Sunday, 22 October 2017

The vices (and redeeming virtues) of digital photography

That's a photo I took in August 1990 in a Sussex churchyard, at Itchingfield, in the countryside south-west of Horsham. I was starting to experiment with black-and-white photography. It was taken with a 50mm f/1.8 lens on an Olympus OM-1 SLR camera. I was of course using film. This was no digital shot.

The camera doesn't matter. But the use of film does. It's a pretty ordinary shot really. I'm thinking that nowadays, twenty-seven years on, most people would think this rather a poor picture. No colour; it's not pin-sharp; and the 50mm focal length - once standard on cameras - doesn't lead to a dynamic composition with the kind of steep perspective we have all become accustomed to. Admittedly a churchyard shot ought to look serene, but the scene is decidedly lacking in excitement and pizzazz. Some might say it's boring.

And yet, look closer. (Tap or click on the shot to enlarge it) There is movement in the trees. There's blur there. It's not a painting, but the leaves on those trees have been rendered by film, lens and camera to look rather painterly. And although the brickwork detail of the traditional Sussex house isn't distinct, the house (and indeed everything in the shot) has been shown with a full range of subtle tones, beautifully so. It is in fact one of my nicest black-and-white pictures from that era. And remember, I was just experimenting with a roll or two of bog-standard Ilford film (FP4, I think), and in no way was then an expert with the medium. In fact I was new to SLR cameras, having previously used only fixed-lens compacts. It was a shot that made me believe that I should do more with my cameras, try out new things, and see what I might achieve.

For many, many years, possibly not once in the next twenty-seven years, I didn't go back to Itchingfield, even though it isn't very far away. But the other day I did. It wasn't the best of days - rather dull, with rain threatening much of the time. But I wanted to get out of doors. And besides, I'd found this churchyard shot in my archive, and had resolved to replicate it with the camera on Tigerlily, my Samsung Galaxy S8+ phone. Tigerlily's camera was one of the best of the 2017 phone cameras - meaning that, short of investing mega-money in an SLR with a top lens, or perhaps one of the more capable 'enthusiast' compact cameras, this was the best photo equipment you could have. That's quite a claim, but in terms of a carry-anywhere, always-with-you, flat and lightweight picture-taking device, a phone with a camera like this was unequalled. I took it for granted that even on a dull day Tigerlily would deliver a good picture of anything I chose to photograph, at least at short or medium distances. She ought to take a better picture of a churchyard scene - that churchyard scene - than had been possible in 1990.

I was very keen to see how digital stacked up against film!

I had the 1990 shot on my phone, and could refer to it, to get precisely into position. I wouldn't be able to use the same focal length, 50mm (or rather its digital equivalent). Meaning that I could digitally zoom in from Tigerlily's fixed 26mm-equivalent focal length to get to a '50mm' setting, but wasn't going to do that because it was only a magnification, with double-sized pixels spoiling the result and making a proper shot-comparison impossible. It had to be the 'film best-shot' versus the 'digital best-shot'. So I just used my legs to walk forwards and backwards to achieve the best match with the original shot. This is the result. I cropped away most of the sky afterwards, as the tall tree nearest the camera in the 1990 shot had gone, and there was no point showing blank sky.

And this, for comparison, is the 1990 shot.

I still think the 1990 film shot is - at least to my own eyes - the more attractive. It has captured 'atmosphere' in a way that the 2017 digital shot hasn't. Yes, the 1990 trees are blurry, but they are alive. The digitally-captured tree of 2017 is frozen.

If I were deciding which shot ought to be entered for a photo exhibition, I'd choose the 1990 shot.

This is not to deny the virtues of the 2017 shot. The digital rendition is very sharp. You can see so much detail, and so very clearly. Unnaturally so! The digital shot shows the scene 'how it is'. It's reliable evidence of what was there, leaving nothing to be imagined. Very often that's exactly what I want: not an impressionistic depiction, but a record to refer to later, again and again, of what was really and clearly there when I came.

The detail - and the truth - that a digital camera can capture nowadays is its prime attribute. It's of immense value. I have to admit that the fuzziness in most film shots is, to me, highly irritating. They don't bear magnification. You can't explore detail in a film shot very much, and because of that the world recorded in old photos is, by and large, an indistinct world with much that is out of sharp focus, or lost in the chemically-produced grain of the film, and therefore unknowable. Digital photos provide fine detail, and reveal so much more.

But something else has been lost, something to do with pictorial appeal. Digital photos can be stunning. But are they so beautiful?

Strangely, the same 2017 scene in colour seems to work better, at least for a dull, late-afternoon shot in October.

And colour works pretty well on any picture taken with a capable digital camera, if you just want to get shots of whatever is interesting about a place. That's why phones are such excellent devices for casual photography. Itchingfield churchyard, for instance, possesses a rare feature, a medieval Priest House, like a miniature cottage, almost like an overgrown doll's house.

I'd rather have colour shots of that. And sharp ones at that, showing all the detail! Digital is therefore best.

The church itself has a timber bell-tower.

Again, you'd want the distinct detail that digital rendition provides for architectural features like this. And for sundry other details, such as this stone head.

The church was open. Inside, it was gloomy, almost the dimness of twilight. A real challenge for taking pictures. In film days this lack of light might mean no pictures. Without a fast lens (say f/1.4), and a fast film (say 400ASA) one was lost. It would probably be a waste of expensive film stock to attempt any photography in dim available light. And flash was tricky, giving over-exposure to nearby subjects, stark shadows, and leaving more distant corners in stygian blackness. Elaborate and carefully-planned set-ups with an array of studio lights might work, but that wasn't a practical option for a spur-of-the-moment visit.

