Friday, 25 September 2015

Two meetings with strangers

Earlier this week I had an experience in Sidmouth that brought to mind another incident long ago. The Sidmouth experience was benign and pleasant, I hasten to say, but the other was not. Let's begin with last Tuesday's happening.

It was a lovely late-September day. Sidmouth is the perfect place really: a wonderfully mild microclimate; an attractive sea front, with some inviting-looking hotels and no tat; distinctive red cliffs at either end of the seafront, with a cliffy bit halfway along, topped by lovely gardens; Regency buildings everywhere; remarkably upmarket shops of all kinds; plenty of places to enjoy a civilised tea or coffee, or to eat and drink; a much-used Parish Church; a Waitrose; and frequent buses to Exeter. There's nothing to dislike, unless you are riff-raff, or some kind of low life, when you will feel uncomfortable and out of place, and move on to Seaton or Exmouth. Sidmouth is for adequately-incomed lovers of neatness, tidiness, and immaculate lawns. It's much nicer than sprawling, impersonal Bournemouth. It's small and intimate, with much going on all the year round to interest those with a leaning towards history, art, and the finer things in life. It is saved from total fantasy by the odd corner of decrepitude, where rust or rotten gables or peeling paint remind you that this is a town that (for the genteel, and especially persons in delicate health) was supremely fashionable in 1825 - a seaside alternative to Cheltenham, much beloved of retired colonels and their wives - but has been fading ever since.

I'd just examined the Church, and was now sitting on a bench outside the Museum. An older lady asked if she could join me. She was smartly dressed in black - suede boots, tweed skirt, and a high-necked jacket buttoned up to keep out the slight breeze. She asked if she could smoke, and when I assented, we fell into conversation. I noticed they were cigarettes in a bright blue pack that I didn't usually see anyone smoke. Were they expensive? Oh no; in fact only £8 for twenty. (£8! And that was reckoned 'cheap'! I was well out of touch with the strange world of regular smokers) We discussed life in Sidmouth, her circumstances, mine. She said her name was Fiona - she was from Orkney, the island of Rousay, but now living in Sidmouth to be near her son. I said I was Lucy, from Sussex, where I had ended up in my retirement. We got on quite well. It was, thus far, an easy conversation. After a little while, she said she felt cold, and she asked me if I would like to come back to her nearby flat to continue our talking.

Well, I hesitated. If the invitation included a cup of tea, which I badly wanted, then why not? Why not, anyway? It seemed rude to refuse. What could happen to me? She was an educated, much-travelled, interesting older woman. I wasn't being lured into a man's den. All this took a second or two to think. Then I accepted.

The first-floor flat was in an old Regency building, and in every way nicely-maintained and elegant. We sat on comfortable, relaxing sofas in a sunny, beautifully-proportioned room with a view towards the sea. It was quiet. I saw a modern kitchen. Did she cook? No, she always ate out. The mantelpiece was full of 75th birthday cards, and I saw big boxes that had obviously contained the orchids in pots now on display. Presents, presumably. No tea was offered. Never mind. We carried on talking. She seemed in pretty good shape for seventy-five. She spoke about long-distance sailing holidays in the recent past, taking her half-way around the world, and her having a turn at the wheel in the Southern Ocean and the Pacific. It made my caravan trips seem very small beer. Even so, she seemed impressed that I caravanned alone, coping with every aspect. Always alone? What about my husband? This led on to some natural questions about my personal history. And not unnaturally I began to find this awkward, being unwilling to speak casually about my marriage to W---, and the subsequent years with M---. You see, I did not want to say anything inconsistent or only half-true to this lady, and certainly not fib to her. I respected her very much. Besides, she was no fool, and her shrewdness would detect anything that did not sound right, or at least not quite the full story. I'd best go as soon as possible. I'd already had an hour with her - could I decently depart?

I decided that I could, and I did. I managed it with grace and regret, with many thanks for her company, and I kissed her cheek. I'm sure she was disappointed that I hadn't stayed for longer. My intuition told me I had committed a mild faux pas, and possibly was snubbing her, not staying for at least two hours. For this lady had told me that she did not make friends easily. But I thought it best. I could not have gone much further without burdening her with some essential personal facts. I felt she would shrug and think nothing of it. On the other hand, she might not. No, it was best to go, and ponder ways of explaining my relationships more clearly in casual encounters to come.

But the hour with Fiona reminded me of that other occasion in 1976, when I was twenty-four, thirty-nine years ago. It was in Pinner, in North London, while I was attending a training course. It began in a pub that a colleague called Dave Koerner - a jovial Somerset man with an earthy sense of humour, someone I took to at once - had recommended if I wanted a drink and a good meal in the evening. He now worked in Southampton, but had lived in Pinner, and got to know the place well. He called it the 'Six and a half Men' because it was then named The Thirteen Balls, or very similar. Apparently all the regulars called it that. Today I searched for 'Pinner pubs' on Google Maps and found The Oddfellows Arms. I wondered whether this was the same pub, but renamed at some point to keep the old nickname vaguely in mind.

Anyway, one evening I got into my car and drove from the Spiders Web Motel on the A41 south-east of Watford - where I was staying - to Pinner, and found this pub. I was looking to eat, but even so a bit diffident about entering an unfamiliar pub. But Dave had assured me that they were friendly in there. I'd be all right on my own. Well, it was all right. As to friendliness, a couple in their early forties on the next table began talking with me. It was very welcome, having company like this. He was bearded, and did most of the talking. She was quieter, though very attentive all the same. After a couple of drinks, they asked me whether I'd like to join them for coffee at their house close by. I saw no snags, and accepted. The house really was nearby. I left my car where it was.

