inch my way further along the wall towards a spot where it was much easier to get off it. Of course, he came back. And caught me still on that wall, just further along. He was annoyed. He spoke sternly to me. Naturally I stammered out my name and address.

I went home mortified. But that was nothing to the shock and shame I felt when, at five o'clock, the policeman rang our front door bell. Mum answered. The policeman explained why he had come. I suppose this was classic Dixon of Dock Green stuff: Having a Timely Word With The Parents. In case I made a career of letting 'friends' cajole me into getting up on walls, which, as everyone knows, is the first step in a criminal apprenticeship. Mum was bewildered at his revelation, and equally bewildered at my saying nothing about it. So was Dad when he came home.

I wasn't punished. I was already skewered by hot, red-faced tearful shame and embarrassment, and it probably showed. I also felt that that I'd been silly for not jumping down. The boys with me - the two brothers who had got me up on that wall - they had jumped down, and they had made themselves very scarce. I felt very, very foolish.

The impact on my dealings with the police thereafter were significant. Never again would they catch me doing anything wrong. And apart from dutifully reporting the odd motor accident in the decades that followed - the policeman on the public enquiry desk was usually bored once I confirmed nobody was injured, and only very reluctantly took a statement - my contact with the police was minimal.

I was convinced that my 1962 misdemeanour had remained on file. In the days before computers it was easy to believe this. A full report had been typed up on a sheet of paper, and put into a file. An index card had been created. I had a record. I had 'form'.

But gradually I grew up and realised that Not Getting Off Walls When A Policeman Tells You To wasn't such a great crime after all. There must have been a report, but perhaps the thing had been weeded out and shredded long ago. Maybe; maybe not. Anyway, I relaxed. Clearly I was now viewed as a Good Citizen. It became possible to approach a policeman or policewoman and ask for directions, or even to chat with them.

I was still careful, though. Somebody might remember. I might even be legendary among the older men, the sort who sift through their memories of Old Cases when reopening Unsolved Investigations. As on New Tricks, currently being re-run on the Drama TV channel.

'Wasn't there that case in Barry in the early 1960s? The one where the bobby had to speak to the parents?'
'What, the celebrated 'Walking-on-the-Wall' case? 
'That's the one.'
'Ah, one of the standard cases we all learned about at Hendon! Still is, I hear. It's bound to be on file.'
'Got it up now. Let off with a caution. But are you thinking what I'm thinking...?'
'Where's she living now?'
'Sussex.'
'Get your coat on. Time we had a word with her.' 

Well, it could have happened.

My last substantial contact with the police was in 2009. Two glum-faced policemen came to the Cottage at one-o'clock in the morning on 26th March - I was still up - to tell me that Dad had died unexpectedly at home. (The coroner's office was briefly involved) Then, months later, in December 2009, having still not found Dad's wallet, I worked out that the police must have taken it into their custody, and that I needed to see them in my capacity as executrix of his estate. This involved a trip to the police station at Burgess Hill, and then another trip to Haywards Heath police station, where I saw a senior duty officer. It was the only time that I have ever been 'interviewed' by the police. I had to establish my identity without a current passport. I have to say I was received with a sympathy and sensitivity I had not expected. A sealed plastic package was ready for me. I had to sign for it. My heinous past record was not brought up. There were no trip-up questions about walls, nor indeed about lead piping. I was thankful for that. I went home thinking that the police had treated me pretty well. I hadn't been beaten up like they did in The Sweeney. It had been most professional.

And now the face of policing is to become even more professional, with super-intelligent recruits applying their expertise (and fresh ideas) to crime. Thank goodness. The super-intelligent criminals had been getting the upper hand. You need to match them.

Mind you, who is going to deal with the petty thieves, street-corner drug dealers, and other saddo riff-raff? Will these New Policepersons understand them? Because if you can't understand, there is no meeting of minds, and no effective persuasion to adopt a different kind of behaviour. You need to speak a language that can be recognised and listened to. This is the argument - now lost - for having all police personnel start at the bottom, where they will rub shoulders with society's worst.

I wonder what the criminal world thinks about this notion of suave, brainy, articulate, media-savvy, university-educated policemen who have never arrested a drunk, or a pickpocket, or a car thief? Bewilderment, perhaps. Well, I don't mind if a whole generation of villains are wrong-footed.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

2017 holiday plans

With the New Year not far off, I've been thinking about where to go next year. It's going to be yet another year in which I'll have to think carefully about what I can afford to do. (Will there ever be a year in which I can plan holidays exactly as I please?) Still, the outlook is far from gloomy! It still looks like 65 nights away. But concentrated into three longish trips.

