Sunday, 31 May 2020

Retired for fifteen years today

Three anniversaries in a row. One of them is today - the fifteenth anniversary of my retirement on 31st May 2005.

Gosh, fifteen years. It does seem a long time, and an awful lot has happened in my life since I stopped working. 

Have I used those years well - or wasted them? I certainly could have done more with my time - taken up more interests, learned more skills - but retirement is about casting aside the burden of things you have to do in favour of things that you choose. So I've felt under no compulsion whatever to be 'useful' to society. In fact I made only one resolution back in 2005, which was to get up early in the morning - soon after 7.00am, with an alarm set so that I would achieve that - and not waste half the morning in bed. I did not want to become slothful and sluggish. I have kept to this one thing and, being thus an early bird, I have generally caught the worm.

I really haven't added a single important new interest or pastime to the things I was doing in 2005. Is that bad? I had many other things to contend with in the period 2008 to 2011, which left me with little opportunity to relax and try something new. And at some point after 2011 I decided that is was becoming too late to embark on major new commitments. They would only be worth the effort if I could make good use of them. 

So I haven't tried, for instance, to learn a language. It sounds fun, to learn Spanish, or German (two languages I didn't do at school) or something less obvious, such as Welsh (which I did learn at school until eleven, but have since mostly forgotten). But then, what is the point? Am I going to visit Spain or Germany again and again, and delve into their culture? No. What about Welsh? Much closer to home, and I do go caravanning in Wales. But again, I'm never going to immerse myself in Welsh culture, and learning the language would have no practical purpose for me. Besides, I know only too well that my ear for language is as poor as my ear for music. 

What else do retired people do?

Dancing? I'm not a person who delights in physical skills, and as I have such a poor sense of rhythm, the endeavour would be doomed. Besides, my dodgy knee ligaments would never stand up to it. 

A sport, then? I'm not too old for golf, and you'd think that as golf was Dad's passion I would have inherited a strong liking for it myself. But no. In later life, both Mum and Dad were good at bowling and derived great fun and satisfaction from bowling club life. But I'm not drawn to it, and I'm no team player. In any case, however friendly the play, both golf and bowling require a sharp appetite for competition, and I'm not competitive.  

Gardening? I like a neat garden, but would never be able to find the time to tend a well-planted flower bed. It's enough to create a pleasing overall effect through mowing the lawns and occasionally clipping the shrubs and rear hedge. I know my limits.

Entertaining? That's expensive, and in any case I haven't got the right house for it: my home is too small.

Painting? When I so very much prefer photography? A non-starter.

So I've done my own thing, which involves a lot of driving around the countryside, seeking out good places and subjects for my camera. That's 15,000 miles a year in normal times, and 16,000 photos a year taken, processed and enjoyed. Plus some creative writing, in the form of blogging.  

I have looked at doing other things that might appeal. I have a longstanding wish to take up knitting, for example. But again, to what end? I have no grandchildren to knit things for, and if I want clothes I prefer to have them now, rather than in a few months' time when I've finally finished them. (I am not a fast worker) Frankly, I am clumsy and inept at most things that require deftness and a sure touch, and therefore doomed never to become skilful at a craft.  

And so the list of possible activities in retirement goes on and on. And I can always find a reason for not investing time, money and effort into something that other people find absorbing and rewarding. The truth is that the little I do is enough. And if that little keeps me happy, and free of stress, surely that in itself is an achievement, and proves something important? 

The bottom line is that I enjoy my retirement, and see nothing vital missing from it. I'm looking forward to another fifteen years of just the same.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Breaking the rules

Free-thinking people - who often regard themselves as very intelligent, very creative, and above the laws and regulations placed on the dull and ignorant common herd - generally say that 'rules are made to be broken'. And it's all right if they do it, because they have good judgement, need no guidance, are not stupid, and can safely ignore all the restrictions that ordinary people must adhere to.

It's an arrogant way of thinking, but I've come across it time and time again. Not that I'm completely guiltless myself. Frankly, when convenience matters, or getting somewhere on time, it's all too easy to disregard unpopular or nonsensical laws and regulations.

Indeed some people make it a point of honour to flout any impositions and requirements they don't like, or see as insulting, or 'not British', claiming that public opinion would vindicate them if ever they were found out and made to justify what they had done. Personally, I wouldn't chance my arm, but there are a lot of amateur philosophers around who have a keen vision of what their natural rights are.

Well, we certainly value and uphold the ways of an enlightened civilisation in this country, and that includes the worship of many individual freedoms. We are eagle-eyed for infringements on our civil liberties, and our historic birthright to do much as we please - although in fact the cumulative effect of half a century of technological advance has made us one of the most watched and tracked societies in the world. Really, you can't leave your front door - at least in a city or large town - without showing up on a series of official cameras, and leaving a electronic footprint as you move about town and spend money. It may be a discontinuous record, but it's enough to reconstruct where one went, for how long, what one did, and possibly whom one met. Witnesses can be found, to amplify what the camera could not see. And away from the streets, the separate insights possible from analysing what we do on the Internet - emails, texts, tweets, pictures posted, and so forth - need hardly be elaborated upon.

Such is the possibility of piecing together a person's movements, it's surprising that any kind of old-fashioned street crime is still perpetrated. It's getting ever-easier to identify suspects, and forensic evidence may seal their fate.

And so to chief government political advisor Dominic Cummings, presently in the news for evacuating his wife and young child from London to his parents nearly three hundred miles away in the North-East.

Done surreptitiously. Not yet publicly explained in full, and a changing story at that. With witnesses now found by newspapers, saying that the man compounded his wrongdoing.

His excuse? A natural wish to place his child in a safer situation. He has played the 'frantic parent' card.

Does being a frantic parent trump lockdown rules such as staying at home, not travelling unnecessarily - not travelling at all if possibly (or certainly) infected with the virus - and not compromising the safety of vulnerable parents?  On the bare facts, Mr Cummings acted as if the needs of his situation did allow him to override the very definite rules current at the time, which he must have been fully familiar with. They were part of the government's central message on why the lockdown was necessary, with 'Stay at Home' as the punchline. It appears he ignored that message knowingly and deliberately. Although of course he might not have given the rules any thought at all.

