Friday, 29 May 2015

The Companion

It is surprisingly difficult for people who are meeting me for the first time after hearing about my condition. Neither of us really knows what to say. 'How are you? ' creates the first problem: tell the truth (oddly very complex and thus both wordy and horribly self-indulgent) or lie. Actually the latter is the only option and I tend to go for, ‘Fine, thanks,’ which is probably cowardly but I can’t help that.

Certainly the plan to create a web site as a companion to Marcia’s novels has done wonders for me. The thought that all the work that has already gone into this project was to go for nothing appalled me and I don’t think that to say that I was bereft is an exaggeration. Anyway this project makes me feel quite excited. The time required is not that long – the basics will probably take a couple of months – and I feel reasonably certain that means I shall be able to get it finished. After that it would be a case of adding things which, while good, are not essential. A perfect project for someone in my position. I have given much thought to what Nancy said about bringing on board a student and have decided against for a very simple reason: although things are settling down I still have bad days when I really don’t want to have to be dealing with anyone or anything and that makes planning ahead tricky – and wouldn’t be fair on the other person.

The first decision was to choose the platform to use. It could have been a web site - rather along the lines of Marcia's web site - or a blog on either Google (which carries this one) or WordPress. Before tablets became so popular I would have opted without much thought for a web site because, in theory, you can do whatever you like and make it as big as you like (subject only to the space available to you on your host’s server).

Now that I have discovered that what works well on a PC may not work at all well on an Android tablet I have decided against. No real difficulty with simple text. Indeed you can put one captioned photo at the top of the page and that works fine so long as you take a bit of care. Putting any other pictures within the text is where the troubles start. On a tablet they behave very badly, often ending up on top of text and making it unreadable. To be fair, my web site designer does offer the facility to publish a tandem site for Android users but to use it would require me to go onto a steep learning curve which is something I really do not need just at the moment. So I looked at the other two options.

It seemed to me that I would end up needing about fifty pages and that none of the Google themes would support a suitable navigation system for that number (sorry, Google, if I am wrong and just wasn't looking in the right place). Thus I turned to WordPress – which I have used for years in association with the political side of my life. Now the great thing about WordPress is that you can chat to one of their people. Honestly, I know that is unbelievable but you can – using a chat box which is wonderful for a deaf person like me.

So we chatted. I outlined what I wanted to do and Sandy (sitting over on the other side of the Atlantic in Nova Scotia) soon satisfied me that it was all doable. So I have begun. Only the Prologue and some text about a few of the books and one page called TWS Country which, would you believe, is about the places associated with Those Who Serve. That page is far from finished but you will get the idea. Each book will have a page which talks about how the book was written. These will be followed by such pages where, mainly using photographs, I will try to give you a feel of Marcia’s west country.

What I want now is to find out whether or not this what you were hoping to see. I shall not be too badly hurt if you criticise – especially if your criticism is constructive. Click here to have a look.

Meanwhile, since you have plenty of photographs to explore on The Companion (which is what we are calling this new project) and I have had a busy week working on that, I’m afraid you only get one here. A not unusual scene, Marcia (you can see her feet to the left) in conversation with a couple of dogs and, if they are interesting, the people with them. As you can see, we are at that stage of the proceeding when a bit of bribery is needed to keep the peace.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Summer arrives

As I am sure you will all understand, coming to terms with life has been rather difficult for the last two months – and I fear that showed in my blogs. It was my intention to completely ignore my health problems in these blogs but I am coming around to the idea that this is creating something false in them so . . .

As always, the robin was keeping a close eye on everything.

When we received the news one of my first thoughts was, ‘how will Marcia cope with all the business things that I have been doing down the years?’ Suffice to say that after a lot of work, I am now confidant that she will manage. Some she will now be able to do herself but the really important thing is that in addition to our accountant (and we have been with the same firm for over ten years now) I/we have found a superb book keeper – who now calls about every three weeks and is keeping all the records straight and whose husband is a computer guy – on whom Marcia can call if she has a problem and who will keep Marcia’s web site up to scratch (with the hope that it will have more news on it to make sure that the things I tell you about here will still be available) and a really lovely chap to advise Marcia on matters financial. Having done everything possible on that front, I am looking at another problem but first I want to tell you about yesterday.

Here is one of our blackbirds collecting food for the young in the nest. 
It may sound odd but yesterday was the first day this year when it was good to spend a few hours out in the garden just lounging about. Up to now we have had wonderful clear blue skies but a strong and bitingly cold east wind blowing or everything has been overcast and often it has been raining. I know I have said this before but there really does seem to be so much more power in the weather. Those winds have been blowing very hard indeed - often up to gale force - and when it rains much of the time it is best described as torrential.
Not yesterday. A fairly cheerful sky, not clear blue by any means as there were plenty of puffy cumulus clouds which every now and then obscured the sun, but it was warm and the wind was gentle and balmy. Thus both before lunch and afterwards I sat doing nothing but watching the birds and sleeping.

