Friday, 30 October 2020

Welly weather and sneaky shooting

Now that winter weather looms, I'm putting that Leica optical viewfinder away. Its chief benefit is to provide a clear view when composing a shot in very bright sunshine, when the screen on the back of the camera goes rather dark and indistinct. But bright sunshine of the kind that justifies the viewfinder will be in short supply for the next few months. So it can go back in its box until spring comes. 

The camera will lose that eye-catching profile it had acquired, and the extra 'Leica' logo that might impress anyone close enough to see. But I don't care. Logowise I can make do with the red dot on the camera itself, although half the red paint has worn off, the camera having so much use over the years. Again, I don't care. 

In any case, there are advantages in having a comparatively anonymous device in one's hand - one without sticky-out parts to catch in clothing - that can be quickly shoved into a pocket if need be. 

As for a camera bag, it will be possible to use the proper LowePro bag again, which fits the camera-sans-viewfinder like a glove, and can itself be popped into any other bag I may be carrying. Or a big pocket. I might want to do this, to keep my photo equipment out of sight. 

Ease of concealment is a valuable attribute if you engage in Street Photography. That little LowePro bag acts like a holster - I can whip the camera out, grab the shot, and put it away again with nobody the wiser. Thus is especially handy where menacing or defensive people, or officialdom, might lurk. Not that I go out of my way to secure provocative shots of controversial or emotional subjects. But I see pictures worth taking everywhere, and sometimes the act of taking a picture can excite unwanted curiosity. I don't want inquisitive busybodies or jobsworths asking me what I'm doing. Better to be discreet and inconspicuous, sneaky even, and avoid any argee-bargee. So a small, unnoticeable camera in my hand, with a small, unnoticeable place to stow it, is a Jolly Good Thing.

A case in point. I was in Dorchester this morning. An early-morning Dorchester, at a time when shops were opening for the day, market stalls were being set up, and workmen were doing interesting stuff in the streets. And it was raining, the same persistent misty rain I've enjoyed since arriving in Dorset four days ago. In most people's minds Rainy Weather means No Photography. To them it's pointless and daft to take pictures when the results will obviously be rubbish. So just taking a couple of shots outside in the rain can seem, to many, a strange or even suspect thing to do. What motive can possibly lie behind it? So they may be inclined to stare, and Wonder Why. Only if one is dressed in hi-vis clothing, with a hard hat, and using a big camera with an impressive lens on a tripod - clearly in the course of a paid professional job - would the 'reason' for taking any picture in bad weather be credibly explained. 

The only other hope is to play the silly tourist - a distinctly amateur lady who knows so little about photography that she doesn't understand that her pictures are doomed to be dull and disappointing, given the poor weather and lack of good light. Even then, the camera needs to match the image. Shooting with the latest expensive shiny model won't do at all. Nor will a camera with a fancy accessory attached (like that viewfinder). That's where the paint-worn little Leica scores. It looks old and plain and out-of-date (just like myself) and reassuringly unimportant. So no need to give it more than a passing glance, and the same for its owner, poor dear. But that's fine. I get my shots and walk on. 

What they don't know is that I have software skills. Those pictures will look a lot better once I've tweaked them back at the caravan. I won't add a sunny blue sky that was never there, but the exposure will be corrected, and unwanted things around the edges cropped away. 

It's still raining. I was hoping for sunny mornings on the Purbeck heathlands, and a look at the Jurassic cliff scenery, so dramatic, so iconic. The best I can do now is get some very moody pictures of ruined Tyneham, the Purbeck village taken over by the Army in the Second World War, and never returned. Rather like Imber on Salisbury Plain. Tyneham is not far off, and normally accessible on weekends. It's out of bounds at other times, because of firing on the ranges. So I intend to go there on Sunday and get some shots. And if it's possible to walk down to Worbarrow Bay, also normally out of bounds, I will do that too. Maybe I'll have it all to myself if the weather is especially foul. But I don't mind if a few other mad photographers in wellies join me in capturing all the sombreness and decrepitude on offer, and perhaps the very soul of the place if the light is right.

And there's the Agglestone and Puckstone, out near Studland. A short while back I did a post on The Cheesewring, a weathered stack of granite slabs on Bodmin Moor. These two Purbeck rocks are of sandstone. They look impressive in illustrations. I've never visited them. It will only take a squelchy mile or two of heath walking. I shouldn't get too wet, and with luck I can come away with definitive shots of these huge rocks - definitive for bad weather, that is. 

What ever happened to the warm weather and fine sunsets of September? Sigh.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Excitements to come when I'm home again

I'm a bit more than halfway through my autumn holiday. I've had eight nights at Great Malvern in Worcestershire, and now I'm in east Dorset, in the forest near Wareham, for seven nights more. Then home for the winter. It's turned wet and windy, as if November has already arrived. It's almost time to hunker down. But for the next week, a touch of the seaside at Swanage and other places.  

Last night, and now this morning too, a spate of emails and texts. 

The Passport Office began by saying that my application for a new passport had been approved. Mixed feelings about that, as the picture they liked did me no favours. Oh well, it's good to know that it was suitable for their purposes, and that there were no other matters that might delay the new passport. 

And they had been quick! I sent the old passport off to them - which they needed before proceeding with my online application - only on 13th October. So they've processed my application in two weeks, not the four weeks they had warned of. That's great. And now, this morning, an email and a text to say that it's actually been created, and is on its way to me by TNT courier! Wow. That's much better than expected.

I don't think I have to be at home to sign for it. If absolutely necessary, I could hop in Fiona and be home for delivery. A six-hour round trip, and a day of my holiday wasted. But the pandemic has put a stop to doorstep signatures in most cases, and there is nothing in the Passport Office's email or text to say that any signature will be necessary. I'm not sure what it ever proved, anyway. The courier never asked to see any ID to show that I was in fact Lucy Melford of Melford Hall. Perhaps it was sufficient that I was obviously the householder, as more often than not they would catch me still in nightie and dressing gown (though not in curlers!). 

So that part of my affairs has gone to plan!