My view? The same as a lot of other people. Whatever the worry, he was obliged to stick to the rules and sit it out in London. Especially as he was so close to the government. He was next to the seat of power, and had a particular personal duty to set as good an example as any minister, top civil servant, or top scientific advisor. I don't think it matters whether or not he was bound by any official Code. He had to do - conspicuously - what ordinary people had been told to do.

I may be lacking in empathy, but the child could have been looked after in London's very best children's hospital if both parents had needed hospitalisation themselves. Many a parent around the country must have wished they could have spirited their child away to a safer place, but did not break the lockdown, because they were prepared to behave in a way that would protect the wider community, and trusted the NHS and support services to take over in dire need. In a phrase, most of us consciously 'helped the NHS' by not doing things that might spread infection. Mr Cummings thought he was different.

The fallout?

Well, I am sure this scandal won't be dropped, even though it's now 'history' - done and beyond any practical remedy. But not, I would have thought, beyond police investigation and judicial scrutiny. A fine and career eclipse should await him.

If Mr Cummings gets away with it, an awful lot of ordinary people will start to say 'I could have done the same thing' and then by extension 'I can still do it'. The lockdown is now being eased and the rules are slackening, and enforcement is getting that much harder. People are sick of the restrictions. Their resolve to obey the remaining rules is waning, and they don't need examples of unpunished rule-flouting. There are surely now going to be people shifting their nearest and dearest around the country, of children crying to see their grandparents, and being transported to them without so many pangs of conscience. The parents will be prepared to say to any police officer 'I'm merely doing what Dominic Cummings did'.

Hello, fresh spike of infections.

Further thoughts after Mr Cummings has explained what he was doing
His motivation for that trip to the north has certainly been explained, but I still don't feel he is off the hook. The government's message was clear: stay at home. His situation was not exceptional and did not warrant an exceptional solution. His boss, the Prime Minister, wasn't well, but even so could and should have been consulted. Mr Cummings was, after all, under contract and not entirely at liberty to come and go as he pleased. Besides, a chief advisor on whom people depend just can't go AWOL without letting the staff he works with at Number 10 know where he will be, why, and for how long. He was a central figure in the formation of high government policy from moment to moment. He should not have just dropped out.

As for whether he did the right thing as a human being, and specifically as a caring and concerned father, I am not a parent and therefore not competent to judge. But it is clear that millions of other fathers adhered to the rules, and did not whisk their children away to safety as he did. If there was a little-known loophole in the law, or the guidance, that permitted his journey north, then it went against the thrust and spirit of the stark health message being pushed at the time, and he should not - in his position - have taken advantage of it.   

Should he now resign his appointment? Well, if his brain is so indispensable, then perhaps not, although it's rather disconcerting to realise that this country is effectively being run by one man - somebody moreover who is not accountable to the electorate. But surely he should be fined and reprimanded for breaking the law. Or have the police been warned off?

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Reliving the good times

I've now been through all my 1980s slides. I'm afraid it wasn't with much of a flaming sword. It was very difficult to throw away perfectly good shots of people that have passed out of my life. These pictures are all I have of them now - and of the mostly London-based world I inhabited then. I've rediscovered occasions I'd completely forgotten about. And I have to admit that the shots reveal a jollier time than I remember, and one that lasted much longer than I thought.

My standard verdict on my marriage has always been - well, at least since the later 1990s - that I had four good years, then four not so good, then we split, and divorced five years later. I'm going to have to revise this to six good years, then a swift decline.

And I think I can pinpoint the chief event that caused it: moving in 1989 from London into the countryside, to a little home just outside Horsham.

For me, it was a heaven-sent opportunity to quit the claustrophobic city air and breathe again in green surroundings, with the coast within easy reach. I pushed very hard to make it happen, and to this day I think my forcing it through remains one of the most selfish acts I have ever been guilty of.

For W---, it was a nice change that freed up some capital and added welcome novelty. A chance for both of us to home-build afresh, and we seized it. But our new location was not so good in the winter, when travelling by car to south London and back was sometimes a nightmare, especially in the dark or the fog. I could take the train, but W--- insisted on driving, and therefore had the worst of it. W--- came to hate living in Sussex, or at least the travelling. It surely broke the marriage, although I think my own natural tendencies to live independently, to be alone, and to resist being smothered by family life, were all re-asserting themselves and played their part.

The slides stop in 1989, and from there I switched to print film. The prints (not the slides) will chronicle the last months in 1990 when the marriage was well and truly showing the strain, and on its way out. I'm not looking forward to seeing them, knowing that any smiles, any signs of having a great time, were simply a front so that parents and others wouldn't be curious or concerned.

It's funny how you hide the cracks in a relationship until the very last moment. Like people do when they have a terminal illness. I wonder if anybody was actually fooled? Probably not.

I still can't recall those last days at Christmas 1990 and New Year 1991 without flinching. The tension was unbearable. But the break itself was discussed and confirmed in an afternoon. So rapidly, that we never wallowed in any kind of inquest, neither then nor afterwards. It was absolutely not going to be just a 'trial separation', to be explored and possibly patched up. It was out, stayed out, and immediately became a solid fact with no going back.

I must have felt sad and defeated (something that I certainly felt more and more intensely in the months ahead, as my self-esteem shrivelled away), but I was far from crushed. I remember feeling free at once to go flat-hunting, considering every town just outside London that had a rail station. I now yearned to be alone - on any basis, with no furniture and only crates to sit on perhaps - so long as I could be self-sufficient. That did not go down well. Where was my grief? Was I completely heartless?

It was quickly obvious, however, that there could be no pied-à-terre for me in Oxted or wherever, however modest, because the housing market was depressed and there was too little equity in our little home to think about selling up at once. It just wasn't possible to go our separate ways, each with enough money to buy something good where we wanted to be. So for the next five years W--- rented in London, and I sat it out in Sussex. And nearly thirty years later, and three homes on, I'm still here.

All this has been revived, just from looking at pictures!

Well, I shall concentrate on the endless family gatherings and events in the 1980s, and as I scan and process those pictures, savour a journey into a vanished era when I clearly enjoyed my social life, and got satisfaction from making a home. There are scenes of such fun and laughter that it seems impossible to imagine how it could all crumble away. And there's me, grinning my head off, a person I can scarcely recognise now.