The first will take place in March and April, before Easter itself. That'll be a West Country Tour. West Dorset and North Devon as usual, plus Somerset, but this time Cornwall also. I want to go back to the Carnon Downs site between Truro and Falmouth, which I found to be such a good place to see Mid and West Cornwall from in 2010, when I last took the caravan to the county. It'll be very early-season, but that'll also mean the crowds of holidaymakers will be absent, and parking easy. That suits me!

The second will take place in June. It will be my Scottish Holiday, taking in Northern England on the way up and the way back. I want to see my friends in Fife and elsewhere. I won't go as far north as last time, nor down to the south-west, but I might well look at the Firth of Clyde (a boat trip to Rothesay, perhaps?) and the Dumfries area. In England: Northumberland on the way north; the western Lake District and the Peak District on the way south.

The third trip will be the usual North Devon thing in late September/early October, when the Appledore Book Festival is on, plus Newport in South Wales.

Besides these three major trips, I will also try to fit in a few days elsewhere, if the cost hasn't become an issue. I'd like to revisit Lincolnshire (Lincoln and the Wolds), west Norfolk, the Suffolk coast, northern and north-eastern Essex, and the New Forest. And there are always the Cotswolds.

It amuses me when people assume that a 'holiday' must automatically mean a 'holiday abroad'. I haven't holidayed abroad for some time.

The last time I went into a travel agent's shop - it was Trailfinders in Brighton - was to put together the flights, campervan hire, and stopover hotel accommodation for the two-month New Zealand holiday M--- and I had in early 2007. Everything else about that holiday was going to be completely winged, although we had of course done some research concerning what to see and where to go, and what our road route might be in both islands in order to best connect these points of interest. I booked the inter-island ferries only once I was in NZ, while staying with my step-daughter and her husband, who lived south of Auckland. (We stayed with them at the start and end of the NZ part of our trip)

Apart from that blockbuster round-the-world trip in 2007 - which included time in Los Angeles and Hong Kong - what can I claim? My forays beyond the shores of Blighty have been few. Package holidays in Majorca with Mum and Dad in 1971 and 1972. A weekend in Jersey with them in 1974. The French gîte holidays with M--- in 1995 and 2000. A few days in Jersey with her in 1999. Our caravan trip to France in 2002. That western Mediterranean cruise with Dad in 2009. My week in Guernsey in 2010.

In Europe I've seen Lisbon, Gibraltar, Rome, Florence, and Barcelona. I've never seen Paris, nor any other European capital city. I think this has severely limited my experience of the wider world. And yet I feel no great urge to rectify this. Partly because travel abroad does not look safe. Partly because travel abroad involves a lot of hassle. Partly because it's all so expensive. And partly because my caravan holidays around the UK have shown me that there is so much to see and experience in this country.

If I were deprived of my caravan, but could use the money freshly available on other kinds of holiday, would I immediately book a series of foreign holidays, despite that seeming a hard-work option? Impossible to say. I might try some city visits to Paris (naturally), Madrid, Venice, Vienna, Prague, Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo and Reykjavik. Beyond that, a week in the USA - in New England, not Florida. The trouble is, I am not fond of flying, whatever the distance. And because of that, Tenby is as likely to be my destination as Turin. Bottom line: I'd prefer to drive there in Fiona, and potter around on my own terms. Which succinctly explains why I love my caravan.

Monday, 12 December 2016

A dodgy differential

Fiona - my cherished Volvo XC60 - has just done 97,000 miles.

That's quite a lot of mileage for six and a half years. And she hasn't been just a pretty thing on my front drive. She's had a definite job to do, quite a demanding one: to haul my caravan around the country for two months of the year. That's three tons of weight altogether - nearly two for Fiona, over a ton for the caravan.

In 2015 (the year in which I took the caravan as far north as Huntly in Aberdeenshire) Fiona towed the caravan nearly 3,300 miles. This year (2016) I have been more modest with my caravan holidays, but have still asked Fiona to do nearly 2,500 miles of towing. The coming year (2017) may not see more towing mileage than 2016, but I will certainly be back in Scotland. Very long trips are demanding on the tow car.

The ordinary, non-holiday mileage is significant too - it's about 10,000 to 11,000 miles annually. Quite a lot for a retired lady, but I live out of town and Fiona underpins all but my most local social life. She will always have to motor me around, because trains, and particularly buses, are inconvenient to use where I live.

Fiona has no lazy days. She never has had any.

Fiona is no ordinary, run-of-the-mill car. She is heavy with family associations. In January 2010, when I placed an order for Fiona to be built, she was the model at the very top of the XC60 diesel-engine range, with most of the extra options you could have on top of that. In fact the only big ones I did without were a built-in telephone, and Bluetooth, in order to keep within my budget. The budget was however generous. I had £34,000 of ring-fenced inheritance cash to spend, money that I'd promised Mum before she died that I would spend on a nice car and nothing else. It was money was from her late brother Des. The car would be a lasting memorial to him. Fiona's list price was £40,000, but Volvo gave me a standard allowance of £5,000 on my trade-in car, a deal I couldn't complain about because the traded-in car, a 1999 Honda CR-V, had cost me only £12,000 in 2002. The government's Scrappage Scheme, then coming to an end, shaved another £1,000 off the cash required, bringing it down to that magic £34,000. I managed to spend Uncle Des's inheritance almost to the penny.