I'm not quite so certain about BT's ongoing response to my cancelling its Broadband service, and the imminent disconnection of my landline, both effective on 30th October, thirty days after my notice was given. 

They've just sent me an email saying my latest bill is ready, but it makes no reference to that double-disconnection. Just that they will take the usual amount by direct debit in early November. This bill does admittedly cover usage up to only 26th October, so possibly it would look like a normal bill, and it's the next bill that will contain all the closure adjustments. We'll see. But it's worrying that they say my Broadband contract ends on 9th December, not 30th October. I wouldn't put it past them to charge me an extra month. I'll be miffed if they can point to some obscure clause in their Terms and Conditions that entitles them to. 

However, I'll have to assume for now that their billing system isn't geared up for the unusual situation where somebody wants to get rid of their Broadband (not just switch to another provider, or tamely upgrade) and, moreover, wants no landline in the future. It's just not a mainstream request. Maybe they'll do a special bill for me after 30th October, and then all mention of 9th December as the end date will be dropped. Maybe. 

These are not the only two homecoming excitements. While I've been away, new kitchen sink taps will have been installed! 

And two days after my return I've got a dental appointment to look at a tooth that is getting sensitive - no doubt a filling there; and maybe I will be adding to my fine collection of crowns. But at least I will have that tooth dealt with before any new lockdown comes into force. 

And then in the following week the caravan goes to the dealer to have a new window fitted. All caravan windows are a plastic double-glazed affair, and like household windows they may eventually lose their seal and develop condensation inside. After fourteen years, this has happened to the big pane at the front end, which gets regularly thumped by windborne twigs and other road debris. I was amazed that it was still possible to buy an exact replacement, but one can be supplied, though it's costing hundreds. The fitting, however, is very quick - literally while I wait. So one more brief outing for the caravan once home. 

Don't ever think my life is humdrum and uneventful. It's all fast-lane stuff!  

Sunday, 25 October 2020

I've lost faith in lockdowns

I have to confess that I've lost faith in the strategy of endless lockdowns. 

I'd agree that a full lockdown, strictly and ruthlessly applied, can arrest the spread of infection. But it can only be a temporary measure. After the first (mostly) willing compliance, people get restless and in some cases desperate; social mixing takes place; and the effectiveness of the lockdown is compromised. A regime prepared to use lethal force against its citizens (such as China) can enforce a very strict lockdown, but it can never be perfect because there are always those prepared to defy authority, or evade its surveillance, and continue their activities with the risk of eventual infection. How less perfect, then, are the UK lockdowns we have endured so far, whether full or only partial. Truly, half-measures produce only half a result. 

The first, total, national lockdown launched in March was (mostly) supported and followed in a 'Dunkirk Spirit'. It was indeed almost popular in some quarters. We clapped the NHS, didn't we, and cheered on Essential Workers. We were, so it seemed, all in it together. If there wasn't absolutely complete compliance, there was at least a recognition across the board that following the rules was important, and that it was wrong to disregard them. The rules were few and very easy to remember - essentially Practice Social Distancing, Wash Your Hands Properly, and Stay At Home. And it did seem to work. The graphs in those daily briefings on TV did show a slow-down in the rate of infection, and the deaths lessened, and then we saw a definite decline in numbers. Hurrah, the national lockdown had done the trick! So in July, with a big sigh of relief, the most onerous restrictions were relaxed. 

To be frank, I think that by July we'd all had enough, and the July relaxations came just in time before civil disobedience could have set in. The disobedience would have been widespread. It had become apparent that various Important People had considered themselves exempt from the rules, and had disregarded them for personal reasons. That was bad enough; that some paid no penalty for their transgression was shocking and vastly discouraging to the general population. It was clear that we were not in fact 'all in it together'. And so, rightly or wrongly, a lot of ordinary people felt that they might as well disregard the rules too. After all, what's sauce for the goose... 

And I'm sure they are still not obeying them. They will have assessed the risks, and concluded that (a) they are not likely to suffer a bad illness; (b) sanctions are unlikely to be imposed on them; and (c) they can ignore the risk they present to any vulnerable person they encounter.  Their personal behaviour can't possibly matter. Their convenience, their fun, most certainly does. And it won't be their fault if a tiresome old pensioner falls ill and dies. 

Apart from the exasperated mood of the public by July there was also the frightening cost of the national lockdown: it was ruinously expensive to support wages and salaries, even partially. The tax take had fallen. Borrowing was easy but it would have to be repaid - the IMF and the international debt agencies would insist on a realistic repayment plan. The national debt had become staggering.

And of course, now, in October, that debt - the bits announced, and the bits kept hidden - must be beyond belief. And yet those clamouring for even more income support seem oblivious to the financial burden being placed on future generations. The economy has been started up again, but must be kept going, so that the future financial pain can be managed. The brutal truth is, we can't afford to have another national lockdown with the same level of income support. Even limited regional lockdowns are becoming hard to bankroll. The same with targeted support, whether meritorious or not, such as free school meals, and bailing out casinos. 

All that said, the government may still cave in to pressure and try another national lockdown. It's now being termed a 'firewall' or 'circuit break', because that sounds dramatic and effective. How euphemisms proliferate, when disruptive measures are hard to sell and need rebranding! But it would depend on everyone cooperating wholeheartedly, and I don't think that Dunkirk Spirit will be revived. Goodwill has been squandered, and too many people are more inclined now to take their chances with the risk of infection.

So I hope they give up on lockdowns. Emergency local measures will have their place, but I'd prefer to see everything opened up, and freedoms restored, and in general just leave it to individuals to manage their own welfare, using their own common-sense. 

Certainly, the government must advise everyone most forcefully - and keep telling them - that the virus is still out there, and potentially dangerous, and that they should observe social distancing, good hygiene, and (if they are medically vulnerable) an appropriate degree of social isolation. All until the vaccine arrives, or the virus peters out. Under this kind of regime, I (and like-minded people in my position) would still be exercising great caution, opting out of any meetups that carried a worrying risk, and yes, wearing a mask where strangers gather and are bound to get too close. And avoiding possible infection carriers, such as young children, or those whose personal habits and attitudes are plainly unhealthy. It's not hard to do the best thing for one's own self-preservation.