Did the old me in those 1980s pictures have the slightest glimmering of how life would be in 2020? No, of course not. We live for the present and the immediate future. It's best that the far future is unknowable. That's true now, and will always be true.

It's easy for men

One of the hazards of driving off to a more distant spot for one's 'coronavirus exercise' is the problem of going to the loo. In many places the public toilets have been locked shut for the duration of the pandemic. That wouldn't matter too much if all the usual cafés, museums, galleries, libraries and pubs were open, but they're closed too. That just leaves the toilets in supermarkets - but the snag there is the need to queue to get in. You might be lucky mid-afternoon; but generally speaking, a longish wait would have to be endured. (It would pay to be quite sure that, once inside, there were indeed toilets to use)

Just over a week ago I drove to Bexhill and, after a long promenade walk, was pinning my hopes on being able to go at the station. But I was thwarted. The toilets there were closed. I went to the ticket window and (observing social distancing) explained my predicament to the lady behind the glass screen, and asked her where else in town I might find a loo.

'Are you desperate?'
'I'm afraid so.'
'I'll unlock the disabled toilet door for you then.'
'Oh, thank you so much.'

So that was all right after all. Quel relief! Perhaps I looked elderly and deserving. But if the nice lady hadn't been sympathetic to my plight, I'm not sure what I could have done. The only major supermarket within feasible walking distance was Sainsbury's, and they didn't have any customer toilets. Tesco did, but were further away, and in case there'd be that queue. And what a long trek back to Fiona afterwards.

Actually, towns are not good places loowise just now. It's much better to be out in the sticks. In the countryside there is more than a sporting chance of finding a secluded spot, complete with a handy bush, for a discreet pee. Even bleak moorland usually has a boulder or two to duck behind, or a stout stone wall, and some moors (like Dartmoor) are covered with prehistoric hut circles and the like, which will offer good cover for one's exposed posterior. Mind you, Sod's Law being what it is, you can never completely rule out a party of squaddies, boy scouts or bishops suddenly appearing from nowhere. Even if they don't actually see you squatting, they'll know what you were crouching down behind that rock for. So embarrassing.

Once or twice (though not in recent years) I've been caught short out on the open road late at night, a long way from home, and way past the time when a pub might still be open. All you can do, when it's pitch dark, is crouch down at the side of the car, shielded by opened doors, and hope that nobody comes down the road with their headlights blazing. A vain hope! Each time I've done this, I've been lit up by main beams. The drivers wouldn't of course have seen anything, but they would easily have have guessed it was a woman having an emergency roadside pee. Only women hide modestly from view. A man, of course, would have just stood away from the car and nonchalantly relieved himself into the evening breeze, cool as you like, the headlights catching the arching amber stream.

This has reminded me of the Monty Python sketch set in the 1890s, concerning King Edward VII (when still the Prince of Wales) and three literary and artistic luminaries - Oscar Wilde, James Whistler, and George Bernard Shaw - all trying to outdo each other with semi-insulting witticisms. Shown in January 1973, it's officially known as the Oscar Wilde Sketch. But unofficially it's the Bat's Piss Sketch. The dialogue and stage directions go as follows.


(Wilde's drawing room. A crowd of suitably dressed folk are engaged in typically brilliant conversation, laughing affectedly and drinking champagne)

Prince: (Terry Jones) My congratulations, Wilde. Your latest play is a great success. The whole of London's talking about you.

Wilde: (Graham Chapman) Your highness, there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.

(Fifteen seconds of restrained and sycophantic laughter)

Prince: Very witty Wilde. Very, very witty.

Whistler: (John Cleese) There is only one thing in the world worse than being witty, and that is not being witty.

(Fifteen more seconds of the same)

Wilde: I wish I had said that, Whistler.

Whistler: You will, Oscar, you will!

(More laughter)

Wilde: Your Highness, do you know James McNeill Whistler?

Prince: Yes, we've played squash together.

Wilde: There is only one thing worse than playing squash together, and that is playing it by yourself.


Wilde: I wish I hadn't said that.

Whistler: But you did, Oscar, you did.

(A little laughter)

Prince: Well, you must forgive me Wilde, but I must get back to the Palace.

Wilde: Your Majesty, you're like a big jam doughnut with cream on the top!

Prince: I beg your pardon?

Wilde: Um... It was one of Whistler's.

Whistler: I didn't say that!

Wilde: You did, James, you did.

Prince: Well, Mr Whistler? The Prince of Wales stares expectantly at Whistler)

Whistler: I meant, Your Majesty, that - um - like a doughnut your arrival gives us pleasure, and your departure merely makes us hungry for more.

(The Prince laughs and nods his head)

Whistler: Right! Your Majesty is also like a stream of bat's piss.

Prince: WHAT?

Whistler: It was one of Wilde's.

Wilde: It sodding was not! It was Shaw!

Prince: Well, Mr Shaw?

Shaw: (Michael Palin) I...I merely meant, Your Majesty, that you shine out like a shaft of gold when all around is dark!

Prince: (Accepting the compliment) Oh...

[The sketch continued. I might as well finish it]

Wilde: (Confidentially to Whistler) Right? (To the Prince) Your Majesty is like a dose of clap!

Prince: WHAT?!

Whistler: (Picking up Wilde's start) Before you arrive is pleasure, but after is a pain in the dong.

Wilde and Whistler: One of Shaw's, one of Shaw's!

Shaw: You bastards. Um...what I meant, Your Majesty...what I meant...

Prince: Well, Mr Shaw? I'm waiting...

Wilde: Come on, Shaw!

Whistler: Let's have a bit of wit then, man!

Shaw: What I meant to say was... (Gives up and blows a raspberry)

(The Prince shakes Wilde's hand. Laughter all round)

Back to the current situation. I'm thinking about next Monday evening's trip down to Bosham for an important ten-year anniversary that I will write a post about.

Bosham is on Chichester Harbour, and an hour and a quarter from home. I'll want arrive at 7.30pm and hang around for the sunset at 9.00pm. So I will be away from home for at least four hours, and will for certain want to visit a loo during that time. The pub at Bosham, the Anchor Bleu, would normally be open, but not on this occasion. There are decent public toilets in the main car park, but they might be shut. It's tricky then. I do - of course - have a 'female bottle' in the car, but past experience has proved that while these may be suitable when lying on a bed, they are useless when seated inside a car. Or maybe I just haven't mastered the technique, and should practice before the day! (A practice regime is now in progress, but don't expect an illustrated post)

So, it may have to be a grubby loo at a filling station. Ugh.