The fence is faced on both sides and the hole leads to a perfect spot for the blue tits to raise their brood. The lower photo is not brilliant but these birds are so quick I reckon I was pretty lucky to get on this good.
I do feel very sorry for my brother-in-law. He and Marcia's sister moved up to live on the outskirts of Port St Milborne which is a few miles from Sherborne (where there is a beautiful abbey with a wonderful choir). For some reason, and no matter what they do, there are never any birds in their garden. They miss them very much indeed. Yesterday the local birds clearly wanted to put on a good show for me. Lists are rather boring but from my seat and within the garden (or flying overhead) I saw robins, blue tits, great tits, a coal tit, sparrows, dunnock, nuthatches, great spotted woodpeckers, blackbirds, pigeons, a crow, a herring gull and a bird I could not recognise (see below). In the field behind the house the swallows were dipping and diving and Marcia saw a heron fly past the window - a first here in Dartington.

This bird as about the same size as a robin but slimmer. Purely from the way that every now and then it would fly from its perch and grab some poor innocent passing insect, I assume it must be a flycatcher – in which case since it is clearly NOT a pied flycatcher by elimination it must be a spotted flycatcher.

Now the question is, where do I go from here? As many of you know, I was planning five booklets as companions to Marcia’s novels. The first was published in October – with many misgivings on my side. The problem with publishing books with lots of photographs is deciding on the right quality – if the photos are to be really good the price goes up. Add to that two other facts: I wanted to use a fairly large type face to make it as easy as possible for those whose sight is not what it was and I knew many – probably most – would be going overseas which, of course, costs. Thus I ended up knowing we had to go for low printing costs and, not surprisingly, I am unhappy at the result – the photographs are slightly muddy. Nevertheless the book has sold quite well and we have recouped all the costs (but yet to make any profit). Putting that to one side, it is now impossible to get the other four books intp print – but a lot of the text has been written and I have taken a few hundred photos especially for this project.

So, should I rethink this and create a web site A Companion to the novels of Marcia Willett which will just be there for those who wish to dip in and have a look? My idea is a prologue, The Birth of a Novelist, followed by a section on each novel recounting the odd and quirky things that happened during its production with plenty of photographs to illustrate the locations. No place for history though. What do you think?

You may know that in a comment last week, Avagabonde gave us a link to her blog and permission to use some of her photographs here. (Click here if youwant to have a look). I have chosen two simply because I think they are lovely pictures.  

Friday, 15 May 2015

Raised beds and raised expectations

As I expected, Nancy popped over the other day. She and I did some more work on the raised beds. There are two of these which form an 'L' in plan with one slightly higher than the other. As when we were at The Hermitage, I like using rotation as one of the tools available to reduce disease. Thus this year, what we grew in the top bed has been sown in the lower bed and the top bed will be used for what was below last year.

The bottom bed is now fully sown. From left to right there is a row of nasturtiums (Marcia sometimes uses these flowers to cheer up a salad but the main reason they are there is to provide a splash of colour and because I like them). These have yet to 'show'. Then there are four rows of 'leaves' – lettuces from which we take leaves as and when needed so from plant to plate is a matter of moments. Two of these rows are up and running (we had the first leaves from them earlier in the week) and Nancy sowed the other two rows when she was over. The rest of the bed is given over to carrots. These are in three blocks so as to stagger them a bit and these blocks are sown broadcast with far more seeds than most people would consider sensible. Marcia loves very small baby carrots and we shall be eating the thinnings quite soon and, with any luck, we shall have a continuous supply right up until the end of the year
The bits of string draped over this bed are there to try to deter one of the local cats. He loves nothing better than to dig up new tilled earth and would create total havoc if I let him.

Meanwhile, in the top bed are the broad beans I sowed back in the autumn . They are all in pots because I find these beans never transplant terribly happily. Then, as spring approaches, the pots are sunk into the bed. They are very nearly ready to harvest – there won't be a lot but they should taste wonderful. Once they have been picked, I shall use the space for some brussels sprouts that are presently in the greenhouse and just showing above the soil. At the far end are a couple of cherry tomato plants – more than enough to keep us happy – and then the spring sowing of broad beans to be ready August or early September. These have yet to show.

So there you have the raised beds. Beside them is the bed in which the runner beans will be planted out next week – they are still in the greenhouse – and that is it apart from the rhubarb. You will note that I avoid most brassica. That is because (at least in my experience) they really are not worth the effort. We can buy cabbages and so on very cheaply in the market or the farm shop and they are more than fresh enough. I accept that this is an odd group of plants to be growing but there you are – a childhood where there was a large kitchen garden with vegetables of all sorts in serried rows ready to be sold at the Tuesday market in the town near where we lived rather put me off proper gardening and so I do what I do because I enjoy it and the scale is small enough to ensure that matters do not get out of hand.