What about the likelihood of increased deaths? Well, surely a vulnerable adult individual, if mentally able, should be allowed to decide what suits them best. If they are willing to accept a greater risk of infection and a serious illness, then let them choose that and enjoy the good things that they get from it. If on the other hand they want to be shielded - effectively voluntary solitary confinement - then they should be given every possible assistance with that kind of approach. That's where the money should go.

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Greetings from the Ice Station!

The coronavirus pandemic has brought mental health to the fore. Everyone has had to endure some kind of social-distancing or lockdown effect, and a great many - all kinds of people, young and old - have had to cope with being solitary. 

If you are not used to being on your own, this must be awful to bear. I'm thinking not so much of the old and widowed. University students only lately living with Mum and Dad and brothers and sisters must find being cooped up alone in a little room in an unfamiliar city especially grim. Some must pine for the bosom of their family, or the comfort of friends. And yet the key to stopping infection spreading, and to protect yourself if vulnerable, is to be isolated. That means minimum social contact, no social life, and coping with the kind of mental challenges one might face if wintering at an Antarctic ice station. 

It's not at all surprising that some can't deal with it. Nor is it surprising that most of us can accept a voluntary renunciation of normal life for only so long. 

Where there is no effective official compulsion, and a personal choice exists as to whether to comply with the rules or not, then many will at some point decide that, for the sake of their sanity, they need to get back to a semblance of their normal life. Even if they can't have quite all of it. Some might even decide that it's time to party and be damned. 

I think that all across the country, but particularly in urban areas where a lot of socialising used to go on, people have lately become willing to bend the rules - or ignore them - simply to feel better. I don't know how they square that (ordinarily) reasonable wish with the duty to keep other people safe. But whether the motivation is self-preservation, or selfishness, or just a gut revolt against government rules they can't agree with, they feel compelled go ahead and get their fix of normality. And only personal experience of a resulting bad illness - or a coronavirus death in the family - will stop them.

Not everyone has thrown their hand in. Not by any means. And people like me can't afford to. I think it's odds-on that if I picked up an infection I would be in for a bad time. I don't think it would necessarily be a fatal one, but the risk of hospitalisation can't be waived away. And whether I suffer much or not, there's still the chance of contracting that ongoing malady called Long Covid. It's not worth the risk. Nor would I want to get infected and pass the virus on to somebody else. 

So, speaking for myself, I'm prepared to see this through and limit my social contact indefinitely. That means an ongoing life largely spent entirely on my own, whether I'm in my house, or the caravan, or driving around in my car. Yes, I can see local friends in my social bubble, for as long as the rules say I can. They are mostly of a similar age, with a similar need to be careful. And there will still be fleeting chats and quips with supermarket staff, and passing strangers, and serving staff if I lunch out. So far, such contact has been sufficient. 

Given that I have a reduced social life nowadays - no evening pub and village hall quizzes, for example - I was interested to work out just what proportion of my time is spent in the company of other human beings. 

Nearly all the occasions for contact are recorded in the electronic diary on my phone. I reached for my fountain pen and a notepad, and jotted down the duration in minutes for each occasion, ever since since returning from my last holiday on 30th September, today included. That's eighteen days. There are 27,000 minutes in those eighteen days. The total number of minutes for face-to-face contact came out at 1,480. So 1,480 mins/27,000 mins x 100 = 5.9% of my life was spent in the company of other people. 

But of course it would be fairer to exclude the time spent asleep, so that the computation deals with only my waking life under the current conditions. My Fitbit tells me that since 30th September I have averaged 6 hours and fifteen minutes (that's 375 mins) of sleep per day. So I need to exclude 375 mins x 18 days = 6,750 minutes. Which brings my waking minutes down to 20,250. And those 1,480 minutes of face-to-face contact represent just over 7% of that.

In other words, almost 93% of my waking, conscious existence is spent completely on my own. That seems an awful lot of my time!  

My limited social life has been added to, in a way, by passing exchanges with my neighbours. But a wave isn't the same as a properly shared moment closer-up. There were also two hour-long voice calls on my phone (both by prior arrangement, both with friends far away), and two more much briefer local calls. But again these do not count as face-to-face contact any more than a satellite call from that Antarctic ice station would be. I also sent and received a few dozen texts, and there were a number of emails, again with the same rider that while this is valuable contact, it's not face-to-face. 

Can I continue with just 7% of my waking life in the close vicinity of fellow human beings? And as much as 93% all alone, with only my teddy bear and china cat for significant company? I think I can. I know it's almost the same as solitary confinement, but at least I can get around in the car and see places, and walk free in beautiful spots. 

The thing that disturbs me is how I'm getting used to this reduced level of social contact. In particular, how I am not seeing what's left of my family. I dare not. For both their sake and mine. It's too risky. And yet, as the months pass without even an exchange of emails, I feel that the bonds are slipping away and we will grow apart. 

It doesn't help that I lack much family feeling. I'm the Eldest Family Member in my section of the family tree. Great Aunt Lucy. But I don't behave like a family leader. Frankly, I don't want to; it's not my thing. I want to spend the rest of my life getting as much out of it as I feel inclined, and I don't want to be saddled with family responsibilities and concerns. Is that bad of me? A serious failing? I'm sure that many family-minded people would accuse me of evading my responsibilities. But, really, there aren't any that I can see. I am neither a parent nor a grandparent. Just someone older in the family, living on her own. Putting it another way, I have no claim on anyone else, and will not expect any family support in later life. Nor do I see how it could be provided. Conversely, I don't see how anyone is close enough to have a claim on me. I am self-sufficient; and I need to remain so. All this said, families should stick together, and I am setting a terrible example. But it would be against my nature to behave differently. Still, how disappointed Mum and Dad would have been. They'd be relieved that I had thrived, but perturbed that I hadn't stepped into their shoes.   

