Saturday, 25 April 2015

How very silly of me

I'm amazed how easy it is to depart from what you thought was an almost automatic routine, one that you've followed for years. I've done just that, and had to junk some food in consequence. Nothing that will break the bank, but about £25 worth of meat and fish, enough to be annoyed about. This is about my silly bit of forgetfulness.

Refridgerators in caravans work by making a refridgerant go round and round a closed system of pipes. It's silent, as it needs to be in the confined space of a caravan - you can't have a device that could keep you awake at night! The refridgerant is set in motion by a source of heat. It then circulates and sheds the acquired heat to the outside air, ending up a bit cooler than before. Further cycles gradually cool the refrigerant further, until it reaches whatever temperature has been set. If the temperature setting is low enough, not only the fridge will be cold, but the freezer also, so that frost will form. It's remarkably efficient, at least for a non-household cooling device.

The heat source is provided in three ways, all of them obtained by simply rotating the same switch. You can ignite a gas burner. You can use 12 volt power from the leisure battery with an electrically-heated element. Or, if hooked up to the mains, you can use full-on power from the National Grid. The last provides the most rapid circulation of refridgerant, and is the most effective where freezing is concerned.

While bowling along the Queen's Highway, you bring the 12 volt battery into play. It provides enough cooling to keep already-frozen items frosty for a few hours. After that, they will begin to defrost, even if the fridge as a whole stays acceptably cool. So a five or six-hour journey on battery cooling only is no problem. But on arrival at my destination, it's a priority to get hooked up, and switch the fridge/freezer to mains power. I've done that dozens of times in recent years.

But when I arrived at Newport, for once I forgot. So although I had mains power for lighting and interior heating, the fridge/freezer was still on battery power.

I arrived on Wednesday afternoon. By Friday midday I noticed that things in the fridge were not as cold as I'd expect. I turned the temperature control to apply more mains power. This actually had no effect - it doesn't when the fridge/freezer is running on battery power - but I hadn't yet become aware of my mistake and I thought I was likely to get a cooler appliance. I didn't though, and by the late evening I was starting to think that something was seriously wrong.

Opening the freezer door, I discovered mass defrosting going on. All I could do was to remove everything in the freezer, bag it up, and bin it. Then wipe out the freezer, and ponder what was amiss. At this stage I was glumly thinking of an expensive and inconvenient trip to the dealer, to get the mysterious trouble fixed. And if it couldn't be dealt with quickly, then possibly I was facing a difficult time on my Scottish Tour, only a month ahead. I decided to sleep on it.

Awaking during the night, I thought of checking the caravan's electrical circuit breakers, which I did by torchlight. I flicked the switch for the fridge off, then on again. Nothing seemed wrong. But with switches now in my mind, I at last looked at the power-source selector switch, and kicked myself when I saw that I'd let the fridge/freezer run on battery-only for nearly three days. A quick movement of that switch put matters right. By breakfast time, the bowl of water I'd placed in the freezer was now a bowl of ice. Phew. Quel relief! No big bill! No month in Scotland without a freezer! I slept the sleep of the carefree.

This morning's restock at Waitrose was about £25 more expensive than planned for, however. And I didn't even buy any fresh fish.

I've already devised a way of reminding myself that, on arrival anywhere, I must reset the power source for the fridge/freezer. But of course it's another step along the road of total reliance on paper or electronic reminders - and the growing idea that my propensity to forget things is getting worse. I don't really feel that vagueness is taking over, but you do wonder!

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

A funeral while on holiday

Tomorrow I leave Lyme Regis and travel to Newport in south Wales, mainly to visit family and friends. That's how it usually is when I pitch the caravan in Newport - I may get a day entirely to myself, but family and friends have priority. And this time, every day is spoken for, because what would have been a free day is now going to be devoted to attending a funeral.

I learned about it when phoning Peg, my very old and frail aunt who lives in Newport, a couple of days back. Mavis had died. She had been in a care home, a pleasant one. And when I saw her there last year she looked fine. But although very comfortable and well looked-after, she had nothing to do, or plan, or think about; and, removed from the everyday business of running her own home, I feared that she might go downhill. Evidently she had.