Or some lonely countryside spot on the way home? Up a forest track? In the dark? No, way too creepy. Too many mad axemen prowling around.

Oh for the secure and private luxury of my caravan toilet! But I can't tow it along behind Fiona just now - the police would think I was off on an illegal overnight stay somewhere. And in any case, a car/caravan combo is difficult to park, and is at the mercy of thieves if you wander away for your exercise. That's where a small motorhome - with its strong car-like security, as well as its handy onboard facilities - scores for a day trip. It can be parked in most ordinary public car parks - places where people abound and will notice any nefarious activity - and is therefore not nearly so likely to be a thieves' target while you wander off.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Making a face mask

I needed to acquire a face mask by 1st June at the latest, because that's the day I will take my car Fiona to the Volvo dealer for her annual service and MOT - and also to fit new rear brake discs and pads, and two new front tyres. I'll be dropping her off first thing in the morning, and she won't be ready for collection until late in the afternoon. So I'll want to go home for a few hours, then return. And that going home and coming back will entail using the train - they can't give me a loan car. I'll need to wear a mask on the train - not to protect myself from coronavirus (it's a feeble shield against infection) but to offer partial protection to the other passengers should I cough or sneeze. Indeed, I'm pretty sure it will be a condition of travel.

So, with less than two weeks to go, it was time to make one. In fact I would make two if I could. Then I'd have a spare, just in case it was needed.

I'd already got some likely materials together in my study:

And I had taken screenprints of a simple design for home sewing from the BBC News website:

The sewing would have to be done by hand, and I'm no seamstress! But a slightly untidy result wouldn't matter, so long as the mask covered nose and mouth properly, and wouldn't come to pieces, slip or fall off.

I'd heard that the village chemists had packs of manufactured masks in stock for as little as £5. But that was the easy option, for lazy people. I wanted the satisfaction of making my own.

So which bit of fabric would I use? (I had put those red knickers away. Who knows, one day I might want to wear them for fun again!) Well, I had an old pink and white top; a yellow and white pillowcase; a cotton tea towel striped in yellow, blue and white; and some smaller cotton off-cuts in white and blue, left over from making my rag rug in 2016. I commenced with the pillowcase, following the instructions on the laptop screen.

My super-sharp Fiskars scissors made the cutting easy. I made use of the pillowcase edge, to save a bit of sewing. Two folded rectangles later, I had second thoughts. Actually, I'd prefer to use the tea towel!

It had a crease in it, so I got out the ironing board and steam iron...

...then cut out the required rectangles all over again.

Only half an hour had gone by. But now the time-consuming bit had come. Each folded rectangle would form a pouch, into which folded kitchen paper could be inserted as a filter. So hems had to be made, either to create that pouch, or to prevent cut edges fraying with use. The side hems would have elastic looped through them. A lot of rough needlework. It only needed perseverance. 

Finally it was done. My mask was all sewn, and was ready for the elastic. I used a crochet hook to pull each length of elastic through its side-hem.

I couldn't yet know how long the loops of elastic would need to be, in order to fit over my ears. I knotted the ends experimentally, then tried the mask on. Too slack. But I got it right on the second attempt.

Well, it wasn't too awful. My mask certainly looked home-made, and no doubt some nasty, sniffy sneering folk would make snide remarks that it looked like a 'butchered tea towel'. But hey, it did the job; and it didn't make me look like an off-duty nurse, a smog victim, or some kind of hypochondriac. And it was reasonably comfortable to wear. 

I trimmed off the excess elastic, and pulled the knot on each side into its hem, to hide it. 

The parts that faced inwards - which the public wouldn't see - were a bit rough and ready. But the outward side seemed neat enough. The mask simply had to be a practical part of my public attire in a confined space. It had to look effective, but it didn't have to be smart, sexy or high-tech. So I didn't think anyone would actually smirk and chortle when they saw me wearing the thing. However, we'll see. 

Finally I put a folded square of kitchen paper inside the pouch section between the side-hems. My mask was complete. It could now be rolled up and kept in my bag for instant use. Train rides or bank robbery: I was ready for action!

By now about three hours had passed since starting. The second mask was definitely a job for another day. 

In fact, it will have to wait until I can enter a fabric shop and buy some more elastic - I imagine that this will be possible sometime in June. At least I do now have one finished mask to wear into the shop.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Digitising my slides - the Final Scan commences

I've made a start on a Final Scan of the slides in my eight wooden slide boxes. It'll be a big job. but I'll help it along by ruthlessly discarding all slides that I won't be scanning. It's not that there's a lot of dross in those boxes; it's just that if I don't cut the volume down pretty drastically, the job will stay too big to tackle and will never get done. And I know that there are many interesting pictures in my slide collection that I'd like to see digitised, and made part of my digital photo archive. In particular, my pictures of the 1980s, which were almost wholly shot with slide film. Those shots remain trapped in those boxes. They need to be liberated.

A few quick words of explanation for those who never shot with film in decades past.

Print film produced a negative image, which could easily be home-developed if it was Black-and-White film; otherwise by any competent lab. You could make as many prints as you liked from the negative. At a consumer level, using print film was ridiculously easy: practically any camera or film would do, and nobody expected great results. This is why it was possible for professionals, with their extra skill, much better film, and very much better equipment, to make a living.

Slide film - or colour transparency film - produced a positive image, a colour transparency, intended for projection onto a big screen. It could not be developed at home. A slide film had to be sent away to the national lab of the film brand used - usually Kodak in Hemel Hempstead in my case. Taking pictures with slide film was tricky. You had to get the exposure exactly right. This meant using a quality camera, and quality film.

So using slide film was more exacting, and tended to bump up costs. But a really good slide was a wonderful thing. It could be projected to stunning effect. Brilliant colours, very crisp detail, and giant-sized. Much bigger than the largest domestic TV screen in 2020.