Indoors, it seemed OK at first. We had more chat, although by now I was starting to run out of things to say. I was too young to have done much. I had one relationship behind me, and that was really all so far. The husband said he'd get the coffee going in the kitchen, and disappeared. I was left alone with his wife, as it happens sitting next to her, where I had been placed on arrival. Within touching distance. Conversation with the lady flagged. She seemed to have lapsed into a trance. I began to wish that her husband would return. What was he doing? It was oddly quiet in the direction of their kitchen. Meanwhile, the lady stared forward with languid eyes and slightly parted lips, her body upright but submissive, as if she expected her clothing to be undone and her body caressed. Was she expecting me to do just that? I felt terribly awkward and embarrassed. Was this what sophisticated adults got up to in London suburbs? Was her husband waiting to see whether I was the right sort for a threesome in bed? Sex and the City, Seventies style.

What should I do? I felt like running away, but the conventions applying to invited guests kept me fixed in my seat.

At last the husband reappeared, and the spell was broken. We had coffee. I felt most definitely that I had been put to some test, to see whether I was alive to sexual temptation. For whose satisfaction wasn't clear. I hadn't responded. But they hadn't finished with me. They pressed their address and phone number on me. I supplied mine. I couldn't resist, but I was still living at home with Mum and Dad, and immediately saw that I'd have to tell them something about all this. They wanted me to get in touch the next time I was up - the following week - and we could meet up again. Yes, yes, of course. I was willing to say anything to get away.

I never saw them again. Once back home, I told Mum and Dad that I'd bumped into a couple in a pub, who had seemed fine at first, but strange later, and to escape I'd given them our home address and phone number. I said nothing about the wierd trance scene, and what I sensed was behind it - it was quite impossible to discuss sex with my parents. I think they got the impression that my 'captors' had dishonest plans for me, to do with money. I must break with them at once. I must tell them - phone them, and say that there would be no future meet-ups. There was no resisting this. I felt desperately awkward doing it, but I dialled their number and explained to the husband that my training centre visits had ceased, and I wouldn't be coming their way again. He sounded infinitely regretful. He said his wife had so looked forward to seeing me again. I squirmed at my lies. I felt exhausted after putting the phone down. I had obeyed my parents, but obedience entailed telling untruths. Yes, I was out of danger, the lies had got me out of a situation, but my personal integrity felt badly compromised.

Of course I got over it, really quite quickly. But there were two lasting effects. One was that all fibbing suddenly became much easier, not just fibbing to conceal things about myself, but fibbing to get out of unwelcome situations. The other was to erect a fence between myself and any offers from strangers. It may be that a little bit of my hesitation with Fiona at Sidmouth can be traced to that couple at Pinner.

And I have never returned to the Six and a half Men. But maybe I should make a point of it. Just to see what happens.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Sex and the City: Kim Cattrall speaks on getting older, men, and being childless

Last week, from Monday to Friday, the normal presenters of BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour stepped aside and five notable women of contrasting age, background and experience had a go instead. One of these (on Monday 14th September) was Kim Cattrall, a former star of Sex and the City during its six-year run on TV up to 2004. I paid special attention to the programme she presented, as she was going to say something about her attitude to being nearly sixty, but childless and on her own.

I must say at once that I was never a regular watcher of Sex and the City, and in fact only caught one or two accidental glimpses of it, at very long intervals. M--- didn't watch it. It generally clashed with something else, anyway. And in any case, we weren't living the big city life. Neither of us had ever done much dating, nor presently needed to. And sex wasn't a ruling feature of our lives, or at least not mine.

I think the programme was mostly about confident women in command of their own lives, and calling the shots where men were concerned - sex included. At the time, I needed no such freedom or control. M--- and I were getting on well, and our joint lifestyle seemed destined to continue in its mostly-happy course for the indefinite future. My unexpected early retirement, and its eventual consequences, was around the corner: but we did not know it. I can't speak for M---, but I felt content and very fortunate to have such a like-minded companion. Looking back, I can now discern several signs of disharmony and potential discord, ignored or brushed aside at the time; but all of it could have been accommodated within a tolerant relationship, had it lasted. It just goes to show how easily things can fall apart, when relationships are suddenly put under great pressure. My 'lucky' retirement opened up a wonderful life of leisure - but also time for self-examination and a revolution in self-perception. M---'s overmastering dream of a lovely house in the country, a natural and seemingly-feasible ambition surely, led to a disastrous property investment and a financial crisis that tore us apart.

Anyway, Kim Cattrall had been half a dozen years without sharing her day-to-day life with a man, and had no children of her own. She was also now fifty-nine, and even if looking good, had two-thirds of her life behind her. How to face what remained? What indeed was really left to look forward to? What was the most satisfying way forward, as she saw it? There were clear parallels with my own life. I was only four years ahead of her. It concerned me to know.

If you can, listen to her on the BBC Radio iPlayer. But this is what I took away for myself.

On age. It was a big so what. She didn't feel essentially different from ten years ago, and decrepitude seemed very far off. Professionally, however, her age now mattered - only 'grandmother' or 'grand dame' parts were going to be offered to her, wicked or otherwise. If these did not appeal, then her in-front-of-the-cameras acting career was over. But she could still tutor and guide a new generation of actresses.

On men. She had got used to having her own space, spreading herself across the full width of the bed in reality and metaphorically. And she enjoyed it. She felt free. Friends had filled the relationship gap.

On being childless. Yes, she'd been accused of avoiding her real destiny as a baby-producer, and therefore of not being a mother, not being a full woman. But she rejected that. A woman did not have to undergo childbirth to prove her womanhood, and she was not diminished if she did not get pregnant, or for any reason could not. Nor did you need to have your own children to be a mother. She considered her work with young students, guiding them, nurturing their acting talents, being a role-model to them, had strong elements of mothering in it. In some cases a bond that was half-professional, half-personal, as is commonly the way with those who teach and inspire.

You can see that all this got me nodding in agreement! It seemed to support the very thinking that underpinned my own life at sixty-three. So at least one other woman felt as I did, that the game wasn't over, that I could play it to my own rules and not according to someone else's notions of what was proper, that I didn't need a close companion to validate my right to do what I wanted, that I had importance and a purpose, and most definitely could affect the lives of others for the better, if I so chose.