As to the matter of raised expectations: blame whoever it was who posted a comment encouraging me to talk about politics for what follows. Few people here believed that the Conservative Party (the 'Tories') would win an overall majority at the general election held, as I am sure you all know, on my birthday – bit they did. What does that mean here in the UK and to the wider world? Here are a few thoughts.

We still have a real problem with what is seen as the class system in this country – but it is (in my view that is) blown out of proportion by a fairly small but very noisy minority who seem to me to be fuelled by envy and tribalism. Granted David Cameron, George Osbourne and a few others all went to Eton which is generally considered to be a very elitist school but then many other MP's went to 'posh' schools (including Ed Milliband and Nick Clegg: the leaders of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats).

Another factor to take into consideration is that Cameron is calling on the services of a wide range of his MP's to serve in his government. They come from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds and educational establishments whilst many are the children of very mundane working parents.

So, my raised expectations are this government will truly be a govern for all the people and that when it takes decisions on a proposal, that proposal will pass three tests: is the proposal doable? will the proposal achieve what it is intended to achieve? is the proposal affordable? It would be nice to add a fourth – will there be any unforeseen consequences? – but that is clearly impossible.
Just simple pragmatic government steered by common sense and not ideology.

These two pictures come from Naomi Bates, one of the many of Marcia’s readers who live in Australia. In her words, they were taken as the sun was rising “just along the road from our house down on Margate Beach in Queensland.” Many thanks for these, Naomi.

Please don't forget that I really do like putting up photos which show us where some of Marcia's readers live (and, of course, of their pets).

Friday, 8 May 2015

My birthday - and a general election

Yesterday, the 7th, was my 77th birthday so, come what may, I have exceeded man’s allotted span by 7 years (although I have no idea who allotted that span nor on what data). Anyway, It’s a nice thought – makes one feel that to a certain extent one has beaten the system albeit in a minor and really most unimportant way.

We had had some pretty ferocious weather earlier in the week – gusts of wind well in excess of 50 mph and bursts (usually quite short) of torrential rain. It came as no surprise to be told by one of the men who deliver here that there were some trees down over the roads. Although there were no reports of structural damage, a poly-tunnel in a local garden was wrecked which was a terrible shame. It had been taken down over the winter and was reinstated only about ten days ago. In fact the gardener had worked really hard in there and everything was looking splendid with rows of healthy looking plants all straining for the off. Now all is destroyed: it is so demoralising.

Here are a few photos of the birds at Turtley Mill. They really do add a good measure of amusement to the mundane business of eating lunch.
Thus it was that when my birthday dawned bright and dry with a generally blue sky with only a few puffy white clouds in sight I was delighted. We had arranged to meet an old friend of ours at Turtley Mill which is between Avonwick and South Brent and one of our favourite rural meeting places where we have enjoyed some family gatherings over the years. When the weather is good, there are few better places to sit outside for here you can enjoy being among the exotic ducks, chicken and guinea fowl that are given the run of the place. Anyway, to my joy, the weather was just warm enough, the clouds did not obscure the sun and the wind fell to no more than a gentle breeze. Wonderful – and good to be with people who know the position but have the invaluable ability to simply accept the situation and to allow various aspects of it to come up in conversation as and when they arise but without making anything an issue. As my son put it, ‛everybody feels that they have to say something meaningful’. Well, from where I am sitting, the answer is that they don’t: a bit of light hearted banter does so much more good.

For the first time in the last 77 years (I’m fairly sure this is right but I may be wrong) the UK electorate went to the polls to determine who would represent us in Parliament – on my birthday.

As a general rule I have kept my political thoughts away from here and put them up on my political blog but yesterday was rather special for me and so I am allowing my hopes and fears for our country to intrude on what is meant to be Marcia’s space. If the thought horrifies you, please stop reading now.

Looking back over fifty years of politics, I feel there have been a number of profound changes which few in the west have given serious consideration. Then political leaders yielded a good deal more power than they do today. There are a number of reasons why the power they yield has diminished but the two most important are advances in technology (and especially that related to instant worldwide communication) and the rise and rise of giant multi-national corporations.

In broad terms, there are detailed arguments on my political blog for those interested in them, this shift in power towards the people – in large part thanks to smart phones which can flash a video world-wide within moments of events taking place – and the ability of huge commercial organisations to build up wealth in excess of that enjoyed by many nation states could well mean that the form of representative democracy we have here in the UK is no longer suited to society in the 21st century. I suspect this is also true in the US and all the other ‛democracies’ as well.