Peg still lives in her own home, and although in some ways that may be a challenge, she is surrounded by all her own possessions, her own furniture, all the many familiar things, and remains responsible for her own daily routine. I am certain that the mental stimulus this gives is keeping her going in way that sitting around watching television all day, in the anodyne company of other white-haired old ladies, cannot. In fact, if I can possibly manage it, I will do my best to stay at home in my dotage, even if I have to spend a small fortune on helpers. Preliminary figurings suggest that I will have enough money for that. I just need to beat off all the dire diseases that want to spoil my little game. And then, one evening many years from now, it would be nice to simply doze off over the keyboard, never to reawake. I hope I'll have just published the blog post in which I describe a profound insight I've had, a flash of realisation that explains the meaning of life. Let me click on that 'Publish' button before I drift off. It won't matter if I haven't fully corrected the typos!

Back to Mavis. I should mention that this is a lady that I'd met only now and then, mostly before 1980. And, like Peg, she was really an 'honorary aunt', and not a blood relation. But when I was a child, she was indistinguishable from my 'real aunts', just as her husband, Len, was indistinguishable from all the 'real uncles'. At one time, if one had made a list of relatives real and honorary, it would have been a long one. But now, in 2015, very few of Mavis's generation remain. In essence, Peg is, as of now, the sole survivor. You can imagine how she feels about that.

Another thing I should tell you is that back in the 1940s, Mum, Peg, Mavis and a fourth lady called Nesta were all close friends, all of them but Mum aunts to me. And their husbands - Dad, Wilf, Len and Trevor - were, apart from Dad, all uncles. Mum, Peg, Mavis and Nesta were something of a gang. They were in their twenties, and pretty lively. As the decades passed, and their families grew up, they kept in touch, and in their older lives in the 1970s and 1980s went on holiday together. Mum and Nesta both died in 2009. And now Mavis, another member of that Gang of Four, had followed them.

As soon as I heard, I wanted to attend Mavis's funeral. I'm now at that age when a funeral, even a neighbour's funeral, means much. So, for my own sake, the decision was instant. But even if I'd felt reluctant, I would have felt bound to go. This lady had been Mum's lifelong friend. Mum (if still alive) would have said to me, 'I can't make the journey now, but could you go instead?' Of course I could. I'd be there to represent Mum. Pure and simple. And I'd be there with Peg, though not taking her - her son Richard was being her chauffeur.

Why might I be in any way reluctant to go? Well, when I'd seen Mavis (with Peg) at that care home last year she hadn't recognised me. I wasn't embarrassed because it wasn't surprising - it must have been twenty years since our last meeting. I didn't attempt to explain who I was, and let her think that I was perhaps Peg's niece. But that wouldn't do at this upcoming funeral. Her two daughters Carole and Pam (with husbands) would be there, and they'd be wondering who that lady standing with Peg and Richard could be. They too hadn't seen me for twenty years. They too were unlikely to recognise me. They were certain to ask. And how they would react, when I explained who I was, would be anyone's guess. I hoped it would be a good reaction, but I had no idea what might really await me. It's not quite a scary thought, given the constraints of the occasion, but a negative response would be upsetting all round.

At least I will be properly dressed for the occasion. In the the caravan is a very suitable black-and peach dress, and a black jacket and shoes to go with it. I'd had in mind some posh dinner out, and not a funeral, but I certainly have the right kit with me. Nobody will be able to say that I'd come - disrespectfully - in rambling togs or beach gear.

On the whole I am looking forward to this funeral. I'm quite sure Mum would appreciate my going. I will try hard to be a credit to her - as well as providing another arm for Peg to hold onto, as she may find it all rather exhausting.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Steel and brass

This is about photography. Specifically shooting metal objects with very strong design characteristics. If that's not your thing, skip this post.

I never was mechanically-minded, nor in any way drawn to machinery from the 'how does it work' or 'how can I fix this' points of view. A question like 'what can it do for me' was however more relevant. And I was always interested in 'what does it look like', because this brings in design and aesthetic considerations. So I have always admired the huge steam machines that Victorian engineers created for pumping water and other tasks. They were not only functional, but satisfyingly good to look at, especially when in motion, and made wonderful photographic subjects.

In the UK the most ubiquitous objects of this type are of course steam locomotives on preserved railway lines. I'm very lucky to have the Bluebell Railway just twenty minutes away. This is a standard-gauge line, that runs from East Grinstead (at the northern edge of Sussex, where it directly connects with the national railway system) southward (in the Lewes direction) to Sheffield Park, which is their HQ. Sheffield Park station has the engine shed. You can go and visit it at any time of the year, and walk up and down the lines of locomotives. I suppose that if you are a railway engine enthusiast this must be nirvana. Myself, I go to shoot the locomotives because they - or rather bits of them - make very good photographs. I don't go that often, but I did on impulse last month, after returning from North Devon.

