Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Night of the Queen Wasp

I'd seen her buzzing around earlier that day. Always the roof of my caravan. A big wasp.

Well, there was nothing up there to interest a wasp! Just the roof hatches, and they were firmly shut. They had lips to them, where an insect might get temporary shelter from the wind and rain. Both were forecast that evening. But I wasn't concerned that this wasp would build a nest, and dismissed the creature from my mind. I went off to Dartmouth for the afternoon (a post on that soon).

In the evening, after cooking, eating and washing up, I settled down to the usual routine of photo editing while listening to the radio. Around 9.45pm I became aware of a buzzing noise from the rear part of the caravan. That wasp? Had she somehow got in? At first I couldn't pin down the source of the buzzing. It wasn't from the rear window. Ah, the roof hatch...

I have three roof openings. One is the big sun roof in the front end of the caravan. I open that daily. Then there are two others, much smaller, both the same, one in the kitchen area (as above) and another in the bathroom. I hardly ever open these, because it's a fiddle to do so, and I can open a window instead. These two smaller hatches have fly screens that hinge downwards so that you can get at push-up handles that open a gap for fresh air to get in. Then you hinge the fly screens back - in theory: they tend to get stuck in the 'down' position, and you have to strain the hinges to make them move. In fact, over time, these hinges fail and break. (I wish they didn't use plastics in caravans - given long enough, every plastic fitment becomes brittle and snaps) It was clear that, despite the hatch itself being shut, the wasp had still managed to get herself through some ventilation holes. But she was now trapped behind the fly screen, buzzing with frustration. She might well buzz all night and stop me getting to sleep. I'd have to deal with this.

I'm not tolerant of any insects sharing my space. If I am aware of them, they have to go. I do know that most of the time they are there, and if I can't see them, and they remain quiet and unobtrusive, then I'm not bothered. But if they fly about and buzz, then I either expel them or kill them. It's maddening to have a fly buzzing about my house. Doubly so in the confined space of my little caravan.

Plan A was now to release the wasp, rather than try to kill it. But to attempt that, I'd have to open the hatch, and that meant hingeing the fly screen out of the way first. OK, here goes. I swung down the fly screen. Hmm, no sign of the wasp. I pushed upwards on the handles, and a gap appeared all around the hatch. A golden opportunity for a sensible wasp to escape into the night. But oh no - some vast flying thing with huge, moth-sized wings flew past my nose into the interior of the caravan, settling on a cupboard door. Damn.

It really was a very large wasp. A queen wasp, surely. How aggressive could she be? What to do now? How long had I got before the fearsome creature took stock and decided that it was all my fault?

A woman of lesser breeding would have fled the caravan screaming. But the Melfords are not of lesser breeding. They fought at Agincourt. They stand their ground. It was time for Plan B. I went into Combat Mode.

Coolly, I put on my green rubber washing-up gloves. Coolly, I picked up the yellow cloth I use for wiping the kitchen surfaces. It was still damp. All the better. With icy deliberation and steel nerves I bunched this cloth up into a ball and pressed it hard against the queen wasp. She never knew the danger. I stayed there, pressing on her, for a full minute. I was taking no chances, because insects can be very hard to kill, and I didn't want her coming to life when I raised the cloth to take a look, and venting her fury on me. But no, I'd crushed the life out of her. Her wings twitched a couple of times, perhaps involuntarily, then she was still.

Here she is. That's a normal-sized Yale key in the picture, as some indicator of the queen wasp's great size. You have to make an adjustment for perspective - the key is close to the camera lens and therefore appears larger than it actually is, but the further-away wasp still looks big.

Well! I felt huge relief that I had acted fast and neutralised this stinging machine before she could secrete herself in some nook or cranny, to emerge later, seeking a living victim. I picked her up with my long stainless-steel cooking tongs and dunked her into a cup of tea, with the notion of drowning her in case life still persisted. Then I went outside and flung her into the hedge. I would have tossed her carcase further away, but it was starting to rain heavily and I didn't want to get soaked.

Brushes like this with the more harmful side of nature do not often happen in my life, and for a while I felt more than somewhat shaken. But that soon passed.