I like my life. It looks lonely and exposed, and it may be, but it doesn't feel like that. I don't mind confessing that living with the pandemic has come naturally to me. Apart from travel restrictions, it's been no great bother. I'm organised. I can hunker down. I can get around on my own. I don't need crowds. I rather like quiet streets. I can feel exultant on a completely empty beach. I can enjoy listening to the crows in the biting wind, alone at the bleak corner of a high South Downs wood. All I need is freedom and a camera in my hands, and a cosy home to return to.

I suppose I'd be an Ideal Candidate for that polar ice station!

Saturday, 17 October 2020

Sad thoughts from Elgar Country

With just two days to go before departing from home on my next holiday, I've rebooked so that I won't be pitching my caravan in Wales. I've substituted the Caravan Club's Malvern Hills site for the one at Pandy. I'll be in Elgar Country. And no doubt the introspective strains of his Cello Concerto, or his Enigma Variations, will be running constantly in the background of my mind.

It was very easy to make the change online. There was no mention of any financial penalty for rejigging the booking so close to departure. In fact, I'll end up paying a little more for my eight-night stay, the charges at the Malvern Hills site being higher than at Pandy. (Each Club site has its own special local attractions or conveniences, and not all have precisely the same facilities, so they are all priced individually) The cost difference is small, so I really don't mind. At least there is now no risk of turning up at Pandy to find that an all-Wales lockdown will come into force at midnight, trapping me there for an indefinite time with only essential local travel possible. Some holiday that would be! 

Now I will have the run of rural Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire, and can follow the Welsh/English border as far north as I like. It's a pity that the autumnal beauties of the Welsh mountains will probably be denied to me. I'll just have to put them on hold for another time.

This rebooking turns my holiday into an all-English affair, and not without serious regrets. The Welsh part of me (not my strongest part, but even so) is rather upset that I can't enter the land of my birth without risking a kind of imprisonment. 

I definitely feel lumped - unfairly and insultingly - with all the stupid, selfish and careless people in the rest of the UK who don't give a damn about spreading the virus. I realise that the Welsh Assembly has a duty to manage its affairs sensibly, and to take effective measures against the spread of the coronavirus within Wales. But I sense something more at work. It looks as if the Welsh Assembly is dominated by those who see an opportunity to assert Welsh Independence in all but name, and catch up with how things are trending in Scotland. So I believe there is a nationalistic spirit driving the current passing of hysterical new laws to keep out the English. 

Ah, the English, the bane of Wales and its destroyer, its blood-sucker! England, never forgiven for militarily defeating the Welsh princes centuries ago, and for suppressing the Welsh language and culture. The same England that in more modern times has exploited Wales as a cheap place for second homes, and pop-up industry in enterprise zones.  

Maybe the pandemic has made it Payback Time in some people's eyes. A chance to at least reserve Wales for the Welsh. In essence a Welsh Brexit - a desire to cut adrift from England, whatever the consequences. 

For somebody like myself, with personal ties to Wales, even though I've lived in England most of my life, it's all sad and alienating. I don't claim a lot of affinity with Wales, and my ultimate ancestry is Nordic rather than Celtic, but I regard the connections that I do have with more than just nostalgia. I was born there. I grew up in South Wales as a child. And even if some memories are less than affectionate, many are close to my heart and cherished. But just now I am seeing a Wales that doesn't want me. The official reason for being excluded is Covid-19. But underneath there is, surely, the suggestion that I don't belong there, that my Welshness is insignificant, and that I am as obnoxious and unwanted as the worst bad-attitude person beyond the Welsh Border. 

Well, much more of this and I'll stay away, my wish to return destroyed. Like a love affair gone wrong after too much carping, complaining, suspicion and repulsion from one partner. 

I used to say that I might take up the offer of a Welsh passport if ever it were available. I'm not sure I would now. I would feel I had got it under false pretences, merely on account of my birthplace and family background, as a passport of convenience. And not from any personal conviction that Wales was my true home, and that I would give Wales my undiluted allegiance. 

This is all so different from my view of Scotland, a country with whom I have no personal connections apart from friendships dating back no more than ten years or so. I have only been a visitor, keen to come, and travelling around pretty extensively, but nevertheless remaining an outsider. And yet Scotland seems so welcoming. And I don't mind the direction it's taking. I'd be surprised if Scotland hasn't completed the transition to independence inside the next ten years. It's a mature place and will thrive. I can't see Scotland being at odds with England once there is an equilibrium again between the two states. 

But Wales...

Oh well. Let's see what happens in the next week or so. It looks as if the daily news is going to be very interesting - the Brexit Trade Deal, the Welsh Covid-19 Exclusion Laws, and much else no doubt.

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Will Wales reject me?

I'm off to Pandy in South Wales next week, and the increasingly strong-minded attitude of the Welsh Assembly is a matter of great concern to me. 

It's just been announced that travellers from England will not be allowed into Wales if they come from the High or Very High Risk Tiers in England - this is referring to the brand-new English system for imposing anti-virus measures in individual Local Authority areas. Thankfully, my part of Sussex is classed as a Medium Risk area, and I should have no trouble while at Pandy. But I can envisage the former toll barriers at both Severn Bridges being brought back into use as Check Points, with travellers being stopped and questioned about their home address and where they are bound. Just asking will take at least a minute or two; and if evidence of residence and destination is required, then the delay could turn into several minutes - with massive traffic queues building up. 

I'm well-organised: I can show my driving licence as evidence of my home address, and also the Caravan Club Site booking on my phone - both of them in a twinkling. But many won't have such things to hand. The result could be horrendous delays on the westward M4 and the westward M48. 

So I'm thinking I may journey to Pandy using 'the back way' - which is towing the caravan to Gloucester, taking the A40 to Ross-on-Wye, then cutting across to the A465 Hereford-Abergavenny road and following that to Pandy. Pandy is only just inside Wales. This is not normally the fastest way, but just now it might avoid a frustratingly long wait to get through any Severn Bridge bottlenecks.