Fiona was a very well researched and well-considered purchase. I looked at all the likely choices, both European and Far-Eastern. I wanted a large, tall, powerful, heavy, diesel-engined car with all-wheel automatic drive. It had to be strong on durability, safety features and driver aids. It had to be a very comfortable long-distance tourer, fully up to all my caravanning needs, but nice to drive about in when not hitched up. Even with £34,000 available, I couldn't quite step up to a new high-spec BMW or Mercedes. But there was still Audi, Volvo and Toyota. It came down to Volvo, on styling and Mum's Swedish ancestry.

Fiona is, by the way, the only new car I've ever owned in my life. And I was responsible for her birth. The gestation period was a long-seeming four months. But one day in May 2010 - it was 25th May 2010 actually, the first anniversary of Dad's death - I collected her from the Volvo dealer and she was mine. My baby. Getting a car built for you, to your individual specification, is not the same as choosing something 'suitable' or 'good enough' off the forecourt. It's so much more personal.

You can see from all this that - for me - Fiona has no ordinary significance as a car. So many associations are bound up in her. She reminds me of Mum, and Des, and even Dad - all of them now gone, just memories and faces in photos. She was also the first really major purchase in what I might call my new life, my post-M--- life. M--- actually sat in her for one short trip to South Wales in July 2010, a trip that did not go well. In fact it was emotionally awful. And Fiona and M--- did not get on. Fiona was not M---'s kind of car. She was my kind of car. And has since been my partner in many adventures that could never have included M---, quite apart from being a vital facilitator of the lifestyle that I have developed for myself.

I intended that Fiona would, with moderate care, last me fifteen years. Then I would feel content to give her an honourable retirement. That scenario is still realistic. And in 2016 she isn't even halfway through the original intended lifespan.

And now she has covered 97,000 miles, with 100,000 looming. That ought to be nothing too much for a Volvo, of course, but you can't cover so many miles without a certain amount of wear and tear. And a car that hauls a caravan will have somewhat more wear and tear than most. There has been a regular outlay on tyres and brakes, and other items that need periodic replacement. All of that was foreseen from the start, and it has cost. But I knew that Fiona would never be cheap to run. I also knew however that there would be benefits as well as costs. I have enjoyed those benefits very much.

Last year there was the first sign of mortality. She needed a major transplant. A new auto gearbox. I'd worn the old one out before its time. It cost £5,000. That was a lot of money. It was a shock. I did take a good long look at the alternatives, but concluded that I was better off paying that £5,000 and having a rejuvenated car.

This year, the second sign of mortality, elsewhere in the transmission. The source of the humming noise I first heard in 2015, which has lately become a worrying drone. The Volvo dealer has already had a preliminary look. The noise is coming from the rear differential, the mechanism at the rear of the car that distributes motive power to the rear wheels. I found a very clear video explanation by Toyota on YouTube of how simple differentials work - see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WeLm7wHvdxQ. Even I can understand how. I can also see that if any of those cogs get worn or damaged they might make the kind of noise I am now hearing. And that replacing these substantial mechanicals wouldn't be cheap. I am told that if this part of the differential is damaged, then I'd be looking at an all-in cost of around £2,750, much of it labour and VAT of course. Ouch.

But Fiona, being an all-wheel drive car, with all four wheels permanently powered, has a complicated differential that includes an electro-hydraulic device called a Haldex. YouTube has a video of the Mark 5 Haldex. Fiona's is Mark 4, but I should think it works on similar lines. The video is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tbs9TeS6Qxo. Looking at it, I can see why replacing a troublesome Haldex might easily cost a lot of money. I am told that if the Haldex is the culprit, then the all-in cost to me will be around £3,100. The labour charge is no different, but it's a slightly more expensive component. Ouch again.

But I said yes: go ahead, do your detailed examination, determine which bit is faulty, and replace it. I have put the money for this in place, enough to pay for the more expensive Haldex.

I am taking a long view. Two major transmission components will now have been replaced. I shouldn't need to worry about either during the rest of my ownership. They won't be looming as an Awful Possibility as I work my way towards 200,000 miles.

Mind you, that'll be £8,000 spent to maintain Fiona's transmission and keep her on the road. Some would say the economics don't stack up. But obviously there's more at stake here than how the sums work out. She is a cherished car, with important personal associations, and not a mere commodity. And her value to me as a cherished car trumps all other considerations - thus far, anyway.