I don't feel like this with spiders. Spiders can be creepy, but at all times you know they are little animals and different from insects. For preference I'd rather not share my space with a big spider, but they do seem to behave with a certain amount of judgement and discretion, trying to avoid me if they can, and becoming docile when they can't. The usual UK domestic spiders are harmless, and they are definitely useful, an ally in the summer battle against flies.

But wasps? I can't think of anything to be said for them. It still goes against the grain to kill any creature, even one like this, but they can't be herded or gently shuffled off the scene. I have at least reduced next year's baby wasp population by several thousand, at least in the Modbury area.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

I'll wear my feet out at this rate...

And has Project Fitness died a natural death, now that I'm no longer at home but on holiday? Not at all. You want some evidence? Well, Fitbit emailed me a Weekly Report the other day, quite unprompted. (That sort of thing makes me think that they really are keeping an eye on my progress!) Here it is: a summary of what I'd achieved.

It's truly astonishing what I've done. 84,000 steps? 37 miles walked? 2,300 calories burned daily? (Meaning 850 more than needed just to stay alive) 333 minutes (that's over 5 hours) of proper exercise? And I haven't been stressing myself over this. The only real differences between now, and what used to be, are that (a) I am making a conscious effort to walk more during the day - making a point, that is, of taking 10,000 steps if I possibly can, and not shirking climbing slopes and stairways when out and about; and (b) I am being stricter with myself about going to bed before midnight, in order to get at least six hours sleep. It's definitely having a good effect. I feel more alert and definitely more virtuous!

Here's today (so far).

This is the daily record of steps taken since Monday, the first day of my holiday.

On previous holidays, I'd spend a lot of time driving around, with little time on my feet. A token stroll maybe. Now I try to maximise ped time.

Today, for instance, I drove to Dartmouth and parked for three hours. Away from the river, Dartmouth is a very hilly place. I wasn't going to kill myself climbing uphill too much. But I did foot it rather a lot along the river Dart. I was parked in the open space near where it says 'PC' on the first of the two maps below.

I then walked south along the river front to the Lower Ferry, which I took to Kingswear. Having looked around, I once more voyaged across the river, back to Dartmouth. Then I went further south, past Bayards Cove fort and Warfleet to the grounds of the church next to Dartmouth Castle. As you might guess from the map, that location had a great view upriver, back towards the town. Then, ignoring signs to the ferry boat that would convey me back to town and save my feet, I walked all the way back again. Throughout at a brisk pace. 

I got my 'reward' for the steps taken as I reached Dartmouth town centre again - my Fitbit vibrated, and the screen showed the by-now familiar exploding fireworks and '10,000'.

Remarkably, wanting to see that is a genuine incentive to get in sufficient walking every day, by hook or crook. Fitbit must know their psychology!

The same wish to 'earn' that 10,000 step accolade made me explore the riverbank at Exeter four days ago, and will get me power-pedding the entire waterfront from Stonehouse to Sutton Harbour at Plymouth tomorrow (I'm taking the train in from Ivybridge, so the beginning and end of that long tramp is Plymouth station, not the city centre).

What, visit Plymouth, and not do some serious shopping?

Ah, well...that's already been done...the holiday money's been blown...two Italian-designed winter coats from John Lewis at Exeter. But that's for another post!

Tilly in a Spitfire cockpit

I'm now on holiday, moving around in the West Country. And presently I'm in South Devon, staying for five nights at the Modbury Caravan and Motorhome Club Site, deep in the South Hams countryside. It's very peaceful. But it's also a wet morning, and so I felt like catching up with my blogging. I said a short while ago that blogging wasn't going to command the same attention in my life as it once had, but it's awfully hard to live up to that. Lots of little things happen to me every day, and some of them deserve a post. Here's one.

Today is my great niece Matilda's 5th birthday. I knew this event was approaching; it's in my diary. Unfortunately so are many other things at this time of year, all to do with my present holiday, and I missed the entry that was meant to prompt me into buying and posting a birthday card to her in good time. With, of course, a £10 note inside it. At five years old, she is just about old enough to handle a little spending money of her own. It has to be cash as I'm so far away - as I always am at this time of year - and can't visit her in person with a proper gift.

This card should have been bought and posted two or three days ago, at the latest. I realised I'd missed the posting deadline only yesterday afternoon, a Saturday. And I couldn't immediately pop into the nearest town, buy a card and send it on its way to her. I was in the middle of hauling the caravan from Lyme Regis to Modbury. It was mid-afternoon before I was set up and able to whizz down to the nearest likely source of children's birthday cards, Kingsbridge.