To me this was a very important election because of two fairly new parties: both nationalistic, both offering overly-simplistic answers to highly complex questions (including utterly unrealistic economic policies) and both likely to threaten the union of four nations known as the United Kingdom and/or the relations between the UK and the rest of the world. I refer to the Scottish National Party and the United Kingdom Independence Party.

You could say that the best birthday present was a vote that reduced these risks to a minimum.

Obviously the successes of the SNP will create tensions between the desires of the Scots and those of the people south of the border but with the Conservatives with a small but sufficient working majority, the relationships between the UK and its various component parts can be tackled in a measured and thoughtful way (which would have been impossible had we ended up with a Labour/SNP coalition).

The risk that UKIP would win enough seats to force the Conservatives into a coalition with them has also faded. Again this gives us time: time to address the problems highlighted by UKIP and to find out exactly what is causing those problems (I do not accept the causation theories put forward by UKIP) and to explore ways of putting them right in a calm and rational way.

This fellow arrived in my inbox this morning - all the way from the USA. Meet Gulliver (usually called Gully) who is the constant companion to one of my second cousins (and there are rather a lot) who inhabit various parts of the US. He arrive as an attachment from Sarah Lovelidge (said second cousin) which must have been a difficult one for her to write. Be assured, Sarah, I really did appreciate what you said and I still hope that you will be over here next summer and I shall be around to meet you again then.
All in all, not a bad birthday. Next week, Nancy and I will finish planting up the raised beds and I will post a couple of photos to show you what we have don.

Friday, 1 May 2015

May Day

Today is May Day. That means that in all sorts of odd corners of the British Isles people will be out enjoying themselves as they celebrate what is probably the oldest annual festival in the calender.

The Hawthorn or May tree - standing here high on Dartmoor and leaning to the east away from the prevailing gales that sweep in from the Atlantic.
This was the first day in the farming calender when there was little work to be done (the fields had been cultivated and sown whilst the weeds had yet to become a nuisance), the weather was warm enough to be able to enjoy life again and the main deprivations of winter were in the past. It was a time to celebrate – and to do whatever was deemed wise to ensure that the sown seed produced a fine harvest. Thus the festival took on the air of a fertility rite, one that encompassed not just the good seed sown in the ground but the desire for and abundance of stock and, of course, fine strong and healthy babies.

It was at this time that the Romans celebrated Floralia in honour of Flora, the Roman Goddess of flowers and the Germanic nations held Walpurgis Night. It was also about now that the Festival of Beltane when the Druids marked the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice.

Also on Dartmoor but in a far less exposed position and now in full flower. Clearly 2008 was a good year for the May.
With the coming of Christianity, May Day became more and more associated with the Virgin Mary and then in July 1889, by authority of the Second International of the Socialists and Communists meeting in Paris, it became the International Workers Day.

Even that is not the end of the story: in 1955 Pope Pious XII decided that henceforth May 1 would be a feast day in honour of St Joseph, the patron saint of workers: a carpenter, husband of Mary and surrogate father of Jesus.

And this is really what it is all about: the berries that will provide food for birds who will repay the May by spreading the seeds far and wide.
ne of the older traditions kept alive here takes place on Magdalan Bridge in Oxford. Each year, just as the sun rises, sixteen of the Magdalan College Choristers sing the Hymnus Eucharisticus (a hymn written by a Fellow of Magdalan College in the seventeenth century). As the last notes of the hymn die away, so the bells of Oxford begin to ring out over the dreaming spires until, after about twenty minutes all fall silent. Not surprisingly, it is an event that attracts a large number of people (it was estimated that over 5,000 crammed the bridge and its environs this morning) and the roads around the bridge have to be closed to traffic. There is also a tradition that youngsters jump off the bridge in to the river – a tradition that is seriously frowned upon as the river here is quite shallow (about two feet deep in usual conditions) and it is quite a jump so quite a lot hurt themselves. No reports of injuries this year, I am happy to say.

Nearer home on the north coast of Cornwall at Padstow is the ‘Obby ‘Ors festival. No one really knows the origin of this enormous street party in which two men dressed up a hobby horses dance through the streets, each ‘Ors with its accordian and drum band and singers (known as Mayers) playing and singing the Morning Song. Eventually the two hobby horses meet at the Maypole and then return to their stables as the the crows sing of their death until they are resurrected on the following May Day.

Meanwhile countless towns and villages up and down the land will be decorated in the traditional manner with greenery, flowers, bunting and flags while May Poles will be erected and all will be busy with fĂȘtes and fairs. Nearly all of us who live in the country have, at some time or other, been involved in such community activities: even if only in the provision of prizes for the tombola (being, of course, the items won last year and for which there is no real place in any home).

Now all we want is for the sun to shine over the week end for while today may be the true May Day we can be sure that the fun and games will carry on until the last possible moment.

Not surprisingly I have few suitable pictures in my photo library but if you would like to see some of the garbs that people wear on May Day, just click here.