However, I expected Tigerlily's camera to cope. And on the whole I wasn't disappointed. The dimmest parts of the interior came out a bit too dark to make a good picture, but nearer the windows the results were very acceptable.

I was astonished with this shot of pumpkins on a window-ledge. Given the fixed f/1.7 aperture of Tigerlily's camera lens, and the bad light, how can it be that all the pumpkins are in good focus?

Remarkable. It was taken (hand-held of course) at 1/25th of a second, a pretty slow shutter speed, and in film days this would mean camera shake and a ruined shot. But modern cameras have image stabilisation that works amazingly well, and completely counteracts the shaky hand. (Although it must help that my hand isn't at all shaky! At least not yet...)

And another point. With digital, or at least with the latest digital cameras, tones and shadows are faithfully replicated, and the colours are true, at all ordinary ISOs. They certainly were at ISO 200, in the pumpkin shot above. That simply wasn't the case with film. Colour faithfulness went south very easily.

Things do degrade a bit if the ISO - the light-sensitivity of the camera's sensor - has to be stepped up for shooting in darker corners, away from the light of the windows. This is a shot of me, standing well away from that light. It's still at 1/25th of a second, but this time at ISO 1000. You can see how I have become indistinct.

And yet it's a triumph of applied technology over poor light. The light level really was very low, and yet much of the detail is still there, and so are the right colours. It's down to very clever and powerful processing inside Tigerlily. Film wouldn't be able to do this.

The shot reminds me of those self-portraits of Rembrandt, who painted himself quite a lot as he grew older. Typically you'd see a resigned, world-worn Rembrandt (in costume) looking out from deep shadows, with rich colours and only selected highlights. As here.

In experimental mood after my last shot - for unlike film, instant digital replay allows study of the shot just taken, and that study informs the next shot - I moved across the nave into slightly better light, in an attempt to 'do another Rembrandt', but an improved version. Same 1/25th second shutter speed, same ISO 1000.

Hmm. The detail is better, though still compromised. Not, however, fatally. In fact the overall effect is pleasing. A successful Rembrandt, then. An elderly face looking out of the shadows, with highlights! I really like the rendition of my woollen coat, and my hair, and the way the metal rim of my specs has caught the light.

I tried another shot.

Oops! Not so good! I've shifted my position just a little. I've raised my chin, and there's more of a smile. The result is a portrait of a haughty (and rather smug) old witch. Oh dear! You've got to be so careful. 

Even so, it shows that the deliberate minor degradation of digital photos - in this case, by using a high ISO - can add something good. A certain controlled technical imperfection, that bestows mood and atmosphere, and a suggestion that this could be a painting. 

I think I'll be experimenting a bit more with high-ISO shots, to see what other effects that might produce. What are the extreme limits of Tigerlily's corrective processing? Will I see odd and interesting things in the results?   

Back home that evening, I had to revert to ordinary shots of what I do. This is the kind of thing one would never, ever waste expensive film on. But in the digital world, it's easy to record all the details of one's daily life, at absolutely no cost. I routinely shot the preparation of my evening meal.

That's exactly what my gammon steak, potatoes, mushrooms, green beans, tomatoes, soy sauce and English mustard looked like on the plate, under the LED-fluorescent lighting of my kitchen. There's no point to a picture like that unless the camera objectively records the precise view before it, without art, artifice or contrived photo effects. And that's what digital does so well. The even more remarkable thing is that it's a tiny stack of moulded plastic lens elements - all you can fit inside a slim phone - that captures these scenes so perfectly, helped out by a super-sensitive sensor and the latest generation of processors. And upcoming phones, with more nimble processors yet, will have even better cameras. 

I do wonder if I'll ever buy another 'proper' camera again, even for a special holiday.  

Thursday, 19 October 2017

No hiding place

That last post of mine got me thinking.

Acting on impulse, I had risked an embarrassing encounter. For I couldn't have predicted the outcome.

What had made me do it? Overflowing friendliness? Or over-confidence? Even vanity? You know: a wish to be told 'My goodness, Lucy, you are looking good! How lovely to see how you have blossomed!' Had some rather different comments been held back, curbed by British restraint in a public place?

It was good not to be afraid of the past, and confident about stepping across the gulf of time. I hadn't tried to avoid recognition and walk away. I had taken the bull by the horns. But I should have given more thought to the consequences before relinquishing my anonymity.

There had been a similar episode back in July, while I was caravanning in Lincolnshire on my way back from Scotland.

This time it wasn't former work colleagues, but a couple I used to know until my split with M---. The female half of this couple, F---, had in fact been at school with M--- from the mid-1950s, and I knew her (and of course her husband C---) through being friends with M---. I last saw them both in 2006. I liked them. They had seemed to like me. But after M--- and I went our separate ways, I had assumed I would never encounter them again. Just as with M---'s family, all of whom I'd liked, but could never now be in touch with. The reasons, of course, had to do with honesty and loyalty. Even if these persons had held me in high esteem, they could not have an ongoing relationship with me unless they pursued it behind M---'s back, and kept it secret from her, because if she'd known she would have been terribly upset. That could not be. And in any case, it set up a 'divided loyalty' situation, which most people can't handle. I was very sorry to let them all go, but it had to be so.     

In July however, having not even been near the Lincolnshire Wolds for years and years, I had decided to stop a week there, pitching my caravan at Market Rasen Racecourse. Louth (where F--- and C--- had been living in 2006) was the tourist town off to the east, between where I was pitched and the coast. Louth was a sizeable town, bigger and more important than Market Rasen. It was an elegant town too, eminently worth a few photos. The lively Louth Festival was on. And the most convenient local evening Slimming World meeting had to be there. So I had proper reasons for going to the place.

But what about F--- and C---? I thought about it. It seemed unlikely that I would run any great risk of meeting them. They probably still lived where they had been in 2006, but could easily be on holiday. In any case, would they recognise me, if by chance we bumped into each other?