I have to say that yachty, arty and historic Kingsbridge is a great place to buy any kind of greetings card, from the trashy to the sort that an art connoisseur would like. I got what I wanted. I sat down to write Tilly a nice greeting. And then remembered that her father (my nephew Michael) had mentioned, when I saw him last, that by the end of July they would have moved - and I didn't have the new address! Stymied.

A quick phone call to Michael got no answer. And a quick text to his wife Cheryl didn't get a response. Were they totally incommunicado? The last posting time in Kingsbridge for a Monday morning delivery (a day late for Tilly's birthday) had by then already passed. Perhaps they would get back to me with the new address overnight.

Next morning, I had the bright idea of texting my niece Jenny. She'd surely know where Michael was now living. And she did. She got back to me at once. So Matilda's card is now ready for posting somewhere where the postal service might be good enough for a Monday morning delivery. Which means a trip into Totnes, Dartmouth or possibly Torquay. No problem!

Here's the card.

But none of the foregoing is really the subject of this post.

Opening the packaging for the card that I decided to send (I bought more than one), I found a leaflet. It was from It invited me to select a gift for the person having the birthday, steering me to their website. There I could pay for a wide variety of experiences for the lucky recipient. There were 1455 gifts to choose from.

Nearly all of them were (in my view) way too expensive, but they were certainly likely to provide a pleasant and memorable experience. Here's a selection - a few screen shots off my phone - from among the first thirty.

Well, I can certainly see that being treated to one of these gifts would be very well appreciated by some! I can, however, think of people who would be put on the spot by the whole idea. While a river boat cruise might be nice, such things as llama trekking for two, or a sushi workshop, wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea. Besides, there's a London bias to many of these gifts, and their giving might involve the recipient in an unwelcome amount of ancillary hotel and travel expenditure, probably more than the gift itself was worth. Then there would be the trouble of finding child and pet minders while the couple - many of the gifts assumed that two people would be indulged - went to the theatre or learned how to make chocolate.

And something else. This adult-orientated leaflet was with a card intended for a very young girl! Somehow that jarred. I suppose that the leaflet was aimed at the adult buying the card, and not at all at the ittle girl, planting an idea for someone else's birthday. But this note of across-the-board, indiscriminate commercialism seemed inappropriate. It must be a sign of the times: any vehicle is the right vehicle, so long as it drives sales.

I once read a disturbing science-fiction story about a future in which advertising was uncontrolled and had gone mad. People were so bombarded with ads - in their face and subliminal - that their everyday behaviour was largely controlled by the manufacturers. So that one could make major purchases, like yet another car, completely without conscious thinking. Your income was spent for you; and there was dreadful waste, as everyone had so much in the way of unwanted and unneccesary purchases. It was a dystopian world that might have seemed possible in the 1960s, but is unlikely now, with growing concern over resources, disillusionment with consumerism, and a general move towards decluttering one's life. Perhaps that why it's become easier to sell 'experiences' rather than manufactured goods. And why it might pay to slip a leaflet offering a night's stargazing in Wales, or a 'flight' in a Spitfire simulator, inside a child's birthday card.

Footnote: I hammered out the text on my laptop in html before Bluetoothing it to my phone. But otherwise the post was put together - with pictures taken and inserted - all on my phone, and published from there using mobile internet on 4G. From the Devon countryside. I'm still amazed at what can be done with just a phone.

To think that all my parents did when on holiday was write postcards and tackle cryptic crossword puzzles...

Saturday, 8 September 2018

When I'm cleaning windows

My good friend Angie - who is a dab hand with her ukulele - doubtless knows the words and music to George Formby's mischievous song When I'm Cleaning Windows. You have to imagine Formby's rendition - or Angie's - in the background as you read!