Well, I do so choose.

Monday, 21 September 2015


I readily admit that I take many selfies - photographs of myself, taken by myself, which I may publish for people to see.

But my motivation is often a serious one. Like many a person emerging from a long period of submergence, selfies play an important role in showing, over time, how that person is re-asserting themselves, and developing from a state that was not good to a state that clearly is. The growth in self-confidence is clear and highly reassuring. The very place where the selfie has been taken - in a crowded place, say, where many people might watch and comment; or next to someone well-known, a TV personality or politician; or literally next to a cliff edge - speaks of a new willingness to put oneself forward, take risks, cope with rebuffs and refusals, and generally get out there and live more daringly. There are also physical changes: a happier face; a less hunched-up posture; a smile that invites approach; eyes that are bluer, franker, much less wary, and no longer expecting criticism - all the little indications that a person has cast off their chains and is stepping out.

Prior to six or seven years ago there were photos of myself, but they were only occasional, almost accidental. And I would hand the camera to someone else for the shot - so these were not 'selfies', but another person's view of me. And sometimes not especially well-composed. I wouldn't have minded - then. They were simply incidental.

And I remember much further back, to when I was young, in my teens say, when I felt ashamed of my introversion and awkwardness, and my unexciting appearance. In those days, I certainly cut a poor figure next to other kids. On hot beaches I would be over-dressed, anxious to cover myself up. Anxious to conceal thin arms, bad hair and acne, if nothing worse! And yet, surprisingly, there are more pictures of me as a young person than I'd thought. And I know this because I am gradually scanning the 2,500 transparencies that remain from the 5,000-odd taken between 1965 and 1989, my pre-print era. I am discovering shots I had forgotten. Mostly scenes from family holidays in Cornwall. My goodness, what a slim creature I was! And yet gawky, uncomfortable, horribly and embarrassingly self-conscious. But how fascinating now. That was me.

And yet a me as remote as Pluto. Apart from the nose, and something about the mouth and eyes, what has endured in my appearance? Very, very little. This might be another family member, another sibling, another person entirely. And the so-so capabilities of the cameras then used have masked the detail somewhat. It's so different from the see-every-pore-in-the-skin rendition that modern cameras can give you.

Fifty years ago, nobody attempted hand-held selfies. There were reasons. First, camera ownership was very far from universal. Second, most of those who did own a camera were strictly casual users, content with simple cameras incapable of close-up focussing, and in any case with no idea of the best technique to employ. Third, print film costs were high, and few could afford to 'waste' shots on self-portraits - if taken at all, they would be accomplished in carefully set up conditions, probably indoors, using the contrivances of a studio. Portraiture was still the preserve of the professional or advanced amateur, and not a DIY activity.

Fourth, the act of taking a selfie in the modern manner would have been frowned upon as a crass thing to do, obnoxiously narcissistic, to many an example of offensive behaviour. So I would attract enormous attention if - transported back to 1965 - I took a selfie on a beach, or in any crowded city shopping street. At best it would be regarded as a stunt. At worst, a policeman or council official or officious member of the public would intervene, and have something to say. (I suppose I would quickly attract attention anyway, a woman in 2015 clothing with a 2015 demeanour, using 2015 gadgets - but that's a fantasy subject for another post!)

Social acceptance of selfies is very recent. People would have stared and frowned in 1975, 1985 and 1995 just the same. It's only in the digital camera age, and especially in the smartphone age, that selfies have become the usual thing to do, at least among the young of heart. As recently as June 2013 I was challenged by a blazered old gentleman and his wife for taking a selfie at the South of England Show, as reported in my post South of England Show 1 - Setting the scene on 9th June 2013.

But now it's OK. And so, like many other people, I feel uninhibited about pointing a picture-taking device at myself and recording not just another adventurous situation, but establishing the vital fact that I managed to reach this amazing place, that the notable effort was made. Selfies serve to show that the picture-taker gets around, goes boldly, has fun, and has - beyond dispute - been there and done it.

I was listening to a BBC Radio 4 programme recently about selfies. It was asking why selfies get taken, and what their purposes - social and personal - might be. Among several possibilities was the wish to 'prove' to anyone who saw the picture that the selfie-taker had been to Place X - any named or geotagged exotic location. (Ah, my own homemade conclusion above had some support!) Mind you, the programme went on to mention that there were websites from which you could download specially-taken, constantly-updated background shots of the holiday location of your dreams, into which (with an app) you could seamlessly superimpose your selfies - and then post them to the world at large. In that way, you could claim you'd been somewhere you hadn't. Hmmm. I dare say it's now possible to concoct a convincing picture that shows you taking a selfie while a herd of wildebeest stampedes around you on the Serengeti, or as a Javan volcano erupts behind. Or in the Oval Office, or at the top of Mount Everest, or on the Moon, or about to be swallowed by a Black Hole.

The programme made a big thing about how selfies are used in social media. How, for some people, the daily selfie (real or fake) is used to make out that their lives are interesting and fulfilling, or just that they are alive and functioning, leading them into a desperate cycle of empty and narcissistic picture-taking for its own sake. How, indeed, the original Greek tale of Narcissus ended with his complete physical disappearance - no dead body to be found, only a flower left behind. A warning of how inward-looking self-love offers nothing to others, achieves nothing, and builds no lasting monuments.

Am I similarly guilty? I upload many selfies to Flickr, but they do tell a true tale of a trek to some place worth seeing in a photographic sense. And I insert many selfies into my blog posts, but they support the text, and are not mere pin-ups. And you do get to see my wrinkles and blemishes. I think it's essential for the credibility of my blog that I show many contemporary pictures of myself, just as I really am, with no flaw photoshopped away. So that, if we ever meet, you will say, 'You are exactly like your pictures. And exactly the sort of person I thought you would be.'