The Festival meant that much of the town centre was sealed off from ordinary traffic and parking there wasn't possible. So I considered where else to park. The street parking on Slimming World night had been a bit too far from the town centre. But I remembered where F--- and C--- had lived. Now that would be convenient. There were always places to park beyond their house, a hundred yards down the road, well out of sight of their house. And if I were careful and discreet, I could park there and they'd never know. They had never seen Fiona. I could come and go incognito.

Coming in from Market Rasen, I turned into their road, intending to drive past their house and on to where I knew I could park. Then I noticed two things. One: a 'Sold' sign outside their house. And two: they were both working in the front garden.

What to do? If I hadn't seen them there, I would have driven on. But I had seen them. They had been served up by Fate.

I felt I couldn't dodge this. It now seemed terribly rude to drive past without saying hello, however briefly. If I met them later on, in town, and had to admit that I was parked close by, had seen them in their front garden, and yet hadn't felt equal to a courtesy call, I'd have felt ashamed. But what might my reception be? And what about the consequences, for F--- at least?

Well, I've changed. I don't slide away from situations like I used to. I felt as if Somebody Else had set this up, and I was bound to go on with the play, and see what happened. So I parked outside their house, and got out. They were still engaged in their gardening. I opened the front gate, and came up the path. They stopped then, and looked at me with polite enquiry on their faces. I came right up to them.

'Hello! I'm on holiday. I saw when driving past that your house had just been sold. You'll be moving soon. And here you are in the garden. I feel good manners demand that I stop and see you before you go.'

They looked at me, very puzzled. 'That's nice of you - but who are you?' Neither showed the slightest sign of recognition.

'You don't know me? But I know you. It's F--- and C---, isn't it?' They now looked amazed. I persevered.

'I used to know you from some years back. I met you several times. You came down to Sussex once or twice. We last met in 2006, I think. Always with M---.' F--- now looked closer. 'Yes, your face does seem a little familiar...' I gave her a nudge. I gave her my name.


Oh dear. What now?

'How lovely to see you!'


They really were pleased to see me again, after eleven long years. Here they are. They willingly posed for a souvenir photo:

F--- had singing practice to attend within half an hour (in connection with the Louth Festival), so we couldn't chat for long, but they took me indoors - interesting to see how their home had developed - gave me a coffee, and C--- sat with me on their rear patio for over an hour. We talked easily. He seemed quite unconcerned about the potential awkwardness of the situation.

But it really was rather awkward. Before she departed, F--- said to me that she was still in touch with M---, and would have to tell her that I had called by. I perfectly understood. I hoped she wouldn't, because it would only unsettle M---. But the standard of honesty instilled into the Class of 55 at Reigate High had clearly been absolute, and if in consequence F--- felt compelled to report my unexpected visit, then of course she must.

I decided to remove problems for the future. I said that it had been delightful to see them both again, but it might turn out to be our one and only meeting. I couldn't put her into a false position with M---. So, despite the goodwill on both sides, it was probably best not to be in touch again. I didn't know whether this ruled out Christmas cards, or at least Christmas emails (we had at least exchanged email addresses), but probably it did.

They were moving to a courtyard property in the town centre, with no garden to look after, which would free up time for their many leisure activities, and be future-proof into advanced old age. I wished them well, and much happiness.

Well, that was that. A somewhat bitter-sweet reunion, because it could have no future. I didn't like M--- robbing me of friendships in this way. But it had to be accepted.

Still, there was clearly such a thing as the Hand of Fate. Things like this would happen again and again. From time to time Fate would thrust somebody from my past before me, and I'd have to choose between running away and saying who I was. With unknown consequences.

What was the best strategy? Was it sensible to make a self-disclosure when I need not? This time I'd had a friendly reception. Perhaps I would have a friendly reception next time, and the time after that. But one day I wouldn't. One day I'd get a sneering look of disgust, and possibly anger. So really I ought to think a bit before plunging in and revealing who I was. Sometimes it might be best to let the past be dead and gone. But I didn't really believe it. I felt that the effort to build bridges ought to be made. It might well pay off. It would at least enable a conversation long postponed to take place, or a necessary post-mortem to be conducted, or the clearing-away of past misunderstandings. And those things freed you up to move forwards without legacy issues. Even if a future friendship was, for one reason or another, out of the question.

There was no hiding from Fate - or call it the chance re-crossing of life threads. You can try to hide, but there is no hiding place. Sometime, somewhere, the past will intrude to disrupt the plan. It can't be escaped. The intrusion must instead be regarded as an opportunity to correct, repair and enlighten.

And perhaps to vindicate. After all, I am living, walking, talking evidence that I thrived and did not fall. What is can't be denied. The doubters and doom-mongers were wrong. I didn't suffer a psychological implosion. I was right about myself, and right to have faith in my own notions, and I've never been troubled with any kind of regret.

And I've carried on making the decisions that have suited me best, in defiance of some pretty sour predictions - with good health, material comfort, and an interesting life as the welcome harvest. Those things prove something.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Mutual recognition - or not

Now that was an interesting encounter.

I was in my butchers this morning, stocking up on meat items to take with me on my approaching caravan holiday. Bacon rashers, gammon steaks, kidneys, liver; and some black pudding as an indulgence. Well, while chatting to the staff (Peter and Eddie), in walk a couple. I immediately recognise the woman, but can't place her. We have definitely met sometime in the past. But where? I wasn't sure about the man, but then I hadn't yet had a proper look at him.

Peter goes off to vacuum-pack my freshly-cut gammon steaks, and Eddie is serving these persons. I sneak a sideways glance. No question, I do know her. But she isn't one of my current circle. And then she turns to her husband, consulting him on what else to buy. And of course, I get to hear their voices. And I can then place them both, with total conviction. I used to work with them in the big office in Croydon until I retired in 2005, twelve years ago.