Unfortunately the average amateur photographer, certainly the ordinary 'holiday' photographer, commonly did not have the skill or equipment to get the best out of slides. Proud of them he (it was generally 'he') may have been, the act of projection revealed all the faults of wrong exposure and poor composition, none of which could be corrected. Inevitably the home 'slide show' acquired a bad reputation. Many ordinary photographers, keen but talentless, regularly subjected visiting friends and family to an excruciating ordeal. I was as guilty as any. This advertisement for GePe ultra-thin slides (thin, so that they wouldn't get stuck in the projector, which often happened) appeared in a September 1974 issue of the weekly Amateur Photographer magazine, and brings back some memories! It was the typical experience when visiting a couple who had just been on holiday.

So true.

All of my photos were transparencies from the beginning in 1965 up to the end of 1989, when I switched to print film.

I was only 13 in 1965, and to begin with I could afford only one or two films a year out of my pocket money (I spent most of my money on magazines, paperback books and maps, and sometimes sweets and ice cream). Later on I took photos in quantity, particularly from 1973, after buying a much better camera. I numbered my slides, and I can tell from this that by the end of 1989 I had taken about 5,000.

That may sound a lot, but I took vastly more when I switched to print film. For a very long time, slides were the only way to secure really good colour pictures, but they were fiddly to handle, difficult to store, and a hassle to project. Finding a particular slide was a pain, unless there was a comprehensive paper list or card index with full details of each slide meticulously noted down. I had such a list, but still couldn't pull out all my slides on one subject, as you can do instantly with digital photos. And each slide was a one-off - there was no cheap way of copying them. All this limited their usefulness and appeal.

I kept my transparencies in wooden slide boxes bought from Boots. They were nice boxes, and I eventually had eight of them before they stopped being available in the late 1970s. Each box could hold 350 slides, if putting two in each slot. So the overall capacity of my eight boxes was no more than 2,800 slides, and eventually I adopted a policy of weeding to keep the collection below this figure. 

Once the habit of weeding transparencies began, I applied it vigorously. Obviously the main intention was to discard poor photos, and to keep only the best pictures; but I carried the weeding too far. By 1989 I had only 2,500 slides left out of the 5,000 actually taken, and in hindsight I do very much regret the total loss of so many photos, particularly from the 1960s and 1970s. How I wish that computers had been available in those years! So many substandard shots could have been rescued by tilting, cropping and exposure-correction. And then I could have scanned them all.

After 1989 there was no more weeding of slides. There was no need. The collection was never going to expand further because I'd switched to shooting colour print film.

Colour print film had greatly improved over the years, and next-day High Street developing was readily available at places such as Boots. It was also easy to have extra prints made. Besides, my Rollei slide-projector was ageing and giving trouble, and I was reluctant to spend money on a replacement. So I went over to print film in time for Christmas 1989. The changeover was permanent: I did not return to transparencies.

I was particularly impressed by the first of the high-resolution print films, starting with Kodak's ‘Ektar’ films. Do you remember these ads? This was from Photography magazine for November 1989:

At the time, this was revolutionary for a colour negative film. No wonder I switched.

I preserved the 2,500 slides I still had. I put them away carefully. The eight wooden boxes were good protection. My slides survived four more house moves. From 2000 I owned a scanner, and in principle I intended to scan every slide left in my collection. Once scanned, and digitised, and merged with my main photo archive, the original transparencies would then be thrown away. After 2005 I had no screen, and no slide projector, but the shots taken on slide film were far more easily (and usefully) viewed on a computer screen.

The years passed, and I did only a very little slide-scanning, just now and then. In all, only a few hundred were digitised, leaving the bulk of the task untouched. Every winter I promised myself that I would tackle this once and for all. Every winter, I put it off.

But then a week ago I went up into the attic, got those eight slide boxes down, and began the job. The coronavirus lockdown had paused my social life and holiday plans, and this was the ideal moment to get started on a Final Scanning Effort and then, afterwards, turn to my unscanned photo prints. (Another mammoth task)

So the table in my study was now laden with wooden boxes:

One problem was simply viewing what was on each slide! I needed a bright white background to hold the slide up against, and if necessary examine closely with a magnifying glass. I got up the Paint app on my Microsoft Surface Book laptop, and filled the image space with white. That gave me the bright white background I needed. Here it is in action.

It was good enough.

I worked my way through three of the eight boxes before having had enough for one day. The pile of discarded slides quickly grew, and I soon half-filled the waste-paper bin.

At this stage, all I was doing was examining each slide to see whether I'd keep it for scanning, or otherwise throw it away at once. I was pleased to see that quite a lot in these first three boxes had already been scanned. If so, that made the keep-discard decision straightforward. But inevitably a lot hadn't been scanned, and never would be. So those had to go into the bin without compunction.

You mustn't think that I found this easy. Some of those slides dated back to 1965, back indeed to the very first slide film I shot. I just couldn't bring myself to discard one or two of my oldest slides - a beautiful sunset at Treyarnon Bay, and a shot of Trevose Head lighthouse, both taken in Cornwall in August 1965:

Those two slides (and maybe others) would have to be preserved as 'original historical documents'! But many others bit the dust. It had to be. And once I'd finished for the day, I made sure that the waste-paper bin was emptied into the kitchen bin, and that emptied as well. I didn't want to be tempted into having second thoughts. Only by quick decision, and ruthless adherence to it, would I get the job done.  

I haven't got back to this task in the days since, but I will. And then keep at it. The remaining five wooden slide boxes contain people shots - portraits and groups. I expect deciding which of those to throw away will be much more of a challenge. I managed to jettison two out of three of the 'places' shots. I doubt that I can be so forthright with the 'people' shots.

It's a funny thing, but at this stage of my life I value the acquaintance of anyone who has ever come my way. Even those whose memory I would have once shuddered at. I have survived, and I'm still having fun. They however are probably not in the best of health, and may even be dead. So I want to preserve any picture I have of them.  

At the end of this, once the slides have been whittled down to a manageable number, and scanned, and the digital files processed and captioned and filed away safely, and 99% of the slides binned, I shall be left with eight identical handsome wooden slide boxes. I shall offer them to whoever expresses an interest. (Would that be you, Coline?)

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Is it worth renewing my passport?

My passport is valid until 12th October 2020, so renewing it is not yet a pressing issue. But should I bother? Am I ever likely again to leave the UK?