One of the very handy things about living in a bungalow is that every window is on the ground floor, and therefore within reach without having to get up on unsteady steps, or risk serious injury high up on a ladder. That's a key point for me - I am fearful of falling from any high place, or going anywhere, or doing anything, where my poor balancing skills could lead to an accident. I haven't forgotten the awful thump I got slipping backwards on wet rocks at Duckpool, north of Bude, early in 2016. That shook me up a lot, and has made me permanently cautious on any kind of hard surface. I make no bones about it: that fall, which could have had very bad consequences, has left me forever afraid of losing my footing, and completely lacking in confidence wherever good balance might matter. So never ask me to climb anything, nor walk on ice, nor ride a bike, nor mount a horse!

But window-cleaning with my feet firmly rooted to solid ground is fine. And with the right equipment, the job's done in a jiffy.

Well, that's the theory! In practice, cleaning my windows is something I rarely do. It isn't difficult, it isn't messy or strenuous, it doesn't take long, and the results look good. But somehow I always find myself reluctant to get on with it. Another thing is that I don't live in a dirty locality: my windows only very gradually lose their freshly-cleaned look. It takes months for a thin film of grime to become noticeable.

But I steeled myself the other day, and four bucketfuls later, the job was finished, and I stood back to admire the sparkling panes. That's me in the shot above, with long-handled washing broom in hand, full of accomplishment. What I'd just done would probably now last until next spring.

But two of the panes, one small, one large, were not a success. Despite being spanking clean again, the view through these panes remained compromised. All my windows are double-glazed, and these particular panes had a misty look to them. That was bad news. The pane that most mattered was the big one in my lounge window.

It was worst in the top half - something that looked like fine condensation on the inside surfaces. 

I think this means that there's no longer a good seal around the edge of these double-glazed panes. They will have to be replaced. Not the frame - just the pane. So at some point it'll have to be 'hello' to Cloudy2Clear, or a similar firm, to get new panes fitted. Just these two - but presumably even that will cost me hundreds. So here's another job that will have to wait until the second half of 2019, when I will at last have the money for it, my car-transmission loans by then being repaid and out of the way. 

In the meantime, this mistiness will have to be put up with. Its severity seems to depend on the weather, on the temperature difference between outside and inside. It's perhaps fortunate that the year has started to wind down, and reasons to contemplate the back garden are growing fewer. Nor will I be around much - I still have several weeks of caravan holidays coming up between now and mid-November: by then, the days will be getting short and it won't matter having a suboptimal view of my back garden. 

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Loose Women

I was last a regular watcher of ITV's Loose Women at least ten years ago. It's a long-running daytime discussion show, primarily intended for savvy women, and features a changing panel of personalities who air their views and collective wisdom on sundry topics of interest to women and women's role in society. It's less serious than BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour. Frankly, it's TV entertainment, but with an edge. Back in 2008, it was dealing with important issues, and trying not to pull punches, so there was sometimes occasion for raised voices and minor upsets. It seems that little has changed! I'm sure the producers relish some spontaneous fireworks now and then.

One such recent contretemps, widely reported, concerned one of the ladies (Kim Woodburn) who does a show about cleaning disgustingly dirty homes (no, I don't watch it) and who was a guest panellist and exchanged upsetting comments with one of the other panellists (Coleen Nolan), essentially continuing an earlier clash on a different TV programme. Kim was invited back to Loose Women so that the breach could be healed, but (almost predictably) it didn't work out. Tempers flared up again, and she departed in anger.

Well, I was curious enough to watch the clip of this for a short while (though not to the end). It did seem to me that the panel were hunkered down, ready for some argee-bargee, and one of them (Janet Street-Porter) actually had a judge's attire on, introducing a somewhat adversarial flavour to the encounter (or rematch, if you will). The invited-back lady was clearly on the defensive, and wary of her reception. But even if she had been responsive to whatever sweet words might have been said to generate peace and mutual understanding, it looked as if she was set up to fail.

I understand there has been a bit of a backlash from appalled viewers, and that Loose Women is now under threat of being axed by ITV at the end of the year. But I wouldn't be surprised if it carries on, possibly forever, though purged of its more contentious and short-fused panellists. 

That clip might have been my only exposure to Loose Women for another ten years - if the programme lasts that long - but when in John Lewis at Home the other day the programme was being shown on many of the TV screens in the tech part of the store. I should add that John Lewis at Home is a great place to go and see really big cutting-edge 4K digital TVs, and marvel at how wonderful the pictures are. Tech that I can't justify spending money on - I hardly ever watch TV at home, and never in the caravan - but nevertheless find it fascinating to see and admire.