Not 'with them' on any case of mine. Steve (the husband) did work similar to mine, and was in on the meetings I attended, but I don't think we ever shared an investigation. Scilla (his wife) was in charge of a team on the floor below, I seem to remember. But I saw her around almost daily. We spoke sometimes.

It was however twelve years ago, and we were now all older and greyer, and sporting a few more lines and wrinkles! And this wasn't Croydon - it was a Sussex village. I was surprised, really surprised, that I'd had such instant (and absolutely certain) recognition of who they were.

What about them? Did they realise who was standing nearby? It didn't look as if they had.

Time was when I'd ignore a situation like this, keep quiet, preserve my anonymity, and not take the initiative. That was the old low-profile way. But the Lucy Melford of 2017 is no such feeble person. She has learned confidence and self-assertion, and to hell with the outcome! They can't kill me. I stepped over, and said, 'I do know you both, don't I?'

Hmm! My reward was a pair of blank faces. No hint of recall on Steve's face. Scilla peered at me, and said, 'Well...I think I do know your face...'

This wouldn't do. I turned to Steve, and said, 'It's Steve, isn't it?' Ah, at last - a glimmer of light in his eyes! 'Oh, hello!' he said, feeling his way, 'Are you still living in [he named my village]? You retired didn't you?' 'Yes, I still live there. I retired at the same time as Scilla,' I replied, indicating his wife, and thereby confirming that I genuinely did know exactly who they were, and hadn't mistaken them for somebody else.

Steve, still feeling his way, next asked, 'Are you keeping well?' I almost did a little dance. I laughed. 'Do I look on my last legs? I'm very well, thank you. I've been losing weight, to improve my health. Slimming World. Two and a half stones in ten months. Do you know,' I said to both of them, 'Do you know that you're looking at Slimming World Woman Of The Year 2017?' I thought this was a neat way of establishing not only my health credentials, but my standing in the village. Quite different from the type of accolade I might have once claimed.

They clearly didn't know my name though. I decided to let them work it out for themselves.

'I thought you would still be in London,' I said. Steve replied, 'No, we moved to Dorset, but now we're living here in [the village where my butchers are].'

I wanted to ask what made them abandon a presumably idyllic country lifestyle in Dorset. And what, in any case, had they had done with their lives generally in the intervening years. But Peter had come back; I needed to pay; and a butchers' shop isn't really the right place to conduct any kind of reunion. So we left it there. It's entirely possible that we will bump into each other again, though not necessarily soon.

Mulling it all over in Fiona while I drove along, I wasn't quite sure that Scilla had really grasped who I might be. But no doubt her husband would be able to nudge her memory. I wondered what he would say.

What do you ever know about a colleague in an office? Only things about their talent for the job, and how agreeable (or irritating) their office personality is. So far as I know, Steve knew absolutely nothing about my private life as it was back in 2005, except where I travelled in from. I don't think Scilla knew even that. No doubt they'd now be pooling their meagre scraps of knowledge, trying to reconcile that vague past image of me with the quite different person who had accosted them and claimed recognition. Perhaps they'd phone other retired colleagues they'd kept in touch with, seeking further scraps of information to fill in the picture.

I had, in fact, met up with a handful of former Croydon colleagues in February 2011 and April 2012. These lunches included my final boss, who had been Steve's too. He could tell Steve what he might be curious to know.

And I'd attended a Croydon Christmas Lunch in December 2014. Steve, or more likely Scilla, might still know some of the staff who'd been there.

These reunions had all gone rather well. But three of them in four years had been enough, and I hadn't sought any further contact. In any case, I'd slipped from people's memories, to be recalled only because of something I might have done or said that still ignited sparks of pleasure - or resentment. In fact very few persons at the 2014 Christmas Lunch had remembered who I was. Hardly anyone had worked closely with me. There was a limit to what we could talk about, apart from generalities.

And I felt one or two had made it clear that I wasn't altogether welcome: I had, after all, been a halfway senior figure, 'one of them on the top floor'. Sparrows don't necessarily feel comfortable with an ex-eagle perched in their midst. And the fact that by 2014 I'd been a carefree lady of leisure, on an ample pension, for a good number of years might have choked a few throats. There was a pay freeze in force by 2014, but it didn't apply to 'lucky pensioners' like me.

Steve and Scilla had been eagles too. I wondered how they were now regarded, if they ever met up with the old crowd. I wondered lots of things about them. But chiefly I felt glad that they were still a couple, and still in reasonably good health. I'd heard from another source that some colleagues had developed chronic illnesses, and one (younger than me) had actually died. I hope we encounter each other again, but of course it may never happen.

In the end I'm really intrigued about two things: my own obvious ability to recognise a face not seen for many a long year - what a sleuth I might have made! And other people's inability to recognise my face after a similar gap of time. Have I really changed so much?

Who else might walk straight past me, not realising who I am?

And is this a good or bad thing?

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Now, Miss Melford! Out with it! What is your sexual orientation?

I had hoped never to be asked that, as it would be an awkward question to answer. The NHS is however now making it mandatory for doctors and nurses to ask a patient what their sexual orientation is, if this information isn't already on record. No exceptions. No nonsense.

It'll be: 'Oh, do stop crying, Miss Melford! And stop that silly snivelling! Pull yourself together, woman. It's only a routine question. But we must have a definite answer! Your continued eligibility to treatment depends on it! Do you hear me?' [Impatient medic slaps Lucy's face, and forces a stammered, gulping reply. Later that day, they come for her. She is interned for three years, pending a Sexual Deviation trial. While in prison, her festering wounds and sores are not treated]

Actually, the announcement assures everyone that having one's stated sexual orientation on record won't make the slightest difference to the type or quality of care received under the NHS. In fact, it's all about avoiding any whiff of discrimination, in order to comply with the Equality Act 2010.