In any case, I can't afford to change horses as the mood takes me. And if I could, or if it were vitally necessary to sell her and buy something else second-hand - as I did with the Honda back in 2002 - could I expect to end up with anything so comfortable and well-equipped? Probably not. Unless it were a Lexus, say. But tracking one of those down at short notice wouldn't be easy. And in any case, who knows what trouble I might be buying? Fiona is at least a known quantity.

So there you are. I'm putting on a brave face, shrugging my shoulders, and crossing my fingers, hoping that this is the last of any nasty surprises. I'm trying not to think of what else I might have done with that £8,000.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Where is my pagan Christmas?

In my family we did away with Christmas presents for adults many years ago. It was ridiculous, buying presents for people who could afford anything they wanted for themselves throughout the year. And all that rigmarole of looking for something, and then wrapping it up, and finally the hackneyed ritual of presenting it on Christmas Day. Everyone knew the package given to them (sometimes it was 'packages') would contain nothing that they would treasure. It was all a waste of money, time and effort. And as Mum and Dad got ever older, and shopping became physically harder for them, the natural time came to stop the show and agree that henceforth adults would get just a nice Christmas card.

Children were of course quite another thing. But by the time our no-presents agreement came into force, there were no longer any young children. And even now there is only one child to consider (three year old Matilda).

Birthdays were also quite another matter. Birthdays are individual. It's important to mark them with not only a card, but something else. For my parents and myself that 'something else' meant being treated to a nice meal, or a nice day out somewhere. For my niece and nephew, a small but symbolic cheque.

And that's how things have stayed for many years now. I gave Tilly a toy last month, when I went up to visit, and I'll give her Mum a decent cheque for Christmas, to help buy clothes and shoes for her. And then, apart from writing and sending off fifty-odd Christmas cards, that's all I'm doing for Christmas.

I know that many will be appalled to read that. And will think me a mean-spirited Scrooge. Well, bah humbug. I am appalled at the way Christmas has over my lifetime degenerated into The Archetypical Formula Occasion, when buy, buy, buy is the rally cry, and High Street and Online sales figures dominate the news. When you hear of how children's expectations have been ramped up. For example, Christmas Eve presents, for goodness sake. I'm not tut-tutting from any religious point of view. But I do think that Christmas has become an irredemable commercial circus, a frenzy out of control, and the most stressful time of the year. I'm not saying that it's become impossible to enjoy a Happy Christmas. You can still make it so if you wish. But a serene, thoughtful, warm-hearted winter celebration is at odds with what the marketing people want you to do.

Every Christmas people break down, and lose their way; and relationships fail under all the pressure. All because Christmas has to be done 'properly'.

You know, I'm minded to select a stone circle, or high chalk ridge, and go there on or near the date of the Winter Solstice, whether frosty or not. At dawn, of course. Just to stand still and silently commune with the sky, the wind, the landscape, and the forgotten spirits of stone and soil. Ideally there would need to be fire, and ritual words murmured with arms outstretched towards the infinite; but these are embellishments. And then, having experienced something elemental, to have a cheerful breakfast somewhere. And then a long walk through whispering woods, or along a shoreline, lapped softly by the sea. I reckon Salisbury Plain and the New Forest will between them provide what I want.

And not John Lewis, nor Marks & Spencer.


Nice white teeth are great - but not so happy about makeup


I went to the dentist recently. It was only a check-up, but I'd deferred going for many months, and I thought I'd better get on with it. Financially speaking, it would be a bad month to discover that I needed something done, but I was pretty certain that nothing was amiss. And indeed, as expected, Nina had a good look then simply cleaned my teeth up as she usually did. (I tend to get tea-staining in between my teeth, especially the bottom ones at the front)

This time she found the staining quite stubborn, and she offered me a special clean-up using powder blasted onto the teeth. The fee would be £30. She promised me that my teeth would look much whiter. Why not, I thought? Let's have the Ultrabrite Smile that gets you noticed! I assented, and the result is a set of (for now) brilliant white gnashers, as in the picture above. I'm pleased.

Not that anyone has noticed! And in time the effect will wear off a bit, as my daily tea-drinking takes its toll. But I can think of many worse ways to spend £30 on supposedly enhancing one's attractiveness.

I haven't yet fallen into the ways of some older women who prop up their self-esteem (or delusions) by paying for very expensive beauty treatments. I'm prejudiced, I know, but I can't help thinking that any makeup (beyond a little sensible moisturising cream) prevents the skin functioning as well as it should. And the skin is after all one of the body's most important organs.

That's not the only medical problem: it's easy to see how plastering it on daily might create a psychological dependency, so that the wearer feels naked and exposed if seen without it.