Well, I couldn't help standing in front of one of these big screens for a few minutes, and giving the show some attention. The two topics under discussion (as I watched) seemed entirely typical. Should children drink coffee? (Caffeine being bad for their sleep and so on) And were we being tough enough on domestic violence? (Of course we weren't)

Three of the panellists were women of middle age or older, and one was a younger woman. I could put a name to only two of them. Janet Street-Porter was one.

And I think this must be Stacey Solomon.

I wasn't sure who the two other panellists were.

I didn't pay as much attention to what they were all saying as I might have, and I can't now remember any of it. The things for me were the facial expressions, body postures and hand movements; and the make-up and jewellery of each lady. An absorbing study indeed.

Well, I certainly don't go in for all that bling. Nor the fancy hair-styles secured by perms and hairspray. I don't possess her super-forceful personality, but Janet Street-Porter's no-nonsense style is closest to my own public image.

I should think that this programme, for all its ups and downs, for all its misfires, remains influential on matters of female personal appearance, attitude, and point of view. I wonder how many woman around the country are addicted to it and model themselves on whoever sits on the panel. Quite a few, I'd say. It might be millions of women for all I know.

This one too? Well, not being a regular viewer, that cannot be. But then, perhaps I do pick up some of the Loose Women way of thinking at second hand, through my women friends, even if I can count on their absorbing the impact of the programme through a sieve of discrimination and common-sense.

Is there such a thing, really, as 'a woman's point of view'? In a shared, pan-female sense?

Among woman of the same friendship group, surely yes - otherwise they would be uncomfortable, frustrated, bicker, be at odds, and fall out, which is all unbearable.

Between different tribes of women? I'm not so sure.

All women have to cope with men, and the hard fact that this is still a man's world. There is this common rival, who is probably going to get the upper hand if you let him, even if the modern world is supposed to be all fairness and equality. The casual outrages and insulting behaviour of some men unite all women. But in a world without men, what would happen? I think there would still be a definite pecking order, and a forming into cliques, and life would not be kind to those lacking in assertiveness and the deft arts of chicanery.

Still, it will be pity if a high-profile TV programme panelled by outspoken women with plenty to say gets axed. It's a loud voice for all women on a dominant medium, and because of that must be kept going, or at least reinvented in the same mould.

A final thought. What would a programme like Loose Men be like? Who would watch it? Has it actually been around for ages, in the guise of Top Gear and similar masculine vehicles full of ribaldry, pranking and bad attitude?

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

So that's what I get up to when asleep!

One more Fitbit report, before covering some other things as my next holiday approaches.

I've had my Alta HR for a week now. Its purpose was to get me doing more exercise - something I wanted to become habitual, just as a change to healthier eating became habitual thanks to Slimming World. With my toe now fixed, the way was open for a two-pronged attack on excess weight and damaging sloth, both of which would ruin my prospects of enjoying an active later life.

Well, it's done the trick. Here's my record of daily steps - a screen shot from the Fitbit app, which analyses the raw information collected by the Alta HR and synced to my phone.

The first day, 28th August, was the day my Fitbit arrived. It was less than half a day. But since then I've been looking for ways to walk 10,000 steps every day, and I've succeeded on most days. Last Friday, an exception, was taken up with pilates and then a long lunch, an afternoon nap, and a quiz at the golf club in the evening. So I was not walking much. But in the main I've succeeded in walking my 10,000 steps a day. 

I'm already feeling distinctly fitter, and much more inclined to get up on my feet. I have to sit still when typing a blog post, for instance, but now I make a point of moving around the house at frequent intervals, to break up the inactivity and get a few more steps in. For every one counts towards the daily total - although it's best, of course, if they are vigorous steps that get the heart beating fast and strongly. 

Will this all last? I think so. Those 10,000 daily steps - 15,000 if I can manage it - are a daily goal that's not very hard to reach. I can generally do 4,000 steps merely in the course of pottering around the house and garden. A forty-minute walk around the village will easily bump this up to 10,000. 

You know when you've hit the target - the Fitbit gently vibrates on your wrist and a celebratory display (it looks like bursting fireworks) shows up on the screen with a star (indicating another Award clocked up in my Fitbit Achievement Record) and the figures '10,000' following. You are naturally, when close to the 10,000-step target, going to take some extra steps in order to feel that vibration, and thus know you've achieved the main daily goal yet again. Why, it might even get you out in the rain to enjoy that buzz!