Yes, really. There's nothing to worry about. Keep calm and carry on.

It seems the NHS wants to be able to say - nay, prove from its meticulous records - that in (say) 2019 there were thirty-nine million patient consultations, and every person seen by a doctor joyfully declared their sexual orientation, with this interesting overall result:

Heterosexual, or straight 75%
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or of other non-standard sexuality 15%
Not sure, not known, or not stated 10%

And that everyone - whatever sexuality they admitted to with such fervour - demonstrably received exactly the same standard of care, as can be proved by an analysis of patient records.

In fact a new government body, the Office of Sexual Statistics (OfSex) has lately been set up with that sole task - to extract figures that will reassure the general public that one's sexual deviation (oops, what an amusing slip! one's sexual orientation) is utterly irrelevant. It never matters. Not in any circumstance. The NHS is absolutely even-handed. A statement to this effect will be made in the House in due course, with a tribute to the staff concerned. A remarkable achievement.

I satirise to the hilt, of course. But apparently this sexual-orientation question really will be popped to patients coming in for a winter flu jab, or about their sore toe, or their inflamed tonsils.

'Just say 'aaaaah', Mr Simmonds. Hmm, those tonsils look jolly the way, what's your sexual orientation?' 

To which the responses might be various, such as: 'What?! Mind your own bloody business!!' or 'I'll ask my wife when I get home, and I'll let you know what she says' or even 'Why Doctor! I didn't know you fancied me! Well...I'm free Wednesday afternoons, you know...'

I picked up this story from the online BBC News - see I could hardly believe it, but apparently it's true. Even though some (perhaps most) doctors will think it an intrusive question, and they doubtless anticipate confusion and resentment on the patient's part, it must nevertheless be asked so that the patient's record is complete. Nobody will then be able to say that a doctor did this or that in ignorance (or defiance) of the patient's sexual orientation. (Aha, I sniff a legal defence being constructed against future compensation claims mounted against the NHS by disgruntled or badly-treated LGB patients!)

Let me anyway quote an important part of the BBC article:

NHS England said the data was already being collected in many areas but that the new guidance makes it standard, and that it expects sexual orientation monitoring to be in place across England by April 2019. 

Under the guidance, health professionals are to ask patients: "Which of the following options best describes how you think of yourself?". The options include heterosexual or straight, gay or lesbian, bisexual, other sexual orientation, not sure, not stated and not known.

NHS England said lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people were "disproportionately affected" by health inequalities such as poor mental health and a higher risk of self-harm and suicide. It said public bodies had a legal obligation to pay regard to the needs of LGB people under the Equality Act 2010. "Collecting and analysing data on sexual orientation allows public sector bodies to better understand, respond to and improve LGB patients' service access," the guidance states.

Paul Martin, chief executive of Manchester's LGBT Foundation, which worked with NHS England and others to develop sexual orientation monitoring, said he was "so proud" of the new standard. He said earlier this week: "If we're not counted, we don't count." The launch of sexual orientation monitoring was a "hugely important step in the right direction" towards addressing LGB inequality in health and social care, he said.
I suppose that if I were lesbian, gay or bisexual in my personal orientation - and had problems with the NHS - and felt invisible, with my needs unrecognised and unprioritised, then perhaps I'd be cheering this new initiative.

But I'm not lesbian, gay or bisexual, and this presents me with a problem. What on earth am I going to say to my doctor when she asks me? And what might be the real-life consequences of a particular answer?

'It's like this, doctor. I haven't had sex since sometime in 2007. That's ten years ago. And since then my life has radically changed. I feel no desire now, I've got no libido. But that's fine, because I'm finished with sex. I really don't think I'll ever have sex again. Sex tends to go with having someone special in your life - and I have, for practical purposes, put myself out of the game by refusing to embark on any more relationships. In any case, I don't feel the need for even occasional sexual adventures. I don't need sex to convince me that I'm looking great, that I'm alive and kicking, and still a force. 

'It's not become impossible for me to have sex, but I'm not experiencing any internal urges or longings to indulge. And I won't let myself be seduced by any offers that may come my way. In fact I consciously avoid situations in which I might come under pressure to play the sex game. I need to keep things under control, and entirely in my own hands. I don't want to end up trapped in a bedroom with no way out. In any event, I dislike the messiness of sex, the physicality, and having to give myself up to an animal urge. Or worse, having to surrender (or submit) to another person. So I keep well away from all that. It's not for me. 

'In some very special circumstances I might give my consent and have a go - in the last seconds before a meteor strike destroys the planet, maybe. But, looking at my planned life to come, sex will play no part. That's a personal decision. It maximises my reasonable preference for autonomy and comfort, and continued good health (I don't want a sexual infection). I can still have a wonderful time in the years ahead, but without the physical and emotional stress - and corrosive regret - that having sex involves. 

'Besides, I need a lot of personal space, and I don't like it invaded. Sharing it intimately is a horrendous no-no - it's way over a personal red line. I can't handle close-up intimacy - and sex is pretty damned close-up as activities go. I accept that sex can be useful later-life exercise, but I can easily find substitutes. 

'So what am I, doctor? What's my orientation? I don't desire sex with either a man nor a woman. Nor, if a pill were offered to me that would increase my libido, and restore an urge to have sex, and presumably incline me decisively to one or the other - or indeed both - would I take it. I'm just not interested.   

'But if that pill were forced upon me, what might my preference be? 