Although expertly-applied makeup can look very alluring, it's still a covering-up of what is naturally there. I can't blame anyone wanting to hide blemishes. But the transforming impact of makeup amounts to wearing a disguise. It's a form of deception, and not necessarily harmless. Surely, the most honest thing is not to wear it at all.

I get annoyed when I hear about some service-industry employers - such as posh hotels - requiring their female staff to wear full makeup. Yes, it can make front-line women staff seem conventionally prettier, thus in theory attracting the attention of male clients. But that's exploiting female faces, turning their female staff into mere stage props. It goes with similarly-inspired rules about wearing heels, even when the woman stands behind a desk or counter and the customer can never see them. I thank my lucky stars that I'm retired, and don't have to work and be forced to look as some employer wants me to.

Which all begs the question, why - if I have these various good arguments and gripes against wearing makeup - do I use lipstick?

Well, for one thing, I don't do it at anyone's command - nor to sell anything. I do it for myself, because lipstick makes my lips look better-shaped and better-defined. And lipstick always enhances my smile. These are important points in a social context. But if anybody insisted that I wore lipstick, then I'd rebel, and just rely on a toothy smile.

Monday, 5 December 2016

A bag strap solution

It had to happen some time. Three days back the brass strap fittings on my favourite orange bag - the Italian one I bought in Florence in 2009 - failed, and the bag started to slide down towards the pavement. Fortunately I was getting out of Jo's car at the time, and I was able to catch it before it hit the ground. It was possible to snap the worn bits back into position, temporarily, but clearly the writing was on the wall for them.

The brass bits in question were originally part of the short shoulder-strap the bag was sold with, still in position as late as May 2013. The arrangement then looked like this:


It looked very good, but that short strap kept slipping off my shoulder, which was highly irritating! That's one reason why I hadn't used the bag much since digging it out of the cupboard earlier that year. Also, such straps were an invitation to street thieves, making the bag notoriously easy to snatch off one's shoulder. I didn't want my bag so vulnerable.

The answer was to replace the original strap with a cross-body strap. I did that - a bit of surgery I did at home, with a man's leather belt bought for the purpose - meanwhile preserving the old strap in case I ever changed my mind. But the brass fittings I first used for the cross-body strap weren't up to the job, and by December 2013 I'd cannibalised the original strap for its much stouter brass fittings. This was the result:


That was, finally, just right for me. Roll forward now to last Friday. The set-up hadn't changed in three years, but I'd used the bag almost daily for much of that time. It was no surprise really, when I had a good look at the brass bits at home later that day, to see significant metal-on-metal wear:


The C-rings pivoted inside the cups on the main fastening. And one C-ring had pivoted just too much. The other was approaching the same worn state. Pinching these C-rings, so that they sat firmly in the cups again, would have worked as a remedy, but for how long? And how to pinch them so that they didn't get damaged or too obviously bent? I didn't have the tool for such a job. Nor the hand strength. Valerie's husband Mick would have done it for me, and Valerie offered his services, but I though it best to fit something else entirely.

I remembered that I had bought some stout chrome-metal rings that might represent a decent solution. I found them, and substituted them on the strap:


Hmm! It looked OK, even though these were chrome rings, not brass. Indeed, this seemed a neater and more substantial type of strap fastening than the previous kind. I could live with it for now.

There was a consequence: the strap length, fastenings included, was now a little less. So the bag rode a little higher, whether worn cross-body or on one shoulder. About an inch higher. It felt decidedly different, but it wasn't uncomfortable and I thought that I would quickly get used to the new height. It wasn't in my armpit. It was still reasonably low-slung. It might even be at a more ideal height for keeping my hand on it, and thus enhancing security. And if the bag height really came to bother me, I could of course buy another man's leather belt, and make myself a longer strap. I knew how.

So, voila! Chrome has trumped brass. And the orange bag carries on as usual. It's such a good and useful bag, just the right size, and the leather has acquired a certain patina from constant use, making it very individual. Not a bag for posh dinner-parties, nor the opera, but certainly a bag for all seasons. I'm glad to have fixed the strap fastening so easily, so that I wasn't forced to use another bag for a while.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Two certificates gained at Slimming World!

Back to the present - well, last Thursday evening anyway. The weekly Slimming World group meeting and weigh-in.

I wasn't expecting much progress. Maybe a pound lost in the preceding week. But it was in fact two pounds, making eight pounds lost so far - 'so far' being just four weeks. And of course I'd broken through the first Half-Stone weight loss barrier! You get a certificate for that. Liz presented it to me later on that evening, when we were all sat around. Here it is:


Everyone clapped and smiled. There are a lot of good-natured people on that group!