Contrary to first expectations, I haven't had to devise any set-piece walking sessions. No formal planning is required. Just a fast-paced impromptu walk along local streets and pathways, almost at random. I haven't gone near the South Downs, for instance. This is an important part of the appeal of exercising with a recording device that counts all steps, however taken, accurately and automatically. There's no fuss. You can be completely spontaneous, and pop out for a short burst of exercise on a sudden whim. You don't have to don special clothing or footwear. It's exercise as the mood takes you, as the opportunity presents, with no special preparation, and of course nil cost. Straight from one's front door, and without consuming big chunks of one's busy day. I've now seen and explored parts of the neighbourhood that I've never seen before, just because I wanted to get extra steps in, and was curious. What's not to like? No wonder I've stayed with it.  

The Fitbit records more than just steps walked. The heart rate statistics are interesting too. Here's the summary record of my 'resting heart rate' for the last few days.

The graphs for each day show the actual heart rates through the day, and as you can see, my walking has become very brisk indeed on occasion. You can easily drill down to get fuller information for each day. Here's the detail for a 46-minute walk I took last Thursday, for instance. 

Very interesting, both the summary and the detail.

Because I wear my Alta HR day and night, it records what happens to me while I sleep - another thing I'm especially interested in. I've long thought that I don't get enough sleep, and that it's not as beneficial to my well-being as it could be. Now I can experiment with different sleeping routines, and see the effect of the changes I can make. Such as: What happens if I go to bed before midnight? What happens if I don't play a few games of solitaire on my phone before going to sleep? Here for instance is how I slept last Thursday night, which was after my most strenuous day of walking so far.

I concluded from this that there was nothing badly amiss with my sleeping, but that if I could get to sleep earlier, and not faff around, I'd have a better chance of enjoying some super-restorative Deep Sleep. I am trying to get in seven hours' sleep. Historically I get five at night, and quite often up to two hours from napping in the afternoon.

This is last night's record. Another late night. It didn't help that I got home from playing cards with Jo and Clive up the road only after midnight. But, once finally in bed, I resisted the temptation to do things with my phone before putting head to pillow.

I find the sleep-time information and analyses the most fascinating part of having my Fitbit. It's an insight into what happens to me when I'm unconscious. And after all, this is a big segment of my life: I ought to be aware of what my body is doing while asleep. Now I can see, night after night.

No, I didn't recall any of those waking moments, except the one after 5.00am, when I went to the loo. One surprise is the amount of REM time, when I must have been dreaming. I can never remember anything about my dreams though, and hitherto I would have sworn that 'I never dream'. But clearly I do, as much as anyone.

So: was my purchase of the Alta HR worth it? Yes. Even if I eventually confine my ongoing enthusiasm for fitness to walking 10,000 steps a day, and never taking lifts and escalators, it will have served its purpose. It's an attractive eye-catching device, comfortable to wear all the time, and as a bare minimum it can tell me the time, day and date. I didn't need a watch - I could get the time from my phone - but I admit the Alta HR is useful and convenient in that role.

It is most comfortable strapped to my left wrist, so it's displaced my heavy serpent bangle to the right wrist. I thought this would look and feel odd, but - another surprise - it has worked out well. 

And I'm glad now that I didn't spend £80 more to get the Fitbit Versa, which is the company's 'smartwatch' offering. I tried one on my wrist at John Lewis at Home last week, and it looked gigantic and decidedly inelegant.

It's not really for dainty female wrists! I tried it next to my Alta HR. I know which I'd want to wear all the time.

The Alta HR has some claim to being a fashion accessory, as well as a fashionable lifestyle gadget. It won't do my public image any harm. But really it's only a tool to get fitter with, a means to an end, a bit of tech equipment, and it stands or falls on what it can do versus any problems with wearing it all the time. If it does prove durable and significantly useful, then we will have a bright future together. The indications are that it probably will be my constant companion for the rest of the year at least, until daily exercising has become such an ingrained habit and feature of my life that I would miss it if I stopped. Beyond that? Well, we'll have to see.  

The next post will be about something completely different!