Once safely inside Wales, I should be OK for all of my eight-night stay there. Even so, I will definitely (for the sake of my own continued good health) avoid the urban areas of South Wales, and keep to the mountains and the border areas. So no visiting The Gower via Swansea, nor my childhood home town Barry, nor Cardiff, nor any further explorations of The Valleys (I wanted to go to Aberfan). If really necessary, I can have a good holiday simply by keeping to Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, and southern Shropshire, all of them in England. 

It crosses my mind that this coronavirus pandemic has turned Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales into virtually independent nation states, much more than ever before. Each has had a slightly different approach to tackling the virus in their province or country, quite distinct from what has been done in England. It's a chance for their inhabitants to gauge what it might be like if each of these states were truly independent, and how the NI, Scottish or Welsh governments might cope if some other kind of crisis were to arise. I am not suggesting that any of them have so far done badly. But I don't like, for instance, the rather defensive/assertive noises coming from the Welsh Assembly. It looks a lot like muscle-flexing. The tone seems wrong. 

How, for instance, are travellers to be 'stopped' entering Wales? What if they can't satisfy staff at those Check Points? Will the Heddlu (Welsh Police) be called in to deal with people who refuse to turn back? What would the police do, given an Assembly mandate to eject English people from areas riddled through and through with virus? 

It all sounds rather dystopian. But Wales is not showing a friendly face just now. 

I'll be seriously miffed if some ill-natured petty official at Pandy (at a stern roadblock on the A465) says I can't travel further into Wales, even though Pandy is in a low-risk rural spot, and I come from a similarly low-risk rural spot in Sussex, and can prove it. A jobsworth at the tail end of a long tiring journey is all I need. 

And I'm not English but Welsh!

My old passport, just expired, which showed Cardiff (the Welsh capital) as my place of birth, has been sent away to the Passport Office. But my driving licence does at least confirm that I was born in Wales, which may help. 

But my accent won't. I suspect that no matter what, anybody who looks and sounds English, and lives there, will be sneered at and treated like a leper. Or threatened. I haven't forgotten that awful note left on my car at New Quay in West Wales back in 2014. 

Fingers crossed then, but I'm prepared for a less than happy travel experience. 

Monday, 12 October 2020

The Garden Method prevails over the Bedroom Method!

Coline was so right. Doing it out in the garden, and not the bedroom, has worked a treat. 

It seems absolutely miraculous after my first three attempts, all of them a failure and all of them a keen disappointment. But now it's fourth time lucky, and I'm a very happy woman! 

Obviously I'm waiting eagerly for further news, with the longed-for arrival in the New Year. 

I'm speaking - of course - about my online passport renewal. It all came together today, which happens to be the very day my old passport expires. I'd just come back from the caravan dealer at Ashington, after enquiring about a new front window for my caravan (that'll be another saga), and the weather had turned cool and overcast, threatening rain. Standing in front of my garage door (which, I agree, needs repainting), and still in my coat, I decided to see what kind of picture I could take using my phone Tigerlily at arm's length. 

I remembered to take my glasses off, and wipe away my lipstick. It was really just to see whether the result justified setting the Leica up on a tripod in my back garden - I wasn't expecting a handheld selfie to be much cop. 

But not so. Tigerlily did all right. Although it was mainly down to the quality of the outdoor light.

Well, I said to myself, let's see what the phone can do, if I drape that cream-coloured fleece blanket over the rear hedge and stand in front. With glasses off, lipstick wiped away, hair swept back behind my ears, and the fringe hoicked away from my eyebrows.

Clearly I'd need to sit down, rather than stand up. So I trotted back to the house, fetched a chair from the conservatory, and sat on it for my next arm's-length selfie. By this time it was spitting with rain, but I didn't flinch. This was the best shot:

I didn't like it - it was so unflattering! But it was evenly-lit, and faithfully showed all my facial features. The shoulders were twisted a bit - a result of holding the phone in my right hand, and extending my right arm. But maybe that wouldn't show once they cropped the shot to just my face. It was worth submitting.

So once more I fired up the laptop (now tethered to Tigerlily and getting the Internet via 4G - who needs home broadband?) and tackled the Passport Office's online application form at I was very familiar by now with the first few sections!

Then it was the photo-submission bit. Here we go...

Oh! They loved it! It got a GOOD. Whacko! Super Biggles!

Without further ado, I went through the rest of the application. Really, there wasn't all that much to it. A few more questions and answers only, then payment. £75.50. I inserted my credit card details, and got acceptance. Done. 

Just one more step before they proceed - I must post them my old passport in a suitable envelope, by signed-for delivery, quoting my application reference. One of tomorrow's tasks then. 

Phew! This had become Mission Impossible. But I've conquered and won through. It's almost done. And I really am looking forward to an arrival in the New Year! Even if there is no immediate travel use for it, a passport is important to have. It's the best current form of personal ID in this country. I'll feel safer with it, to show to officialdom. Although - sadly - gone are the days when I had to show ID to claim an age concession at museums and galleries. I look my age nowadays!

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Curses, foiled again

The passport photo saga continues.

Friend Coline gave me a hot tip from the practical repertoire of a professional: I should pose outdoors on a dull day, when flat, shadowless lighting can be had. Well, I'll certainly keep that up my sleeve. It is however not something I'd want to do on the street side of my house, setting up a background and then posing against it for a few shots. My neighbours would find that hilarious! And I'm not sure what I could attach the background to anyway. Possible attachment points are either too high or too low; or else garden stuff is in the way. 

The rear of my house would be a better bet - I could peg a background up on my washing line, at least when there's no wind to waft it around. Some time ago, I could have hung it between giant rhododendron bushes, but I severely cut those back, as they were overwhelming the rear garden. There remains a corner at the bottom of the garden where a background could still be draped or hung against my tall rear hedge, and it's quite private too. I don't mean so private that a demure lady like me could prance there in the nude all day and not be seen, but it is certainly secluded enough for a leisurely photo session, mostly hidden behind the rockery. On the other hand, outdoor photography on a suitably dull day in October or November is likely to be a chilly affair, and I would want to wear a summer dress for the Perfect Shot that the Passport Office will approve of, and not a winter coat.