These certificates do mean something. You can't get them without genuine personal effort and restraint. They say: 'I've changed my habits. I'm now eating and drinking wisely, and that half a stone lost is the payback. I already feel different, look different. And each certificate I get is proof of my snowballing achievement.' They may be just bits of paper, but I'm proud of mine, and I'd put them on par with my shorthand speed certificates of the 1980s.

This wasn't the only certificate. Ben, the man who comes with his girlfriend Diana - they are losing weight together - also shed two pounds, and as this was the best group result that week, we both got a Slimmer of the Week certificate! Here's mine:


It's a bit of a lottery whether you ever get one of these. In some weeks people who really go for it might lose as much as three or (more rarely) four pounds, and if they do, they stand a good chance of being Slimmer of the Week. A mere two pounds isn't usually enough. But we were lucky: Christmas was fast approaching, with its unavoidable high-calorie office lunches, and in any event all those sundry pre-Christmas stresses at home and elsewhere that demand some comfort eating to keep in check. Many people had done very well indeed just to stand still, neither gaining nor losing weight. Poor Jo had actually slipped a little. This is why Ben and I could get an easy win.

The Slimmer of the Week award wasn't just a nice paper certificate: you got a goody bag of assorted fruit and vegetables as well. Ben and I split this very amicably.

It's all clever psychology of course. It's thrilling to get clapped and congratulated. And of course it's good to have something like this, something official that you can wave in the face of dismissive, pompous, pooh-poohing people who think you can't stick at anything. It also stimulates and sharpens your game, making you eager to get the next certificate - in my case the one that records a whole stone lost. That's now my current objective. And then the next stage after that.

I should think that people who haven't yet got even one certificate are likely to push themselves to rectify that. But it's not a competition, and modest achievements are just as laudable as greater ones, because it takes serious effort and commitment to get anywhere at all, and all movement in the right direction is commendable.

Of course, I have to keep it up now! But I won't be over-ambitious. 'Are you going for three pounds next week?' Liz asked me. 'No, another two pounds is enough,' I replied. I know how challenging a regular two pounds might be!

Saturday, 3 December 2016

My 2016 trip to Lundy - 3 - farewell, and the return to Ilfracombe

Judith and I had just left the Old Light on Lundy. It was really brightening up now. The wind had dropped and that meant the sea would be much calmer on the two-hour return journey. Thank goodness!

I was still not sure whether I'd offended Judith by keeping her waiting while I explored the Old Light. I decided to mention who I had met there, partly to explain why I had been so long. It was of course simply playing the old justification game. I used to be an easy victim if anybody wanted to make me feel unreasonable or selfishly self-indulgent. I was slipping back into that frame of mind. A mistake. At least I was aware of it. I confined myself to telling her about the man gazing out to sea in the ground floor observation room, who had startled me. 'Oh him!' she said. 'I looked in too, after you had, and he seemed a bit odd to me. You know, creepy.' This wasn't how I'd found him, and I've usually got a sensitive radar for creepy people. 'How strange,' I replied. 'He was very pleasant to me, after he made his presence known. But I agree that he seemed to be hiding - and that would disconcert anyone.' Surely that was suitably diplomatic.

We walked on, past a curious series of tanks:


What was this? Lundy's water purification and storage plant? Or were they growing something? The map gave no clues.

We had been going east, now we turned south, towards the Village again. It was just a farm track, but the only one to head north up the full length of the island.


It struck me that it was too rough and muddy a track to make using it at night much fun, whatever kind of torch one had. The people staying in the most isolated let property, a mile and a half north of the village, would soon discover that they were way too far from the Tavern to rely on it for an evening meal. And no cars were available for visitors, and no bikes were allowed. Some hermits might not care; I would. If staying on the island, I'd want some social life in the evenings, every evening, as part of the Experience. I was independent, but still gregarious.

The Village came into view. We passed some large one-storey sheds, clearly where some of the vehicle servicing went on. Given the longevity of Land Rovers, I wondered whether the one I saw in 1996 still chugged around the island, or had it been relegated to a corner of one of these sheds? It had been painted white then:


Perhaps it was the white-painted vehicle up on steel axle stands in my 2016 pictures:


We next approached the General Stores, the only place apart from the Tavern where one could spend money. We went inside, partly just to see what it was like; partly in my case to get some sort of souvenir.


It was no surprise to find that the place was well-stocked, with everything one might expect to see in a regular village shop. And perhaps a slightly more sophisticated range than most village shops. The people who could afford a week on Lundy were going to be people used to the finer things in life. So there were plenty of deli-type things to buy, for those romantic candlelit dinners back at the flat or the castle lean-to. There were also sweatshirts, polo shirts, waterproofs and knitted hats with 'Lundy Island' on them. The lady in the bright red hat helped me chose a wine-coloured hat for my souvenir. (She was the one who had given me an encouraging smile during the voyage to Lundy, when I was combating seasickness. A very friendly person, I thought)

Judith came into the shop with me, but went outside again while I made my choice. She said that a Land Rover was taking day visitors down the ship, and she wanted a ride. I said I'd prefer to walk down - there was still time - because there was so much I wanted pictures of on the way. So we parted, agreeing to meet up on the ship later.