And I want my selfies to say something else. Not 'It's me, me, me! And I'm gorgeous!' But 'Look, life at sixty-three is brilliant: and you can have all of this too. Take heart, be encouraged, and don't give up.'

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

I thought you were going to move down here?

That's a question I may well get asked when I reach North Devon.

This time last year I was having such a good time there, and felt so at home there, and had garnered such a number of local friends there, that the notion of leaving Sussex and establishing a fresh life in North Devon seemed very attractive.

I went so far as to work out how to arrange the actual move - selling my Sussex bungalow in the spring without more than a quick tart-up and declutter; banking the cash; putting whatever furniture and surplus possessions I'd not already discarded into store at a handy place in mid-Devon owned by the removers recommended to me; and then looking for a suitable bungalow in my target areas at my leisure, while I lived a summer existence in the caravan on the farm at Great Torrington I always went to. And if matters extended on into the autumn, then renting a centrally-heated cottage at the same farm, on a special deal from month to month until the new home was in the bag.

The caravan would still be my holiday accommodation, as well as my temporary home, and when not viewing likely bungalows, and making offers, and getting the purchase under way - and of course having a great time throughout with my local friends and acquaintances - I'd be off on caravan tours, just as I did from Sussex. But every time I'd now return to the glorious West Country, and not to a county squeezed in between dusty London and the sea.

And Devon was where Dad had been born, and his childhood home, and there were Dommetts galore in the churchyards there. (It's 'Lucy Dommett', not 'Melford', on my birth certificate). So I felt a spiritual affinity with the place, and a strong family connection with it. Some of my DNA had its origin there: it was blood calling to blood. No wonder I found the notion of moving to Devon enthralling.

But I do not have rose-tinted vision, and I am trained by nature and my former career to take a hard look at all propositions, especially in the light of some ill-judged mistakes I've made from time to time, all of which were impulsive, or the result of people persuading me against my own gut feeling, instinct, or personal preference.

Moving might be another such mistake. I could of course make it work - I'd plan it meticulously, and it would proceed in smooth steps, all snags and delays taken in my stride or worked around. I had no doubt whatever about that. But would it really be the best thing I could do? What ought to matter to me, a single woman in my early sixties?

The age I'd reached was important. My life wouldn't last forever. Health facilities - their quality and my closeness to them - would come to matter enormously. I wasn't convinced that the health provision in North Devon was good enough. If I ever developed a chronic condition, then being an out-patient at distant Exeter or Plymouth did not appeal. It was too long a drive if feeling ill, the Barnstaple-Exeter railway line wasn't up to Brighton-London standards, and I wouldn't want to mess up someone's entire day by asking them for a lift there and back. None of this applied in Sussex, where health facilities were thick on the ground.

There was the prospect of gaining financially, of course, or at least of swapping my little bungalow in an inland Sussex community for better one with a sea view - and with money left over. That was alluring, living in higher style conveniently close to a sunny beach, and still ending up with a nice wad of cash at the bank! But house prices in the nicer parts of the South-West were now at Sussex levels, and although it would be perfectly possible to buy what I presently had in North Devon, I could only afford a like-for-like exchange. There wouldn't be a nice nest egg left over.

Socially I had no fears. I still felt young enough to move my world to a different place and relaunch it. I was very good at making new friends. I was very good at pro-actively seeking out interesting things to see and do. The blogging and photography would carry on as before, and might intensify. I certainly wouldn't be at a loose end, with nothing to do. Nor was I afraid of long-distance car travel: I relished it. Really I would regard the whole of the South West as my back yard. And I'd be nearer South Wales and my relatives there.

But what about friends and family left behind in Sussex and Kent and London? It was perfectly feasible to see everyone by making a circuit, with car and caravan, every two months or so. Indeed, I'd probably get to see my niece and nephew oftener than now. But this plan would gobble up money, and restrict the time and funding for other things. How long before I reduced the number of visits? And I might not do it at all in my dotage. One thing was certain: nobody was going to trek westwards to North Devon, just to see me for a few hours. No, moving would mean saying goodbye to a lot of people, and social continuity would be lost. I'd miss them.

And I was touched when friends and family in the South-East heard about my plan to move. Everyone thought it a bad idea. Everyone said they would miss me. One or two had wet eyes at the thought. I couldn't ignore that wall of protest.

The rest was a neutral balance of pros and cons. North Devon had great beaches, magnificent coastal scenery, and attractive little towns full of pleasant little shops and pubs. It was a paradise for photographers. Artists and artisans of all kinds were everywhere, and there was no dearth of galleries. But it was short on cultural events, major museums, high-class shopping, high-class dining, and out-of-season activities generally. There was no Brighton in North Devon.

Nor did it have the distinctly mild and sunny climate of Sussex. It was all too often wet and windy. All this meant slopping around in poor-weather outfits for much of the year, and, pub gigs apart, nowhere very special to go to or see. Did I really want to look like a waterproofed Exmoor rambler in the winter? Or a tatty beachcomber in the summer? And for a big night out, confine myself to a select few pubs or restaurants visited so often they had become boring?

So hard reflection, sober reality, and the protests of friends have all stopped me taking any further steps to move. And it's easy to be firm about that, snug in my little bungalow here in Sussex, with a diary decently full of pleasant social happenings, and my life well-ordered and under control.

But will I hold fast when my North Devon friends show me their luxury apartments and cottages once again, and tell me about their own fulfilling lives? Will the Book Festival buzz and those North Devon candlelit dinners seduce me afresh? Will the cliffs and beaches and the smell of the fresh air, and the flood of nostalgia for childhood holidays long ago, get the better of me?

I don't think I'll fall in love again with the notion of uprooting myself, but I must be on my guard!