For now then I'm persevering with the Bedroom Method. That's not the one involving leather underwear, a spiked collar and a lash. It's the one I tried yesterday, where I sit down in front of a cream fleece blanket - my 'background' - hung against a wardrobe door, and secured by heavy books such as the Works of Malory (of Le Morte d'Arthur fame) and other volumes. But this time, with the Method tweaked a bit: the chair out further from the wardrobe; and my glasses off. 

So with the sun showing signs of setting, and my bedroom in shade, I had another go today. This was the best shot:

I suppose it's me, but with the glasses off it's not my ordinary appearance. Those baggy eyes! And I don't usually have an expressionless face. No it's someone else, someone like Myra Hindley - you know, the Moors Murders. Alternatively, I could be a guilty fugitive from justice, or at least an escapee from the chain gang, in stolen clothes. Still, if this is what the Passport Office wants, so be it.

I began my online passport application for the second time, fingers crossed. I had high hopes.

Oh no! It was judged 'poor'! They hadn't liked the background, which, because it was a shaded room, had come out too dark. Nor had my hair passed muster - they needed to see more of my face. Well, I deliberately wasn't holding my head high. I wanted to hide my scrawny neck somewhat. Chin up then, for my next attempt. 

Third time lucky? And straight away? Ever game, I considered the other shots I'd taken today. Ah, one of them was 'chin up'. Like the rest, a bit under-exposed, but I adjusted the brightness and it now looked pretty good. So I tried again. This was the third shot submitted:

Not so much of a prison mugshot this time! Would it prove more acceptable? This was the verdict after uploading:

Only a 'fair'. They thought I had my mouth open. I hadn't - but perhaps the lipstick obscured what I was doing with my lips. So, for my fourth attempt, no lipstick as well as no glasses. And chin up. What else will I do wrong?

And what hurdles yet await me further into the online passport application? At least every attempt has been free so far. How aggravating it would be, if using a photo booth and spending money on ever more fresh sets of photos. 

Saturday, 10 October 2020

That vital passport photo - not so easy!

I'd been warned by the husband of one of my local friends that the Passport Service have got very pernickety about how the photo for an online application should look. I was however confident that I could produce an acceptable shot first time. But not so. My best effort got only a 'Fair', meaning that it might do, but wasn't without flaws that could lead to a rejection later in the process. 

Hmm! I think they wanted me to take my glasses off, which makes sense if they need to carry out a biometric scan of the Melford facial features, which are of course noble, and redolent of garnered wisdom and faded classic beauty, and must impress all foreigners. I'd better oblige, and have another go at getting the perfect picture tomorrow. 

After all, I don't want this first attempt bounced back. True, I haven't had an outright rejection, but they're giving me a pretty strong hint that I'm wasting my time taking the application onward with this picture - iconic though it may be.

Never mind. At least I've recreated the method, which is to hang a cream fleece blanket (my 'plain light-coloured background') from a wardrobe in my bedroom, using weighty books. Then, using the little Leica fixed to a tripod, to take a shot with the self-timer on a ten-second delay. I've been sitting down, quite close to the blanket, but they recommend that I stand up, and be rather further in front of the background than I was. I can't see why standing up will make a better photo, as my girth hides the chair, but I'll give it a go. 

I'd actually started in my study, using two different setups there. The first - used for my Railcard photo in 2016 - against the main bookcase. But the light from the front window off to my left put the right side of my face in shadow. For any other purpose, a decent enough shot; but for this there must be even lighting, and no obscuring shadows, however characterful.

So I switched to the bookcase that faced the main window. That produced a better result, but this time light from the small side window off to my right ensured that my hair was lit unevenly:

Not good enough. I now hung the fleece blanket between the bookcases, at a 45 degree angle, hoping that this would cancel out side-lighting effects. It did - but a shadow now appeared on my fleece background. That wouldn't pass muster!

So I next took my setup into my bedroom next door, which is a room with only the one big window, and light would come in from just one direction.

This was the best of the three photos I now took - the one half-rejected as only 'fair':

I do see that the reflection in the left-eye lens of my glasses is a flaw. And there's a pale patch on the front of my scrawny neck - my windpipe presumably - that has caught the light. Tsk. 
By now, after nearly an hour spent on getting the perfect photo, I couldn't keep a straight face any longer, and I was ready to fool around. So here is my collection of Alternative Passport Photos. Each one (of course) recording a facet of my true personality.

Getting a passport is one of life's trials. You've got to find ways of squeezing some fun out of the process!

Friday, 9 October 2020

A thorn in my finger

Yesterday, eleven days after my plunge into a gorse bush in North Devon, I extracted a gorse thorn from my left forefinger. I cut it out with a sterilised blade, using a jeweller's loupe to see what I was doing. Here it is. 

A tiny thing, but it had made the side of my finger feel sore. Clearly the fall into the bush had rammed it into my skin, so that it was at first embedded and not especially noticeable. Frankly, it was one of the more minor of my hurts. After a few days, with the finger still sore to the touch - though not especially painful unless pressure was applied, and not red and inflamed, nor swollen in any way - I nevertheless became convinced that there was something under my skin, though just what I couldn't say. It didn't seem to be causing much trouble, and I'd had my tetanus jab, but even so it was irritating and potentially harmful, and it needed to come out. 

I wondered whether it might slowly work its way towards the surface of the skin, and become grabbable with tweezers. But as the days passed, it became clear that minor surgery would be required. Too minor to endure a visit to A&E. So I carried it out personally. A very small horizontal cut, and there it was. I got it onto the tip of the blade, and wiped it onto the tissue in the photos. There was no bleeding at all. 

Now that I could see what it was, I was very glad to get this thorn out of my finger, before it caused an infection or some other mischief. I cleaned the surgical site with hot water and TCP, then worked in Germolene. 