Well, on the face of it, no. I'll be caravanning for the foreseeable future, and that means mostly on the mainland of Great Britain. So England, Wales and Scotland. If I can afford the ferries, maybe I'll take in the Hebrides, Orkney, Shetland and even Ireland. 

Ah, Ireland. I probably will need a passport to go to the Republic. 

Then what about the Channel Islands, particularly Guernsey? Or the Isle of Man? None of them are part of the UK, and I'll surely need a passport. 

I'm assuming that I'd fly to some of these places from Gatwick. That would be the least enjoyable part of the journey for me. To be frank, I don't yearn to fly again. I haven't flown anywhere for ten years, and I've grown unhappy about getting into a plane again. In fact I'm a bit nervous about it. But I suppose a short domestic flight would be bearable. Post-virus, of course.

But a long-haul flight? I haven't taken one of those since visiting New Zealand in 2007, thirteen years ago. I literally flew around the world, always going west. The first leg was London Heathrow to Los Angeles International. That was novel, and done in daytime with good ground visibility, so it was very interesting. But the night-time flight across the Pacific to Auckland was less enthralling. It was just too long. Coming home, another night-time flight to Hong Kong, even more monotonous. And finally a daytime flight all across Asia to Heathrow, but with cloud obscuring the entire time we were over Russia, though strangely not China, nor the home run over the Baltic and thence back to London.

It went smoothly, all of it, but I was glad to get down safely. I'd had quite enough of long-haul flying, even though it hadn't been too uncomfortable (we went Premium Economy, not Cattle Class). But it had quickly got boring, and something of an endurance test, and I hated the tedious security measures that had been imposed.

So if ever I found enough cash, and plucked up enough courage, would I fly to anywhere distant again - somewhere that I'd definitely need a passport? 

I'd seriously consider Canada. All bits except the frozen north. City-hopping mainly. 

If I could go before my mid-seventies, and there were no insurmountable health issues, a return visit to New Zealand might be done. My step-daughter Adrienne is there. 

Closer to home, Iceland. 

Sweden and Scandinavia generally would be nice. To see where my ancestors lived.

I wouldn't ever want to become a habitual flyer because that would be bad for the planet. And besides the 2007 experience has stripped away any glamour that flying might have had for me. But I've identified a handful of major trips that could be made, and they all need travel ID. I'll be ambitious and try to fit them in. So come the autumn, it's a new blue British passport for Miss Melford. 

Friday, 15 May 2020

Easing the lockdown - why not do it by postcode?

I've just been watching the daily Coronavirus Briefing on the BBC News website, and there were graphs showing the situation around the regions of the UK.

As expected, it's plainly obvious that the more 'rural' parts of the country have had fewer historical hospital admissions for Covid-19, and are presently experiencing significantly lower hospital admissions, compared to the parts that have big urban populations. So Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Eastern England, South West England and South East England all have low numbers. And London, the Midlands, North West England and North East England all have rather higher numbers. 

This must broadly indicate the risk of infection in different parts of the country. Of course, it must be true that even in the low-admissions areas there will be hot-spots, most obviously the cities and big towns. Still, I think there is a strong argument here for some parts of England safely moving down the new 5-stage risk scale faster than others. It's surely clear that if you go to - say - Eastern England, and avoid the towns, it's pretty safe. Same for the South West. And to a lesser degree in the South East too.

This broad picture will no doubt get refined in the weeks ahead to show which are the real trouble-spots, and which are almost free of the virus. And once you have that detail, will it remain right to insist that 'virus free' areas continue to stay on the same alert level as the ones that have a persistent problem?

I suspect that the government will strongly prefer to have the entire country - all of England anyway - march in step together, with no local relaxations. A differentiation between areas would of course tend to brand the cities and big towns as virus-soaked - high-risk places to visit - and imply that the people living there are all infected, and all of them a risk to the 'healthy' areas. That would quickly lead on to the notion that city-dwellers must stay in quarantine, and not be allowed to spread their disease to the countryside. That's clear already from the reaction of places like Dorset and Cornwall, who have declared themselves closed to visitors (meaning, chiefly, city folk). And of the Lake District, to the prospect of Merseyside and Manchester escapees flooding into the area this weekend.

Who knows, it might well become impossible for a city-dweller to book travel facilities and holiday accommodation in the nation's holiday areas for a long time to come. It might even divide the country into the 'clean' and the 'unclean', as if something like leprosy were the issue, at least in the minds of those predisposed to think in that way. Such is human nature, sadly.  

Which is all a pity, as moving down to stage 2 everywhere across England (i.e. almost back to normality) or even stage 1 everywhere (i.e. the virus has been eradicated, and we can all do as we please) will take so much longer. 

Whether it's published or not, with ever-increasing testing the government will soon have that finely-detailed view of where infections are happening, down to at least postcode level, and a good idea of who must be causing it. I think they'll want to keep that information secret, and use it as a tool for homing in on the virus-spreaders, and dealing with them. Meaning that the people responsible will be made to stop doing whatever it is that leads to infecting others. I'd further assume that the residue of reckless, irresponsible, and frankly mad spreaders of this virus will get the same kind of police attention that those who deliberately spread HIV (and hate messages) receive.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

A taste of freedom

Yesterday, for the first time in nearly two months, it was OK to get out for 'unlimited exercise' - and to use one's car to drive to a suitable place. Anywhere reasonable, so long as it was only for a day - no staying overnight - and only in England. So in practice, not all that far away, and not for all that long, but certainly it was now possible to break out of one's local area.

I'd been keeping to a ten-mile radius before parking Fiona and walking for my exercise. Twice I'd stretched this to twelve miles. But I'd been pretty good at following the spirit of the exercising rules. And of course I'd felt very confined. I was used to driving a long way, several times a week - while home, anywhere in Sussex, and sometimes bits of Hampshire, Surrey and Kent. On holiday, wherever I might feel inclined to go. Holidays were still not possible. But now, at last, I could have a proper change of scene. And with fuel prices at their lowest for a very long time, too.

But there were some limiting factors to consider. Very little would be open. There was no point in a trip to (say) Chichester, to mooch round the shops, look at the cathedral, and have a pub lunch somewhere pleasant. None of that was available. On the other hand, a long walk around any place, camera in hand, would be abundantly worthwhile. How nice it would be to see it strangely empty of  crowds, with its streets and buildings - normally hidden by people and traffic - now revealed.