I'd toyed with the notion of a last look at the Marisco Tavern, but decided to forgo that so that I could stroll down to the Landing Beach without feeling rushed. Back in 1996, M--- and I had slightly misjudged how long our North Point dash would take, and we'd had to walk very fast indeed down to the Landing Beach, arriving breathlessly at the motor boat only just in time to catch the Oldenburg's departure.

The sun was shining brightly now, and I got some excellent shots as I said farewell to the Village. What a difference from the dull weather on arrival!


Above, some old iron relics from Lundy's Napoleonic days as a Bristol Channel fortress.


I waved goodbye to the nice lady with the red hat, and wished her and her husband a lovely week on the island.


There was the Tavern, but no time to stop.


The puddles were still there on the track, but it was becoming quite warm.


A last look back at the Village before the track began to zig-zag downhill.

The young couple I'd seen at the Old Light caught up with me. All told, they'd had a great day out. They were all smiles. Like me, the boyfriend was a keen photographer, and was shooting every view that opened out.


The Land Rover went by. I wondered if Judith was on it, or had caught another one. That bungalow off to the left was one of the larger let properties. Another place with a view!


The 'road' next revealed a white-painted mansion in the distance. It was Millcombe House, formerly the island owners' home, but now divided into let flats that offered the most sophisticated self-catering accommodation on the island. Though not, of course, the most adventurous!


In 1996, on the way up to the Village, M--- and I took a shortcut around the back of Millcombe House, and so we saw it up close:

  
It enjoyed a sheltered position, with a fine view. It once had lush, irrigated gardens that island workers tended.

The track now took a sharp left, and headed downhill between wind-shaped trees. The only trees on Lundy. A strange sight! Before entering this little wood, I glanced to the right. There was the Oldenburg, a toy boat on an aquamarine pond.


It wasn't much of a wood really! But very pleasant after the bleakness of most of the island. Another hairpin bend. Left, the entrance to the grounds of Millcombe House. I wonder if the Landmark Trust will ever reinstate the gardens as they once were?


On now past the island's propane store, securely locked of course, and then a gradual descent to the Landing Beach and the pier.


The shot just above looks up the east coast of Lundy. In the middle distance - click on the shot to enlarge it - is the Sugar Loaf, a cone-shaped (or beehive-shaped) mass of rock that is marked on maps. The track went on, getting lower and lower until it reached shore level. It passed a beach that seals used, and there was a notice about pups being there:


There were rocks with strange shapes, and the odd cave, presumably used by smugglers in past times. 


And then suddenly, around a bend, was the pier and its cluster of buildings - and the ship waiting.



Gosh, the tide was high! The Old Jetty in the foreground, and the original Landing Beach, were both submerged. Time to get on board. There was a seal in the water off to the right. 


I stepped on board. Hmm. everyone was on deck, now that the sun was shining and there was a fabulous view to be had. I might have to stand. But then I'd be moving around the passenger decks anyway, to get the best shots of Lundy as we left the island behind. 

I saw no sign of Judith at first. But I did see the young couple from the Old Light. I got chatting again with them. They were from an inland city - Nottingham - and were staying at a holiday centre I remembered passing on my way into Ilfracombe that very morning. They rarely saw the sea, and a trip to an island like Lundy was a real novelty. The young man was friendly but no great conversationalist, and chiefly attended to his picture-taking, but she was as chatty as myself, and we got on well, swapping little bits of our life histories. 

After a while I said I'd like to find Judith, and went in search of her, though I promised to be back. 

Meanwhile we had cast off. We were on our way. Many people had cameras out, or more generally phones, to capture the departure. 


For some reason a party spirit seemed to prevail. Now why? This was in fact quite a sad occasion. Most of us would never see Lundy again. But 'going home' is nearly always an uplifting prospect, whatever the actual reality on arrival. 

I found Judith at the stern, taking pictures with her camera. She did in fact carry two. A proper one, a fiddly one, which she kept out of harm's way, and the one in her phone, which was quick and easy to use. She was using the phone. She's on the left edge of this shot:


She obligingly took one of me, with my camera:


Then she went to find a good seat. I lingered. I wanted to say goodbye to the island.


Lundy gradually changed from a real place we had walked on to just a misty silhouette in the setting sun. 


And then suddenly it wasn't in sight any more. There was only the calm sea and the white water at the bows. I went back to my young friends. We watched the coast of North Devon get closer. I identified Morte Point, Bull Point with its lighthouse, and Lee Bay, a place they had actually visited on their present holiday. They were quite impressed that I could tell which place was which from the sea. I laughed that off by explaining that I was map-mad. 