One day later, and the finger feels a bit less sore. I imagine that sharp thorn caused havoc under the skin, the soreness actually being a mangled epidermis and severed fingertip nerve endings all protesting. That will presumably take a while to ease, just as if I'd accidentally cut or burnt my finger. At least the incision has closed up, and looks healthy, and there is no suggestion of anything left under the skin. 

I've never been a fan of gorse bushes, although I will admit the bright yellow flowers they produce often add a useful spot of colour to a landscape photo on a dull day. But their stiff prickles are annoying, something to avoid. I will be even more averse to cosying up to a gorse bush now.

I've always disliked spiky plants, and those with barbs. That's why, beautiful though they are, I don't go near roses, and hate having to deal with them in my garden. The same for thorny shrubs, nettles, brambles, holly, anything like that. If it can hurt me, then I fear it and stay clear. I have an especial phobia for cactuses. If you ever saw the film The Quatermass Experiment when young and impressionable, then you'll completely understand why. 

But really, any plant covered in spikes or prickles is an object of fear. In any pleasure garden there is usually - somewhere - a clump of 'ornamental' Gunera. The so-called Giant Rhubarb. This is for me a nightmare plant. 

There's something about Gunera that fascinates, that draws you in; and clearly it wants you to forsake all common sense and enter its primeval realm, embrace its spiky stems, then lie down under that dark canopy and go to sleep. And while you sleep you will be absorbed, and never awake, for you will have become part of them. Horrible. I couldn't be a gardener, and tend these dreadful Jurassic plants from Brazil.  

I just hope I didn't wait too long to extract that gorse thorn. I don't want my DNA to be messed around with, and morphed, and turn into a gorse bush (or worse)!  

Thursday, 8 October 2020

A new passport

My UK passport, issued ten years ago in January 2010, expires in just four days' time on 12th October and I want to renew it. I've no plans to go abroad in the next few months, but it's the best paper ID you can get, and so I want a new one for that reason. 

It'll be one of those new 'blue' passports. Believe me, I didn't vote for Brexit just to ensure that the colour of my next passport would be different! Even so, it'll be nice to get back to the colour that passports used to be, although I'm sure the thing won't be quite like my very first passport back in 1972, which resembled a small, slim book and conjured foreign officials (in august language, redolent of Empire) to treat me like visiting royalty. Times change.   

I've had a quick look at the official government website, and how to apply online. They warn of a four-week wait, and tell you this is the quick way to apply, and that an application using a paper form will take longer. I don't mind. With no urgent need for a new passport, it won't matter to me if the thing doesn't arrive before Christmas, so long as I know it's approved and in the pipeline.

One thing that surprises me is the modern streamlined procedure for giving the passport people a current photo of myself. That's most welcome. My last application in 2010 was a nightmare in that regard. It was of course a paper application on a long and complicated form, and I was sending a printed photo. That photo print had to satisfy all kinds of size and content specifications, and I had to get my doctor to sign the back of it, to confirm it was indeed a picture of me. 

Nowadays I can submit a digital photo taken by myself, and while the rules on showing a neutral facial expression, and not wearing a hat or sunglasses, and having a plain background and so on, remain unchanged, the passport people will crop the shot to their liking, and I won't have to fiddle around getting it just so. Nor, it seems, will I have to get somebody respectable to confirm it's me - well, they already have my old photo and supporting documentation from ten years back to make comparisons with, and they will also have access to my 2019 driving licence renewal application, and the biometric monochrome photo taken then by the Post Office. And no doubt they have plenty of other ways of checking that Lucy Melford of Mid Sussex is a real person with a real identity, doing real things. (I wonder if they'll check out this blog?)

I don't mind one bit taking a picture of myself at home. It'll be a pleasure. I just reprise the method I used when taking a self-portrait in February 2016 for a Rail Photocard. This was the best of the shots taken - still the one I carry around, in case needed when buying a train ticket. I also show a picture of the home setup I used.


Gosh, I was getting rather stout in early 2016, wasn't I? Thank goodness I joined Slimming World later that year, and followed their guidelines thereafter. I don't look nearly so bad now. 

In some ways this is not a great time to be taking a picture of myself that will be my official image for the next ten years. My hair hasn't had a professional cut for ten months. And I still have a mark under my nose where lichen-covered North Devon granite nearly bashed the front of my face in, en route to a spiky repose in the midst of a gorse bush. But a bit of concealer will cover that up. Well, so long as the photo passes muster...

So, later today, or whenever the lighting conditions in my study seem good, I'll be fixing the little Leica - or perhaps my phone - onto the tripod, and giving myself star treatment. 

I just hope that I really don't have to get a person of local standing - who knows me well enough - to confirm anything. I mean, I don't know any teachers, nor policemen, nor councillors, nor MPs, nor generals, nor serving church ministers. It would have to be my doctor again, or maybe my dentist, and they are hard to see in these pandemic times, and will no doubt want a fee.   

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

The Cheesewring

A few posts back I related how I fell into a gorse bush in North Devon, scratching face, hands and legs, and leaving me with a potential scar on the front of my face, between nose and upper lip. I'm happy to say that nearly all the scratches have now healed, and that any facial blemish will be unnoticeable. It's already nothing to worry about - and of course nobody can see my rapidly-healing wounds underneath my mask when I go shopping, or fill Fiona up with fuel.

I'm now tempted to think that I had become a trifle hubristic about my mountain-goat abilities! For only four days previously I had been clambering around on massive granite boulders on the south-eastern edge of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, and I accomplished that without falling. I suppose there was one key difference: I wasn't wearing my ultra-stout Alt-Berg walking boots, but my lighter and more stylish Dubarry boots, which are essentially posh leather wellies, and at their bottom end far more like a conventional shoe, able to flex, and not nearly so clumpy to wear. I wouldn't want to walk very far in them, not as much as five miles, but for shorter distances in cool weather they are fine. I've never yet stumbled while shod with them, and didn't on this occasion on Bodmin Moor. Here's my feet with the boots on. I bought them in 2011, and they have lasted very well.