'I really can't say, because there is no track record to draw inferences from. If a man ever gives me some attention, I enjoy it, but that doesn't mean I would ever want him physically. In fact I think that men's muscular and hairy bodies are most unappealing, and I've always thought that. I like the company of women, and most of my friends are women, but I can't imagine getting turned on by the offer of lesbian sex. I want a woman's friendship and sisterhood and empathy - not her body. I have no unusual sexual practices of my own invention. And I don't have sex on my own. I still haven't bought myself a sex toy to play with: I'd regard it as a waste of money.

'Well, that leaves 'not stated', 'not sure' and 'not known', doesn't it? 

'As I've been willing to discuss this with you - at great length, but I wanted to be clear - it can't be 'not stated'. 

'I don't want you to put me in the 'not sure' category, because that implies some experimentation, and there just hasn't been any. Nor will there be. 

'So 'not known' best fits. Shall we settle on that?'

Perhaps, when next at the surgery, I can simply plump for 'not known' and skip the long-winded explanation. Or perhaps they've already marked me down, on no evidence, and without discussion, as 'hetero'. If so, I'll let sleeping dogs lie.

Whichever category we settle on, it might have consequences. If they do have me down already as 'hetero' there is the small risk that a young male doctor will see in me a raving sex-crazed spinster who might compromise him, if there is any question of a physical examination. It's a ludicrous notion, but feasible.

And yet what might they really make of 'not known'? Does it imply a mental issue? I don't want to be shunted off into perpetual therapy, to explore why I don't know who to have sex with. And yet 'not sure' also suggests a background problem requiring therapy. The thing about NHS therapies is that they take ages to arrange, and go on for a long time because of the long gaps between appointments and sundry cancellations. And meanwhile they stop you being treated as an ordinary patient.

All this in the name of Equality. Huh.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Some good food news

Five days after that unwise food and drink consumption of mine, and my tummy is at last beginning to settle down. That's the longest period of constant indigestion that I can remember. Yesterday I consulted a pharmacist and came away with some Wind-Eze tablets - that's a preparation based on simeticone, which apparently stops the gases in the stomach from foaming too much. Larger bubbles are easier to cope with, it seems, and easier to eject from whichever end of the gut best serves. Well, it did quieten the gurglings, and bring me much relief. Mind you, by now most of the volatile brew that had been swashing around inside me must have passed through, and by the end of the coming weekend I would have been OK.

That said, this is a lesson to take to heart. My digestive tract is clearly not as super-capable as it once was. Henceforth, I will give it extra TLC. That includes avoiding very acidic foods, and going particularly easy on alcohol. So one large glass of wine will be my normal daily limit, and I won't be accepting drinks that I haven't a well-established tolerance for. Pernod? Non, merci!

I don't want a repeat of the last five days. I had plans for doing so much! But, feeling off-colour and bloated, I did little - and time was wasted. One week from today, I must begin preparations for my next caravan jaunt. I will now have to compress two weeks' work into one.

But there is always a silver lining. Having ate less overall this week, it's no surprise that my weight-loss regime got a boost. I made the effort to attend the local Slimming World group meeting yesterday evening, having a hunch that I might well have lost enough weight to gain another certificate. And I was right. I got my 'Two and a half stones lost' certificate! Here is is:

I couldn't help jumping with delight. My ultimate target weight is now only half a stone away. And I so much covet that 'Three stones lost' certificate! When I hit my target weight, I will at last have a BMI slightly less than 25, and the pleasure of having a 'Normal' and not 'Obese' weight. Yes, I know it wouldn't matter much, in a strict clinical sense, if my BMI were 25.2 or whatever; but psychologically it will be a big achievement. 

And having lost three stones - 42 pounds, or 19.1kg - my actual weight will be 11 stones 12 pounds - or 166 pounds, or 75.3kg. I'll still be no lightweight. But I will be satisfyingly more slender than a year ago. You know, slender like a graceful gazelle. Or at least a thin elephant. 

The next aim after getting that weight off will be improved fitness. I run out of puff too quickly. 

Quite what to do about this is a problem. For instance, buying a bike to pedal furiously is absolutely out of the question. I learned to ride a bike only when thirty, never having ridden when a child. In my brief period of early-1980s bike-ownership, I discovered that I had serious balancing problems. Indeed, I wobbled far too much for safety, and I fell off regularly. Not good in London traffic. This led to wounds and pain, and a conviction that, for me, cycling on a traffic-frequented road was playing Russian Roulette with my life. 

The roads may be a bit quieter in rural Sussex, but not by much nowadays, and there is the issue of where to ride to. Cycling must have a point, or it becomes a bore. Having lived in my locality since 1996, I know all the nearby roads and places to go. There is no possibility of discovering new things on two wheels. 

I also have a horror of being a nuisance. Cyclists hold up the traffic, and I would be one of the worst offenders. I would be cursed and reviled and muttered at. Enraged drivers would entertain dark thoughts about me, involving my sudden death. I would be scared by drivers skimming past on narrow sections of road, and quite possibly so disconcerted that I'd wobble into a ditch. Or wobble into the middle of the road, and that would be the end of me. Even if I managed to survive indefinitely, it's difficult to see how a ride could ever be something to enjoy. 

So my bid for fitness will have to involve some other kind of activity. Not sport. I have never in my entire life found sport even remotely interesting. I am co-operative, not competitive. Nor do I fancy belonging to a club. Slimming World and the pilates class are my extreme limits for group membership. 