Then Ilfracombe approached. Judith was still where I'd left her last, enjoying the sun. I noticed again that she didn't engage nearby people in conversation. Surely it wasn't a lack of social skills. She could of course just be shy, or for some reason not confident. But that didn't quite square with what I'd learned about her. I'd considered her more than adequately confident with other people. It was a puzzle. I recalled her saying how easily I got talking to the several people we had met when walking around the island, as if that were somehow remarkable. And how she tended to walk on, not joining in. Perhaps in her world, the one back at Orpington where she lived, one didn't start gushing to total strangers at the drop of a hat. Only to people one knew fairly well. That standoffish London thing. But there wasn't anything stuck-up about her. No, it was a puzzle, something I couldn't understand. I wasn't going to make it my problem. 

She was now talking to me about a gallery she'd discovered on the top of Lantern Hill, which overlooked the harbour at Ilfracombe, the one on the left edge of the bottom photo above. She described the kind of pictures and other things they had on display there, and wanted to show me - it would still be open, though it was now early evening. But it didn't sound like my sort of art. And I was an hour from the caravan, and getting hungry, and once ashore my plans didn't include a gallery or whatever else she might suggest. If I were being completely honest, I wanted to be alone and would decline any definite invitation. I hoped she wasn't counting on making an evening of it. Surely not. And yet... 

The harbour entrance came near. You could see Verity.  She looked like a female sword-wielding Colossus. I think the local council were right to have done a deal with Damien Hirst. Love her or loathe her, she definitely added distinction. The crew got busy.


And then we were alongside the upper pier (it was now very high tide) and the gangway was about to be run out. I waved goodbye to the young couple. They waved back. She was the red-headed girl in the picture below.   


Where was Judith? The captain had announced that they were collecting for the island Church Renovation Fund, and they had a bucket ready for any donations passengers wished to make. Judith had clearly come forward to help, and was now at the bottom of the gangway, holding the bucket on the Landmark Trust's behalf, and smiling winningly at every passenger. She'd done this before! Out of nowhere she had produced a glove puppet, a cheerful mole, and was making him wave to everyone. Here she was, cheerful herself:


I thought this was a cracking good effort, and as I came off the gangway I dropped a few pounds into the bucket to encourage everyone else. 

Only big-hearted people bother to put themselves forward like this. And this particular big heart was holidaying on her own, and deserved a companion. But I ducked out. I smiled at her, thanked her for joining me in a tour of the island, and said, 'Goodbye, Judith! Take care!' and walked away. 

A clean break. Deftly done. 

I felt I was being true to my independent nature, but at the same time behaving rather shabbily, short-changing her. That feeling persisted all the way back to Fiona, and beyond. Not even the fey evening light over Ilfracombe harbour could banish the bad sensation of having let Judith down. 

No, I don't have a big heart. I had no heart at all. I was mean-spirited. I thought only of myself, and what I wanted to do. I sometimes wondered whether I cared about anything at all. Had my lifetime experiences really shrivelled me up so much? 

Well, there were immediate needs to satisfy. I wanted a gin and tonic. And something hot and tasty. I remembered there was a decent pub at Knowle, just off the Barnstaple road, a mile short of Braunton - the Ebrington Arms. I went there. And ran slap into six hearty golfing men at the bar, fresh off the local course. Hey ho! No quiet time for me! 

They offered me a measure of good-natured banter, and some grown-up leg-pulling, all with twinkling eyes - the kind of thing slightly bibulous middle-aged men offer when a reasonably attractive, unattached woman comes in. Even women as tatty as myself. I turned on 'the charming older woman who definitely appreciates a bit of male attention, but is politely determined to pay for her own drink'. It went down well. I remembered this sort of thing from my working days. It was a good game to play, a fun game, and although long retired my part in the general exchange came easily. 

I spoke with two of the men particularly. One said he looked forward to seeing me there again, told me his name was Gerald, and next time he'd buy my drink. The other, a Scotsman now living in North Devon, had a more serious nature. I preferred him. I liked him even more when his student-age daughter came in, and I could see (while I ate my moussaka) how comfortable they were with each other. I spoke with them both. I was sorry when they went home. 

I had encountered an awful lot of people that day. All of them ships that pass in the night, never to pass close by again. I found that sad. 

Next day I tried on my souvenir Lundy hat:


It's not really my colour, is it? (I've since bought a dark grey knitted bobble hat)

As for Lundy itself, it quickly became again just a long low dark shape on the far horizon, something you had to peer for, as in this sunset shot at Westward Ho! taken a few days later. Lundy is at the right-hand edge of the picture:


I wonder if I'll ever set foot there again.