Saturday, 12 September 2015


Above is a sunset at Ferring, an upmarket coastal community to the west of Worthing in West Sussex. I took that picture in January 2003, with my first digital camera, a Nikon Coolpix 990. I'm afraid that when processing the shot twelve years ago, I messed about with it too much, attempting (rather unskilfully) to make the sunset look prettier. Shortly before, I'd taken this shot, which better shows how the sunset really was:

However, that topmost shot has remained a favourite. I like it because of the way the people in the picture have clustered around a notice board, suggesting the silhouette of a film crew with a big film camera, who had turned up to shoot the sun going down. A close-up shows what I mean:

Dramatic sunsets are not rare along this part of the West Sussex coast, which is typically low-lying and open, and backed by large, expensive houses with well-mown back gardens that stretch down towards the shingle shore. They do not actually touch it, because there is a public footpath separating every back garden from the shingle. At high tide, the sea wets the shingle. At low tide, sand is revealed. Groynes keep the shingle in place - it's not only a habitat for salt-tolerant beach plants, but a vital protective barrier against the sea.

Mind you, even a modest tsunami would sweep over the shingle and smash into the houses. The residents will probably be OK for a some time to come, but the long-term outlook, involving rising sea levels and stormier weather, is not good. And should the western half of La Palma in the Canaries slide into the Atlantic, the big wave that would race up the English Channel would probably inflict serious or irreparable damage on most of those posh houses.

My own home is inland, tucked in behind the South Downs, and there's a sporting chance that I'll be beyond the reach of even a fair-sized tsunami. Unless, of course, I'm down at Ferring, admiring the sunset! Be assured that if I see the sea receding much more than normal - a sure sign that a tsunami is approaching - I'm running back to Fiona and getting the hell out of there as fast as I can.

But meanwhile sunny places like Ferring - and it really is sun-drenched - are there to be enjoyed. I like to park next to the greensward at the eastern end of the place, and stroll westwards along the path I mentioned above, which separates the shingle from the back gardens. The road next to the greensward is a very popular place to park. Note all the motorcaravans. (From this point, the pictures are from 2015 - from two days ago in fact)

The long back gardens are mostly immaculate, and speak of real money.

The houses are a mixture of old (Edwardian, anyway) and modern. The most modern have spacious first-floor sun terraces to take advantage of the sea view. You can peer at them to your heart's content from the public path. None hide their glories. I rather think that's deliberate: let the hoi polloi walking by gaze in envy, while we, the well-off residents, sip our cocktails and get a lovely tan!

Good luck to them. We, the path-strollers, have our own pleasant destination in mind. But we pass a line of beach huts first. Some of these are very smart, some a little ramshackle. They mostly have names.

Several were opened up when I was there, revealing well-equipped interiors, perfect for a beach picnic, or for just sitting around in the sunshine and making a cup of tea now and then. I congratulated every owner I spoke with.

The natural destination is however the Bluebird Café, lately modernised inside to make it even more pleasant than before - although just as many people sit outside. The Café has been there for a very long time. It was certainly there when I first discovered Ferring in 1991. It's as close to the beach as you can get.

It was a pretty low tide on the day: hence all that sand. I had tea and a slice of coconut cake...

...then descended onto the beach for my walk back to Fiona. I was wearing the Skecher GoWalk shoes I bought three months ago in Scotland. They'd been very good at Waggoners Wells and the Devil's Punch Bowl. They were also excellent for shoreline walking, whether on sand, rocks or seaweed: 

I expect I'll practically live in them in Devon. Holiday departure time is now just a few days away!

Cry baby

After pilates today it was Maddy's turn to treat the rest of us (Jo, Sue, Valerie and myself) to lunch at her home. And she prepared a delicious meal, washed down - of course - by plenty of white wine and soda water! Meanwhile Maddy's husband was repairing a garage door outside, and her two grown-up sons, who run a business together, dropped by to fix something else. The three men did not however intrude on us.

Of course we were all talking merrily around the table, and I chatted quite a bit with Valerie, who was sitting next to me. She is about ten years older, although she doesn't look it. Afterwards Valerie and I found ourselves looking at some baby pictures on a table at the front end of the house. The baby must have been Maddy's daughter's. They were very good pictures, and they caught my attention.

Valerie noticed my interest, and - understanding by now that I was childless - asked me whether I regretted never having any children of my own. It was a natural question to ask, and I felt no surprise at her asking it, but I was quite unprepared for the emotion that came over me. 'Yes,' I replied, but could not say more. She gave me a look, and saw that I was actually getting wet eyes. 'Let's join the others in the kitchen,' I said, needing a distracting moment or two to get myself in hand again. But in the kitchen Maddy immediately noticed that I was not my usual bubbly self. 'I'm sorry,' I said, drying my eyes, 'I'm really all right...' Well, they all clustered around, and gave me hugs, and my sad moment very quickly passed. Nobody referred to it again that afternoon, but I apologised later to Maddy for letting this happen. She insisted that one person's wobbly moment is everyone's wobbly moment, and that is what friends do for each other.

I couldn't agree more.

Strange that I had that moment of pain, though. Genuinely, I have never at any point in my life wanted a family. And I've considered myself completely immune to baby photos - meaning that I could admire them, but they were not going to make me see myself as a thwarted mother. Perhaps Valerie's simple question awakened something.

I wonder what else lies dormant within, and may emerge as these new friendships of mine develop?

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Soft focus

This post about about something my new camera can do that has produced an intriguing result.

The Panasonic LX100 is a serious camera, intended for experienced photographers, but Panasonic have still included two buttons that make it simple for casual users to get either easy shots, or to amuse themselves with ready-made creative effects. So there's a button that will plunge the camera into completely-automatic mode, where literally all you have to do is switch it on and press the shutter button. That's of no interest to me. The other button presents you with twenty-two special-effect 'filters', to make your shots look 'different'.

That filter button is easy to dismiss as a sop to beginners, and not much more than a gimmick. And I hadn't given it any priority in my first ten days of ownership - I was much more concerned to get up to speed on how the more essential controls worked, and whether I liked their out-of-factory settings. But in the last couple of days I've been investigating that filter button more closely.