Of course, not even I can resist some 'ordinary' pictures of these impressive monsters.

Nor indeed any work being done on them. In this shot, an old hand was (I think) showing a new volunteer how to service a smokebox:

But just as impressive (and visually intriguing) are the well-engineered metal bits that make up the whole. Some are clearly to do with pressure-management and lubrication, others with the brute transmission of gigantic mechanical force:

As you can see, I often prefer shooting in gritty black-and-white for this kind of shot. My Leica D-Lux 4 has a valuable 'film-grain' option that simulates how it would be if I were taking pictures using a 'fast' film in the old film-camera days. That sort of film gave you big crystals and a characteristic speckled effect, which tended to pump up the contrast and could, with the right subject, make it seem hyper-sharp. Very suitable for greasy metallic shafts and levers and rods and nuts and bolts!

It's a bit stark, though! Eventually, one needs to get back to a bit of colour!

The old steam machines certainly had strong visual impact, and for me that's the big attraction. Even more so when they are in motion, and belching smoke. But they are arresting subjects, even at rest, and make such a good composition. I don't really think that modern stuff, like (for instance) the latest passenger aircraft that look like chubby flying whales, made of the lightest possible materials, and stuck together with glue, can compare. You might as well enthuse over the latest kind of bus. And you know what I think about buses!

Monday, 13 April 2015


This isn't about dummy heads of state. It's about ships' figureheads, and especially those created for sailing ships in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I think they are overlooked and underrated works of art.

Sailors then were a superstitious lot - perhaps they still are - and sensitive to the 'personality' if the ship they trusted their lives to. Every sailing ship was different and every one had a different 'feel', good or bad. There were some ships that were considered lucky, others that were not. I'm not talking about the notorious 'coffin ships' used in the merchant navy - patched-up vessels that were death traps because of their unseaworthiness. I'm referring to the atmosphere that every ship has, friendly or malign, and whether one might regard her as safe haven against any peril, or as a ship of doom that would sooner or later drag you down to Davy Jones's Locker.

Part of a ship's personality was expressed by having a figurehead. It was fixed on the prow and faced forwards over the sea ahead, and importantly had eyes to see with, and therefore (in a sense) was able to guide the ship through danger. Often the figurehead reflected the ship's name, and if so this would have helped any crewmember who couldn't read to find the right ship when signing on. It's a late example, but the ironclad HMS Warrior in Portsmouth Harbour has a figurehead in the form of a Greek warrior carrying a drawn sword and shield, as in these 2011 photos of mine. The ship itself first:

Wikipedia has a better close-up:

You can easily imagine this warrior as a living being, overcoming storms as well as enemies. The notion that the figurehead had an inner life of his or her own applied to all ships, not just those carrying guns. It was a protective entity, smoothing the ship's passage on a voyage.

There seem to have been two broad approaches.

One was to defy and conquer the wind and waves by having a fierce figurehead that exemplified strength, courage and indomitability. Thus one would have masculine figures of war, perhaps with a grim face, brandishing swords, scimitars and other weapons. Beasts that knew no fear, and tore at their prey with claw and maw, such as lions and other such creatures, would also do the trick here. In a less extreme way, notable soldiers and heroes could be pressed into service, such as - very obviously and appropriately - Lord Nelson, seen in the shot that heads this post, and here, both of them pictures taken by me in 2011:

He'd just been freshly repainted, and the story behind that is here:

On the same day, and not far away, I saw this figurehead of the Duke of Marlborough:

Information on this one is here:

The other broad approach to figureheads was to calm the wind and waves with feminine beauty, charms and softness. Thus one would have a graceful woman of virtue, to shame the elements into submission. Or, on the other hand, a mermaid, who was actually of those elements, and must have power over them. In either case, even if the lady were clearly of the utmost respectability, as much flesh as possible would be on display - a soft and rounded bosom being the best measure against any sea demons that threatened the ship. The sailors themselves, eyeing the exposed parts, would of course heartily approve!