I think my best bet is to set myself some photographic goals that involve some significant walking exercise. A plan to visit (and photograph) various hilltop monuments and memorials, or OS trig points, or old abandoned canal locks, or ancient standing stones and barrows and burial chambers: something like that. I'll give it my best thought, and make a start next spring.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Getting close up and personal with the Cerne Abbas Giant

The Cerne Abbas Giant is well-known to visitors of Dorset. It's a huge figure cut into the grass on the side of a hill, exposing the white chalk beneath and making it very visible. From a mile away, it's quite a sight, up there on the hill - although, at that remove, smaller than you'd think. You really need binoculars to discern the full glory. Close up, as you'd expect, it's immense and impressive, but actually much harder to see: viewing the entire figure becomes completely impossible; you can make out only a small portion from any given spot on Giant Hill, and that only at an oblique angle. This is a landscape feature best appreciated from the air, in the manner of many another hill figure (not my own shots, of course!):

You can easily see why the Giant is famous - it's that willy (or more correctly that fully-erect and especially-distinct penis, with testicles to match) which one can take as a pagan expression of guaranteed fertility if one so wishes.

Indeed, it is very tempting to construe the Giant as an ancient rural fertility god, set on a hillside for men and women to visit when children are wanted. But in fact nobody knows what the giant really represents, nor even how old he is. He is attested in surveys and documents no further back than 1694. No doubt he was around a little while before that - in 1675 say. (The chalk outline is nowadays 'freshened' every twenty-five years) Around that slightly earlier time lewd and randy Charles II had been restored to the English throne, following the death of Oliver Cromwell and the imploding of the Commonwealth under his successors. So the Giant may be an insulting figure, created by the order of a disgruntled local landowner who had not found favour at court. Alternatively, things were at the time going badly in the American colonies, the local indian nations asserting themselves, and the Giant may depict a naked indian chief on the warpath.

But who can say. He may, after all, be very ancient. You can't easily tell the age of anything cut into grass, and periodically cleaned up and re-delineated after getting overgrown.

My own view is that he is older than the 1600s, and may in some form go back to Roman times. There has been the strong suggestion that he is Hercules; and the Romans would have no embarrassment about showing a fully-aroused naked male figure. No doubt there were many periods during the centuries since then when the Giant, much as we see him now, would have been locally venerated and his rampant sexiness carefully maintained (which would keep him magically powerful). But I'm amazed that he made it unscathed through the prudish Victorian Age. After all, Cerne Abbas may be in the Dorset countryside, but it isn't that far from civilisation and the London trains at Sherborne and Dorchester.

So much for historical speculations. What was my angle? Why was I there?

Well, I hadn't visited Cerne Abbas for years. I wanted to look around the village. And in particular I wanted to indulge an ambition to climb Giant Hill, and see whatever might be seen of the Giant at close quarters. It was a half-decent September afternoon, with some risk of a rain shower. The hill was steep-sided, and I didn't look forward to rain making my ascent or descent dangerously slippery. I do fear taking a tumble. But it seemed a risk worth taking.

I arrived from the north on the A352, and went first into the official car park just off that road, the one with the best distant view of the Giant. Not that it seemed nearly close enough. All you could see was this:

Zooming in - that means zooming digitally on Tigerlily - I could make out this:

Not terribly impressive! But closer in still, the Giant might improve. I drove a little way onward into another car park. I was distinctly closer, but trees hid most of Giant Hill. I did however find the one good viewing-position:

That picture is interesting as a demonstration of how poor a digital zoom can be! I went off into the village, and - despite the cloudy sky - got worthwhile shots of the vernacular cottages.

After a brief rain shower, the sun came out again. All systems go for the Giant? Yep. Let's do it. I took the path past the former Abbey, and came out into a meadow. Looking back, the village church stood out as a silhouette against the darkening sky. Hmm. It might rain again quite soon. Oh well.

I reached a wood at the base of Giant Hill. There were steps leading up. Right. Five minutes later, I was looking at a National Trust sign - the Trust look after the Giant now.

It was no surprise to find a ban on casual entry - a 'request' to stay outside the barbed-wire fence that formed a rectangular enclosure around the Giant. Hmm. It was only a request, not a dire threat of thunderbolts, and it wouldn't be all that difficult to find a gate that could be climbed over. (There must be one, and there was, at the top of the hill)

But I don't like trespassing, or at any rate doing the wrong thing. It would be highly embarrassing if a National Trust Ranger, or any kind of official, spied me walking on the Giant from one of the car parks - or indeed any public-spirited visitor did, who happened to have their binoculars trained on the Giant. I imagined an angry posse coming up to eject me. And not just ejection in disgrace. Prosecution might follow. Found guilty at the Dorchester Assizes, no doubt by a hanging judge, I would be fortunate to get off with ordinary transportation to Australia in some verminous hulk. Or a long sentence in Dartmoor Prison. And they would make a point of ceremonially stripping me of my National Trust Life Membership. It would all be on the main TV and radio news, with in-depth analysis on the web. Infamy. My name besmirched and reviled forever. No, the likely penalties were too severe.

But I was reluctant to turn back. I could tamely explore the foot of the Giant's enclosure. Unexciting! Or I could make an anticlockwise circumnavigation: up the hill, across the top, down the other side, and back along the foot of the enclosure. I might still get glimpses of the Giant. I set off uphill.

I wasn't fit, but it's amazing what you can do if determined, and not in too much of a hurry. I reached the first top corner without problems. The views were lovely.

Centre left in the above shot - between a caravan and the barn - click or tap to make it out clearly - is a blue parked vehicle. That was Fiona in the second, closer car park I tried. The first car park - the one with allegedly the very best view of the Giant - is just above the centre of the picture. I felt very high up. Off to my left, to the south, the village of Cerne Abbas was spread out before me, not far off:

But elation turned into concern.

Specks of rain! You can see it on my glasses. Please, please, let it hold off. Getting down a slippery chalk hill was no joke. I had a stick with me, but three legs might not be enough for stability...

You'll have noticed how convex Giant Hill was. That made it very hard to discern anything of the Giant. In fact I saw nothing recognisable on my ascent. Maybe going down I'd see something?