Pressing the filter button is the way to get the camera to take black-and-white photos, and you get several B&W options, including straight no-nonsense monochrome, dramatic high-contrast monochrome, grainy atmospheric monochrome, and all-monochrome-except-for-one-colour, a colour you can choose from the scene in front of you. Such as the blue of my pilates mat in this indoor shot:

I can't see many applications for this kind of picture, but it might be a way of locating something in a chaotically untidy scene, if that something has a definite single colour. Say a pill you dropped onto the floor, or worse, onto a thick pile carpet. You'd just set up the colour of another pill, then shoot the scene and carefully examine the result at sufficient magnification.

There are all kinds of special-effects filters for regular colour shots too, and not just bog-standard Sepia renditions. Not the kind of effects I'd personally use on-camera. I'd prefer to create them on the laptop afterwards using Curves, and applying my own 'artistic' notions, instead of adopting something already worked out for me.

But there is also a soft focus filter. Ah! Now that can be genuinely useful, for softening hard edges, and concealing or disguising blemishes in portraiture. It can easily create an artificial 'dreamy mood', which might be appropriate for certain shots, though it's an effect very easily overused.

There used to be (speaking now of interchangeable lenses for film SLRs) such a thing as soft-focus lenses, in which the softening effect could be controlled, and in professional hands could be made as subtle as desired. My new camera was doing it with software, and I'd get just the one sort of softening on offer. All the same, worth investigation!

Here are the results from my afternoon walks at Waggoners Wells and the Devil's Punch Bowl. First, the unfiltered me, all stark and jagged:

Next, a shot using the on-camera soft-focus filter, in strong sunshine:

Hmm! Quite a pronounced softening effect - but I still look recognisable, even though the many skin blemishes have largely disappeared. I like what it has done for my hair. I particularly like the 'painted' appearance of the trees in the background, which would have been nicely out of focus anyway, with a good bokeh, but now seem somewhat improved. This is a shot to place on a dating website. It flatters in an acceptable way, and is not a complete lie.

But this next shot is a gross lie! This time I was in shade, with the light flat and even:

Oh dear! Who is this elfin creature? If you click on the shot and have a good look at it, you can see it really is me, but as I might have been twenty-five years ago. I was never so pretty, and certainly am not now. It's a thoroughly dishonest picture.

However, although it's too seductively dreamy and flattering to be true, I still like the shot as a 'might have been' kind of picture. And as a quick way of assessing the effect of professionally-applied make-up - which I'm assuming would attempt to create such a look. So if I had bought a fantastic wedding-guest outfit, and was trying it on, and wanted to see how I'd look with my face changed from jagged to smooth, then a soft-focus selfie would give me a useful preview.

This picture is really rather fascinating, isn't it? And perfectly OK, provided you keep a very firm grip on reality and don't start believing that soft-focus is a legitimate technique for all occasions, and that the results are true to life! 

I may however offer to take a picture like this of all my friends, and email them a copy to keep, and take encouragement from. 

Tuesday, 8 September 2015


Before I went to the Devil's Punch Bowl (featured in my last post) I visited Waggoners Wells, another beauty spot not far away. This is a deep valley that contains a series of 'hammer ponds', the result of damming a stream to form a number of lakes strung in a line, each a little lower than the one above. The water would drive mills and (in old Sussex at least) provide motive power for hammers, beating iron from the primitive furnaces into ingots. In the eighteenth century and before, the Wealden counties noisily mined and smelted the local iron ore, for use locally by blacksmiths for various agricultural purposes, though some iron would have been sent to the shipbuilding centres on the coast if suitable means were available, such as a navigable river or (later on) a canal. The muddy, rutted roads would have been useless for such movement.

All is very peaceful at Waggoners Wells today. I first found out about this place in 1978, when a girl I got to know called Sarah took me walking there. After 1980, I often went there with my Mum and Dad - on a Sunday, say. And once I'd met W---, we'd visit the spot with step-daughter A---, who was then a tree-climbing youngster. Here's A--- in 1982, aged eleven, draped exhausted over a bough next to one of the hammer ponds at the Wells:

And later that same day, in the back of Dad's car, looking into my lens:

A--- had an affinity for water. She was an excellent swimmer, and I don't know how many hours I spent taking her to the swimming baths in Wimbledon so that she could practice her thirty lengths, or whatever the current goal was. She loved getting wet at every opportunity - any bit of water would do. Here she is in 1983, sitting in a stream at a ford on Frensham Common, just a few miles away from Waggoners Wells:

And taking the plunge in a pond at Aldermaston in Berkshire, on a hot day out only two weeks later:

Happy days! They felt like a long carefree summer that could never end. But of course they did. Nothing is forever. Children grow up, and take their lives off in directions you can't follow. And adults get sadder, dragged down by back luck, bad choices, and their own weaknesses. Not many survive with hope in their hearts, a cheerful smile on their face, and ambitions still within reach.

Waggoners Wells seemed unchanged when I saw it again two days ago:

Still waters. But with life within. Big grey fish swam lazily. Mallard ducks paddled around, and preened themselves. I was fascinated by the ripples they made in the water, which the new Panasonic LX100 captured rather well:

A stone came into view, commemorating the purchase in 1919 of the Wells and surrounding countryside for the nation by the then quite-new National Trust, with money donated in the will of Sir Robert Hunter, a founding member of the Trust.

And then something else, that just for a second gave me a shock.

Things catch my photographer's eye all the time, and sometimes a picture will emerge as you walk along. Well, I was walking past a nearby tree stump, rotted and hollow, but like a million others. And then it took on a human-like shape, like a woodland demon rearing up out of the ground, and ready to roar at me:

My goodness! It was startling! But only for an instant. Worth a shot, though.