As it happens, I didn't make a beeline for Chichester. I didn't really go far at all. I went first to Goring-by-Sea, to the Volvo dealer there. It was beyond my former ten-miles-from-home radius, but not all that far beyond. The dealership had moved from East Worthing to new premises in Goring in mid-March, and had been just about to open (no doubt with a fanfare) when the coronavirus lockdown was imposed. I now wondered if they were up and running. If so, I urgently wanted to book Fiona in for her annual service and MOT. She was also due to have new rear brake discs and pads and two new front tyres. If I could have these done now, then I'd be absolutely ready to go caravanning at a moment's notice, if the government gave permission.

Well, the Volvo dealer's premises looked pretty quiet as I parked. But they were open for business, with their computer system ready only that very day. It was nice to get waves from staff who knew me, and I nailed a booking for first thing on 1st June. I might well have been their first walk-in customer that day, as the website had been giving no hint that they were in fact going operational from this week.

But it wasn't quite as usual. Michael (the service manager, who had dealt with me for years past) was very apologetic about not being able to give me a loan car for the day while Fiona was being seen to. Normally they'd provide me with a nearly-new Volvo, sometimes a just-launched model they clearly thought I might like to experience. But not this time. It was all about the difficulty of keeping any loan car constantly cleaned to the right hygienic standard, inside and out, between every usage. But I knew I could use the train instead, albeit with a bit of exercise-walking at either end, so having a car was no calamity.  (I must however get on with making a mask)

So nice to get Fiona fixed up! That was the first of two important items I'd wanted to attend to. (The other was a routine appointment with my doctor, with blood tests - my own six-monthly MOT - but that's on the back-burner for now)

Where next? It was a cool but sunny afternoon. I went first to Lyminster, to check out its ancient church and churchyard. The church itself - which I'd otherwise want to explore and photograph - wasn't open, but the big graveyard was restful and attractive. Two men were strimming and mowing. One approached me - carefully observing social distancing - and asked if he could help, thinking that I was looking for a particular grave. I think we were both glad of the chance to chat, albeit from at least twelve feet apart. I had come away from the Volvo dealer with a 'mission accomplished' feeling, and this reinforced my good mood even more.

Arundel was close by. I next went there. It's normally a touristy place, seething with visitors, but was presently very quiet. Almost nothing was open. Perfect for a quiet (and safe) walkabout. In the course of this perambulation, in characterful Tarrant Street, I encountered a chap called Gerry, a retired journalist. We had a half-hour discussion from opposite pavements, with passers-by and the odd car walking or driving in the road between us. His eyesight was poor nowadays, and he confessed that after a few minutes he'd realised that he'd mistaken me for somebody else who looked just like me. But our conversation was mutually interesting, and we kept going until his dog got impatient to be home and made a fuss.

All this was so very like any day that I'm out of doors, whether at home or on holiday. I bump into nice strangers and have a good chinwag; I come away feeling uplifted. Social distancing hadn't stopped that happening.

In fact my afternoon's outing was just how it all used to be, before the virus came. The things one couldn't do, and the things one now had to do, hadn't spoiled it all. I could see myself - when allowed to - going away with the caravan to my usual farms and Club sites and having a holiday experience very similar to how it usually is. Because unless I am meeting up with someone I know by prior arrangement, I pass my days alone.

Today? Well, after an early cooked lunch at home, I think I'll set off to somewhere on the East Sussex coast. Somewhere I can stroll for a mile or more along a wide sunny promenade. It could be Eastbourne. But I think I may go for Bexhill - although there'll be no chance of tea and cake at the De La Warr Pavilion. Never mind.

Alternatives to putting that NHS Covid-19 app on my phone

Once I'd uninstalled that NHS Covid-19 app, the battery life on my three year old phone shot up again to nearly two days. And this was with all the ordinary background use I put it to, which, believe me, is considerable. The thing is always near me, or on my person, and I pick it up to do something with it several times an hour. I would resent having to ration all that usage just to free up power for an always-on app that only warns me of possible infection, and then only if I stay too close to an infected person for too long.

My personal risk-assessment.

Am I ignorant of, or habitually disregard, the social distancing rules? No.

Am I thoughtless about planning where I go, so that I keep finding myself in places where I'm bound to be too close to other people? No.

Do I have people in my life I'm anxious to be physically near to? No. 

Do I ever use public transport? Short answer: no. It's highly unusual for me. 99% of the time, I travel about in my own safe personal bubble: my car.

Am I prepared to be constantly alert to potentially dangerous people-contact? For months ahead? Yes.

I'd say that I'm low-risk for the kind of contact that would register on this app. Not 'no-risk' of course. There will always be unforeseen people-contact I can't swerve away from. So I'd still like to install this app if I can do so without straining my phone's battery. Perhaps I could use the app part-time, activating it with Bluetooth and GPS only when there's a risk of mixing with people at closer quarters than usual. For food-shopping, say. Or when walking around town centres. Or (when it's allowed) eating in a restaurant. To save my phone's battery, this may be the only viable option.

I did look into installing the app on a smartwatch instead. Assuming that's actually possible! But there are snags. The cost of buying any smartwatch isn't trivial. As for which watch, it would be a no-brainer if I were an Apple fan: I'd just get an Apple smartwatch. But I'm in the Android world, and although there's a lot of stylish choice out there, none of it really appeals at the moment. Ideally I'd want to stay with Fitbit (for the quality of their data-presentation app, and the fitness analyses provided), but just now they have no proper smartwatch in their line-up. That could change. Google now owns Fitbit, and I'm sure the next Fitbit-Google watch will be well worth considering. But I've no idea when that might come.

So, for the time being, I'm going to rely on good social distancing habits - exercising constant vigilance and anticipation - to keep me away from infected people. And support this with part-time use of the NHS Covid-19 app when it's rolled out nationwide. It remains uninstalled for now.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

The NHS Covid-19 app - too hard on my phone

I've uninstalled the NHS Covid-19 app already. It isn't kind to my phone. 

Uninstallation doesn't matter at the moment, because the app is still in trial and works only on the Isle of Wight. But it will matter in the future, when it goes live all over the country. I don't want to undermine its effectiveness by not having it on my phone and collecting information on close encounters with virus-infected people.