I passed a gate, used either by the farmer, when putting sheep or cattle into the Giant's abode, or by NT staff and volunteers when carrying out maintenance work, such as mowing and weed-removal. Certainly, it was 'authorised access only', which excluded me! There was no welcoming notice saying 'Life Members may enter if they are carrying their membership card. They may freely take selfies while straddling naughty bits of the Giant's anatomy. For refreshment, there is a cache of champagne at the tip of the Giant's club.'  Sigh. It's not at all a perfect world.

I crossed over the top of the enclosure, then turned the corner and headed downhill. I was of course shod in my trusty Alt-Berg boots, but even so I placed my feet with great care, mindful of what might happen if I lost my footing on that steep slope, or twisted an ankle. The way down was obvious, but soil erosion and general bumpiness made it tricky.

And the Giant? Well, I took some sideways shots, and they showed turf cuts that might be bits of its middle anatomy, or even the famous willy...

...but I think I mostly captured only parts of the Giant's club, and his arm. Oh well. 

My attention was now increasingly directed towards reaching the path at the base of the enclosure without landing on my bottom, or overbalancing and cartwheeling. By dint of zig-zagging downwards, and massive concentration, I made it. I did at least establish that the unworthy people who stayed on the base path, and were too lazy to climb, saw nothing of the Giant. At least I had had glimpses.  

Down the steps, and out of the wood, I was a windswept mess.

This was towards the end of the seven-week 'no-hairband' trial period. Any puff of breeze, and I looked like that. I was getting fed up with it. But despite of the lack of any real contact with the Giant, it had all been a worthwhile experience - though once was enough. 

What had I really had in mind? I've since found a low-res picture on the Internet, which shows a woman standing on the business end of the Giant. This is what I wanted to do:

If it had been possible to take a selfie where she was standing, it could only have shown the rounded tip of the humungeous member. But it would have been like planting a flag on the top of Everest. An achievement! A result!

Possibly a woman who becomes a NT Volunteer might get a chance of joining a crew engaged in tidying-up the Giant. And on such an occasion, to get a snap or two of herself on the Giant's willy.  

But I have a strong suspicion that the NT is careful to ban females from entering the enclosure, lest they (and their testosterone-maddened male colleagues) are overcome by the heavy pagan atmosphere, and, abandoning serious conservation work, engage in wild fertility rites they might later regret. 

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Upset tummy

That was silly of me.

In good company I do tend to eat and drink without too much regard to the consequences. And once upon a time, I could get away with it. That time was as recently as a year ago. I ate whatever I liked, drank whatever I liked. This was in moderation, of course; but the precise mix of food and drink didn't worry me, and certainly there was no fear that an injudicious tasting of something exotic would lead to tummy-ache. There was the slight but ever-present risk of food poisoning, but that was one thing that I did look out for. I've suffered more than once over the years from dodgy food-preparation practices, most spectacularly while on holiday in 1999: a dubious paella in a Budleigh Salterton pub. Pub paella? Never again. It was days before I was fit enough to drive home. A horrible experience. But an upset tummy from just an eclectic mix of foodstuffs? It didn't happen.

But clearly it can happen now. Since November 2016 I've enforced upon myself a food and drink regime designed to lose weight - with success. This has entailed the abandonment of nearly all manufactured food. Milk, tea, cereals, chopped tomatoes and some other things have to be purchased in factory-sealed bottles, tins and other containers. But most things I eat are bought in their natural, fresh state, and cooked very simply. And no sauces or gravies poured on; just a sprinkling of soy sauce, or Lea & Perrins sauce; and now and then - out of a bottle - a little English mustard, mint sauce or tomato ketchup.

My range of things to eat at home is wide and tasty. But almost all of it is simple and natural, prepared with the minimum of artifice.

And a foodie might also say, with the minimum of finesse. Anybody dining chez moi and hoping for something beyond a piping hot meal of satisfying quantity, colour and taste will be disappointed - and probably snooty about my peasant-level culinary techniques and presentation. Where food is concerned, my aim is a good meal with well-balanced nutrients - not a work of art. I am not chasing accolades. I am eating simply and carefully to ensure good health now, and to avoid some of the more obvious later-life health problems that might otherwise come my way in future years.

But simplicity has its consequences. My digestive system has become used to processing what I carefully prepare at home, plus sensible things eaten away from home. It can't cope with a sudden influx of fancy stuff. It protests. And I think that what I ate and drink last Sunday evening was too exotic a mix. Things rarely consumed nowadays. Result: feeling off-colour, loud gurglings and rumblings in my digestive tract, and enough wind to inflate a zeppelin.

Naturally all of it went into my daily Food Diary (click or tap on it, to see the details easily):

No problems with the items eaten at home. The pink-background items were the challenge.

Artichokes in oil.
Brioche slices dripping in garlic-flavoured olive oil.
Slow-cooked lamb in red wine.
Jam and cream sponge.
Red wine.

Individually, nothing very evil about this list (well, there is, in a Slimming World sense, but we'll pass over that), but taken together those things overwhelmed my digestive powers.

It's entirely my own fault, of course. Next time, common sense will prevail. It clearly has to.

Meanwhile, I have to live through a period of discomfort. It isn't pleasant. There's no nausea or diarrhoea, but it's an effort to cope with life just now. I sleep a bit: that helps. And I read on and off. I've somehow found the energy to do rather a lot of straightforward post-holiday chores, but not feeling right in my tummy has meant no mowing the lawns and other gardening, and that's a concern. I've also been disinclined to do any blogging, nor even publishing my holiday shots on Flickr. I intended to tackle both of those this afternoon, but eating an apple a while back has upset everything again (how daft was that?) and this post is as much as I can put together today.

Let's hope I wake up tomorrow (Wednesday) feeling a lot better!