It reminded me of another 'demon' up at Riseholm in Lincolnshire, in the grounds of the Agricultural College there. Riseholm - set in the countryside just north of Lincoln city - was once a country estate for the Bishop of Lincoln, and there is a fine house next to a lake - as seen in this old map, and this shot of mine from 2003:

I visited Riseholm several times in the late 1990s, and on into 2000. Although it did not involve promotion to the next grade up, nor any pay increase, I accepted the chance to become Deputy Officer In Charge of Sutton District in south London - in effect the District Inspector when the DI himself was absent or on holiday. Which meant covering for him (as 'the boss') for maybe two months of the year. It was a good deal. I got enhanced status with the Inland Revenue - the pinnacle of my career so to speak. I filled the role pretty well, too. At least, ably helped by Christine, the DI's secretary, and a host of other people, I fielded a lot of stuff that cropped up, signed for a few things, and made no dreadful blunders. No more was wanted.

And I had the chance to go on some essential senior management training at the Revenue's bespoke modern training centre at Riseholm. Named Lawress Hall, and opened only in 1993, it was a big, state-of-the-art training centre, essentially a very decent hotel with suites of training rooms, designed to give the people sent there a concentrated but enjoyable experience without outside distractions.

I went there again, sneakily and unofficially, with M--- in 2003, but not since. It's still in use in 2015, which is surprising - even a dozen years ago, in-house training venues were going out of fashion and being sold off, becoming regular hotels or apartments. But this one was always well-situated for Revenue people from all over the country to travel to. Still, I wonder if the sums still add up. The Revenue (now HMRC) may have saved zillions on older training facilities - which could now be discarded - and just as much on the ballooning cost of trainees' hotel accommodation. But that was offset by their often humongous travel costs.

Here are some 1996 shots of a model of Lawress Hall, the actual building from outside, and shots inside a training room, from a team-building week I attended. I was part of the newly-formed NDCIO - the fancifully-named North Downs Corporate Investigation Office. I had been head-hunted and persuaded to join. It was a huge mistake.

Below is a chart I made on my own initiative one morning, as a team exercise developed. Someone pointed out to me that I was wrong to do anything without prior discussion with the other members of the team, and full team approval. I pointed out that the thing was useful. But I'm sure this individualism (and determined insubordination) was deemed a crime, and noted for the future.

I had an unhappy time with the NDCIO. I put my foot in it from the start by not wanting to trek into London from Sussex at some shatteringly early hour, simply to travel up to Lincolnshire in the 'team car'. The chap in charge of the NDCIO was obsessed by his own brand of 'teamwork', and I was not minded to kow-tow and play his game. If you understand the NDCIO as a promotion-machine, in which you had to suck up to whoever mattered, say nothing about rather unconventional and doctrinaire (and, to me, inefficient) ways of working, and finally reap your reward, then you'll appreciate what I was up against. I kicked back at it all.

Within months, the man in charge and myself had fallen out big time. But I'd struck an agreement to detach myself. By then I was almost ill with high blood pressure. I was also the most unpopular person in Croydon. My well-known departure was seen throughout South London as a failure and setback for the NDCIO - a high-profile, flagship initiative, with myself cast in the role of sabateuse. Even though the people who had steered clear of joining would be thinking 'there but for the Grace of God I could have gone...' So I knew I had secret sympathy. But officially I was branded a maverick and a wrecker. I made the best of it.

And yet I'd stood my ground. I'd not surrendered.

And within four years I was, as I say, installed as Deputy OIC at Sutton - surely a strong sign of favour, of reinstatement, and of confidence in my fort-holding abilities. But the inevitable end-of-year 'failure to meet my performance agreement' cost me a jolly good pay increase for 1996/97 - and eventually lowered my pension by a few hundred pounds a year. Not good.

Well, it's just history now. Or is it a lurking demon, ready to rise again?

Back to that real demon at Riseholm. In the summer of 1996, students at the Agricultural College (also at Riseholm) constructed a frightening-looking 'demon' out of a tree stump in a small wood near the lake. It was made 'realistic' by having a grinning face, with mad eyes, pointed ears, and green leaves for hair; arms; and a thumping big hammer in its hand, raised to strike:

Not exactly a pleasant sight in daylight. In the dusk, pretty scary!

I saw it at its best. Within months, the ravages of wind and rain had tamed it, and two years later it was just a misshapen tree stump. A pity, for it was quite a creation. And in an odd sense, my only real friend during that uneasy team-building week. I'm glad I took a picture.

Monday, 7 September 2015


As everyone knows, I have embarked on a solitary mode of life for my last years. I'll play the end game alone. I do it unencumbered of course - almost no legacy people or issues from earlier times - and I see that as a crucial advantage. Nobody is going to get in the way of whatever I might want to do in the time ahead.

But on the other hand, I am horribly exposed. I have no safety nets. I have no close family to watch over my welfare. In particular, no children of my own.

No children... Although I feel relieved never to have experienced the pains of childbirth, and the hard work of bringing children up, and the heartbreak of seeing them wither and die (metaphorically or literally), I also feel that not having children has in some way put a limit on my wisdom - and certainly a limit on my understanding of what it is to be a human being. Yes...I feel that I've missed something very important. It's not a matter for aching regret, but I know I've missed experiences that I really ought to have had.

And consequently I've never become used to young children. And yet children are very important indeed. It's such a responsibility for an adult, to interact with children. The exchange must be of very high quality, be it ever so casual. Children see and hear and sense so much. Anything - everything - might have a lasting impact. A misplaced word, or gesture, or look, or attitude, could hurt a child, warp them. Therefore - speaking as an amateur where children are concerned - I contemplate meeting them with trepidation.

All that said, whenever an encounter is thrust upon me, I do cope quite well. But it still feels like passing some test. Well, I think I passed again yesterday.

The National Trust owns large tracts of beautiful heathland in the south-western corner of Surrey. It spills over into part of Hampshire. It's centred on the Devil's Punch Bowl, a deep valley gouged into high country - actually it was made by the gentle and gradual process of 'spring-sapping', and this is the biggest example of it in Britain.