Female figureheads of one sort or another abounded. Here is a short selection from my own archive. From 2010, seen down an alleyway in Falmouth:

Or this lily-white skinned lady, also seen at Portsmouth on that day in 2011, in imminent danger of completely exposing her left breast:

Or this well-clad lady in a cape, seen in a museum at Hastings in 2013:

Finally, a female figurehead at Constantine Bay in Cornwall that has a personal connection with myself, in the sense that I first saw her in 1965 when aged twelve, and then again from time to time until she disappeared - then reappeared, fully restored, very recently. The first decent photo I still have of her dates from 1983:

There she is, gracefully standing outside a large house, clearly used as a holiday home, that faced out across the bay at its southern end. This was taken from the public footpath. I saw lots of holidaymakers (not just me) stopping to peer at this figurehead whenever I was there in the 1960s or 1970s. She looked little different as the years passed, just slightly more weather-beaten as time went by. The house was however not so well looked after. As you can see, in 1983 it was beginning to show signs of not getting regular repaints and other necessary maintenance. By 2003 it was in rather a sorry state, and I don't think the figurehead was on view:

I was rather sad that the lady had vanished! And I wasn't the only one to lament her departure - see

However, by 2008 there had been a transformation. The house had undergone a major rebuild:

But still no figurehead! Oh well. But I should have kept the faith. When I passed by last month, in March 2015, my beady eyes noticed something in the central window:

Ah! She had returned! And she looked splendid. A pity that she was being kept indoors, but it was quite understandable that she was now being safeguarded from wind and rain. This is the story behind her restoration, which also gives her likely origin: See also And here are three shots of her in 2014, after being authentically recarved by a specialist. (I wonder what it all cost!)

I wish I were the proud owner, I can tell you.

And here's myself, figureheading at Constantine Bay, complete with the aforementioned beady eyes, and ready for late-afternoon tea and cake at the YHA at Treyarnon Bay, ten minutes off. That's Trevose Head in the background.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Birds of a feather

It's funny how, even if you are highly conscious of being a member of a highly-visible minority group, you nevertheless have some wider connections and memberships that transcend your minority status.

For example, your education or social class might have a strong influence on who you feel comfortable with. So might your occupation: a policeman, with a policeman's mindset, might have a quite different set of social contacts compared to a teacher or an artist or an engineer. Much the same might be said if you have a hobby or interest that dominates your life. Thus a keep-fit junkie or a petrol-head car enthusiast will both lean towards like-minded people, and stay away from (and even look down on) lazy couch potatoes on one hand, and the bicycle brigade on the other. More subtly, your personal outlook, beliefs and attitudes will affect who you tolerate or embrace as your friends and boon companions.

Any mix of any of these things will channel you into one world or another, and exclude you from less congenial groups - who may in fact be perfectly OK, but do not draw you to them as a magnet will.

I'm stating the obvious, aren't I? Or at least I think I am. But it's a necessary preamble to this post, which analyses why I like one caravanning club, but almost completely ignore the other, even though I am a long-time member of both. There's something psychological at the back of it. I suspect it's my personal reaction to whom they want as members, and how well I fit into their ways.

Ever since 2002, when M--- persuaded me to come in with her to buy a second-hand caravan, and try out the caravan life, I have belonged to the two big national caravan clubs. One is called simply The Caravan Club. The other is called The Camping & Caravanning Club. Superficially they have a very similar set-up. They are run on a national basis for members who pay an annual subscription. This year, it was £46 for The Caravan Club, and £42 for The C&CC. For that each offers a network of Club Sites that only members can use, well-maintained sites that function as open-air hotels, often in scenic places, typically with hot showers, toilets, clothes-washing and ironing facilities, tourist information and all kinds of useful and helpful amenities to make a stay there pleasant and comfortable. They are generally child-friendly too. The atmosphere is, as I say, 'relaxing hotel', possibly even 'exclusive country club'. But it isn't 'holiday-camp'. There are Club Sites that lean towards the needs of caravanners requiring peace and quiet above all else - or at least as much of it as one can expect, given that they can be busy places in the summer - and Club Sites that cater for the rather more sociable, and of course those happy families.

In addition to the annual subscription, members have to pay site fees whenever they book time at a Club Site. These are modest. I'd expect to pay no more than £15 per night mid-season. There are often low-season deals that can bring the cost down to below £10 per night. What would one pay for decent Bed & Breakfast at a guest house? £40 a night? And at a hotel? £80 a night, if lucky? You can see why it makes financial sense to get around the country with a caravan in tow. Quite apart from the freedom and flexibility it gives you.