But the information given on the app is misleading. It entails switching on not just Bluetooth but GPS too, at least on my Android phone. The on-screen set-up instructions are explicit on this, and in fact if you switch off either radio (deliberately or accidentally) the app will notify you instantly, telling you to switch it back on. And these messages persist - you can't dismiss them. A constant reminder to restore functionality.

Bluetooth on its own, even if switched on 24/7, would be tolerable. But GPS gallops through battery power. My Samsung Galaxy S8+ phone is now three years old. I'm confident that its battery will stay healthy for at least another year, but only if treated well. It won't like a lot of hammering. And having Bluetooth and GPS on at the same time, all day long, without a break, will be too much. I can't risk a failed battery, or one that gets so weary that it won't keep its charge for more than a few hours. If that happened I'd be forced to buy a new phone before I want to.

I woke this morning to find that my battery-power had reduced by 60% since the last full charge 16 hours previously - and this was after putting the phone into Flight Mode for 7 hours overnight (i.e. no Bluetooth, no 4G, and also switching off GPS). I'm really saying that it lost about 60% in 9 active hours, and would completely discharge if Bluetooth and GPS were switched on for a full 17 hours, the length of my average waking day (7.00am to midnight). I don't want that.

It's not that the NHS Covid-19 app itself uses a lot of power. The main trouble lies with three other apps that spring into overdrive if Bluetooth and GPS become available: Google Maps, Memory-Map, and Fitbit. I use all three of them a lot, most days.

Google Maps will give me a boatload of handy local information if I reveal my precise position with GPS. Memory-Map will show my exact position on all scales of the nationwide Ordnance Survey maps I have installed on my phone. And Fitbit will constantly synchronise, to give me the latest updates and analyses on my fitness.

All these are good things, but I don't want them all the time, only now and then when needed. So I don't regularly let any of these three apps use GPS (and in Fitbit's case, Bluetooth too, like the NHS app). This is a deliberate policy, to save on battery power. But with the NHS Covid-19 app installed, and both Bluetooth and GPS switched on, they get the chance to feed like wolves.

Well, I'm not going to do without those three other apps. They are essential to me. As are a lot of others that also consume oodles of battery power even on 4G alone, because they involve long screen-time - such as Google Chrome, and Gmail, Documents to Go, and my photo-viewing app. My phone has a lot to do, and I don't want to inhibit its general capability and functionality by over-using Bluetooth and GPS, and running out of juice.

What to do now?

Well, I could reinstall the NHS Covid-19 app on my phone when it goes nationwide, but keep it dormant unless mixing with crowds. In other words, use the app on a part-time basis, when I can't avoid fairly close contact with other people. When visiting a town centre, say. And at other times, keep it in limbo by disabling Bluetooth and GPS. Those nagging messages to switch those things on would be annoying, though.

Or I could buy and wear another device with Bluetooth and GPS - a smartwatch comes to mind, perhaps one of Fitbit's. That will probably be the better way. The virus probably isn't going to disappear for another year, so the need will be there for a long while ahead. It's an important reason to upgrade to a proper smartwatch, as opposed to a mere fitness tracker. But I'd best wait until the nationwide release of the app, and make sure that the smartwatch I have in mind will run it. As for the cost of upgrading, that's mostly paid for already, by not spending money on eating out and clothes and holidays during the past two months.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

The NHS Covid-19 tracking app

For some days now residents of the Isle of Wight, a large island off the south coast of Hampshire, have been able to download and trial the new NHS Covid-19 tracking app. The trial continues. All we know so far is that at least 55,000 downloads have taken place, which is a decent fraction of the number of phones owned on the island that are suitable for the app. The authorities are hoping for a 60% or better take-up, and I'd say they are likely to get it.

The app can't be used anywhere else just yet, but I was still very curious to see whether I could get it on my own phone in advance. This would put me in pole position, as a general-release user. It would also avoid any mad installation rush when it goes nationwide.

I use a Samsung phone which runs on Android. However, as the nationwide release was still pending, it wasn't yet on Google Play. But I had a look at the NHS Covid-19 website instead. And lo, there it was.

That yellow top banner was a warning that the app was useful only in the IOW so far. But it didn't say you couldn't download and install it if you lived elsewhere. After all, you might live in Southampton, Portsmouth or Lymington and have reason to travel to the island - in which case, the app would be 'live' while there.

There you are: the NHS were urging you to put it on your phone.

I scrolled down, and there was plenty to click on, including a video explaining how the app worked and why you should install it.

I watched the video. Here are some of the scenes.

It's a bit ingenuous for the video to suggest that the contact details are anonymised. They will know it's your phone, and trace you from that. But hey, you get a timely warning of possible infection, so that you can self-isolate before passing the infection on, and if need be order a home testing kit. Given that, who cares about the privacy angle?

There seemed no issue about at least installing the app. So I tapped the 'Get it on Google Play' button and ended up with this on my 'health-related-apps' screen:

During the installation process I had to agree to (a) load NHS cookies, (b) provide the first half of my postcode, and (c) switch on Bluetooth and Location Services. Yes, both: I thought it would only be Bluetooth...

Hmm. Having these two items on all the time - as well as NFC - will really hit the phone's three-year-old battery - how much I don't yet know. I can at least find out before the app goes live nationally. With normal use, I get well over a day on one charge - occasionally nearly two days. I suppose a few hours less won't matter. I go into Flight Mode at night anyway, so that my sleep isn't disturbed by messages and notifications. That will save power. It will also disable the app, but of course I won't be getting near to anybody, nor they to me, while I'm in the land of nod.

So this is what you see when you tap on the app:

At the top, confirmation that it's working properly. Then an exhortation to follow current advice. Then a question: how am I feeling? If I'm not feeling well, the app will ask me more questions, and use my answers to either reassure me or direct me to appropriate help and treatment. If I'm well, then there's nothing more to do, and I can close the app and carry on normally. In practice, I won't need to open the app unless I feel one or more of the symptoms. 

I wonder what actually happens if someone who also has the app installed, and proves to be infected, comes close and our phones detect each other? Unless he or she has already reported symptoms, or has been tested and shown to be infected, nothing immediately. But at any time in the future a warning will be sent - a voice call? - a text? - and then I'll have to react.

Let's hope it doesn't happen at an embarrassing moment.