I hadn't intended to go out yesterday - but the sun was shining brightly, I fancied a scenic walk, and I wanted to take Fiona out on a longish spin, so that I could study that mysterious humming noise in various driving conditions, pending assessment at the dealer's today. (Of which more in another post to come) So off we sped. Arriving around 1.00pm, I was very lucky to get parked: the Devil's Punch Bowl is a magnet for Londoners starved of fresh air. But I had no problem getting a modest (but yummy) tuna-and-mayo jacket potato lunch at the NT café there:

Thus fortified, I strolled out to tackle one of the marked walks, what seemed to be a straightforward three-to-four-miler. The air was pure. The sky was blue, of radiant hue. What a fabulous day for a bit of a hike! You could see across the valley, to where the noisy A3 road used to be. It's buried out of sight in a long dual-carriageway road tunnel now, leaving the valley peaceful.

There was lots of purple heather.

And Rowan trees too, aka Mountain Ash trees, with their clusters of bright orange berries.

Walking quite briskly, I overtook some people, and was overtaken by others. Eventually I caught up with a family - thirty-something parents, one of them pushing a buggy with a baby in it, and two young children - a girl and a boy. The person I took to be Daddy looked doubtful about which path the take next. I had a NT map I'd picked up from the café, and although I'd already found it less than clear, I stopped to consult with them. We were both looking for a turn-off that seemed to be close by, but as yet out of sight.

Map in hand, I walked slightly ahead, the children walking with me, all of us looking for the turn-off. The little girl explained that she was called Christine, and she was six; her younger brother was called Josh, and he was five. She told me about their baby sister. I said my name was Lucy. I asked about their parents. She told me her Mummy's name. Oh, what was her Daddy's name? 'He's not my Daddy,' she said firmly, and added, 'My Daddy's not with us. He lives in Portugal. That man is called David.'

A potential crisis! I sensed an unbreakable bond between this little girl and her real father, that she missed him dreadfully, and that she was going to insist on being his daughter and no-one else's, no matter what. On the other hand, I knew something about being a step-parent, even if it was hands-on for only six years, and over thirty years in the past. I could see with sympathy that David was never going to win this little girl over, and at best they would have to agree on a truce - and no pretence about his true status. She would never concede anything there.

Josh, on the other hand, seemed cool about the entire situation. And that was of course his decision. His elder sister could have her own views. I thought children of their age quite old enough to decide for themselves, just as I had been.

We'd walked ahead quite a bit. Glancing back, I said to Christine and Josh, 'We've left Mummy and David a long way behind. I really don't want to get out of sight of them.' To which Christine said, 'Oh, that's all right - we're with you!' Which absolutely socked me on the jaw. So: they saw me as a parent-substitute, a completely competent and resourceful adult, someone to be trusted. What a compliment! They had indeed read me right, but on the shortest of acquaintances; and I wondered what it was in a child's perception that enabled him or her to feel safe and comfortable with an unknown person. How did they know who would protect them, and not harm them? Because children can and do pick out such adults, and run to them instinctively.

I was still pondering this when the turn-off, a path leading downhill, suddenly appeared. We stopped, and waited for Mummy, David and the baby to catch up. Then we walked down towards a stream with a plank bridge across it. Soon afterwards, a house appeared.

It was set back from the path, and looked very mysterious. Christine wondered if it was called Gnome Cottage, as one of the houses on the route back passed a building of that name. I said no, we hadn't got as far as Gnome Cottage yet. But we still agreed that this house, set in its own meadow, was a fine home, although it was hard to see how you could reach it except by walking the rough track.

Just beyond the stream, the path headed uphill, and I received further education. Josh forged ahead, but Christine went more slowly, and told me a confidence: their dog (there was a dog) had splashed her with muddy water from the stream at the bottom of the valley. Some had gone on her legs and white dress. Did I think Mummy would be angry? I said the same thing had happened to me. The mud would soon dry in the sun, and then it could be rubbed off very easily. It wouldn't spoil the dress. Mummy wouldn't be angry at all. Then she said I looked like someone 'on an adventure'. 'Oh, do you really think so?' I replied. I was wearing a longish blue denim skirt, a flowery blue top, and I had my orange cross-body bag with me. I also had my black Skechers GoWalk walking shoes on. But no hat! I wondered if this 'adventuress' or 'explorer' look had been one reason why the two children had thought me so capable as a walking companion.

Then she said, 'Oh, what are those purple flowers?' It was a big clump of heather. 'It's called heather, ' I explained. Didn't you know?' 'No, I've never seen heather before,' she said, and ran back to Mummy and David to tell them about it. This argued of course that they were a family who lived in a London suburb, on a rare outing in the country.

Then another incident. The dog was excited, and behaving as if he had never seen heather either, scampering to and fro; drunk on all the strange scents, I suppose. A worried-looking man with a teenage son approached. He spoke to me. Could I kindly put the dog on a lead, because his son was very nervous about dogs. The son, possibly as old as nineteen, certainly looked jittery about the dog running here and there. I wondered if this was a father taking his special-needs son out for a walk? I said it wasn't actually my dog, but of course I'd get hold of him, and restrain him while they got by. A look of deep gratitude flooded the man's face. He really didn't want to explain why he had to make a fuss.

And do you know, the dog obediently came to me when I called, and I was able to put my fingers into his leather collar and hold him quietly. Me, who had never owned a dog and considered myself inept with them!

Mummy and David caught up. We consulted as to where we might be on the map. Josh saw a finger post that said 'Café one and three-quarters miles'. A long hot tramp yet, then. There was a seat close by. Mummy announced that they'd have a pit stop. So I left them at the seat, wishing them a nice walk back.

I thought about how this encounter with those two children had gone. Had I passed the test? I supposed so. I couldn't see any glaring fault in my demeanour, words spoken, or things done. It was surely a boost to my self-confidence. But I was certain that easy conversation with lively, confident children was entirely different from coping with a child who had problems. So I thought of that father, and admired him for showing that beautiful valley to his son, despite all the risks involved.