Both clubs sign up farmers and other landowners to provide tucked-away country retreats and hideaways limited to five caravans at a time, called Certified Locations or Certificated Sites depending on the club. These are a mixed bag, varying from a scruffy farmer's field with just the right to pitch (though usually at laughably low cost) to manicured lawns and orchards with not only electricity to hook up to, but sometimes an array of facilites comparable in standard to a proper Club Site (and like as not a pitch fee to match). But of course with CLs and CSs you do get to know the farmer, and a big part of their charm is that you can build up a personal relationship. CLs and CSs often have a jolly good country or seaside view, right from where you are pitched. Most Club Sites do not, because of privacy hedges and trees and suchlike - although there certainly are some Club Sites where you can look out onto a golden beach.

Both clubs offer no-deposit advance Internet Booking for members, which is highly convenient. It made planning and booking my Scottish tour this year dead easy. You pay by credit card when you arrive at the site.

I hope you have got the notion of two National Clubs offering a comprehensive service for the touring holidaymaker. The Caravan Club once had a snooty reputation, adhering strictly to the needs of caravan owners and looking down on campervans, but that's all long past. It still doesn't embrace tents, though - it's strictly for wheeled units, towed or self-propelled. The C&CC includes tents, very much so, and thereby embraces all the adventuresome people who travel light, and not just student backpackers. The C&CC also fosters Special Interest groups, and promotes the work of its District Associations for those who like local get-togethers. It has long called itself 'The Friendly Club', presumably to reassure those folk who feel that The Caravan Club is in any way stiff and unwelcoming. But as regards facilities and high standards, the two clubs are nevertheless much the same nowadays.

And yet I find myself using The Caravan Club nearly all the time, and The C&CC almost not at all. In fact since 2010 (and my last-ever trip with M---) there is only one C&CC site that I've been using, compared to dozens owned by, or linked to, the Other Firm. Why has this been so?

Partly it's size. The Caravan Club has the larger network of Club Sites, and as I get older I want the facilities (and backup) those offer more and more. But really that's not the prime reason.

I think it's because The Caravan Club suits my personality better. In search of a supermarket metaphor, I might say that The Caravan Club is the Waitrose, and The C&CC is the ASDA. You know my feelings about ASDA. How I feel uncomfortable there, as if I don't belong. I think it boils down to that.

Both clubs send out glossy printed magazines. These are pretty much a waste of time and paper in my view; although presumably they are self-funding, considering all the ads they carry. The magazines look very similar, and deal with much the same subjects - current topics, holiday destinations to consider, caravan and towcar tests, product reviews, and technical advice. But there is a revealing difference in style. Let's look at the last ones I received, beginning with a selection of pages from The C&CC's mag:

As you can see - if you accept that my examples are fair - there is a big emphasis on 'doing things together'. I don't mind the young-people-having-adventure stuff, but the 'hearty family-and-friends thing' is so not me. It makes me cringe. I just want my quiet pitch, and good showers to use, and that's all. I'm not there to meet new friends, although it does often happen that I get chatting - and enjoy it. But sitting around gulping wine and messing about? No thanks.

Right, let's now turn to The Caravan Club's rag:

Well, I think the editors of the National Trust magazine have had a hand here! Well-behaved kids (not kidz), articles on historic Bath, the Royal Windsor Horse Show, a towcar review long on text to read, and a report on a Cumbrian charity event organised by a local Club centre (with men in dinner jackets). Rather more highbrow, dare I say? More middle class? It's stuff that isn't aimed at the activity junkies in the Other Camp, and might not appeal to them. That guff about horse shows doesn't ring my bell either. But even so, the style, the underlying approach, speaks to something in my DNA that I can get along with just fine. The tone is much more take-it-or-leave-it. So much more acceptable if you are independent, have your own agenda, and don't need to be amused.

So I'm thinking of axing my almost-redundant membership of The Camping & Caravanning Club. That £42 annual subscription, valid till next February, could have paid for at least three nights caravanning this summer. Tsk. Of course, if I leave, I won't be able to use any of their Club Sites or CSs. But, apart from one rather nice CS, I don't anyway. Would I regret excluding myself from that one CS, a nice farm up on the downs near Salisbury? I'll try not to use it, and see if I do miss it.

I realise that I've laid myself wide open to an unflattering accusation. That a perfectly excellent club isn't 'good enough' for me. Hmm. I'd prefer to say that, first and foremost, it's not useful enough to me, and that the annual subscription to it could be better spent. Otherwise, yes, I'm a misfit where that club is concerned.

But hey, I've been a misfit all my life. What's new?