So what was I doing on Bodmin Moor? I wanted to take another look at the remarkable stone circles known as The Hurlers (last seen on a cold, wet, very misty afternoon on 27th December 2010) and then walk over to the amazing natural pile of stone boulders called The Cheesewring, perched above a disused quarry on nearby Stowe's Hill, which I had never visited before. All of this was close to a village called Minions. Here are some location maps:

Minions was once the centre of an important mining and quarrying industry in this part of Bodmin Moor, and hosted a network of tramways established in the 1840s to take the extracted goods away, known as the Liskeard & Caradon Railway, as shown in these screenprints of an old six-inch Ordnance Survey map from 1907 (regard them as joined together to form one map):

By 1907 industrial operations around Minions and Caradon Hill were already in decline, as revealed by the number of 'disused' shafts, pits and quarries shown on the map. The whole tramway system north of Moorswater near Liskeard was abandoned in 1916. The truncated line at Moorswater, which had china clay traffic and connected to the Looe Valley line (and Looe quay), carried on, and still operates. A train from the main line goes there once a week on Wednesdays to collect the clay via a weird steep loop from Liskeard station. I was parking Fiona at Liskeard station on 23rd September, and actually saw this mineral train without realising what it was, although a linesman explained its purpose to me shortly afterwards. My adventures at Liskeard - or more particularly Coombe Junction down in the valley at the other end of that loop - are coming up soon in another post.

Strangely the 1907 map doesn't name The Hurlers, nor the outlying pair of stones known as The Pipers. But it does show The Cheesewring

That winter afternoon at Minions in 2010 had been something of a disappointment. Weather conditions were dire. It was bitterly cold, misty, the light was failing, and the ground was squelchy from a thorough and prolonged soaking from melted snow. There was even some unmelted snow here and there. I was determined to get some good shots of the stones, but had to admit that my efforts were not successful. They were defeated by the mist and the dull light:

Yes, these shots had atmosphere of a sort; but they were still substandard pictures. I thought that some of them actually looked better if I experimented with the editing tools I had, to produce monochrome and false-colour effects:

All well and good, but I promised myself that I would return one day and take proper pictures in better weather. Thus it was on 23rd September that I arrived at Minions, parked Fiona, donned those Dubarry boots, and had a good walkaround. Once again, not in the best weather. But bright enough, even if rain got ever likelier.

Minions itself is just a small village in a semi-bleak setting, a focus for outdoor types with dogs to walk, and those interested in industrial archaeology, as well as the more conventional sort of archaeology. Normally you can get tea and cake here, and visit the Heritage Centre (which I didn't find, but I think was in a conspicuous old engine house with a chimney, in the moor north of the village centre). Here's a flavour of Minions, including a shot of a house that made reference to the Minions in the movies. (Not my sort of movie, you'll understand)

Let's leave The Hurlers and The Pipers for last, and go straight for the jugular. The Cheesewring. 

The approach was easy. Literally just a walk through the rough grass, vaguely following where others had trod. The Cheesewring is a pile of flattish or pillow-shaped granite stones balanced on top of each other in a stack arrangement. Presumably the eroded remains of a jointed and fissured rock outcrop, now seen after a very long process. It's perfectly solid and stable, but with further erosion - or a local earthquake - might become less so. It now stands on the edge of a man-made cliff, one side of a quarry hewn out of the rock. Its not the only pile of stone slabs up there, but it's the main one, and it caught the eye as I came ever nearer. 

Although its silhouette was distinctive, I can't say that I was especially impressed when seeing it at a distance, but closer up it seemed mighty. It got rockier underfoot as I neared the quarry, and some clambering was needed to get a good view across the quarry to its perching-point.

Then I had to make my way carefully over the rocks, on rising ground with no very obvious path to follow, and then steadily upwards to The Cheesewring. It wasn't difficult, but it took a good effort, and it felt like a proper achievement to finally get there, as you can see from my expression!

The Cheesewring, at last. Massive rocks, certainly. Astonishing to think that they must be the weathered remnants of something much bigger. I took photos from various angles.

I have said that The Cheesewring was natural, but I couldn't help thinking that a rocky pile like this could be made with discarded quarry stones and a big strong crane! Perish the thought.

I then went over to another pile of rocks nearby that stood at an even higher point on Stowe's Hill. I thought that I might as well get to the summit, and survey the landscape around. I climbed up only so far, nearly onto the topmost slab but not quite. It was too much of a step up, and besides the wind up there was fierce, and I wanted to avoid being blown off. Great views all the same.   

This particular pile of stones was pitted with little rainwater basins, places where rainwater had collected over millennia, eventually creating a circular bowl with a drainage outlet. In very hard rock.

A thirty-something couple with dogs came into view, and we had a short chat. The man was keen to get his feet atop the slab I had only rested my arm on. And he did, with one of the dogs too. I saw them up there as I started my decent.

One last look at The Cheesewring as I left the hill. I don't suppose I'll ever go back. 

And so to The Hurlers and The Pipers. On the way I looked out for signs of those old tramways. I saw some well-graded green grass tracks of likely width, and decided they must be track-beds of the former tramway lines. I really thought I could see stone sleepers with spike-holes in them. But when I traced my route afterwards on the old OS maps, I saw that I'd been mistaken. My direct route to the stones took me off to the west of where the tramways had actually been. 

The Hurlers, and their outlying stones, form a complex of three stone circles. How I wished it were a fine sunset, as I contemplated them on the day.  Oh well. More nondescript shots. At least it was fairly dry underfoot and not freezing cold!

I paid more attention to The Pipers this time, partly because I could see where they were. They reminded me of a pair of blunt fangs.

As before, I think the monochrome shots, enhanced, look better. But you may disagree!

That was that. The rain, threatened all afternoon, had started to spit a bit, and by the time I was on my way northwards towards Launceston, and ultimately Great Torrington in North Devon, it was raining steadily. I didn't care. I cooked a good meal and settled down for an evening of photo-editing with the radio for company - LBC until ten, then Classic fm.

All the shots in this post (whether from 2010 or 2020) were taken on the same camera, my little Leica. The perfect companion for a moorland trek, I think!